Dance theory and Bourdieu

Connecting Tangible (Embodied) Elements of Heritage with the Intangibles (Culture)

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is a useful conceptual tool to connect the tangible (embodied) elements of heritage with the intangibles (culture).

As Csordas posits (1993, p. 137) ‘Bourdieu’s concern with the body, worked out in the empirical domain of practice, is parallel and compatible with Merleau-Ponty’s analysis in the domain of perception’.

Bourdieu’s interest towards the body builds on Mauss’ ([1934] 1992, p. 455) ‘techniques of the body’, which are ‘the ways in which, from society to society, men [sic] know how to use their bodies’.

The dualism that Bourdieu set out to overcome, with his theory of practice, is the pervasive opposition of subjectivity and objectivity in the social sciences.

He commented (1990, p. 25) ‘of all the oppositions that artificially divide social science, the most fundamental . . . is the one that is set up between subjectivism and objectivism’.

To overcome such opposition, Bourdieu developed a theory of practice, based on a mutual connection of social structures and embodied human agents, through practical everyday activities (practices) and behaviours, producing habitus.

Dr Valeria Lo Iaconio dancing.
Dr Valeria Lo Iacono dancing performing belly dance.

Habitus and Practice

Habitus is produced by sociocultural environments through practices; habitus, in turn, generates practices. Bourdieu (1977, p. 72) explains that:

The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (for example, the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures.

Bourdieu (1977)

Habitus, therefore, is a fusion of tangible/intangible, because it is partly physical, partly perceptual and it consists of practical dispositions, which are learnt by watching (perception), judging (appreciation) and doing (action):

Produced by practice of successive generations, in conditions of existence of a determinate type, these schemes of perception, appreciation, and action, which are acquired through practice and applied in their practical state without acceding to explicit representation, function as practical operators through which the objective structures of which they are a product tend to reproduce themselves in practice.

(Bourdieu, 1977, p. 97)

Dispositions and Habitus

Through practice, people produce dispositions, which are parts of habitus and orientations towards the world.

Bourdieu (1977, p. 15) argues that dispositions are durably ‘embedded in the agents’ very bodies in the form of mental dispositions . . . and also . . . in . . . ways of standing, sitting, looking, speaking, or walking’.

Hence, dispositions are key in understanding how practice shapes agents, because the mental dispositions, through actions, influence the body.

For example, Ness (1992) refers to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus to make sense of how the sinulog dance incorporated specific ways of moving, which were identified by Ness as distinctive ways of moving of the inhabitants of Cebu City, in the Philippines.

History and Habitus

Another reason why Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is important for the field of heritage is the idea that habitus is rooted in history. Bourdieu (1990, p. 56) contends that habitus is ‘embodied history, internalized as a second nature . . . the active presence of the whole past of which it is the product’.

This helps explain how intangible heritage can be transmitted through the body. Moreover, as Lo Iacono and Brown (2016, p. 95) posit:

Habitus helps to think beyond the dualism of tangible bodies vs intangible rules and traditions, as habitus is physical, but also partly intangible being the location for the expression of social structures and the legitimate, valued practices and tastes they contain.

Lo Iacono and Brown (2016 )

Habitus, History and Transmission

The historical dimension of habitus is also important because it helps explain how dance/heritage is transmitted from the field to the habitus of the dancer (as well as other people involved in the field of dance, such as the audience and the choreographer), through field-specific practices.

Field and capital are two crucial elements in the theory of practice. A field is a specific area of society, with its own rules and internal relationships, and more or less autonomous from the other fields.

Bourdieu (1992, p. 97) explains that ‘the social cosmos is made up of a number of such relatively autonomous social microcosms . . . that are the site of a logic and a necessity . . . specific and irreducible to those that regulate other fields’. He continues:

At each moment, it is the state of the relations of force between players that defines the structure of the field. We can picture each player as having in front of her a pile of tokens of different colors, each color corresponding to a given species of capital she holds, so that her relative force in the game, her position in the space of play, and also her strategic orientation toward the game . . .

the moves that she makes . . . depend both on the total number of tokens and on the composition of the piles of tokens she retains, that is, on the volume and structure of her capital . . . players can play to increase or to conserve their capital, their number of tokens, in conformity with the tacit rules of the game . . .

but they can also get in it to transform, partially or completely, the immanent rules of the game.

Bourdieu (1992, pg 99)

Embodied, Objectified and Institutionalized Capital

According to Bourdieu (1992, p. 119), there are three types of capital:

Economic capital, cultural capital and social capital . . . cultural capital . . . exists in three forms, embodied, objectified or institutionalized

Social capital is the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of . . . relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition.

Bourdieu (1992, pg 119)

The relationship between habitus, capital, field and practice is summarised by Bourdieu (1984, p. 101) with the equation: ‘[(habitus)(capital)] + field = practice’.

The amount of capital that each individual possesses influences their place in society (the class they belong to). Each class, for Bourdieu (1977, p. 85), has a class habitus, dispositions common to the agents who belong to that class as ‘social class . . . must be brought into relation . . . with the class habitus, the system of dispositions (partially) common to all products of the same structures’.

Class and Bourdieu

Taste, according to Bourdieu (1984, p. 147), is influenced by the class individuals belong to and is ‘a system of classificatory schemes which may only very partially become conscious’.

Indeed, Reason and Reynolds (2010, p. 55) (during their research on audience appreciation of dance performances, drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas on taste, cultural capital and habitus), found that ‘spectators’ responses were often . . . influenced by prior experience, expectations, and taste’.

Therefore, a dance genre can be considered a field of cultural production (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993) with its own rules and in which individuals (dancers, audiences, choreographers), possess:

Different forms of convertible capital (for example, developing and converting physical capital – as practical dance performance – into symbolic capital/prestige, from becoming known as a great dancer and/or into economic capital from earning money from performances).

The intangible elements (all culturally shaped) are the sets of movements and conventions of the dance, as well as the taste both of the audience and of those who create and/or perform the dance.

The tangible elements are the embodied individuals and the performance is the moment in which the dance is expressed. However, performance, being a form of habitus, . . . includes conscious elements (such as consciously learning and performing a piece of choreography), and also ways of moving that are culturally and socially influenced.

(Lo Iacono and Brown, 2016, p. 96)

Corporeal/Cultural Habitus and Knowing

Fig 4 – Example of Islamic design from the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco

As Sklar (1994, p. 11) argues, ‘movement is a corporeal way of knowing’. Dance in Muslim countries (and raqs sharqi is no exception) is a good example of corporeal/cultural habitus and way of knowing.

For Ibsen al Faruqi (1978), dance in those countries reflects the way in which other art forms are expressed. Arabic designs, for example (see Figure 4), are abstract (as Islam does not allow figurative visual representations) and characterised by intricate and minute details.

Similarly, raqs sharqi is traditionally improvised and abstract and focuses on small movements and isolations of the torso, rather than high leaps or big limbs movements.

Ibsen al Faruqi (1978, p. 10) reflects that ‘the beautiful details of an Islamic painting or building or dance remain hidden from the casual viewer.

Only with that viewer’s careful investigation of the minutiae do they disclose their treasure’.

Theory of Practice and Reflexivity

Bourdieu’s theory of practice and use of reflexivity also helps to start understanding the issue of change in in/tangible dance/heritage, because habitus is rooted in history and individuals can actively influence the field through their habitus.

They can influence the field and the rules of the game through practice. According to Bourdieu (1992, p. 136):

Social agents are the product . . . of the history of the whole social field and of the accumulated experience of a path within the specific subfield . . .

social agents will actively determine, on the basis of these socially and historically constituted categories of perception and appreciation, the situation that determines them.

Bourdieu (1992)

Transmitting Heritage over Time

This helps to explain how dance/heritage is not only transmitted over time, but also how it changes according to cultural contexts and practices and individuals’ relationship to them.

Bourdieu also attributes change to power struggles within a field. For example, in cultural fields:

Change . . . is the result of change in the power relation . . . When a new literary or artistic group makes its presence felt . . . the previously dominant productions may . . . be pushed into the status either of outmoded or of classic works. (Bourdieu and Johnson, 1993, p. 32)

Bourdieu and Johnson (1993)

In spite of addressing the issue of change in terms of power struggles in the field, Bourdieu’s theory has been criticised because it does not allow social actors enough agency.

Agency and Habitus

For example, Jackson (1996) criticises Bourdieu for placing habitus outside of the influences of the individual, who, therefore, has no agency to make a decision.

According to Jackson (1966), habitus has become a dogma, an abstract entity.

So, Bourdieu’s theory does not account for ‘those moments in social life when the customary, given, habitual, and normal is disrupted, flouted, suspended, and negated’ (Jackson, 1996, p. 22).

Similarly, Farnell (2000) posits that Bourdieu perpetuates a body-mind dichotomy because habitus is acted by the body without any conscious input from the mind (as habitus is so ingrained in social actors, that it does not require any conscious or discursive process to be carried out).

Thus, Farnell (2000, p. 409) argues that ‘the conception of habitus denies the possibility of thoughtful action because it limits the body to its Cartesian status, a mind less, unconscious repository and mechanistic operator of practical techniques’.

Conceptual Tool and Determinism

Regardless of the above critiques, Bourdieu’s theory is still worth using as it is a very valuable conceptual tool to understand society and its power struggles in their totality.

Bourdieu’s theory is particularly comprehensive because of the way it connects different forms of capital, embodied practice (habitus) and social agents who interact in social fields.

Moreover, Bourdieu’s determinism is arguable as Bourdieu (2005, p. 47) himself acknowledged the changing nature of habitus as he stated that ‘in rapidly changing societies, habitus changes constantly, continuously, but within the limits inherent in its originary structure’.

Other sociologists who engage with Bourdieu’s theory recognise the changing nature of habitus.

For example, Hilgers (2009) acknowledges that habitus is in perpetual mutation, and Wacquant (2007, p. 268) posits that habitus ‘can be modified through the acquisition of new dispositions and . . . can trigger innovation whenever it encounters a social setting discrepant with the setting from which it issues’.

Social Agents

Thus, Bourdieu’s social agents still think and act, but they do so whilst being shaped and informed by the structural knowledge they have incorporated.

In order to overcome any dichotomies further, in the conceptual framework for this thesis, Merleau-Ponty’s and Bourdieu’s theories are used to complement each other, stressing the importance of both a subjective (phenomenological) approach to dance/heritage, as well as the objective influence of society and its power struggles.

Introducing Giddens

In addition, Giddens Structuration Theory is another complementary theory included in this framework, as it allows individuals an additional level of agency.

Thus, for further insights into how individuals and their creativity can change heritage, the next step will be to refer to Giddens’ Structuration Theory and the agency/structure duality.

In the following section, cultural artefacts, which are also forms of objective capital, according to Bourdieu (1992, p. 119), will be integrated into the model of living heritage through Giddens’ concept of resources, thus helping to bridge further the tangible/intangible divide.

Next Page >> Giddens: Structuration Theory.

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Hi - I'm Dr Valeria Lo Iacono and I am a dance researcher with a PhD in dance as a form of living heritage. I also teach belly dance and love to travel to discover new dances around the world. I have worked also as an academic and in the UK and in Korea. Thank you for visiting my site.