Food for Thought II: Sociology – Civility and Habitus

Mark Hailwood

In this second of three posts introducing some key theoretical concepts through the history of food and drink (see here for the first) I’m going to move on to think about some of those borrowed from sociologists. The last post ended by stating that a concern with change over time plays an important role in the types of theories historians tend to like and dislike: and it helps to explain why they have been taken with our next key concept – the notion of the ‘civilising process’.

Norbert Elias

Norbert Elias

This was a theory first posited by the German sociologist Norbert Elias, back in 1939, but its main impact on Anglophone historians only came when it was translated into English in 1969, as: The Civilizing Process, Vol. 1: The History of Manners (1969). Its central claim was that between the middle ages (c.800AD) and the nineteenth century the manners of Europeans had become gradually more ‘civilised’ – by which he didn’t necessarily mean ‘better’ or more ‘progressive’ (he wasn’t passing judgement) but marked by increasing levels of self-restraint and self-control, especially with regards to violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table-manners and forms of speech. By reading conduct manuals – guides to appropriate forms of social etiquette, a very popular genre – from across these centuries, Elias identified a shift away from an aristocratic honour culture in the middle ages which had seen aggression, violence, and the excessive consumption of food and drink as acceptable and laudable, towards an increasing sense of shame and repugnance towards all of these behaviours.

[For a rather fun account of changing attitudes towards one particular form of human behaviour – farting – see Keith Thomas’ essay on ‘Bodily Control and Social Unease: the Fart in Seventeenth-Century England’, in Angela McShane and Garthine Walker (eds) The Extraordinary and the Everyday in Early Modern England (2010). It shows that conduct books went from warning against the dangers of holding a fart in; to suggesting you should avoid farting at the dinner table, or at least blame the dog if you did; to by the 19th century seeing it as inappropriate to even mention farting in a conduct manual].

The humble fork and the march of civilisation...

The humble fork and the march of civilisation…

Of course, such a process has implications for historians of food and drink, and Elias himself suggests that the emergence of the fork in the early modern period – as opposed to eating with your hands – is evidence that ‘manners’ were become more refined; and a growing emphasis on the importance of self-control may be linked to the rise of coffee as a substitute for alcohol in the seventeenth century.

Indeed, the idea of a ‘civilising process’ has proved quite a popular explanatory tool for historians of food and drink – but it is not without its critics. Here are just a couple of objections to it that can be raised:

1) it is focused very much on the manners of elites, and although Elias suggests that their values of civility gradually percolated throughout the rest of society, this isn’t really based on any evidence.

2) in fact, the second objection relates to the evidence he does use – conduct books. Elias tends to assume that the codes of appropriate conduct set down in these manuals are a reliable guide to how people actually felt, thought and behaved – to their sensibilities and dispositions.

But of course, we cannot simply assume that people lived by these rules, even if they did agree with them in principle. In other words, what Elias finds in his conduct books may tell us little about actual social practice.

To try and better understand the precise relationship between codes of conduct and actual behaviour, historians often turn to our next key concept – this time from the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu: ‘habitus’. [His ideas are developed across a number of books – Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977; Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, 1984; Language & Symbolic Power, 1991 – but the editor’s introduction to the latter, by John B. Thompson, is probably a good place to start]. Bourdieu argues that people do not really consciously follow the rules laid out in conduct literature – they don’t go around constantly thinking about how to behave appropriately, and then acting accordingly.


Pierre Bourdieu: just look at all those books! He must be right…

But, he suggests, behavioural codes and expectations such as those uncovered by Elias do determine the way people behave, because they are internalised when you are growing up – either by being told at home – don’t eat with your mouth full, be quiet when your little brother is trying to talk – or through education. Notions of the appropriate way to behave and act become ‘second nature’, a set of what Bourdieu calls ‘dispositions’ that govern your conduct in certain situations. This also applies not only to the way you behave, but also to things you like – such as preferences for particular foods, or certain types of cultural preferences, such as reading a book, or hating football – these too are learnt as a child either at home or through education, and then become internalised ‘dispositions’ or ‘tastes’. Taken together, these sets of dispositions determine your conduct and your cultural judgments, and Bourdieu calls these dispositions your ‘habitus’.

Part of the attraction of this concept is that is allows us to make sense of the different ‘lifestyles’ – that is, behaviour and tastes – of different social groups, for Bourdieu emphasises that habitus is closely related, in particular, to class. Indeed, your habitus is determined by a combination of your social origin, and your level of education – those with different origins and levels of education will end up with different sets of dispositions, those with similar levels will end up with similar.

Habitus in a nutshell: simple!

Habitus in a nutshell: simple!

Maybe it is just a very complicated way of explaining a simple, classic Marxist idea? Different classes have different cultures. Maybe, but Bourdieu is trying to offer a more detailed model of how this comes about, and he also goes beyond a conventional Marxist analysis in important ways:

1) through his emphasis on education – your cultural dispositions are not automatically determined by your class [for Marx, this is essentially defined as your relation to the means of production – i.e. the terms of your employment – and Marx would draw straight line on the diagram from these ‘conditions of existence’ to your ‘lifestyle’], but rather by a combination of your parents’ class and your level of education.

2) also important is Bourdieu’s emphasis on the relationship between different socio-cultural groups. He argues that the behavioural codes that one social group looks to instil in its children are designed as markers of social difference – ways of demonstrating difference to, and often superiority over, other social groups.

Frontispiece from a 1617 pamphlet, contrasting the upmarket tavern and the humble alehouse

Frontispiece from a 1617 pamphlet, contrasting the upmarket tavern and the humble alehouse

We might think here then about seventeenth-century drinking culture, and in particular about Ben Jonson, who contrasted the ‘civil’ drinking rituals that he partook in with his literati, wine-drinking, London tavern companions to the ‘wild anarchy of drink’ that he felt the debauched common man participated in in the alehouse. It was a claim that certain ways of behaving were culturally superior to others. This tavern culture was also a product of education – it was hedged about with classical allusions, and took many of its ‘codes of conduct’ from classical texts about drinking rituals in the ancient world. This helped constitute a drinking environment that would have been bewildering to a common man with little education, and who would consequently lack the in-built disposition to know how to appropriately behave in such a context. It was designed to exclude the uneducated. So, social differences were not only being exhibited in contrasting approaches to drinking rituals, they were also being reinforced.

The key point here – theoretically speaking – is that the cultural practices and preferences of different social groups were relational to each other: Cultural differences didn’t just spring up from different relations to the means of production, they developed in dialogue (albeit often hostile dialogue) with the practices and preferences of other groups. [There is an arrow to indicate this on the diagram, if you want to try and identify it]

Ok – nearly done with Bourdieu – let’s have a quick summary: his concept of habitus has been attractive to historians of food and drink because it gives us a way of thinking about the relationship between abstract behavioural codes – such as civility – and how they were manifested in actual practices and behaviour. And it also provides a way of thinking about the ways in which different social groups had different drinking practices and different ‘tastes’ in food, in particular by emphasising the relational character of cultural practices and preferences. The exact nature of the relationship between the cultures of different social groups will be discussed further in the final post.

2 thoughts on “Food for Thought II: Sociology – Civility and Habitus

  1. Pingback: Food for Thought III: A Literary Critic and the Carnivalesque | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: History Carnival 145: Elections, Bodies and Wars in History | George Campbell Gosling

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