Monday, February 13, 2017

Geertz, Bourdieu, and Cultural Phenomena (or A Historian Struggles with Theory)

The relationship between history and culture is complex and often debated.  The central point of contention is whether culture is a subsidiary outgrowth of social structure, or whether culture is a primary agent that creates society.  Clifford Geertz and Pierre Bourdieu argue for the primacy of culture as an agent in history and social development by showing its transmission between generations through non-verbal means outside a system of rules or laws.  Despite this common thrust, significant differences exist between the methods and arguments Geertz and Bourdieu advance.  Geertz utilizes the example of Balinese cockfighting to show how anthropologists must read cultural events like a literary text in order to derive meaning from their symbolic structures.  Bourdieu, on the other hand, focuses on the daily habits Kabyle people of Algeria to demonstrate that the unconscious transmission of culture maintains existing power and class relationships.  In effect, Geertz and Bourdieu assert the primacy of culture in history and sociology in the pursuit of different goals and through the examination of different aspects of culture – Geertz the large event, Bourdieu daily interactions.

Writing in the early 1970s, Geertz believed that culture was the primary force in creating “feelings and identity” for individuals.  While Geertz does not describe the manner in which individuals in a society transmit culture, he implies that it occurs non-verbally through shared cultural events such as the Balinese cockfight.  This occurs through a “sentimental education” in which the member of a society learns “his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility…look like when spelled out externally in a collective text.”

Events like the Balinese cockfight provide anthropologists with an emotional vocabulary through which they can attempt to understand how groups build their societies.  Deciphering this emotional vocabulary requires that anthropologists extend the concept of “text” beyond the literary mode to include examine mass cultural events.  In this way, anthropologists should examine these events not as pastimes or religious rites, but as a text describing both culture and society.  Geertz further contends that each cultural event teaches the individual a different aspect of his society’s core values, as well as reinforcing his own.  Each culture is ultimately an “ensemble of texts” which the “anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.” The cultural text embedded in no single event provides a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of a given culture, rather it is the anthropologist’s task to create a mosaic of understanding by examining a myriad of cultural events. 

In the case of the Balinese cockfight, Geertz uses this method of treating events as texts to argue that the ritual behavior surrounding cockfights illustrates and reinforces the structure of Balinese society.  To do this he not only observed the behavior of Balinese interacting with their roosters, but also fifty-seven actual cockfights.  The bloody fights between the animals are actually secondary in importance to the reinforcement of social ties and structures expressed through the acts of betting on the outcomes.  Appropriating Bentham’s concept of “deep play” for the purpose, Geertz argues that Balinese express loyalty to family, clan, and village structures by betting on the cocks owned by members of the social networks to which they belong. 

Deep play refers to games in which the stakes or so high that utilitarian motives are insufficient to explain the individuals participation.  Geertz rejects Bentham’s assertion that such play is immoral due to the potential negative impact to argue that monetary value in Balinese betting on cockfights is a signifier for the moral import of a given match, as determined by the quality of the animals involved and the amount bet by the two owners and their backers.  In matches in which large amounts are bet, the money risked is secondary to the “esteem, honor, dignity, and respect” at stake to the participants and their associates.  In order to show their support for the members of their family and clan networks, Balinese watching the cockfight will clamorously bet for the animal presented by their relation.  In this way, they show familial, clan, or village affiliation, but reiterate their social place in Balinese culture.  Geertz believes that the issue of status in matches involving large bets is so important that a Balinese man will almost never bet against a rooster owned by a member of his family hierarchy.  The social importance of supporting kith and kin in this way is such that even in cases where the bird are poorly matched, the relationship distant, or the central bet small, that betting on the “wrong” cock too often will lead to either social disruption or formal hostilities between individuals.

Despite the seeming social importance of cockfighting to Balinese life, as indicated by the need to place oneself into social context through betting behavior, Geertz argues that its importance is not due to the functionalist social impact inherent in the event.  Instead, Geertz argues that it represents the Balinese’s efforts to describe themselves to themselves in an interpretive “metasocial commentary on hierarchical ranks.”  This is a major difference between Geertz, structuralist historians and anthropologists, and the efforts of Pierre Bourdieu to describe the relationship between culture and society.

While maintaining the central importance of culture to our understanding of humanity, Bourdieu proposes a different relationship between culture, society, and history exists than the Geertz.  Where Geertz appears to argue that culture defines human actions, Bourdieu argues that human action stems from a combination of culture, structure, and power that act on individual calculations to determine the best course for an individual to follow.  This requires that analysis and explanation of human action needs some source of “mediation of the relationship between actor perceptions and formally constructed structures.’  Bourdieu calls this mediating factor habitus.

Bourdieu defines habitus as “an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted; the habitus engenders all the thoughts, all the perceptions, and all the actions consistent with those conditions, and no others.” In Bourdieu’s interpretation, habitus is a “law” that individuals unconsciously learn, but which governs their actions and thoughts as they move through daily life.  This allows individuals with the same habitus to react to each other in easily understandable and predictable ways, facilitating life by reducing uncertainty and potential conflict.

The operation of Bourdieu’s conception of habitus is illustrated in Geertz’s portrayal of the betting habits of Balinese participating in side bets at cockfights.  The expectation that bettors will support their kinsman’s cock in the fight demonstrates an expected social behavior, of which there are consequences for contravention.  In Bourdieu’s analysis, however, habitus consists of all actions including base level customs and reactions that do not require a wholly conscious decision or calculation.  Rather habitus provides the semi-conscious structure by which individuals create strategies to cope with new situations or occurrences – in this way, it defines the possible actions that an individual can consider when encountering a given situation.

One of the many examples Bourdieu provides of the use of habitus in determining individual actions in the life of the Kabyle in Algeria is women’s methods of maintaining gender separation during the wet season when men eat indoors, driving them from their accustomed space for daily activities.  During this time, Kabyle women retreat from house common areas to the “wall of darkness”, associated in Kabyle society as a women’s or private area, so they will not attract male attention.  At this time, women also leave their looms standing to provide a protected space and task so that they can appear separate and busy throughout the season.

It would be overly simplistic though, to define habitus as providing only a set of cultural cues or dictates for members of a social system, as Geertz’s analysis of culture’s role with the Balinese cockfights does.  Instead, Bourdieu seeks to connect culture to the power relationships enshrined in society and systems of law.  In purely social terms, Bourdieu argues that habitus, particularly as involved in strict adherence to the rhythm of life as shown in the example of women’s adaptation to men’s presence in homes during the wet season directly enhances the “hierarchization of the male and female worlds.” The transmission of the group’s habitus by non-verbal or non-legalistic means reinforces these social hierarchies by rendering them naturalistic.  Bourdieu believes that the most important effects of this is that habitus provides individuals with a seemingly built-in sense of reality, which limits the possibilities open to the individual in society without requiring an awareness that this limitation is imposed from the outside.  The internationalization of habitus makes this possible.

Bourdieu contends that the internalization of the externally imposed cultural standards embodied in habitus makes it become and objective reality that places limits on the options the individual can even conceive of having.  In this way the individual adopts practices without having, or needing, “either explicit reason or signifying intent, to be none the less ‘sensible’ and ‘reasonable’.”  In this way, a habitus that includes systematic divisions in society among subgroups by age, gender, or ethnicity reproduces the power relationships of the society.  Individuals embedded in the system by their habitus are unable to see the arbitrary nature of the structure because the habitus makes it appear self-evident or natural.

Culture communicates these power structures in subtle ways that include observation of adult relationships by children, through proverbs or sayings, and through ritual activities such as Balinese cockfights or sacrifice of sheep at Eid.  In this way all of a culture’s discourse support what Bourdieu considers it mythology of natural basis to support the power relationships in a given society.  The appropriation of discourse allows the propagation of habitus through successive generations inhabiting the same cultural and material environment.  This transmission assumes a static nature of existence, both social and material among the inheritors of the habitus.

Because Bourdieu contends that habitus lies at the core of a society’s power structure, it necessarily focuses on the issue of class membership as part of its analytic structure.  This requires that the concept of habitus also incorporate a subjective component that is not inherent in the individual, but among a whole class of individuals.  On one level, this could include the designation of style of clothing, cosmetics, or behavior that set a socio-economic class apart from others in the power structure.  While Bourdieu does not provide a clear concrete example of this, Geertz’s depiction of the Balinese cockfight does.  Although cockfighting is a significant Balinese cultural ritual used to solidify Balinese understanding of their social structure, it was condemned first by Dutch colonial authorities, and later by the Javanese national government.  The Dutch habitus defined cockfighting as a reprehensible indicator of Balinese inferiority, while the Balinese habitus defined cockfighting as a measure of responsible adult male behavior.  The Balinese habitus further defined appropriate betting surrounding cockfighting to show that men who gambled due to addiction to gambling were lesser men due to their irresponsible behavior.

The illegality of most cockfighting in Bali demonstrates another important truth about habitus.  Bourdieu argues that formal law is of only secondary consideration to the dictates of the inner law created by the habitus, particularly in maintaining the legitimacy of power structures.  Law merely consecrates the existing power structures by recording them, and the symbols attached to them.  In this way, the Javanese authorities utilize the law banning Balinese cockfighting to enshrine their position of power and authority over the Balinese.  If left to their own devices, Balinese would continue their centuries old practice of regular cockfights in a communal village ring designated for the event.  The fact that this does not occur is a constant reminder to Balinese that despite their cultural dictates, the dictates of their habitus, the Javanese have power to dominate them.

A significant challenge to the primacy of culture in determining individual action as proposed by both Geertz and Bourdieu, is the problem of individual agency.  In both models, the individual agent is stripped of the ability to choose activities, actions, or associations by the influence of culture.  Since culture is learned in non-verbal ways during childhood in their conceptions, the individual never has the opportunity not to follow the dictates of habitus.  This particularly prevents Bourdieu’s model from truly accounting for the influence of culture, as some individuals do demonstrably throw off the shackles of culture or class to pursue different behaviors, careers, or associations.  The question remains how to deal with these outlying members of a culture that apparently discard or somehow adopt a new habitus is an important one to account for due to the significant impact these rebels or pioneers might have on their, or other, societies.  Their existence casts doubt on Bourdieu’s conception of habitus leading to understanding of cultural traits as natural or self-evident by individuals possessing a given habitus.


Pierre Bourdieu, “Outlines of the Theory of Practice: Structures and Habitus,” in Gabrielle Spiegel, ed., Practicing History: New Directions in Historical Writing (2005)

Pierre Bourdieu, “Structures, Habitus, Power: Basis for a Theory of Symbolic Power,” in Nicholas B Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, eds., Culture/Power/History: A Reader in Contemporary Social Theory (1994)

Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” from The Interpretation of Cultures (1973)

William Reddy, “Anthropology and the History of Culture,” Blackwell

David Schwarz. Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (1997).

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