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Mistaking Nature for Culture: A Critique of Habitus and a Call for an Evolution-informed Sociology

Sun, August 12, 12:30 to 1:30pm, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Floor: Level 5, Salon G


The concept of habitus, though contested, is frequently used by sociologists to explain how external forces impact individual capacities. Typically, it is used to demonstrate how aspects of culture become mistaken for nature through socialization and, as a result, come to automatically guide the perceptions that individuals have of their lives and their worlds. In this paper, I support criticisms of habitus which assert that the concept minimizes individuals’ reflexive capacities and ability to override, challenge, or ignore any given habitus that they have happened to develop. To do so, rather than focus on the concept of reflexivity as many sociologists have tended to do, I utilize an evolutionary psychological perspective to foreground how the habitus ultimately relies on a view of the human mind as a blank slate devoid of pre-social mechanisms despite Bourdieu’s seemingly astute focus on the body and situated action (see Williams, 2017a). I further demonstrate how sociologists’ overall positive reception of the habitus was facilitated by two factors: the rejection of biological explanations of human behavior and the tacit commitment to social causes by many sociologists in the field throughout the 20th century. I conclude by asserting that seeing individuals’ decision-making styles and capacities as primarily evolved rather than as primarily socially constructed can lead to the development of more robust and yet parsimonious models of action in the discipline. Doing so need not make sociologists blindly endorse evolutionary approaches to human behavior, but start our theories with a view to long rather than short history.


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