The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 9: Does Social Mobility Reduce Hysteresis?

In the last article in this series, I briefly discussed practices of resistance to class stigma that can arise after social mobility. Stigma, having an emotional component, arising due to experiences of class supports Reay’s original thesis about social class having a “psychological landscape”. Moreover, these changes in practices that occur are examples of what Bourdieu called reflexivity thus adding to Reay’s thesis and supporting the idea that reflexivity too has an emotional and psychological component. In the last few articles of this series, reflexivity, social mobility, and the psychological aspects of both things will be our focus.

One of the most, at least prima facie, puzzling potential results of social mobility and the reflexivity that can come with it, for those new to Bourdieusian social theory, is the cleft habitus. To explain this, I will lay out Sam Friedman’s arguments in his (2015) article in The Sociological Review “Habitus clivé and the emotional imprint of social mobility”, which I highly recommend.

Habitus, as we understand from previous articles in this series and my long article “In Defence of Bourdieu”, is a matrix of dispositions which relates to the field one inhabits. It is structured by its field, but also structures it in return in a constant state of revision. This being structured and structuring generates our social practices which aim towards stability and congruence with the field which we inhabit. Since fields represent the volume and various forms of capital we possess, including the social capital of other people with a similar habitus, habitus, and hence one’s social position, tends not to change either.

This position, like habitus, however is not absolute and short-range social mobility is easily explained by the improvisational capacity of habitus as it is not simply consistent with its field as though it is some actual place. Rather, field relates to the volume and forms of capitals available to a habitus which leave scope for a range of practices for habitus to produce. On the other hand, long-range social mobility, particularly when abrupt rather than gradual, are more problematic for Bourdieu’s theories.

Like the old adage, “you can take the person out of the place, but you can’t take the place out the person,” Bourdieu’s theory of habitus includes the idea of a primary habitus, the result of primary socialisation, which is much more resistant to change- yet not eternal. When a person experiences rapid changes in field, Bourdieu argued that the mismatch between a person’s habitus and their new field causes a “hysteresis effect”. Similar to negative cultural capitals, which become inscribed in one’s habitus due to ill experiences as mentioned in earlier articles in this series, the hysteresis effect is a result of the conflict and incongruence between a person’s habitus and field.

Reay’s research on the psychic landscape of social class, and research influenced by it, shows how there are already emotional components to class and even in The State Nobility, Bourdieu showed how working-class students that were upwardly socially mobile also suffered psychic effects that we can understand as the hysteresis effect.

“These class ‘transfuges’ were caught in a ‘painful’ position of social limbo, of ‘double isolation’, from both their origin and destination class. While they certainly attempted to adopt the cultural dispositions valued in their new elite milieu, they were never able to ‘erase their nostalgia for reintegration into their community of origin.’” (Friedman, 2015, p.132)

Friedman goes on to note how Bourdieu drew from psychoanalysis to describe the idea of a habitus clivé, or split habitus, a kind of internal division which is the most profound possible result of hysteresis effect. Friedman then draws on more contemporary research to ask the question of whether this hysteresis effect is as significant and rare as during Bourdieu’s time, or, using my own translation into Bourdieusian terms, is the common habitus of working-class Britons able to adapt to new fields with massive differences in available capitals without negative sanctions? In other words, we might see that Friedman is questioning whether in today’s world in which social mobility is much more common, is the working-class habitus protected from splitting that might occur as a result of rapid upwards social mobility, perhaps simply as a result of increased awareness of such a possibility existing?

The psychological components of habitus clivé and the incongruencies between social practices and those expected of in certain fields has been discussed in previous parts to this series. So far however, we have focused on the external divisions between a misfit habitus and its field, including others in that field, which also being/having their own habitus, influence the structure of that field in such a way that they contribute to the fact that the misfit habitus is as such. Also up to now, this discussion has mainly given more descriptions about practices and differences but not tried to explain why other habituses push out that which seems alien, which probably is the result of various psychological factors, much disputed, which are beyond the scope of this series. This is notable because I don’t want the reader to think I have ignored or not noticed this fact, or worse, that I have deliberately obscured it.

In my book I should like to explain the reasons for the boundaries and pushing between various parts of the social structure, which in a way, produce the possibility for such structure are not just psychological, but physical, and even perhaps moral. Especially when seen through the lens of my own reimagining of habitus as a conceptual image of the very limits of an individual’s human freedom. To understand the barriers between fields, psychological or otherwise, means rethinking Bourdieu as being about freedom as theorised by liberals like Isaiah Berlin- positive and negative. Where habitus sees it’s limits, it’s freedom, threatened, by the limiting influence in its field of other, perhaps less free, habituses, practices which aim to remove them can be seen as practices which aim to protect their own freedom and interests.

Returning to this article’s point, as much as the external interaction of habitus, especially with others is important, here the focus is on it’s internal relation to social practice- also not to say that this is not important for understanding its interaction too. In the next article, I will look at Friedman’s answer to his question above about how common the cleft habitus is and how the increase in social mobility might have changed this.

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