class habitus

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A set of dispositions which generate practices and perceptions. For Pierre Bourdieu, the notion of habitus is central to the analysis of class-based cultures. He notes (1978) that sports emerged in exclusive English public schools, where the sons of wealthy, powerful, and aristocratic families appropriated popular games and changed their function to suit their interests. He connects the rationalization of games into modern sport forms with a class-based philosophy of amateurism that expressed the moral ideal and the ethos of the most powerful segments of the bourgeois class. Playing lawn tennis or golf, riding or sailing, as Bourdieu argues, bestowed upon the participant what he called gains in distinction (1978: 828). Sports in which lower middle class or working-class people participate develop as spectacles created for the people as mass commodities. Sports, therefore, are not self-contained spheres of practice, and it is class habitus that defines any meaning conferred on sporting activity, and any social value that is associated with the sporting practice (Bourdieu, 1978: 835). From this perspective, then, sports participation is not a matter of personal choice or individual preference; it depends upon the financial resources available to the potential participant, the social status of those prominent in that activity, and the cultural meaning of a sport and the individual's relationship to those meanings.

Far from being an open sphere of limitless possibilities, sport is a social phenomenon and cultural space that operates in Max Weber's terms as a form of social closure, in which potential entrants are vetted and excluded to suit the incumbent gatekeepers. At the same time, the inner world of the sports culture is tightly monitored and controlled, as in golf or tennis club membership committees, and in other sports institutions in which formal or informal entry requirements are barriers to open participation.

The recruitment and induction processes into such clubs are operational expressions of and examinations in cultural capital. For example, entrance into a tennis club requires that newcomers must communicate competently with the gatekeepers of a club; read the social interactions and etiquette and conventions of a club; comply with the dress code; be equipped with relatively sophisticated technology; and have the ability to play at an acceptable level of competence. This apparently open choice is in reality a possibility or trajectory based upon what Bourdieu recognizes as the power of economic and cultural capital, so that class variations in sporting practice can be understood as shaped not just by the basic financial costs of an activity, but also by the perceived benefits that will accrue, either immediately or later, to the participant. Sporting practices, and associated physical and body cultures, are therefore aspects of the class habitus (Bourdieu, 1986: 212). Practices, in the Bourdieuian framework, are articulations of habitus (ibid., p. 172).

Bourdieu is sensitive to the fact that classes are not monolithic. He argues that there can be divisions within classes and these too can be reflected in sports. An interesting example that he uses is that of the gender dimension of the class habitus that produces a sexual division of labour that in turn affects participation in particular sporting activities (1986: 218). But in general, for Bourdieu, the analysis of sport is a form of class analysis. Sport acts as a kind of badge of social exclusivity and cultural distinctiveness for the dominant classes; it operates as a means of control or containment of the working or popular classes; it is a potential but unlikely source of escape and mobility for talented working-class sports performers; it articulates the fractional status distinctions which exist within the ranks of larger class groupings; and it reveals the capacity of the body to express social principles and cultural meanings, for physical capital (Wacquant, 1995) to connect with forms of economic and cultural capital. Bourdieu described his study Distinction as an attempt to think through Marx and Weber's rival conceptions of class and status (1986: xii), and his major achievement was to connect the study of class position and concomitant lifestyles and statuses. The lesson here for the sociologist of sport is to recognize the need for a complementary and integrated analysis of both the class dimensions of a sport and its associated lifestyle dimensions.


Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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