Tag Archive: Pierre Bourdieu


Matthew 7.1 is a well-known biblical text. It’s up there with John 3:16. But the former is used more like a club than the latter.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. This is now an American ideal.

The work of sociologist Christian Smith shows just how much it pervades the average American’s imagination when he writes about emerging young adults in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In the interviews with young adults that constitute a portion of that book, Smith highlights a certain common characteristic among many of them. Instance after instance an interviewee utters the common statement, “who am I to judge someone else?” or some form of the same. Smith and his co-authors are rather disturbed by the lack of an ability among young adults to offer a rational evaluation of circumstances. While individuals seem to make certain decisions for themselves, they are unwilling to presume that the decision they have made for themselves is the same decision others ought to make too. “Who am I to say?” they will ask.

Following from a point Smith makes in an earlier book, one which draws on the same longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion as does Lost in Transition, Smith argues in Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that much of what American young people claim as their spirituality has been handed down within the tradition they have experienced in their family life. In other words, that “tradition” is most likely meant to mean “from their church.” But, more importantly for my argument here, at any rate, it is from one’s parents. If a young person (teenager or young adult) is regularly articulating such utterances as “Who am I to judge?” we ought to be prompted to think of Bourdieu and his point about habitus and disposition again. Such regular utterances come with practice, and practice occurs in an environment which fosters it. If the family is handing down this value to mimic, it’s no wonder it has taken such a strong hold.

Clearly it is important for us NOT to judge. And to justify our position, we’ll point to Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a problem here that causes us quite a bit of consternation. It’s a bad interpretation of the text. We should ask ourselves, is Jesus really telling us it is utterly sinful to judge? Are we really to make no evaluations whatsoever in this life?

That seems a very thin interpretation of this text, and it gets us into some real trouble. This was the concern of Smith and his co-authors in Lost in Transition. They wondered if young adults could make any substantive evaluations at all. If making judgments seemed to them to be somehow “all wrong,” then how were they going to get through life when faced with kind of moral conundrums one has to face from time to time? How, in fact, if such young people were to eventually start families, would they raise children or discipline them or teach them to lead a particular kind of life if they could not decide on how someone else (in this case, their own child) ought to live?

Mind you however, a good interpretation of Matthew 7.1 doesn’t simply free us to sling at others whatever judgments we want.

What we ought to realize is that we make evaluations and judgments all the time. Evaluations of good, bad, and everything in between are necessary for our very safety and survival, much less for our moral navigation through life. We know in our bones how to stay out of danger (by making judgments of dangerous situations, and doing so without “thinking”). And we know at times moral right and wrong in utterly viscerally ways–situations make us “sick.” But we also make other kinds of judgments. Very often, like I’ve written in the previous three posts, our judgments are of the sinful variety. They are negatively judgmental. They’re not particularly helpful, and certainly not necessary for our safety or survival. And for that we ought to repent. Otherwise, the world is right in calling us hypocrites. It’s that simple.

The rest of the time, to the extent that we are followers of Christ, we are learning to judge rightly and well. I learned early on in my Christian journey a particular term for this: discernment. It’s something of an art. Decisions, evaluations, judgments—they’re often hard. Sometimes they’re borderline undecidable. Maybe that’s why Luther said “sin boldly.”

A few things I’ve found helpful:

  1. Good judgment and evaluation happens in community, not alone. Don’t assume you don’t need help. Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t assume you’re done learning.
  2. Good judgment and evaluation takes time. It’s never snappy. It’s never hasty. It’s always aware that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Every time. Period.
  3. Good judgment and evaluation begins with listening and exploring. And perhaps this practice never ends.
  4. Good judgment and evaluation requires habitus formed in the crucible of worship where the people of God have gathered.

I want to argue here that TV can function liturgically for us. Watching television has ritual characteristics. Certain shows happen at certain times. They are regularly repeated. There is a certain flow to the event with the show being interspersed with other pieces and parts—commercials with various kinds of messages that are in themselves mini-rituals and which participate in the large consumeristic liturgy Smith might compare to the “mall” in Desiring the Kingdom. Perhaps most importantly, as a liturgy, watching television engages us on a level where our desires are captured and we’re made captive to a certain narrative which sets out for us the good life and invites us to participate in it. As I proceed below, I suggest Reality TV trains us liturgically to become judgmental.

Reality TV is a big training ground for the kind of judgmentalism that all of us disdain—that is, the kind by which we hate to be judged. And it has progressively grown in its proliferation over the airwaves in the last decade. From shows like American Idol and Survivor, it has grown exponentially into whatever niche market might get some ratings. Now the public is dying to watch the Real Housewives of Wherever, Honey Boo Boo, Cooking and Tattooing and Fashion competition shows, Restaurant and Hotel disaster shows where somebody’s bound to be totally ripped by the host, and plenty of others I don’t even know about (what is “Amish Mafia”?). All this is somehow entertainment to us as we join in, participating in our private little fantasy worlds, invited to render our own judgments just by nature of what’s on display.

Our training started concretely in a sense with those shows like American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor and others where the public was invited to weigh in with their own vote. Did you “like” the character? He or she got to stay. Did you hate them? Vote them off. Facebook and Twitter of course allow us to publicly vent our opinions (judgments), all the while hiding behind our avatars and sharing our judgments with everyone and no one at the same time. Whoever we’re talking to, we don’t have to look anyone in the eye, most specifically not the person we’re judging, so there’s no consequences (read: we can get away with it). And there was no fear of joining in the judgmental parade, since everyone was doing and it was built into the structure of things from the moment the phone numbers were displayed on the TV screen to enable you to vote for your favorite contestant.

The judgmentalism in which we were invited to engage (and did—whether or not you texted in your vote, or tweeted, to Facebooked, or ever talked to your friend about it, or just kept your thoughts private) first took the form of, “Wow, she can’t carry a tune!” and “Geez, he thinks he can dance, but nope, he really can’t.” Of course, we went further than that, judging their attitudes, persona, the way they dressed, carried themselves, etc. This is perhaps the implicit kind of judgmentalism we have been taught to participate in. The kind which our dispositions have been formed to naturally perform without our thinking about it. We just do it without reflection. We might try to justify the other kinds of judgment. When someone is out of tune, that is bad and it should be noted—the show is about musical talent and performance after all. Granted. That’s why I’m saying that the invitation to that portion of the judgment is shaping for the more implicit and non-reflective judgments we make. The kind of judgment we’re invited to participate in when we watch the Real Housewives is just a more sordid form. Shows like that (and there are many) put people’s lives on display for nothing else but our own entertainment—and that entertainment takes the form of nothing other than our judgment.

Other forms of television train our judgment also. The popular television show Everyone Loves Raymond trains us, like so many other shows do, to see men as bumbling idiots and women as the ones who really have things altogether. It creates an utterly disrespectful image of men, and a terrible image of marriage. Shows like that, and a recent Discover Card commercial (which captures an example of this perfectly – see embedded clip below), train us to have a certain imagination of how the world works. Women learn they can treat men a particular way (sadly, I’ve heard groups in public spaces talking about their husbands like they’re a bunch of ignorant cave men). Men learn they might as well play the fool. I cannot begin to say much about how young men, women, or little boys and girls are formed by exposure to this kind of thing. But as you might imagine, it’s bad.

Back to Bourdieu. It’s our passive taking-in of all this which creates our dispositions and forms our habitus to be judgmental right along with and in the same manner as the material which we are watching. Why? Because we are not just watching it. Television is formative. It’s not just in-formative. Think about commercials. They’re not just giving us information. They’re creating desires. In the same way, these shows I’m talking about are ritually carrying us through certain ways of being in the world—and through them the good life is on display. Just as in a commercial that tells you how you ought to look or what you ought to own (in order to attain the good life) reality TV’s invitation to judgmentalism invites you to the pedestal of judge, to the position of honor. Your opinion matters. Your vote counts. You’re important. So gone on, tell us what you think. And don’t mince words…we take this very seriously. And tune in next week, and the week after that. And catch this new show where we need you to weigh in. And so on and so forth and suddenly a new way of being develops in us.

The big danger here is that, for Christians, we carry this way of being into the world. We start rendering judgment on everyone and everything. Because plenty of us are fans of reality TV too.

More concrete examples in the next post.

Trained to be Judgmental?

Our world forms us to become judgmental. This happens simultaneously with our ongoing training as Americans to be non-judgmental—that is, tolerant—of everyone else. That we’re taught it is important to be non-judgmental (tolerant) is rather obvious. It’s an explicit value articulated in the media and our educational system, and even (perhaps often) within the Christian tradition. So I won’t say much about that here.

To make my point, however, that we’re formed to be judgmental, I must reflect on something that’s not so obvious. And to do that, I have to say a few other helpful things first.

A book that’s been critically important to my thinking about Christian formation (and cultural theory) in recent years has been Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I’ve suggested it to so many people who’ve also liked it—and with the help of some colleagues made it required reading at my seminary for worship students. But it’s not the simplest read. It takes some wrestling and pondering.

I’m now using it with my undergraduates to think about how culture has formed us. In the book, Smith argues that culture often forms us unwittingly through ingrained habits and rituals that function like liturgies. He calls them “secular liturgies.” The analogy to the church’s liturgy is quite intentional. And if you read the book, his argument that culture can be understood as constituted by “secular liturgies” is quite compelling. So I encourage you to read it. And I promise you’ll get more out of it than that if you invest the time in reflecting on Jamie’s work and the various sundry applications of it to your life. He makes it easy, using examples from popular literature, movies, the mall, TV, the university, sports, and even the Pledge of Allegiance to make his points concrete.

One of his main arguments is about how we are formed as human beings to be particular kinds of people in a manner that operates at a pre-reflective or pre-conscious register. On this point, he means to push back against the rather staid position in Western thinking that, as autonomous agents (which we imagine ourselves to be, since that is what we’ve been taught we are in the story of Western anthropology), we deliberately come to believe everything we believe by choice. Or, in terms of the things we do, they are done as matters of intentional deliberation. Jamie rejects this position. And he is not alone in pushing back on this view. Even recent NYT bestsellers are telling us otherwise—mind you they’re doing so by making the case scientifically borrowing from psychology, neurology, and cognitive philosophy: check out David Brook’s The Social Animal and/or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I recommend both).

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has also argued convincingly that our formation as human beings is not primarily a cognitive phenomenon, but something much more bodily oriented. Thus, for Bourdieu, our thinking and reflection emerges from our primal and chief means of engagement with and comportment toward the world—our bodies. He uses the language of “practice” to help us understand this. His work gives an account for why we do what we do, not by accounting for our “thinking and deliberation” regarding our actions, but by accounting for how the logic of practice is pre-cognitive and pre-reflective. Bourdieu describes our embodied lives as trained toward certain dispositions through regular habitual practices in which we participate. These dispositions structure our engagement with the world. He gives a name to these dispositions, calling them habitus. Our habitus governs our actions at a level below the cognitive and reflective register. The focus isn’t on our brains or minds but on our bodies.

At the risk of scaring some readers off, it’s worth quoting Bourdieu on this very central idea within his work. If this passage doesn’t seem very clear, keep in mind part of the problem Bourdieu has in his writing is that he is trying to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, ways of thinking that we simply take for granted and which have been rooted in the West for three centuries. Our present condition as captive to a certain way of thinking about and imagining “why we do what we do” prevents us from understanding him easily.

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (The Logic of Practice, 53)

Here we see Bourdieu explicitly pointing up the nature of habitus as an ordered, structured and structuring register of our lives that functions explicitly at a non-cognitive level. There is no need for a “conductor.” There is no need for the intentional “following of rules” or “aiming at certain ends.” These are not, however, ruled out as impossible or dismissed, but Bourdieu’s point is to reorient our imagination of what it means to be human actors who explain why we do what we do, forcing us to take into account a substantial part of who we are that does not emerge from our “free will,” our freely made decisions, or rational deliberations about what is to be done.

From the time each of us was very young—I mean, from moment after we were born (and now we ought to be paying attention to our formation in the womb it seems)—our dispositions were being created. We were developing a habitus, or better, a habitus was happening to us, on account of how we were engaged with others in our experience of the world. In the same way, this still happens. In fact, it’s ongoing throughout our lives. Our habitus continues to be shaped as much as it shapes our engagement with and comportment toward the world. We constantly engaged with the world in a variety of ways and this engagement is always rubbing off on us. Our world is full of “liturgies” according to Smith—that’s part of what constitutes and forms “culture” in his argument—and human beings are always formed by the cultures in which they participate. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom argues that our engagement with the world, as it is inevitably communal, shapes our dispositions, and thus forms us to be certain kinds of people. Liturgies of any kind foster habitus.

Thus I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to make my suggestion of how we are passively trained to be judgmental.

Our culture provides many opportunities for us to be trained—to develop a disposition, a habitus—to become judgmental. Since this post has gone on for some time, in the next day or two, I’ll supplement this one with some concrete examples of how I see this happening.