Tradition is a word used on a daily basis to denote beliefs or customs taught by one generation to the next. Such traditional content may be transmitted orally through sermons, tales and legends; content can also be taught through physical repetition of an act as the case can be found in hunting practices, cooking techniques and handiwork. Whatever the content may be, there have been numerous studies performed about what is passed over to the next generation and so too have been various experiments conducted to ascertain the different modes of learning found cross culturally.
How unspoken traditions are passed down from one generation to the next is both phenomenological as well as socially bound. These are peculiar in that they are identifiable by the native populous to whom the tradition belongs but the tradition itself is in a constant state of exchange regarding traditional and contemporary elements. A small, personal example may highlight the subject of unspoken traditions with regards to Middle Eastern traditions – Having been invited for afternoon tea at an older relative’s place, one’s position of ‘guest hood’ (as it were) is precarious due to the hospitality exhibited in one’s being there but also as being the younger family member, one is expected to relieve the older relative by taking on any form of physical labour required throughout one’s time there.
The familial relational circle endows one with greater responsibility the closer they are in terms of blood-line to the relative whom they are visiting. In other words, one’s unspoken traditional responsibility at a grandparent’s residence is far greater than a relative through marriage. One would rise to wash dishes, clear tables and serve other guests the closer they are to the person who they are visiting as opposed to being waited on as one would be had one visited someone such as a relative through marriage. Not performing such tasks would very rarely be rebuked or remarked upon, however the socio-cultural rubric by which family members are bound within would inevitably form a negative judgement upon one’s behaviour had they not obliged to perform these tasks.
On the other hand, performing these tasks and the limit to which they are performed is left completely to the individual’s discretion. It is therefore quite possible for one to over-perform a task in the hopes of exceeding any expectations of them – no matter how high or abstract.
As a form of ideology by way of being a socially constructed image perceived as natural and where culture is seen as nature, habitus’ operation in one’s life requires no cognitive awareness – only a silence to accept the ‘natural’ social order. Bourdieu attributes habitus’ direct effect on traditions and customary practises to its unspoken nature. (Bourdieu 1977:188 as cited in Dovey). Bearing the aforementioned example in mind, this essay aims to draw on the theoretical framework of Bourdieu’s notions of habitus as well as capital and field to explain embodied traditions and the implied cultural memories inherent in traditions. How Bourdieu’s theory constitutes a prime cultivatable space for the past to be embodied in performative practices will be considered in two ethnographic accounts; the former will highlight the notion of learned habitus and embodied culture whilst the latter seeks to uncover Bourdieu’s notion of ‘cultural capital’.
Habitus and the implicated processes by which it functions and operates on human interactions is examined and defined as a remnant of a society’s past which is both active and evolving in the present (Crossley 2001:83). It is able to shape perceptions, direct thoughts, action and therefore moulds human agency but is also directed by it. The difficulty of pinning down or classifying habitus as a silent social process rather than a premeditated etiquette arises from habitus’ functioning below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will.”(Bourdieu as cited in Crossley 2001:83) Habitus can therefore be regarded as a societal function transmitted between individuals and their respective societies whilst being a form of constructed knowledge.
Crucial to the definition of habitus is the method by which it functions in society; again Bourdieu thoroughly explains it as a ‘structural apprenticeship’(Bourdieu 1977:89 cited in Dovey 32:2010) whereby the individual internalises and embodies the societal structures they have developed in as well as being a vector for the habitus in its advancement between generations. Bourdieu’s ‘structural apprenticeship’ is an appropriate lens by which one can observe body rituals evolving into a natural, lived ideology. Starrett (1995) examines such a notion as manifest in Islamic popular schools in Egypt. By regarding a religion as an ideology, the definitions of ritualistic practises are made relational to social practises and conflicts. In other words, one should recognise that the daily actions of Islamic popular school students not as religious practices, but rather as ideological and lived practices. Habitus therefore, needs to be understood as an ideological category that stands for the specific relationships where people’s habits are unconsciously between bodily, visible structures on the one hand and beliefs, attitudes on the other hand. Starrett (1995) provides a salient example of a physical-belief ritual with the process of ablution in Islamic tradition as he cites a state introduced Egyptian textbook used in public high schools;
“...And the modern physician agrees with Islam in this, for doctors call on us to bathe at least once a week, guarding the body’s cleanliness and freeing it from diseases...” (Starrett, 1995:961)
Understandably the Qur’an like many other religious texts promotes physical cleanliness – the oddity in this text is that it arises from a public schooling textbook and therefore implies the oneness which the religious entity has tied itself to regarding the student’s habitus. Starrett (1995) regards the physical, secular act of bathing has having been aligned with an essential Islamic ritual eventuating into a total amalgamation of both secular and religious practises in the daily life of the student.
Reasoning that this is an attempt to modernise Islam into a version capable of combating European colonialism, Starrett (1995) questions the colonial gaze responsible for the habitus of the Egyptian popular school student to be so contorted from natural development. Returning to Bourdieu’s ‘structural apprenticeship’ cited by Starrett (1995), one encounters the term ‘Hexis’ (the classical Greek cognate for ‘habit’) relating to the public performance of habit-shaping practices. ‘Hexis’ is therefore a wordless, unconscious and practical transmission of bodily habit. (Starrett, 1995: 954) Performances are embedded in the cultural memory primarily due to their physical embodiment. The clarity of this process can be reflected in that;
“...Egyptian children are taught in school that the straight lines of correct Muslim prayer ‘embody’ the ideology of order and discipline.” (Starrett, 1995:963)
Starrett’s notion of embodied ideology rings true in one’s ear when recalling the daily speech patterns of local Cairenes. Phrases such as “Insha’Allah” (if God permits), “rabena y’ sahel” (may God ease it), or “la elah ela Allah” (there is no God but God) mingle the divine discourse with the mundane actions of the human population. Uses of these phrases include but are not limited to business transactions, daily niceties and as previously stated – the educational system. Interestingly, not only is the Qur’an the primary text by which study and contemplation is instructed within popular Egyptian schools but the space in which it is taught has been specifically designed and adjusted to permit the most efficient transmission of religious practices. One could consider this as being a prime example of a ‘structural structured structure’. (Bourdieu, 1977:89) To comprehend the ‘structured’ habitus as immediately related to the visible structures of public spaces, (which in turn are understood to be productive and expressive of moral boundaries) we turn to Schielke (2008) who reconsiders Starrett’s article on ‘hexis’ little over a decade after the latter author’s publication.
The aforementioned amalgamation of clerical ideals with secular norms eventuates into a state in which the solemn, purified state of mind is the preferred habitat of religion, morality, and social order. (Schielke, 2008:542) Religion (in considering itself) should be kept strictly clean of any form of profanity; whilst not permeable to external influence, it should remain aware of its surroundings and when necessary be capable of asserting itself in state affairs. This kind of structured habitus of Egyptian modernism and Islamic reformism, is “dignified,” “civilized,” and “educated” (Schielke, 2008:542) and above all able to direct social affairs to satisfy a religious if not entirely clerical agenda.
Schielke reviews Starrett’s notion of ‘hexis’ by relating habit to one’s cultural embodiment and thereby expands the breadth of hexis to encompass universal class boundaries existing in society. These learned habits imply not only an order directed at the delineation and control of class demarcation but also of habitus and the self. Learning and by extension the societal element which teaches – namely schools, institutions and private classes form the basis upon which the social habitus is internalised (or embodied) and constructed. Lasting effects of internalised habitus’ are immense; Bourdieu argues that the reproduction of the social structure results from the habitus of individuals implicated in the education system. (Bourdieu as cited in Dumais, 2002:46) In other words, the current employable adult population and their respective jobs are likely to be inherited by the said population’s children. A physician’s daughter may not become a physician; however it is unlikely that she will become a construction worker. Dumais notes this concept as hereditary educational habitus;
“...On the basis of the class position they were born into, people develop ideas about their
individual potential; for example, those in the working class tend to believe that they will remain in the working class.” (Dumais, 2002:46)
Similarly, taught beliefs and rituals are internalised as habitus and then externalised into actions. Therefore it is not much of a surprise when clerical fundamentalists embody particular religious statements and act upon the direction of these statements; just as a free market economy theory could inspire an individual to lobby against government legislation, an embodied religious ideology confirmed and developed in an individual’s lifelong habitus could lead to the instigation of an act which serves to fulfil such a religious ideology.
As the habitus of the student is fashioned by these traditional rituals, the taught religious element becomes a reflection of a shared past where education plays an encompassing role in developing an individual and by extension the national habitus. By intertwining the mundane and seemingly unrelated aspects such as cultural, political and environmental affiliations with a schooled religious discourse, a habitus serving as one’s memory bank orients the individual’s present condition under the structure of their past learning experience. In other words, as a student embodies a structured habitus (a religious one in the case of Egyptian popular schools), their entire livelihood reflects a cultural remembrance of applied tradition. Such apprenticeships of cultural traditions are considerable avenues by which the individual’s mastery of their own culture can be explored. Turkish folkloric music, the cultural capital it embodies and the bastions of these sources of capital are some of the topics explored by Bryant with her experience of ‘saz’ playing in Istanbul, Turkey.
How cultural capital features in the notion of habitus must first be considered, especially in that the Islamic tradition is present in both Cairo and Istanbul – however its manifestations are distinct when compared to each other. While the Islamic tradition ‘adab’ (loosely translated into mannered etiquette or moral virtue) conceptualises the body as a site for representing learned virtues, the folkloric Turkish identity has come to signify an authentic Turkish rather than Islamic memory.
Being a lute-like instrument, the Turkish ‘saz’ features heavily in the repertoire of Eastern Mediterranean bands aside from Spain where there is a guitar shaped version. Its rise to popularity in Turkish folklore is attributed to an Oriental revival evident with the newly formed Turkish republic in the years post World War II which placed greater value on individuals who had skills relating to classical Turkish culture – or as Bourdieu coins it, were wealthy in cultural capital. The incorporation of tradition into the nation-state elevated the status of musicians from simple entertainers to guardians of a symbolic representation of Turkish nationalism. (Bryant, 2005:227)
Bryant herself became a student of a ‘saz’ school where she attempted to learn playing as a means to achieving embodiment of a tradition she was not previously part of or had any of its habitus. One of the greatest problems she encountered as expressed in her field notes was not a sociologic or cultural distance but rather of musical tradition. In short, Bryant’s experience of cultural embodiment was constantly slowed by her admitted inability to comprehend the focus on rhythm and melody of Oriental music as compared to the harmony-based tradition of Western music.
While much of Bryant’s article deals with masculinity and ‘saz’ playing as an extension of a purely male element such as self control, for the purposes of this essay we will only consider the masculine habitus of ‘saz’ playing rather than the engenderment of music as Bryant’s article thoroughly explores. Traditional practices in Turkish culture are associated with a particular ‘heaviness’ – this extends to the speed of one’s speech as well as their movement. The self-control and seriousness of a ‘heavy’ persona exemplifies the good ‘saz’ player;
“A man’s walk might be said to be ‘agir’ (heavy), as he walks not only with deliberation but also with a visible gravity, rolling from heel to toe.” (Bryant, 2005:232)
Involvement in the ‘saz’ community is a prerequisite of a respectable ‘saz’ player. Dexterity and musical skill are considerably important, but the entire bodily interpretation of ‘saz’ playing is expected to be culturally embodied in the apprentice of the folkloric tradition.
“Learning to play the saz did not involve learning to play notes on an instrument; it involved learning to become the type of person who could play the saz.” (Bryant, 2005:229)
As embodiment does not entail mastery of saz playing, the habitus endows the saz apprentice with the necessary skills to discern good saz playing from bad saz playing. Self-formation of this habitus required Bryant to accept that any musical skill she acquired as a student of Western musical traditions would not be useful in the pursuit of mastering the saz. Contrary to the rigidity and adherence to the musical score as was required in the early months of learning the instrument, Bryant conveys her amazement at intermediate playing musicians being expected to improvise when the scoresheet is hidden from them or if they were to be called upon to perform an impromptu piece. National embodiment in the saz player’s habitus is best understood as aesthetic and not as embodiment but as empersonment (Bryant, 2005:230) – in other words the individual’s responsibility as guardian of a national tradition. The process at work in this self-formation is neither the mind training of education nor the unselfconscious learning of socialisation. It is an apprenticeship, a technique of learning that entails a self-conscious moulding of the self. When mastered, the aesthetics learnt during apprenticeship lead to a structured habitus whose human proprietor is able to assimilate into a cultural tradition. Cultural embodiment of this improvisatory skill is manifest in the malleable standards of aesthetics in Turkish culture. Whereas Western traditions may uphold a constant coefficient standard, Turkish habitus calls for the overlap of Western innovation and Eastern sensibility in discerning taste in music.
Where habitus is concerned, cultural embodiment of tradition relies solely on transmission of rituals from one generation to the next. This essay has aimed to examine two examples of embodied cultural memory with specific reference to traditional performances of Islamic ritual and saz playing – much of which will be open to interpretation with each successive generation.
Bryant R., The Soul danced into the Body: Nation and improvisation in Istanbul. American Ethnologist, Vol. 32, No.2 (2005)
Crossley N., The Phenomenological Habitus and Its Construction. Theory and Society, Vol. 30, No. 1 (2001)
Dovey K., Becoming Places: Urbanism/Architecture/Identity/Power. (2010) Routledge: London
Dumais S. A., Cultural Capital, Gender, and School Success: The Role of Habitus. Sociology of Education, Vol. 75, No. 1 (2002)
Schielke S., Policing Ambiguity: Muslim saints-day festivals and the moral geography of public space in Egypt. American Ethnologist. Vol. 35 No. 4 (2008)
Starrett G., The Hexis of Interpretation: Islam and the Body in the Egyptian Popular School. American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No.4 (1995)
As written for ANTH381 - Semester One 2010 - Macquarie University, Sydney