The Social Body: Habit, Identity and Desire


Nick Crossley

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Dedication

    This book is written in memory of my Dad, Tony Crossley (1943–1998), and for my Mum, Dot, who has been so brave in bearing his loss. It is dedicated to my wife, Michele.


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    This book was written as an attempt to pull together the conclusions of a strand of thought I first began spinning in the early months of 1990. I had just discovered Merleau-Ponty and was beginning to reflect upon what I believed was the considerable significance of his ideas for the social sciences. In the ten years that have followed a lot of water has flowed under the bridge, and quite a lot of hot air too. I have had many fruitful discussions with colleagues and friends. In particular I would like to thank Simon Williams and Anne Witz for their encouragement and the various thoughts they have led me towards.

    This ten year stretch has had many happy moments, but some sad ones too. A number of people close to me died during this time; my nan, Doris; my nan-in-law, Irene; my granddad, Billy; my best mate from school, Rob; and most particularly my dad, Tony. There are few sharper reminders of human embodiment than death. If death reminds us of our embodiment, however, then our bodies remind us of that form of life after death that we, as social creatures, enjoy. Others live on within our bodies, not just as memories but in the form of the habits which they put there and the voice of conscience. I would like to thank my dad and my granddad, in particular, for teaching me both to argue and to enjoy it; to go out on a limb, sometimes just for the fun of it; and to have a sufficient sense of humour to avoid pomposity. They would have had much to disagree with in this book, on principle, and I can only hope that my attempts to anticipate and answer their most likely criticisms have made the book better than it might otherwise have been. If the book reads clearly, as I hope it does, they should take some credit for that too; not only because their laughter at verbosity has allowed me to avoid this particular vice, but also because their eagerness to listen, to talk and to reason has taught me that human intelligence and reason need not come in clichéd academic packages.

    Finally, thank you to my wife, Michele, who has spent the last eight years debating and discussing the issues of this book with me and who has still refused to give in. The taste of many good bottles of wine has been improved by our discussions and our discussions, no doubt, by the wine.

    I would like to say ‘blame all these people’ for the faults which remain with the finished text, but the self-deprecating obligations of academic culture do not permit such heresies, so I will shoulder that particular burden on my own.

  • Afterword: Embodied Agency and the Theory of Practice

    This book has focused upon two overlapping issues: mind–body dualism and the social theory of practice. The theme of dualism was dealt with, primarily, in Chapters 2 through 5. In these chapters I sought to explore the basis and nature of the dualist's argument; to challenge the claim that ‘the brain’ is the answer to the riddle of dualism; and to develop an alternative which focuses upon embodied agency. To achieve this alternative, I argued, we need both to exorcise the ‘ghost’ from the machine and also to challenge the portrayal of the body as a machine. I used the work of Gilbert Ryle, in particular, to challenge the ghost myth, and I identified Merleau-Ponty's work as the most effective challenge to the machine myth. Together these two writers allow us to conceive of the mental life of human beings in terms of an interaction of purposive behaviours, intelligent dispositions, meaningful configurations of sensation and the contexts of action and interaction in which these are embedded. Moreover, Merleau-Ponty in particular gives us a sense of the sensuous nature of human agency; that is, of our perceptions, desires and emotions.

    Chapters 6, 7 and 8 focused most squarely upon Bourdieu's theory of practice and particularly his concept of the habitus. This theory of practice is, in my view, the most persuasive framework in contemporary sociology and it is not guilty of many of the problems which have been identified with it. There are problems with it, however, and my aim was both to outline those problems and to consider how they can be resolved in a manner which preserves the value of Bourdieu's approach. In particular, drawing upon the work of Merleau-Ponty, Husserl and Mead, I introduced: a notion of creative or generative praxis to explain how habits are formed, modified and transformed; a notion of reflective and reflexive habits which allows us to avoid positioning habit, problematically, relative to other non-habitual bases of agency in a dualistic schema; and a notion of apperception which allowed us to explore in more detail the manner in which habits shape our perceptions and conceptions. Furthermore, I suggested that Merleau-Ponty's detailed critique of both mechanistic determinism and the (Sartrean) notion of absolute freedom allows us to put a considerable amount more meat upon Bourdieu's contention that the habitus transcends the problematic dichotomy which has formed between these two alternatives within social scientific thought. Merleau-Ponty lends some philosophical depth to Bourdieu's important sociological endeavours.

    The substantive links that have emerged in our exploration of these two themes, dualism and the theory of practice, are, I hope, evident. Bourdieu quite clearly aims to offer an embodied sociology and the practical and habitual/dispositional conception of the agent which he arrives at in his attempt to steer a path through problematic sociological dualisms (for example, agency and structure) is very close to that which Ryle and Merleau-Ponty arrive at in their effort to forge a path between equally problematic philosophical dualisms (for example, mind–body, subject-object). These two lines of argument and inquiry are parallel without becoming identical, however, and it is for this reason that they can be mutually informing. In particular I believe that Bourdieu offers us a path for developing the insights of Merleau-Ponty and Ryle into the sociological domain, whilst Ryle and Merleau-Ponty afford us a basis from which to strengthen, deepen and clarify the philosophical nature of Bourdieu's approach. More particularly, Merleau-Ponty and Ryle afford us an opportunity to exorcise some of the problems we find in Bourdieu. Bourdieu's work owes much to Merleau-Ponty and to the anglophone philosophical tradition to which Ryle belonged but some of the loose threads that I have identified in his work, and yanked upon, indicate a failure to fully carry through the implications of their insights. This is a costly failure since it lands one back in the same kind of dilemmas that they were busy helping us out of. We see this clearly, for example, when Bourdieu claims that human beings are ‘empirical in three-quarters of their being’. This claim raises the prospect of a return to such dualisms as the transcendental/empirical distinction, if not also mind–body dualism. By constructing a dialogue between the work of Bourdieu and that of both Merleau-Ponty and Ryle we can see how it is possible to avoid these problems without taking steps which violate the assumptions of Bourdieu's approach. Indeed, in many respects we are led to extend Bourdieu's basic insights about the habitus even further than he has done.

    I hope that this book will be read both as a step towards a sociological solution to the problem of dualism and as a sympathetically critical reflection upon some of the basic assumptions and concepts in Bourdieu's theory of practice. More importantly, however, I hope it will be read as a study which reflects upon the mutual implications of these two problematics for each other and suggests an integrated way of dealing with both.


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