“Questioning the Motives of Habituated Action: Burke and Bourdieu on Practice," by Dana Anderson

Anderson, Dana.  “Questioning the Motives of Habituated Action:  Burke and Bourdieu on Practice.”  Philosophy and Rhetoric 37.3 (March 2005):  255–74.

Reviewed by Melanie McNaughton, University of Georgia
KB Journal
2.1 (Fall 2005)

Home may be where the heart is, but, as Anderson argues in “Questioning the Motives of Habituated Action,” body is where the Burkean action is. In this article Anderson frames practice within the Burkean dialectic of action and motion, contextualizing Dramatism within the “contemporary critical usage” of praxis (mutually determining interactions of agents and structures). In so doing, Anderson connects practice—theory by Bourdieu—to action—theory by Burke.

On the face of it, Dramatism (a mode of analysis Burke devised to reveal the motivational forces at work in any given situation) is not well-suited to the examination of practice. Anderson defines practice—a “conceptual descendent of Marxian praxis”—as “the regular and repeated activities of agents that . . . constitutes an agent’s sense of self and of reality.” Situating practice within Burkean thought is an interesting and valuable project not just because it expands our understanding of Dramatism, but because it would seem that one cannot apply Dramatism to practice with any degree of fidelity to the concepts of Dramatism. For Burke, action requires intentional purpose and only action can be fruitfully analyzed via Dramatism. Inasmuch as practice, such as dressing for a formal dinner, is an embodied, habituated deed, practice would seem to be beyond the bounds of faithful Dramatistic analysis.

Anderson documents how the ambiguities (dare I say strategic?) in the way Burke discusses these concepts makes room for the consideration of practice as action by exploring a number of concepts integral to Dramatism (agent, act, purpose, attitude). Most important to Anderson’s project is Burke’s discussion of an “intermediate realm” of purpose in which body and symbolicity combine, and his discussion of attitude as “preparation” for action. The importance of these ambiguities becomes clear as Anderson investigates how Bourdieu defines practice. Anderson asserts that for Bourdieu, practice is a dialectical space in which “structure and agency meet,” each working in an evolving but mutually constitutive feedback loop.

Bourdieu discusses practical action as “habitus,” a “body of ‘durable, transposable’ dispositions” that are embedded in individuals through socialization, for example, how we learn to cover our mouths when we cough. Not surprisingly, habitus “generates practices in accordance with values and ideas of the social system that has instilled these dispositions.” Because habitus embeds itself “not upon the minds but into the bodies” of individuals, habitus “predisposes agents toward practical action at a level that is neither conscious nor intentional.” Using Bourdieu’s definition of habitus, Anderson assays that the body is the site where practice originates.

Given that practice does not involve conscious purpose, practice is not easily defined as action. But, given that practice is not reducible to unconscious biological drives, practice cannot be easily defined as motion. Practice thus inhabits an ambiguous territory between the poles of action and motion. If we understand practice as operating in the realm of intermediate purpose and attitude as “a product of an agent’s consciousness,” then we can understand practice as a form of Dramatistic action. Anderson writes that “this complementary sense of attitude as bodily incipient action function well to situate practice within the Dramatistic grammar of motives.” Framing practice as action expands our understanding of practice, at the same time as it “complicates our understanding of purpose”: via Anderson’s analysis, purpose is illuminated as the product of the dialectical relationships between agents and social structures, as well as “the body’s imbrication within these structures.”

While there is much in concert between Burke’s Dramatism and Bourdieu’s “generative-structuralist” theory, Anderson is careful to note a significant difference between the two. Burke’s “hermeneutical” interest in motive frames relationships between scenes and acts or scenes and agent “as a sort of natural principle of unity in interpretation.” Bourdieu’s “anthropological” interest in origins prompts him to look at how scenes, agents, and actions constitute one another. Thus, although useful in illuminating each other’s respective projects, Bourdieu and Burke are not unproblematically joined.

Although perhaps dense at times to readers unfamiliar with Bourdieu or theory about the body, Anderson’s examples—coughing, personal space, dressing for dinner, kissing strangers—elucidate his points and enliven the essay. This essay will be of significant interest not just to Burkophiles, but to scholars interested in subjectivity and agency, interactions between individuals and social structures, embodied performativity, rhetorical operations of the body, constitutive rhetoric, and the rhetorical impact of everyday habits. 

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