Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Class, Part II: Habitus

To sum up my ignorance, I had always thought that class was, more or less, about money. What I finally started to realize (to continue the story begun below) is that it is most definitely not just about money. I had thought of the world as a big arena or amusement park, and that one could go on some rides--or avoid some rides--because one had or did not have the money to do so. While there were stages of sorts--you could not get to the Graduate School rides unless you had survived the College ride, for example, and the College ride you were on affected which Graduate School rides you would be able to get on--there was, I thought, a certain transparency to the process. Similarly, if you completed the College ride and showed up for work and so on, you could avoid the Dire Financial Straits ride.

I knew that a SPLAC should have made a wider variety of rides available than a third-tier state teachers' college would have, but I went to a well-regarded SPLAC so I figured that was sufficient. It's clear to me now, though, that I did not exploit what was available at SPLAC in the ways that I might have done. My sister, for example, clearly did a better job of that than I did. In the comments below, Alice mentions that the resume-enhancing jobs were only available to people eligible for federal work-study, which I was, but I didn't know such jobs existed and wouldn't have known how to find them. Instead, I looked for jobs that paid more (one year I managed the student bar (beer only) because the job paid more per hour, plus I could work one 8-hour shift/week and make enough cash to get by rather than having to work 1.5 hours a day in the dining halls). I eventually had enough of a network among the people on campus (I ran student government for a year so I knew a lot of people) such that small jobs sometimes fell in my lap, but they were of the move-all-the-books-on-this-floor-to-that-floor variety rather than an internship or research assistant position.

The real transformation of my ignorance began in one of my philosophy classes in Philadelphia, where I read Outline of a Theory of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu, , followed by Bourdieu's Distinction. Though it would take some work for me to explain Bourdieu here, the effect it had on me was to help me see, and give me a framework for understanding, that our "place" in society isn't just a matter of the money we have, or even of the kinds of material facts I've been listing for you, though those are relevant. Bourdieu talked of habitus, about which the above website says:
The concept means on the individual level "a system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment . . . as well as being the organizing principles of action."
In short then (and I'm really doing this an injustice), one acquires categories of thought, of action, of judgement, of ethics, of spending, and more, and the particular categories we utilize mark our places in social (economic, political) space.

(Completely irrelevant side note: I once got to meet Bourdieu when he came to campus. The person presiding over the visit--and over the group of students who read a lot of Bourdieu's work prior to the visit--was officious beyond belief. Very entertaining, then, was Bourdieu's refusal to abide by the social rules or seating arrangements that the presider tried to institute--Bourdieu talked to anyone, especially the pretty women. I'm told that he was also amused at being made part of a song, a round to the tune of "Frere Jacques," no less, along with Michel Foucault and a third person, that was written for the school's sociology follies.)

In any case, once I got to graduate school, with a certain amount of my ignorance intact but armed with Bourdieu, I began to see that it wasn't, in fact, just about money. I found that I liked a lot of older faculty more than a lot of my fellow students or the faculty who were closer to me in age, precisely because the older faculty were more like me in terms of their backgrounds. I also liked the administrator who ran the department, and I count her among my best friends to this day (she's one of the Unofficial Bridespeople), and she told me a story that's relevant here. She moved to this city with her husband so he could go to graduate school. She hadn't gone to college, though I'd say she's smarter than he ever was, for an assortment of reasons, some of them class-related. She was at some university function with her husband, and someone asked her where she'd gone to college or something like that. When she said she hadn't gone to college, the person turned around and walked away from her. In short, the fact of her not having gone to college was more important, to this person, than anything my friend might have said. It's an extreme example, but its purity helps illuminate how a particular signifier can be more important to some people or in some situations than the reality embedded in it. (There's still no excuse for such rudeness, though.)

Despite my growing understanding of habitus and its effects on creating a possibility space for any given person's actions, I still made choices that some people probably would have regarded as odd. In retrospect, I don't think they affected one whit my inability to get a tenure-track position--the lack of available jobs and the lack of someone to support me while I stayed on the job market an additional year were much more relevant there. Nevertheless, I resisted taking TA or RA positions, because it seemed to me that they were a bad deal, financially, for the students; so, for three years, I had a job where I moved furniture and fixed things. I had regular hours, rather than hours that depended on what the professor was doing or needed, I didn't have emergencies, and I wasn't being exploited. (I did work as an RA for the person who would have chaired my dissertation committee had he lived. He wanted my help with his book, and I happily provided it, both before and after he died.) I was reasonably well-regarded by my department, and, although I didn't start off getting a lot of financial assistance, I did receive competitive dissertation fellowhips, and they did, in fact, help me finish pretty quickly relative to the rest of my class. Nevertheless, you can see that, in college as well as in grad school, I was choosing my jobs in part with an eye to my immediate financial needs rather than to any resume-related concerns. This job pays more or involves less hassle or will take less away from my own work, therefore I want this job. Though I'm still not entirely convinced my choices were the wrong ones (for reasons I'll get to eventually), it should be clear that my choices were shaped, in part, by "categories of perception and assessment" and "organizing principles" that likely would be different for someone whose background was different from mine.

My growing awareness is also evidenced by a friend I made my second or maybe third year in grad school (he's also one of my best friends to this day). He was a new student and I met him at the welcome party, in part by making cracks about his home state. We chit-chatted a few times, and a few weeks after school started, I ran into him at a party that another student in our department was throwing. I asked A a few questions about his background, and, upon hearing his answers, looked at him and said, "I bet you feel wildly out of place here." He thought I was psychic or something, but, really, the fact that his family had been on food stamps when he was a kid was almost enough information in itself. By contrast, another of our department mates got a good one-year position when she finished. At the last moment--right before classes were supposed to start--she decided she didn't want to do that after all, because she was going to work in her father's investment banking firm, thus leaving the school where she was supposed to teach completely in the lurch. That's not the kind of choice that A or I were likely to have, much less make.

When I got my degree, I entered the twilight zone again. Faculty sympathized with my unemployed situation, up to a point, but no one seemed able to do anything about it. One person hired me to teach a few classes, which helped some, but teaching as an adjunct doesn't pay very much and keeps you from getting temp jobs or part-time jobs that require regular hours. Most of the professors' contacts were in academe, and I was leaving that realm (which made me Less Worthy in other ways that I won't discuss here), so I had to resort to the want ads. (This was in the early 90s, before Monster.com and its ilk.) But now, to the rest of the world, I had a Big Fancy Degree, which meant they Couldn't Afford Me (oh yes you can, I wanted to tell them; I'm BROKE!), or I was overqualified, or I Had No Practical Skills (because we all know that going to too much school makes you unable to do anything in the so-called Real World). And here, I suspect, is where Daddy's connections would have been put into play, were I of a different class. Some network would have been activated that landed me a job somewhere, doing something. Instead, the junkies and alcoholics hired me to write bid proposals and the like.

Since then, I've made two realizations that serve as abbreviations for what I've been babbling about; both were made while riding the bus to work. (I have to add that I've never owned a car: I have a driver's license, but you don't want me to actually use it. My friends mock me about my love (and use) of public transportation, but they also come to me when they want to know how to get somewhere. In any case, I spend many hours a week on buses and trains, so revelations in those venues aren't such a big surprise.) On a day when the bus was particularly unpleasant--crowded with Public Transportation Amateurs, no place to sit, winter coats on but also high heat in the bus, making the whole thing smell like a wet dog--I thought that one of the major functions of money was insulation. People with a lot of money can completely avoid these experiences and, given the right background, not notice the cost of that avoidance. I'd probably always notice the cost, no matter how much money I was making, and even if I were making a big bundle, I'd still feel ecologically (and possibly economically) obligated to take public transportation rather than buying a car. That does not make me a superior person, that only speaks to the categories of thought and perception that I bring to bear on the situation.

The second realization was in relation to a local newscaster. She's a real reporter rather than a vapid talking head, and she's about ten years older than I am. Why, I mused to myself, does she have her job and I don't? (In Emma's fantasyland of alternative lives, I would have enjoyed being a reporter.) I don't want to take anything away from her brains, but I don't think she's smarter than me. And I thought, well, she maybe knew a little bit about what she wanted to do. She got internships in college. She went to college someplace where she could make contacts. She had a job in some local media outlet that enabled her to envision herself as a reporter. It's possible she could have done all this with my class background, mind you: If I'd gone someplace other than SPLAC, if I'd met someone along the way who could open a door for me, if I lived in a different part of the country and got a job sweeping up the newsroom, even, I might have been able to see a path.

And that, then, is the point, I think. With a background like mine, the possibility space is limited by the people our parents know, by the people we happen to meet along the way, by the choices we make, and by the factors that go into our decision-making. For someone of a different background--a doctor or lawyer or professor--even if her parents don't make a lot of money, she's likely to meet people who know people. She knows what internships are and why they're important. She doesn't always have to make decisions based on immediate financial need. It's still possible for people like us. We might have the equivalent of a mailroom job that enables us to meet people who can help us, directly or indirectly, see what other possibilities exist. We might get lucky and stumble into something (I know someone like this, too). If we have sufficient education and/or if we're sufficiently observant, we even become able to "pass," which is a story for the next post on this subject.


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Blogger Mimi Vogue said...

I loveto read your gloss of Bourdieu's concepts - I have just become aware of his work and am provisionally seduced - and I love the way you are looking at your own life through this habitus insight. Must try and apply it to my own.
Now back to your well wrought blog.

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