Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Habitus in Nigeria

Driving myself to work today, past the typical array of crash scenes (there must be at least ten mild to serious car crashes in Abuja every day which are completely down to driver error), the word habitus came to mind to explain/clarify the problems of Nigeria.

Most analyses of Nigeria's problems reduce the issue to one of poor leadership (for instance, Chinua Achebe's classic text). This is too simple I fear. Even the extended binary idea that good leadership requires good followership is just a little trite. The problem is more intractable and fuzzy/chiaroscuro than these approaches.

As I dodged the crushed glass and swerved past cars doing the wrong speed in the wrong lane and generally doing the wrong thing without any meaningful use of mirrors, the word 'habitus' sprang to mind as a better way in. The concept of habitus was generated by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Its quite a complex suite of concepts in reality, but without reducing it too much, it refers to the habits, expectations, bodily anticipations and perspectival frames of reference of a specific society or culture, accrued and developed across time. It is a society's way of seeing, feeling and understanding, prior to explicitly understood terms of reference. It is the set of informal rules (most often not stated) by which a society organises itself from within. Perhaps most importantly, it is a set of responses that takes decades, if not centuries, to develop and transform.

Although referring to an intangible nexus, habitus, as the pattern-logic of the social body, can be seen at once to have strong empirical explanatory power. How else do we understand the militant relationship to strikes among French workers, if not in terms of a habitus built up across decades and centuries? Or how might we begin to explain a small island's undue influence from the 16th to the 20th century, if not in terms of the intense effects of an alienating Protestant ethic worked out in terms of habitus, in the case of the UK (of course I am thinking of Weber's classic text here).

In the same way, to understand in any depth the layers of social dysfunction in Nigeria, perhaps we need to analyse its own specific forms of habitus. We need to understand the expectations that create the need for the Big Man in any organisation beyond simple ethnography; the historical patterns that have generated an all-encompassing master-slave power relationship, such that any marginal economic advantage generates the production of master and slave identities, and such that paying a house-help 4000 naira per month is deemed perfectly acceptable by many; and to use habitus to shed light on the enduring agrarian episteme that mitigates against driving in a straight line in Abuja, or to understand the social positioning of say the police.

Habitus would also enable us to look more profoundly at the continuing adverse effects of colonialism (the creation of fake tribal rulers/kings, the historical bias towards the North etc) at the level of a collective unconscious that pre-determines different forms of response from different communities, as well as to examine the open wounds of military dictatorship and the civil war from a deep-level phenomenological perspective, rather than from the perspective of explicit texts or statements.

In terms of any form of path to a solution, a study of the Nigerian habitus would enable us to formulate explicit responses to the informal patterns of understanding and ways of being and doing that lead to the incessant reproduction of dysfunctional realities across the country, leading to much more powerful self-correcting/authochthonic measures, one might hope. It would definitely lead us away from the over-simplistic idea that if only we could find decent leaders to put in positions of power, everything would change..


Anonymous,  5:23 pm  

Jeremy, using Bourdieu how do you dissect what is the 'Nigerian habitus' from what is the 'Yoruba habitus' from what is the 'Hausa habitus'? i.e. while we can say that habitus is a powerful concept, delineating where habitus begins and ends in the imagined community that is a nation may prove harder. Or can everything/anything be put down to A'habitus'? In which case - is habitus really that grand a concept? Your thoughts welcome...

Jeremy 6:04 pm  

interesting question which would probably take a PhD to answer fully!

I suspect on one level, ethnic/cultural differences do not impinge upon a prevailing pre-modern, pre-industrialised world view. On another level, of course ethnic/cultural differences would condition everything - the Yoruba concept of the Oba differing immensely from anything like an Igbo or Hausa 'equivalent' for instance.

The concept of habitus is not absolutely determinative in the way you suggest however - it just indicates the general pattern of things..

Anonymous,  7:39 pm  


Fred 12:50 am  

While others mayn't have called it habitus, its study has been on-going for a terrible while.
So fine, it's necessary to study it...now what? Any conclusions on your preliminary study of Naija habitus? I sense the subtext of your post and I both like and dislike it, but I'll let you have you say first.

Loomnie 9:38 am  

The concept would definitely help explain a lot of things, but I am trying to remember whether Bourdieu referred to Habitus as societal or as individual... remember, habitus is Bourdieu's answer to the structure versus agency issue. I think to understand habitus one would better take the example of an individual and his interaction with specific situations. To make the excercise more rewarding one should add another one of Bourdieu's concepts to the dish - the field.

Mr C 1:58 pm  

Jeremy, I agree with the logic in many ways. One trival issue I will like to add:
general ideas (mainly from folklore) suggest that Nigeria (as we know it today) has no similarity with its roots. Point I am driving at: this might not be the "Nigeria habitus" but a hybrid resulting from the Nigerian desire to survival in an increasingly harsh environment. Thus the environment will function if this cancer is dealt with.

A path of the solution could involve identifying those factors that defaced our original culture and how they did it. Then devloping steps to reverse the effect.

Parry Animal,  3:10 pm  

Mr C, I think part of the point here is that "our original culture" is a fiction. And certainly, "developing steps to reverse the effect" is a terrible idea.

No. Dr J's concept here is simply that our habituations need more subtle study. I particularly like what he says about the master-slave relationship which, now that I think about it, permeates social interactions in Nigeria.

I think the concept of habitus could also be very revealing about why the American occupation of Iraq failed so quickly and so devastatingly. Kicking doors open in Fallujah in the middle of the night, rough-handling women, imprisoning innocent youth: these, more than anything else, are what doomed the American invasion. They completely misunderstood or, rather, disregarded the habitus of the people they were there supposedly to save.

Random African 7:42 pm  

"Kicking doors open in Fallujah in the middle of the night, rough-handling women, imprisoning innocent youth: these, more than anything else, are what doomed the American invasion. They completely misunderstood or, rather, disregarded the habitus of the people they were there supposedly to save."

I wonder which kind of people in the world have an habitus that make them to feel saved by foreigners who "Kick doors open in Fallujah in the middle of the night, rough-handle women, imprison innocent youth".
I mean, the line of thought was "they're irakis, they're arabs. in their culture only force is respected." It's corny, stupid "national soul" and cultural relativism that failed here.
Humans, generally, don't like to be beaten.

Parry Animal,  8:07 pm  

The very concept that other people have a nuanced set of cultural habits isn't something that occurs to the American military. That's why you hear reductive nonsense like, "they only respect force."

Random African 3:59 pm  

Parry Animal,
Let me rephrase. The american military wouldn't like to be beaten. They know their families wouldn't like to be beaten. They wouldn't like their families to be beaten. basically americans don't like to be beaten.

Then how can they even imagine that anybody would or could like to be beaten ?

Well, because they imagine that other people have different standards. It's because they're willing to imagine that in fact irakis are so different that they, contrary to americans or europeans, like getting beaten.

Mr C 6:22 pm  

Parry animal, I understand clearly Dr J's point and I agree with it. I am not accusing the government of failing to play their part; even if they have a part to play, it is too late to point fingers.
Nigeria as I think of it, is much different now. I grew of in the Niger Delta and the stories and pictures I see,have no similarities with my experiences at that time. We can argue that it is as a result of the mix of too many tribes, but don't forget that some neighbouring
Africa countries have similar origins with some of us; yet they do not act like Nigerian (Benin Republic is a good example).
The question I pose is what caused the change to the Nigeria habitus? I don't think it was a natural evolution of our society but of the environment we live in,as a result of certain actions taken. The ripple effect of these actions totally redefined living and attitude to life, in the Nigerian context,evolving into the social dysfunctional Nigerian who cannot drive in a straight path. (That was a topic I don't think the essay made much reference to).
What I am proposing is if we having a clearer understanding of these factors and their impact could be a viable next step.

Arabica Robusta 12:51 am  

I was reminded of your post when I read the following from Apter, Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (p. 234):

"The primary frameworks deployed in the '419' include the instruments of international finance, offices and venues such as the NNPC and the Central Bank of Nigeria, and, most important, the staged habitus of a privileged elite that saturates the mark with subtle cues of shared affinities."

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