Habit, Governance and the Social

By Tony Bennett

30 November 2010

CCR hosted a two-day workshop on ‘Habit, Governance, and the Social’ over 5-6 August 2010. The workshop was organised in collaboration with the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council’s Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change at the Open University and the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge at New York University.

The workshop was concerned with the role that habit has played as a mechanism for bringing about social change by changing how individuals and social groups behave. A number of developments have placed habit at the centre of debates addressing these questions. A concern with habit, however, has a much longer history. Philosophers in the British empirical tradition – David Hume and John Locke, for example – had a lot to say about habit. So did Immanuel Kant in his negative account of habit as animal-like, unthinking routine conduct that served as a counterfoil to the role of culture in producing human freedom.

Post-Darwinian developments in the life sciences led to a range of new accounts of habit as mechanism of learning via repetition that was rooted the brain or nervous system. These determinist accounts were both built on and countered by thinkers like Henri Bergson and the American pragmatist John Dewey who, in their different ways, offered a more positive account of habit as a mechanism which helped to develop the capacity for individuals to be free and creative. At roughly the same time, habit became an important topic in the early development of sociology. It played an important part in Emile Durkheim’s account of the merits of habit in the development of the child’s moral capacities. However, it fell out of favour as a topic in sociology when, in the early twentieth century, the concept was reinterpreted under the influence of the reductive formulations of behaviourist psychology.

Over the last ten years or so, however, the topic of habit has acquired a new significance in contemporary social, political, cultural and philosophical thought. There have been a number of reasons for this. Critical work on the liberal political tradition has identified how habit has been used as a coercive mechanism for governing colonised peoples, children, and the members of subordinate classes. Habit has also assumed a renewed significance in contemporary debates about pedagogy drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. Gilles Deleuze accords habit a key role in his account of the processes of becoming while Bruno Latour’s work has prompted a revival of interest in the work of Gabriel Tarde, particularly his account of the roles of suggestion, imitation, habit and repetition in the dynamics of social life.

There has also been a renewed interest in the work of Dewey and the pragmatists prompted by contemporary problems of government in which questions concerning the regulation of habits loom large: in connection with the disposal of waste, for example, the environmental threats posed by global warming.

These are the topics that the workshop addressed. Questions concerning the role of habit in early forms of modern liberal government were engaged with by Mary Poovey from NYU and Francis Dodsworth from the Open University. Clare Carlisle from the University of Liverpool and Simon Lumsden from UNSW presented papers addressing different aspects of the ways in which habit has functioned as a mechanism for shaping life in Western philosophical and theological traditions.

CCR’s Megan Watkins, Nick Crossley from the University of Manchester, and Ghassan Hage from the University of Melbourne were concerned with the limits and possibilities of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, while Shannon Sullivan from the University of Pennsylvania and CCR’s Greg Noble were concerned with the habits of racialised and cosmopolitan forms of conduct respectively.

Barry Hindess from ANU and CCR’s Tony Bennett probed the uses of habit in practices of colonial governance. The final panel consisted in presentations from Elizabeth Grosz from Rutgers, Melanie White from UNSW and Lisa Blackman from Goldsmiths College, the University of London, addressing different aspects of the role of habit in the work of Henri Bergson, Gabriel Tarde, Emile and early twentieth-century social psychology.

A proposal is under development to publish a selection of the papers in a special issue of the journal Body & Society.