Embodied knowledge

The idea of the rational actor is dominant in most economic theory, and presupposes an actor acting freely, consciously and with full understanding. Much that is written about information and knowledge is done so from a similar perspective of presumed rational calculation, that every action is preceded by a premeditated and explicit plan. Thus it is that Peter Senge can talk about surfacing, and changing, our ‘mental models’, as though we can assume full detachment from and control over the way we see the world. This presupposition also underpins the idea that we can make our tacit knowledge explicit and so capitalise on, or ‘leverage’ our locked up understanding.

The sociologist Bourdieu had a very different understanding of how we make our way in the world and how broad social patterning arises. He undermines the sovereignty of the rational actor to describe, and dispose of her world. He argues instead that most of our understanding is prereflected, embodied and unconscious. The body is like a ‘memory pad’ imprinted with affective encounters with social structures and the environment, which become naturalised into absorbed dispositions to behave in a particular way. Our habitus, the feel for the social game that we are playing, allows us to find our place without having to deliberate. We are able to hit the nail on the head, to perform with others in our social interactions, often without having to calculate what the right answer is, or to follow an explicit succession of rules.

For Bourdieu, this is not just bodily knowledge, but social knowledge as well, given that it finds expression through the explicit collusion among all actors who are the products of similar conditions. These actors are attuned to each other in a collective performance. He argues against the idea of the individual actor making sequential isolated, calculations on her own to decide what to do next. There is a practical understanding between people playing on the same team, or at least when there is greater antagonism, between players playing the same game, where there is often no explicit attempt at rational co-ordination.

Bourdieu’s bodily, social knowledge operates in the realm of paradox, since it is informed by the history of practice that precedes it and the objective structures in which it finds itself operating. And at the same time it helps to create these structures by helping decide what needs to be done, or not done as the game unfolds. The habitus, the ingrained disposition to behave in a particular way, is both structured by, and structures, objective social relations. It is neither deterministic, nor is it individualised: a disposition does not lead to a determinate action, but is revealed and fulfilled only in appropriate circumstances and in the relationship with a particular situation.

If habitus is the feel for the game, then the field is the particular game that we find ourselves playing: it might be international development, education or academia. The way the game unfolds will depend upon the particular feel for the game of each of the different actors, their social capital in relation to each other, and the way that opportunities present themselves and are understood by the cooperating and competing players. The way that we interpret the social world, our cognitive schemes, are also a product of history. When we play the game we are often so absorbed in it that we have no choice but to improve our position in it, and by doing so, perpetuate the game itself.

The social is instituted in biological individuals, and in each individual there is an incorporation of the social. The habitus can be understood as an individual, socialised body, or as the social, biologically individuated in various bodies. It is for this reason that habitus can be constructed in classes which are statistically characterised.

If we accept that much of our behaviour is informed by an absorbed, profoundly social, embodied knowledge which is largely unreflected, it makes the idea of ‘making the tacit explicit’ much more problematic than is usually presented. We cannot fully, or always consciously do so since we can never be completely aware of what we take for granted. Reflection and reflexivity are hard to achieve, and often occur in the interstices between expectation and actuality, between our anticipation of the game and what actually transpires. How we might learn better to reflect on disruptions to the game will be the subject of future postings.


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