Unpicking habitus and reflexivity: a case study of the stressed academic

In a powerful paper which has circulated widely on Twitter, Ros Gill argues that digital technology is implicated in both an intensification and an extensification of academic labour:

Alongside the intensification of work in academia, we are also experiencing its marked  extensification (Jarvis and Pratt, 2006) across time and space. Paradoxically, as University lecturers have increasingly reported that noise, open plan offices,  interruptions and student demands mean that ‘you can’t work at work’ everywhere else  has opened up as a potential site for academic labour! How convenient. Autonomous Marxist writers call this the era of the ‘socialised worker’ and the ‘factory without walls’, a phase of capitalism in which labour is deterritorialsed so that ‘the whole society is placed  at the disposal of profit’ (Negri, 1989: 79). Work in today’s universities is, it would seem, academia without walls. This is the outcome of multiple determinants but is facilitated by information and communication technologies that render it possible to be ‘always on’  (Gregg, 2009).

Ever speeded-up mobile technologies intermesh seamlessly with the psychic habitus  and dispositions of the neoliberal academic subject: checking, monitoring, downloading whether from BL (British Library), beach or bed, trying desperately to keep up and ‘stay
on top’.


One doesn’t have to agree with the theoretical approach adopted by Gill to see the plausibility of this view. But it’s if we don’t agree that it becomes useful to step back and look a bit sceptically at this account. Ever speeded-up mobile technologies certainly do “intermesh’ with the “psychic habitus and dispositions of the neoliberal academic subject” but the claim that this is seamless seems deeply questionableThere is a contingent compatibility between digital technologies and the occupational dispositionality which characterises the contemporary academy i.e. digital technology coheres rather nicely with the rules of the game.

However I’d hope most people would reject a deterministic view of this dispositionality, such as would construe the inculcation of specific dispositions as a quasi-automatic result of occupying a certain structural position i.e. it’s impossible to sustain a career in academia without internalising the ‘rules of the game’. If we rightly regard such a view as implausible then  much more interesting question open up as to the outcomes which emerges from (a) different configurations of digital technologies (b) the dispositionality of the ‘neoliberal academic’ (c) the other habits, concerns, projects and practices of academics who, in Gill’s paper, only become anything more than a cypher when they are in psychic pain.

I think that the ‘seamless intermishing’ suggested by Gill is a conceptual impossibility. What I’m really interested in is how, given this fact, we understand the variability which characterises this lack of seamlessness. Once we start to unpack it, the picture becomes rather more complex. For instance, Mouzelis usefully discuss ‘intra-habitus conflict’:

Reflexivity may focus less on interactive and more on intra-active processes. In other words, reflexivity may be enhanced not only when there are contradictions between dispositions, positions and figurations, but also when the subject has to handle intra-habitus conflicts. For instance, Trevor Butt and Darren Langdridge (2003) studied the diaries of the well-known comedian Kenneth Williams (1928-1988) and found a deep contradiction between his homosexual dispositions on the one hand, and his deeply conservative, anti-libertarian mentality on the other; the latter predisposed him to consider anything related to homosexuality as “filth”. These two fundamental aspects of K. Williams’ habitus — both products of differing and varied socialization processes — were obviously linked to his overdeveloped reflexivity which a reading of his diaries makes very obvious.


When different aspects of our dispositionality find themselves in conflict, they fail to provide guides to action and we’re forced to either deliberate about what we should do or fall back upon performative commitments which assuage our anxieties in the immediate moment but intensify our psychic  distress in the longer term. So to return to the case study, two new lines of investigation emerge:

  1. How the dispositionality of the neoliberal academy conflicts with, say, the dispositionality of a scholarly ideal?
  2. How is this intra-habitus conflict inflected through the specific characteristics of the ‘tools of the trade’?

I’m sure (1) can be stated in much more interesting ways than I’ve managed here. My point is simply to flesh out the role of human agency  that is presented by Gill while preserving her underlying concerns. I think dispositionality (or more straightforwardly habit) is an integral concept for explaining how individual behaviour is shaped by social circumstances. But I think habitus can be a dangerous concept in many ways. Regardless of how Gill’s ‘psychic habitus’ does or doesn’t accurately reflect Bourdieu’s notion, it nonetheless seems to me as if many people do in practice use the concept in roughly the way Gill uses it (though I’m open to being persuaded I’m wrong here).

The other aspect of this issue, which I became rather distracted from in process of writing this post, is the role technology plays here. I guess this is why it’s on my mind after the digital sociology event yesterday. Though I’m pretty convinced that it’s impossible for it to be seamless, I’m not clear in my own mind about how to understand the ‘intermeshing’ Gill proposes – I think she’s getting at the relationship between a tool and the dispositions which lead one towards practical action involving such a tool: so the degree to which, say, a blogging platform fits (or fails to fit with) with an underlying disposition towards ensuring that one is ‘visible’. Or, to use Gill’s example, how e-mail fits (or fails to fit) with underlying dispositions towards ensuring that one is ‘up to date’ so as to ‘stay on top’. I think these are important questions which Gill ignores (leading to a crude technological determinism) but there’s also the issue of practices themselves which are occluded in her ‘stretched’ version of the habitus concept.

Edited to add: Mouzelis offers a useful framing of the concept in terms of influential ideas of the subject:

In the light of what has been said above, one can argue that Bourdieu’s actor is half-way between Parsons’ “oversocialized” and Levi-Strauss’ “decentered” subject. For Bourdieu, the subject relates to the former in the sense that the habitus carrier, in normal non-crisis conditions, portrays a lack of voluntarism and lack of reflexive handling of positions similar to Parsons’ “cultural-dope” actor vis-à-vis the role s/he plays. It relates to Levi-Strauss’ decentered subject in that Bourdieu’s actor has only practical rather than theoretical knowledge of his/her dispositions. This means that at least some of the more unconscious dispositions come very close to Levi-Strauss’ “hidden codes”, which refer to the rules below the conscious surface that people follow without being aware of them.

All three authors, in different ways of course, underemphasize the agentic, voluntaristic, strategizing qualities of actors. For Levi-Strauss, anti-voluntarism relates to the structuralist attempt to abolish the subject-object distinction by decentering the subject, by going beyond or behind surface rules and norms. For Parsons, the subject-object distinction is maintained, but interaction is underemphazised[5] and players are portrayed as passive products of objective social structures (Mouzelis 1995: 129ff). In Bourdieu’s case finally, the subjective-objective divide is not abolished but transcended via a “structurationist” strategy, which regards the habitus as pertaining to both the objective (the habitus as product of structures) and the subjective (the habitus as “structuring” structures).


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