Sociology Habit
Antti Gronow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0186


The concept of habit refers to routine behavior which is based on repeated exposure to same kinds of environmental cues. These cues lead to an automatic association with the cue and the behavior that follows irrespective of whether a desired goal is reached. The basic idea thus is that when actions are repeated often enough, they tend to habituate and routinize, which takes them out of the spotlight of conscious reflection. Instead of conscious intentions, contextual cues become important because they activate the related habit. Habits can be explicitly taught or implicitly learned but often a combination of both kinds of incorporation is involved. Habits have been studied in psychology since the end of the 19th century. The stimulus–response model of classical behaviorism comes close to the idea of habits, as both contain the idea that action results from responses to environmental stimuli. However, classical behaviorism denied that inner motivational states, such as valued goals, would have any role in explaining behavior, whereas most contemporary psychologists and cognitive scientists think that habits refer to inner dispositions rather than their overt manifestations. The latter are sometimes called routines to distinguish overt behavior from inner dispositions. Whether habits are dispositions or routines may sound like hair splitting but treating habits as the dispositions that give rise to (or may fail to do so) routine behavior leaves the door open for the option that habits do not cease to exist when their manifestation is blocked for some reason. The can still exist as potentialities for action, waiting for the right environmental conditions to activate themselves. The concept of habit has traditionally also figured in philosophy and more recently in social sciences. Psychological discussions often focus on the ways in which habits reveal the workings of the unconscious, whereas social scientists are keener on analyzing the role of habits in the reproduction of social structures. For social scientists and social theorists, this kind of analysis makes it possible to take into account both the bodily basis of action and the fundamental sociality of our being. Sociological and anthropological perspective on habits underscore enculturation and socialized dispositions. The concept of habit is accordingly used to show how collectively held culture is linked to individual action. Popular science also refers to the idea of habits—often discussing ways to get rid of so-called bad habits.

General Overviews

The theme of habits is probably too specific to draw the attention of book-length academic discussions or journals that would be exclusively devoted to the topic. However, the situation is somewhat different in the field of popular science. The following articles do a good job in highlighting different aspects of habits. Camic 1986 is almost a classical statement on the way in which the concept has figured in sociology. According to Camic, the meaning of habit refers to a continuum: on the lower levels one finds dispositions to perform elementary and specific activities, whereas on the upper reaches habits relate to conduct of life and/or the idea of character. Neal, et al. 2006 gives a short overview of the issues involved from the view of psychologists. Kilpinen 2009 outlines the terrain when the concept of habit is taken as formative for action and social theory.

  • Camic, Charles. 1986. The matter of habit. American Journal of Sociology 91:1039–1087.

    DOI: 10.1086/228386

    This article is a thorough review of the history of the habit concept in social sciences. It shows that classical sociologists referred to habits (although not very often). The concept was eventually written out of the history of social theory by Talcott Parsons. The main reason for this loss had to do with an exaggerated aversion to behaviorism.

  • Kilpinen, Erkki. 2009. The habitual conception of action and social theory. Semiotica 173:99–128.

    An insightful discussion on the social sharing of habits. Kilpinen argues that rather than viewing habits and practices as something that one possesses as an individual, it is more fruitful to follow a participatory notion: habits are not necessarily exactly similar for everyone involved in a social activity. Rather, a working agreement about the basics of the activity is more to the point.

  • Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn. 2006. Habits—A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15:198–202.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x

    This is a short and general introduction into the psychological mechanisms behind habitual responses. Based on empirical evidence, the authors conclude that especially the direct-context-cuing model receives support. This model argues that a repeated co-activation of a particular context and the representation of a response forge a direct link in memory, thus leading to the formation of a habit.

  • Sparrow, Tom, and Adam Hutchinson, eds. 2015. A history of habit. From Aristotle to Bourdieu. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    A collection of articles rather than a systematic presentation of the history of the idea of habits. The book includes chapters on the philosophical forefathers of the idea (Aquinas, Montaigne, Hume, etc.) and also chapters on more modern authors, such as Dewey and Bourdieu. The psychological side of things seems a bit underrepresented.

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