Turning distaste into taste: context-specific habitus and the practical congruity of culture

Abstract

This article proposes a rethinking of Bourdieu’s habitus as context-specific, multiple, and decentralized based on nine months of participant-observation fieldwork with dumpster divers in New York City. Dumpster divers are mostly white, college-educated people in their twenties and thirties who eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice. Sociologists have recently theorized culture as a fragmented, incoherent “toolkit” of cultured capacities acquired throughout the lifetime. Bourdieu on the contrary, theorized socialized culture as habitus, a relatively durable, classed structure acquired during childhood. While he recognized the possibility of acquiring “specific” habitus (Bourdieu 2000) later in life, he never developed the theoretical implications of socialization across multiple contexts. Building on ethnographic evidence of dumpster divers’ contradictory pursuit of food taste through the distasteful behavior of eating from the trash, I develop an alternative model of habitus as interlinked bundles of dispositions acquired in specific contexts. To theorize the bundled quality of habitus, I introduce what I call the practical congruity of dispositions. I show how rather than being disparate elements of a cultural repertoire, ways of seeing, common sense, dexterity, and orientations “make sense” in conjunction as actors mobilize them in specific contexts: dumpster diving acquires a commonsensical character based on the practical sense practitioners acquire. My understanding of habitus goes beyond the fragmentation assumed in notions of culture as a repertoire of cultured capacities, on the one hand, and the continuity and coherence premised in notions of primary and secondary habitus, on the other hand.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    My informants most often used the term dumpster diving to describe their practice, although some used the term freegan-ing. In New York City the term freegan has become associated with the group “Freegan.info.” Freegan-ing entails a larger set of lifestyle choices aimed at living a life outside of the capitalist system and minimizing wastefulness (see http://freegan.info, last accessed May 2016). I use the term dumpster diving throughout this article.

  2. 2.

    While particularly popular in New York City, dumpster diving is a worldwide phenomenon. It is hard to estimate the size of this mostly informal, splintered subculture. The Wikipedia for dumpster divers worldwide has over 12.000 registered users and entries on dumpster diving experiences in 71 countries (http://trashwiki.org, last accessed August 2016). On the online worldwide “dumpster map,” over 200 dumpster dive locations are listed in New York City, with the majority in (lower) Manhattan, making New York City the likely dumpster dive capital of the world (http://dumpstermap.org, last accessed August 2016). This article does not offer a comprehensive empirical assessment of the subculture, but looks at dumpster diving as a case study to theorize culture in action.

  3. 3.

    I follow Lahire in talking about dispositions as cultivated and mobilized in specific contexts or “domains of practice” (2011), rather than adopting Bourdieu’s notion of fields. This is consistent with cognitive sociologists’ attention to the domain-specificity of practices (Cerulo 2010; Martin 2010). I define domains and contexts as culturally acquired understandings of separate spheres of action and meaning. Contexts refer to an analytically higher level of analysis than situations, implying sets of practices and situations. Contexts may be backed up by institutional practices, such as materialized in walls, official documents, classifications, and regulations, etc., but not necessarily so.

  4. 4.

    This insight can be traced back to Merleau-Ponty’s (2014 [1945]) emphasis on our holistic, bodily orientation to the world: “intentionality is not mental representation at all, but skillful bodily responsiveness and spontaneity in direct engagement with the world. To perceive is not to have inner mental states, but to be familiar with, deal with, and find our way around an environment. Perceiving means having a body, which in turn means inhabiting a world. Intentional attitudes are not mere bundles of sensorimotor capacities, but modes of existence, ways of what Merleau-Ponty, following Heidegger, calls “being in the world” (Carman in Merleau-Ponty 2014, p. viii).

  5. 5.

    Bourdieu assumed coherence in his notion of habitus as a “practical analogue” (1990) that is endlessly reflected in and itself reflects the same principles and logic of oppositions that saturate all contexts: “The habitus is a metaphor of the world of objects, which is itself an endless circle of metaphors that mirror each other ad infinitum” (Bourdieu 1990, p. 77). This endless mirroring of analogies is also reflected in the homology of the fields of consumption (Bourdieu 1984).

  6. 6.

    Scholars introduced the term “secondary habitus” (Desmond 2006; Wade 2011) to designate a habitus acquired later in life. I move away from this term as secondary habitus presupposes an exclusive juxtaposition against the primary habitus. Hence, it indirectly invokes assumptions such as the rigidity and coherence of primary habitus as a classed core acquired during childhood. I challenge scholars to look at the diversity of socialization contexts, their horizontal links, localized practical congruities, and the reproduction of class privilege through borrowing across contexts, in my reconceptualization of habitus as context-specific, multiple, and decentralized.

  7. 7.

    Other techniques I recorded in my field notes include kicking bags from the outside to move trash inside around, feeling for the temperature of the contents of the bag (e.g., if the content feels warm, it has probably been out for a while) and visually discarding trash bags made from a certain material (e.g., transparent or grey bags at some places indicating kitchen or bathroom trash). Some dumpster divers pay attention to the position of trash bags on the pile, knowing that at certain stores the trash bag with food will be thrown out last and will most likely be the bag closest to the backdoor.

  8. 8.

    In this article I do not theorize nor empirically trace the links between broader cultural repertoires and the content of dumpster divers’ common sense and stylization of the practice. I leave open the question of the broader toolkits that dumpster divers draw on, and instead I show empirically the congruity between practical sense and common sense, to offer insight in the clustering of cultural schema, habits, orientations, and justifications around sets of practices. Context-specific habitus do not arise in a vacuum and individuals borrow from other contexts to make sense of new practices. In this article I focus on the localized congruity of borrowed and newly acquired elements.

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Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Iddo Tavory, Paul DiMaggio, Mitchell Duneier, Timothy Pachirat, Rachel Sherman, Paul Willis, William Kornblum, the Theory and Society Editors and reviewers, and her colleagues at the New School for Social Research and Princeton University for their helpful comments and advice. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2013 Chicago Ethnography conference, the 2014 American Sociological Association Annual meeting, and the 2014 New School Sociology conference.

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Correspondence to Sharon Cornelissen.

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Cornelissen, S. Turning distaste into taste: context-specific habitus and the practical congruity of culture. Theor Soc 45, 501–529 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11186-016-9280-0

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Keywords

  • Dumpster diving
  • Embodied knowledge
  • Habitus
  • Practical congruity
  • Taste and distaste
  • Toolkit theory