The key to the difference between Bourdieu and Deleuze, and so to the specificity of the concept of habitus, consists in Bourdieu’s introduction of the related concepts of “field” and “symbolic capital.” For Bourdieu, habitus is always embedded in a prior social field, which itself is structured by symbolic power. In some ways Bourdieu takes more seriously than Deleuze, then, the notion encapsulated in Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation that “politics precedes being” (A Thousand Plateaus 203). For if habitus is a set of “structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures” (The Logic of Practice 53), it is not only generative but also generated. It is the product of a given state of power relations: the social field as a whole, and also distinct subfields (such as the artistic field, the journalistic field, the academic field). Hence, in Loïc Wacquant’s words, the relation between habitus, field, and capital is that “a field consists of a set of objective, historical relations between positions anchored in certain forms of power (or capital), while habitus consists of a set of historical relations ‘deposited’ within individual bodies” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology 16). Hence the dispositions of habitus are also depositions, both in the sense that they constitute a record of the state of the field that formed them and (to use now more Deleuzian terminology) that they are the sediments or deposits that form within a particular landscape of power. They are “conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence” (The Logic of Practice 53). And what they therefore generate or structure in turn tends therefore to reproduce the structures that constituted them, in that they generate practices that seem to call those structures into being, that take them for granted without the need of words or discourse.
Each field is structured by a competition for domination and capital. “The structure of the field,” Bourdieu argues, “is determined by the structure of the distribution of the distinct forms of capital that are active in it” (An Introduction to Reflexive Sociology 108). For there are different forms of capital, each of which has a different weight depending upon the field in question. Broadly, for instance, the field of culture is structured in terms of its differential distribution of cultural capital, while it is financial capital that counts in the market for economic goods. Yet Bourdieu downplays the direct influence of financial capital, and is interested above all in the distinct forms of symbolic capital that are subject to struggle in different subfields, and the ways in which the definition of capital (or what is to be accorded value) is at stake in these struggles, as well as the mechanisms by which one form of capital is converted into another. In the end, the most effective power is symbolic: “symbolic” here does not imply either representation or a power that is “merely” symbolic, but refers a mode of domination that achieves legitimacy in that its arbitrariness is misrecognized, so much so that it goes without saying. Bourdieu and Passeron present this as the fundamental axiom grounding their analysis of social reproduction: “every power which manages to impose meanings and to impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force, adds its own specifically symbolic force to those power relations” (Reproduction 4; emphasis in original). What is reproduced through habitus, habitually, is our corporeal assent to the legitimacy of these power relations, and to the unequal distribution of capital that they secure.
Habitus is reflex and relay, product and producer, assuring social continuity by literally incarnating the principles of social order. In Bourdieu’s words, “it ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes and perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the ‘correctness’ of practices and their constancy over time” (The Logic of Practice 54). It ensures that social agents are attuned to their circumstances. It fosters the self-confidence of the “inheritor” who, rich in cultural capital, exhibits a confidence and flair that is rewarded with further social and cultural capital; and it also ensures that those dispossessed of cultural capital assent to their dispossession by rejecting what is culturally consecrated (be it higher education or high art) with the sentiment that it is not for them. Privilege is naturalized as though it were simply a “gift”; and subordination is taken for granted as though social difference were a question of talent or taste. The dispossessed are often the first to admit that they have only themselves to blame. And all this is legitimated and arbitrated by institutions and officials who have no need to be aware of what they are doing, who can be committed or even (increasingly) entirely cynical about the ideals they are upholding. For ideals are not at stake. Academic diplomas, for instance, attest to “gifts” and “merits,” and can do so objectively with no hint of bias, because the real work has been done in the conversion and so dissimulation of privilege as attitude. The source of these dispositions is concealed, all the more effectively in that the habits they generate are second nature. Hence, Bourdieu and Passeron argue, “the supreme privilege” of the privileged is “not seeing themselves as privileged,” which in turn “manages the more easily to convince the disinherited that they owe their scholastic and social destiny to their lack of gifts and merits, because in matters of culture absolute dispossession excludes awareness of being dispossessed” (Reproduction 210). There is no conspiracy because there is no hidden knowledge: the game’s winners as much as the game’s losers, as well as its arbitrators, can all act in perfectly good faith. The judgments that lead to social promotion or exclusion, such as the feeling that “he’s a good chap” or “she’s not one of us,” can be justified by transcendent principles whose legitimacy is assured by the fact that they resonate with immanent habits.