Accessing Habitus: Relating Structure and Agency Through Focus Group Research

by Gill Callaghan
University of Durham

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 15 Oct 2004     Accepted: 16 Aug 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


The article focuses on the intersection of theory methodology and empirical research to argue that we can learn about habitus through certain types of focus groups. An account of the relationship between structure, individual and collective agency is developed to provide a grounding for the methodological argument. The article suggests, on the basis of this understanding, that focus groups can be constituted to give us access to interactions which draw upon the collective basis of habitus. Some empirical work is drawn upon for illustrative purposes.

Keywords: Structure, Agency, Habitus, Field, Focus Groups


1.1 This article aims to draw together themes from theory and methodology in relation to an empirical account to argue that focus groups can be used as a means to access habitus. The purpose is to explore the relationship between structure and agency at individual and, importantly, collective, levels and to identify ways in which knowledge about these relationships can be produced through empirical research. The article seeks, therefore, to explore how we can know about habitus. It embraces a project identified by Klaus Eder:
'A sociology of collective action begins when we want to find out how collective action is constituted through interaction in micro situations and how through collective action social structures and processes are reproduced'. (Eder, 1993 p 45)

1.2 In order to develop the argument it will be necessary to clarify the role of the agent and to propose a relationship between individual and collective agency and forms of consciousness which contribute to habitus. I will suggest that, rather than seeing agency as an increasingly free-floating entity, released from the anchoring of structure through the growing reflexivity of agents (Lash and Urry 1994, Beck, Giddens, Lash, 1994), we need to develop an account of the interaction between individual and collective agency and structure. Frequently explanations that have focused on the role of agents have argued that accounts that make room for structure are overly-deterministic. This article will argue that we need to address this problem by developing a more complex and nuanced understanding of structure that can accommodate the role of agency. A critical realist approach to reproduction has some insights to offer in fleshing out an understanding of the relationship between habitus and field as proposed by Bourdieu. In particular the notion of field has been relatively neglected in favour of foregrounding the explanatory power of habitus. Field has thus predominantly been interpreted as an entirely objective and given entity (Jenkins 1992, Butler 1999). Here field will be considered in dynamic interaction with habitus. The article will go on to propose that we can gain an insight into habitus through focus groups because such groups, properly constituted, can act as a milieu for habitus to be drawn upon as a resource. Examples from a series of groups run to examine the relationship between class and gender will provide supporting evidence.

The Focus Groups

2.1 The main purpose will be to reflect on the relationship between the focus group method and the explanation of reproduction proposed, centring on the concepts of habitus and field. A brief account of the nature of the research is given here to provide a context for understanding the excerpts from focus group material that are used throughout the article.

2.2 The fieldwork involved enlisting the co-operation of women in mother-and-toddler groups in a locality-based study. The mother-and-toddler groups were held in local schools and church halls, safe, informal places where young children could play and mothers could meet and chat. They agreed to set aside one of their regular weekly sessions to talk about the issues in this research, whose purpose was to examine how issues of class and gender intersected in their experience. The context was a 'post-industrial' city in the North of England which had undergone a rapid process of deindustrialisation in its traditional manufacturing base.

2.3 The groups were situated in three areas, which a cluster analysis of census data showed, exhibited different socio-economic profiles. The areas are identified here as: affluent (almost entirely owner -occupied, partners were in professional, skilled manual and white collar occupations); intermediate (mixed tenure, partners were in skilled and semi-skilled manual work) and; poor (council tenants, partners were in primarily unskilled manual occupations and levels of unemployment were high). Three groups were selected from each of these areas to highlight differences that might emerge in relation to class and to neighbourhood.

2.4 The research concerned the changes brought about by restructuring and globalisation and their impact on people's experience, in work, family life and in their relation to their neighbourhoods and communities. I was interested in learning about the division of labour within the home as well as orientation to work and the ways in which each affected the other. Despite research findings which suggested that the class divide was more significant than that of gender (Roberts E.1994, McDowell 1986), my research suggested that both divides were significant in different contexts. Women were well aware of their oppression in the domestic sphere as they were of their differences with other women based on class. These structures of gender and class appeared to be intersecting and interacting and it was in the context of this interaction that the space for action emerged. The main findings from this research have been reported elsewhere (Callaghan 1998a, b). Those identified here are provided to illustrate the methodological argument about how access can be gained to views and expectations, formed locally, in relation to processes of reproduction.

2.5 While the research question concerned the relationship between class and gender, in reflecting on the processes of the groups, shared understandings became evident. These collective views emerged as important reference points for individual contributions. As an ongoing group, situated in a neighbourhood and thereby bringing together people who shared similar structural constraints, it will be argued that the group provides the very context within which Bourdieu proposed habitus is formed, where elements of consciousness are contested or confirmed. For the researcher concerned with the social processes of the group, it offers access to a piece of social interaction which draws on shared understandings. It is suggested here that we can learn, from where the group sets its boundaries of acceptable opinions and behaviour, what is the context within which people develop attitudes and practices in their own lives. In looking across groups, understandings based in shared conceptions, as well as areas of difference were apparent. This argument rests on a conception of habitus and the relationship between structure and agency that it proposes. In the remainder of the article an account of this relationship will be developed, turning, finally, to the value of the focus group method in accessing that understanding.

Agency, Habitus and Field

3.1 The project that Eder proposes involves recognition of the roles of systemic structures and individual and collective actors. The three combine to constitute the process of social reproduction which is the focus of this article. The starting point is to see individual agency as intimately related to the structural level. The choices and actions that individuals take are shaped in terms of pre-existing categories and structures:

While we should bear in mind, in opposition to a certain mechanistic view of action, that social agents construct social reality, both individually and collectively, we must take care not to forget, as interactionists and ethnomethodologists are wont to do, that they have not constructed the categories they implement in this construction. (Bourdieu, 1996 p 29)

3.2 Agents use existing understandings, based on common conditions shared between members of a relevant group. These are the very understandings that allow for the maintenance of interaction between members, without the continual process of definition and clarification that would need to be undertaken by outsiders. Habitus is a valuable concept in explicating this because it enables us to understand a relationship between individual and collective levels. It is embodied in the individual and in part, underpins their action, but its source is a set of collective understandings drawn from beyond the individual.

3.3 In the focus groups common understandings of unequal gendered roles, for instance, were general and routine. The following conversation about the role and contribution of male partners to domestic work took place in a group in the intermediate area, but was echoed throughout the group discussions.

Avril: 'they'll just sit there if they can--just watch you working--they'll sit and read the paper-- watch the tele and that's watching the children!'

Frances: 'you have to tell them..'

Hazel: 'If you make them feel they're good at it, "you're better than me" they're like kids aren't they? They need positive reinforcement. If you say-- they like doing that better than you-- they think they're great!'

3.4 The women speaking here were using knowledge that they shared this experience of partnership and this relation to male action in the domestic sphere. Underpinning the explicit point was the recognition of a dominant male view which allowed men to treat domestic work as non- work, or not their work, and thereby freed them from responsibility to share in household chores and child care. In the poor area, talking of child care:

Mandy: 'They say, "you had them"--they might have put them there but they say, "well you had them" an' they think you're stuck with them--so you're more responsible like.

'I often get told "you had them".'

There was general agreement with these statements with other women repeating, "you had them", "you wanted kids".

3.5 Responsibility for children was an established part of the woman's role and, while most women questioned this, it often took the form of an acquiescent consciousness of oppression. The excerpts provide information about habitus in so far as women used anecdotes about their partners to illustrate the ways in which they view men and women as 'normally' interacting within the home. These stories were not told as tales of exceptional woe to scandalised listeners. They were told by women within the group, to each other as much as to the researcher, to confirm their common experience. This is insight that can be gained from the group because such expectations about what is viewed as normal become the framework within which discussions are based.

3.6 The relationship between structure and action is encapsulated in Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field, acting in 'ontological complicity' with each other. Bourdieu defines habitus as:

Generative schemata of classifications and classifiable practices that function in practice without acceding to explicit representations and that are the product of the embodiment, in the form of dispositions, of a differential position in social space... (Bourdieu, 1996 p2)

3.7 The individual level interacts with the collective level through a common relationship to a field. The structures within the field that enable and constrain arise, both through the process of reproduction that is internally created in the relationship between habitus and field, and through externally derived development and change. While for the sake of clarity this process is identified in terms of the relationship between a particular habitus and a single field, it is important to visualise social reality in terms of the co-presence of multiple, intersecting fields. The relationship of interaction between internalised and external elements mean that no simple deterministic relationship can be identified between them:

It goes without saying that mental structures do not simply reinforce social structures. The habitus and field maintain a relationship of mutual attraction, and the illusion (illusio) is determined from the inside, from impulses that push toward a self-investment in the object; but it is also determined from the outside, starting with a particular universe of objects offered socially for investment. (Bourdieu, 1999 p 512)

3.8 This understanding of the process of reproduction is framed in terms of the different levels of economic, social and cultural capitals with which people act strategically, (although not in terms of simple rationality) on the basis of their habitus, within different fields. It recognises that people act purposefully but that their actions are shaped and constrained both by structures and the collective expectations of their communities. The reflexivity of group participants discussing their domestic roles is clear from the brief extract above. It points to the pressures for change that are ever-present in relationships of dominance and subordination. The source of stability and the potential for unsettling this established habitus when external structural condition change is also evident. This point is developed further below.

Habitus and Collective Agency

4.1 The suggestion that the relationship between structure and agency needs to be understood at both collective and individual levels is relatively unproblematic. The difficulty that frequently arises is in translating this into a meaningful account of the real world. The collective level is less well acknowledged, but is the level that this article suggests can be most interestingly accessed through focus groups.

4.2 Although more difficult to discern, collective agency exists in the daily routines of life at least as much as in overt social movements. Here Thompson's understanding of class as experience and process offers valuable insight:

If we stop history at a given point, there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live with their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition. (EP Thompson, 1980 p10)

4.3 The tendency to prioritise agency over structure in some qualitative research is based in the lack of access to these perspectives. Conversation analysis and ethnomethodology has been criticised on the grounds that it fixes on performance and production over structure (Giddens, 1993). Important to understanding reproduction however, are the collective understandings at a day-to-day level that act as mediators between structure and individual agency. As was evident in the extract above, collective views of what is acceptable act in recursive relation to individual agency, each feeds into the other. Habitus can be seen as the basis for this collective agency because it is the embodiment of a shared understanding. It is this collective consciousness which must be understood in accounting for the nature of change, gradual or revolutionary.

4.4 The question of why, once their consciousness has been raised, women do not act in accordance with a 'rational' understanding of their oppression has been a long term concern. It has variously been formulated in terms of 'fractured consciousness' (Mc Dowell, 1986) or more recently 'ambivalence' (Skeggs, 1997). The ubiquity of the condition of gendered reflexivity identified by Adkins (2003) is demonstrated in the empirical material presented in this article, and we can go on to explain the clear dissociation between reflexive awareness and action in terms of the relationship between structure and agency.

4.5 The groups constructed their solidarity in terms of gender, based in common oppressions. While not necessarily experienced by individuals in precisely the same way, common concepts such as the incompetence of partners were used as a basis for shared identification and for managing the awareness of domination. This supports Adkins point that, 'rather than detraditionalising, reflexivity is tied into arrangements of gender in late modernity' (p32, 2003). On this theme, for instance, women talked about partner's incompetence in housework, money management and child-care.

4.6 There was general agreement about competence of husbands in housework:

Diane: 'When I'm at work those two days nothing gets done -- It doesn't get hoovered, it doesn't get dusted.'

Christine: 'I come in an' I say--"ee I must get this place tidied up an' he'll say, "what's the matter with it?"'

These sentiments were mirrored in groups in more affluent areas:
Rose: 'You've got to tell them, "put them in the bath", you've got to give directions'

Marie: 'they just leave it up to the woman to get the babysitter if they want to go out'

The operation of these relations was founded in a more general cultural view of the household division between male breadwinner and female domestic responsibility. This is not to suggest however that there was a single story. At times there was dissent about the contribution of partners but interestingly the group often turned this into a resource, which supported the dominant group view.:
Catherine: 'my boyfriend does the windows, washes the dishes, does all the meals ... he's a proper new man'

June: 'aye but does he work?'

Catherine: 'no'

June: 'well I think that's the difference now 'cos they're unemployed they expect to do more'

4.7 This excerpt illustrates both the process of adaptation to external change and of accommodation to existing relations. It provides an insight into the continual process of mediation between structural conditions and individual experience of them, which takes place in a collectively based habitus. The individual draws upon the collective history and makes sense of change in light of it. This is an example of the continual process of remaking that allows for cultural adaptation rather than revolution.

4.8 Equally individuals did point to differences in their own household arrangements that did not fit the dominant account:

Mavis: 'mine cooks and cleans, he does his fair share'

Carol: 'yeah, but you cannot just get your coat on and go out to the club when you want.'

Despite the apparent contradiction, the second speaker manages, while conceding the specific point, to reinforce the larger message of imbalance between male and female work and responsibility in the family and household. This excerpt, further, reveals shared understandings based on the knowledge group members have of each others' personal experience, so that Carol was able to point to aspects of Mavis' life which fit better with the dominant account than the one she seemed to be presenting.

4.9 The focus group offered a way of building an explanation of how collective understandings were shaped and accommodated into life to mediate these apparent contradictions. Women's resentment at their exploited position was clearly expressed, their awareness of this was discussed in reflexive relation to local and wider influences, but their action did not necessarily accord with the consciousness they expressed. They were finding ways to reconcile their acceptance of this form of exploitation with a sense of their own agency. This was done collectively through shared complaint about partners which claimed that; 'they're all like that', developing solidarity through joint acknowledgement of structural conditions and of their oppression. Responses to each incident of oppression ranged between defeated acceptance, the manipulation described in the excerpt earlier and outright resistance. It is not necessary to adopt a single strategy in response to perceived oppression. What was evident was a range of methods, developed according to circumstance, assessed likelihood of success as well as personal preference. Awareness of macro-level changes in women's position and status could not have been immediately translated in their domestic situation without considerable costs to stability in family life. The relationship between consciousness and structural conditions is necessarily more complicated than this and is not one-dimensional. In this research, for example, when distinctions of class were discussed women identified more clearly with partners as opposed to women from other classes or neighbourhoods.

Collective Identity as a Resource

5.1 The focus groups provide access to the resources that the collective uses to reinforce identity. In placing the actor as social, Bourdieu identifies the strategic use of social, cultural and economic capital through time. The resource provided by social capital is particularly relevant here in its recognition of a collective level, which has significant consequences the interpretation of experience. This has been widely referred to in accounts of working class experience. The value of forms of capital beyond economic or cultural forms is implicit in Richard Hoggart's (1957) view that the subjective experience of class is not simply one of misery, as writers such as Charlesworth (2000) suggest. Hoggart described collective identity as a 'group sense, that feeling of being not so much an individual with a "way to make" as one of a group whose members are all roughly level and likely to remain so' ( P60, 1957). Within these constraints Hoggart's working class can be seen, like the middle class, to be engaging in the 'creativeness of ordinary everyday life' (P331, 1995). Charlesworth by contrast describes the working class as, 'living a life in which life is simply awful; there can be little incentive (there could be no interest) in developing other forms of consciousness beyond those of the 'mindless' everyday coping skills through which it makes sense to live such conditions' ( p54, 2000). While the two writers have discussed class at somewhat different moments in history, the fundamental difference between them lies in the ways they treat similar themes, Hoggart identifying an ongoing struggle against cultural dispossession through a collective sense of self, while Charlesworth sees the working class as culturally dispossessed. The research related here is more consistent with the Hoggart's view that working class experience cannot be contained in accounts of degradation and defeat. The 'view from above' which marks much academic and policy discussion of the working class, however, is exemplified in Charlesworth's account (Roberts I. 1999).

5.2 In the focus groups people related to very local, neighbourhood, identities which clearly formed part of a collective consciousness. In the poor locality there was a strong belief that the quality of their relationships with other women was far superior to those of women in the more affluent areas. In the ability to be 'down to earth' they had retained their grasp of something real, which they believed the middle class, in their perceived obsession with status and economic capital, had lost. The important point here is that the nature of explanation itself reveals different values given to different forms of behaviour. People justify their behaviour and the content of these justifications is important in revealing the collective consciousness.

5.3 In the poorest area people described the way they thought women in the affluent area related to each other:

Mary: ' up here....we come down here on a Tuesday and if you felt like it you could say "he's gettin' on my friggin' nerves" whereas down there you wouldn't say it because your next door neighbour would hear you.'
In this group the women suggested they had something of value which outweighed material possessions. Their relationships, they argued, were closer and more enduring and could take account of the realities and hardships of their lives in a way no middle class person could admit.
Denise: 'we've got friends to be able to turn round and say...where they've got to keep up appearances.'

Jane: 'we can go out on a Friday night all the lasses and you can let your hair down and not a word is said..'.

It was also recognized that women who made the transition away from the council estate to a more affluent area would change:
Mary: 'being there you mould in to their way of going on...'

Jane: 'They'd say, "I don't want to go out", rather than say " he won't let us out he's a stingy bugger and I'm skint" they wouldn't admit that their husband was going to keep them in.'

The value of collective identity was contrasted by women in these groups with areas where they perceived there to be a high level of economic capital accompanied by poor levels of social capital, confirming Hoggart's point that the dominant view is not the only defining one[1].

5.4 Here we need to make a distinction between the rejection of those negative, externally imposed, representations of working class life that Skeggs (1997) has identified, and the ways that people talked about their own experience, differentiated (not necessarily explicitly) by class. The latter involved retaining elements of values much as those identified by Hoggart in the 1950s (and 1995), through common identity, and through debunking those who make claims to be 'better'. The process of identifying both who you are and how you are different from others is important in defining identity and is an expression of habitus. It sets out the boundaries of expected behaviour within the group and the ways in which one group distinguishes itself from others. This was also clear when women characterised those living in different areas within the city. In an intermediate group they talked about how they thought women from the poor area lived:

Hilary: 'don't you think they just have families without thinking about it too much?'

Rita: 'I once went on an outing with P--- Toddlers...they thought I was mad... I had this enormous bag with me Milupa (baby food) and everything and they just got a pasty for theirs. I had a towel to change her and they were just changing them on their knees.'

Ruth:' they're that young -- they're not married some of them are 16 and 17 and their lives are totally different from ours. A lot of them have got young friends and that and they're not married... they're still thinking about themselves because they're only 16.'

Irene: '... we try to be bright and nice and worry about things where they.... I think a lot of it goes over their heads and it doesn't really matter to them.

Penny: they like to buy nice clothes for their children...the women in that (expensive) clothes shop near the park...they say it's the ones with no money that come in and put things away.'

5.5 Working class people may see themselves as having a different set of orientations because they possess different levels of the forms of capital from their middle class counterparts. Although economic and cultural capital may be low, supporting a dominant assessment of value, the nature and quality of social capital suggests that working class experience, not least in resisting processes of subjection, is also active and creative. Such insights emerge from the analysis of the resources of collective identity that are continually being reproduced and are expressed in group discussion.

Social Reproduction and Social Change

6.1 The human agent must therefore be understood as shaping their world, both individually and collectively, within the constraints of present structures, and reshaping those structures over time. This allows for the explanation of the continued dominance of relatively permanent structures but also for adaptation and change. It specifically rejects images of 'rational man' or the smooth translation of functionalism. The collective significance of a class culture then, lies not only in overt power and political action, but also its force in maintaining the relations that contribute to its reproduction. This understanding of reproduction provides the basis for the methodological argument advanced within this article.

6.2 Habitus involves people performing their social roles without always having overt knowledge or consciousness of their purpose or even full knowledge of the effects of their action. Although important, this is only part of action. People also act knowingly and purposefully, though not always in terms which can be comprehended by rational action theory. People can predict the future, and act appropriately, based on the understanding their habitus gives them. At times when there is disruption between habitus and field, action may be intelligible only through an understanding of the nature of a particular habitus. This is recognised in Cohen's discussion of culture:

..people know their way of doing things; they know a customary mode of thought and performance. They do not necessarily value it because it is traditional, but because it suits them. It developed, after all, to meet their own requirements and conditions, and, if those requirements and conditions remain, theirs is the most practical means of doing whatever is required.... (Cohen, 1982 p5)

6.3 The notion of habitus is one which can provide the means to explain the 'durable but not eternal', the continuities as well as the disruption and discontinuities in reproduction. This comprehends the social, not as the sum of individual parts, but as constituted by and modifying and changing individual contributions.

6.4 Habitus disposes people to do things. 'People are pre-occupied by certain future outcomes inscribed in the present they encounter only to the extent that their habitus sensitises and mobilises them to perceive and pursue them' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992 p26). This would imply a heavily, and rather simply, determined world if we were to understand determination in the mechanistic sense. The notion of determination, however, does not have to embrace single causes or unilinear relationships. In using the formulation which Williams (1973) offered us of seeing determination as setting limits and boundaries, providing a framework within which interactions take place, we can retain a place for action in the analysis of social reproduction. Bringing in a critical realist perspective allows us to see this reality in terms of nested levels of structure in which feedback between levels makes the system open and historical in nature (Harvey, 2002). Taken with the earlier point that agents reproduce and modify structure, this reading would counter Butler's (1999) interpretation and allow an understanding of a field which is not entirely objective or directly determining. It implies a complex understanding of structure and its relationship to agency.

6.5 In the focus groups these process of reproduction and change emerged when women discussed their power in their relationships and related this to employment and to childbearing and rearing.

Jane: 'I found with Tommy, he went to the pit... he went to work and that was his role'

Debbie: 'some men do more'

Denise: 'my husband doesn't he just comes in and sits on his arse and that's it -- he just sits there in the chair -- he'll take root one of these days.

Debbie: 'I think its more ingrained in people round here that a woman's place is in the home -- whereas in F--l it's different... We're all from C--l and round about ... there's still a lot of old fashioned attitudes on this estate ... a lot of pitmen around here.'

6.6 This extract exemplifies the issue of reflexivity in times of change. The notion of habitus does not fail to acknowledge change, as some have suggested. While in its ideal typical form habitus exists as wholly pre-conscious and fixed, the constancy of change means that it is always in a process of becoming. Debbie expresses the existence of a habitus which has guided people's actions over time, at the same time as showing an awareness of this mode of behaviour as constructed and subject to change.

6.7 The significance of the history of relations that had been dominant in the area was clearly recognised and the creation and maintenance of expectations of appropriate action were rooted in that history. At the same time women were conscious of change, across generations and in response to changing social and employment conditions.

Jane: 'Tommy says "look at my mother she's had five and she managed". Jimmy's mam and dad .. well he worked at the pit ...he was determined he wanted to work at the pit and that was that...he's not as old fashioned as his dad. I used to say, 'I'm not like your mother '..I think you should treat each other as equal.'

6.8 The conflict here is between her partner's attempt to use a previously accepted standard of behaviour to support his position and Jane's appeal to newly developing expectations of partnership. There was a process of developing coherence and explaining deviating behaviour by drawing upon habitus. This was clearly expressed by some women whose partners had become unemployed or had had to change employment because of the closure of traditional industries. They were rethinking the expectations, which told them that their role was to be sole provider of domestic services. Some were challenging elements of these expectations but were also, often reluctantly, accepting current practices because of the weight of convention or their partner's inability or unwillingness to change. They saw this in individualised but also in collective terms. They anticipated change for the coming generations of young women based on the challenges they were already making and welcomed this. At the same time women spoke of their common interests with partners in the formation of partnership and the rearing of children. It was the relative contribution that partners would make to this which was the focus for struggle. These differences become particularly prominent when old styles of behaviour and action are no longer tenable and new ones must be forged.

6.9These observations give rise to both substantive and methodological points. Substantively it was clear that the research was not simply witnessing a gendered habitus which operates, in a single field, in isolation form other forms of consciousness. In fact numerous aspects of identity co-exist and must be managed together. Methodologically it is clear that while this account could be derived through individual interviews, what the focus group can powerfully draw out are the common bases for these understandings, as well as the differences in the way those understandings manifest themselves in practice.

6.10 This account of a reflexive relationship between structure and agency allows for the role of the collective actor. It involves not only overt, conscious collective action, but also the action of individuals as members of a class which arises from their habitus, because traditional ways of going on, local cultures, are a reflection of such pre- conscious understandings. In times of change the role of the collective actor becomes clear in reflexive relation to habitus, forming new understandings and expectations and since the process of change is constant, habitus is continually being remade. While Bourdieu talks of the fit between habitus and field in terms of being a 'fish in water' this does not have to imply the absence of change. Rather we need to make a distinction between types and degrees of change, those that are sudden and critical versus those that are incremental.

6.11 The explanatory power of agency can be developed in distinguishing the individual agent from collective agency and in understanding the contribution of each. The actor acts, both as an individual, and with reference to the collective. Individually held beliefs and understandings develop in a dialogue with those of the collective, so that while they do not inevitably agree, they always act in dynamic relation to each other. The question that this article is concerned to answer is how we can garner evidence of the interaction of structure, collective and individual agency in empirical research. The suggestion proposed here is that precisely this understanding can be developed through discussions held in some types of focus groups. Starting from the point that groups develop common and shared understandings and that these understandings are not internal to the group but draw on a wider repertoire of cultural knowledge from a community (Kitzinger, 1994), the article suggests that carefully selected focus groups can access a shared knowledge which embodies the habitus of the wider community.

Collective agency and Focus Groups

7.1 Following the project outlined by Eder we are seeking to identify a way of exploring the constitution of collective action 'through interaction in micro-situations' to learn how social structures are reproduced. The explanation achieved must include both systemic structures and individual actors, to look for processes which bring about shared 'collective feelings and orientation to action'. The concern then is to understand the ways in which actors act strategically to create and recreate their social world. In understanding action in social terms we seek an explanation that lies beyond individual motivations because such motivations are, themselves, produced. It is in this sphere that the focus group has such promise.

7.2 In paying attention to the interaction within groups, points of quiescence as well as conflict, the focus group can make visible the very assumptions upon which habitus is built. The basis of the qualitative interview in social research is that people do know a lot about why they do things, they are reflexive about their world, they subject their own experiences and motivations to examination (Marsh, 1982). Social research seeks to render the taken-for-granted reflexive and, through the comparison of different styles and experiences, to gain access both to the ways in which people articulate things for themselves and to those elements which are pre-conscious and tacit.

7.3 In developing such an account it is important to understand how collective action comes about in more than simply a reflected or mechanistic way. An explanation of reproduction must relate, not only how collectives are formed economically, but how they are represented and represent themselves culturally, by what means and in what forms one group may maintain domination over the other. It has been argued that one of the limitations of the focus group method is that, in groups, people conform to group pressures (Krueger, 1998). This is often claimed to be a failing, particularly in the tendency for people to be passive when their experience does not match the dominant one. In a focus group conducted with people who form part of an existing community however, such quiescence is access to processes of formation and articulation of collective identity.

7.4 Bourdieu suggested that there were problems inherent in using interviews (1977) when he argued that we cannot rely on asking people because people present justifications for their behaviour, thereby obscuring action and motivation. He later suggested that this could be minimized through the social proximity of interviewer and interviewee (1999), but the fundamental criticism remained that difference in cultural capital held by professional interviewer and interviewee gives rise to symbolic violence. The point of interest here however, is that the ways in which people justify their action can be important subject matter of the enquiry. The focus group has the advantage of bringing this shared understanding to the fore. The criticism that people justify their behaviour is based on the view that there is only one justification available. In the focus group work referred to here, women give competing justifications for action and beliefs. They recognise a dominant view, for example, that a privatized middle class lifestyle is the one to aim for, yet some groups describe these middle class values as antipathetic to their own ways of living.

7.5 Discussion performs as part of the process of developing, managing and confirming identities. In this way the, method of focus groups can make social function of talk and its role in talk-in-interaction (Frith and Kitzinger, 1998) its subject matter. The common grounding which underpins the reflective thought that goes on in group discussions is the material of which habitus is made. In a group which has an existence independent of the research interest, there is a process of managing identity in representing oneself to a significant group. There is also the sense of collective representation to the researcher. In focus groups constituted of strangers the emphasis is on individual presentation. In groups where participants are well known to each other there also emerges a collective expression, which shapes and is shaped by, the contribution of individual members, but which draws reference from beyond the lifespan of the group itself. In enabling us to reflect on these processes, the focus group can provide a different level of knowledge from that gained in the individual interview. Further, it allows observation of interaction in which the danger of symbolic violence may be reduced as group members work with a collective account. As we have seen in the extracts above, even in the research group, where the subject of discussion is externally imposed, people use the resources of habitus to check with each other, to establish shared understandings or to develop their conflicting views in relief against the shared understandings of local practice.

7.6 The advantages of researching with a pre-existing group lies in the fact that it is a place of regular social interaction. This enables the group to draw on issues which are part of the daily experience and conversation of the participants. Frequently, in the examples related here, women used examples from each other's lives to illustrate a point and this was evidence that we were talking about issues which importantly shaped their experience and consciousness (Kitzinger, 1994). People give different kinds of justification, which rely on different sets of beliefs about the 'proper' way to behave. This is not rule following behaviour but is clearly strategic, it recognises a dominant view and acts with reference to it. The relationship between these actions and structural conditions can be explored to learn about the differential impact of a 'dominant view'.

7.7 Research that looks both within and across groups can allow access to both conscious and tacit components of people's worldviews because of its comparative dimension. Some people in these focus groups had experience beyond their own culture and reflected upon that both as participants and outsiders. It is clear, not only that people do this routinely, but also that the social scientist has the privilege of overview in trying to understand the world through these processes. The observer can take account of the influence of stance to bring together an explanation which can make visible the undisclosed or unrecognised motivations for action (Marsh 1982).

7.8 The discussions drawn upon in this article provide evidence of the ways in which individual and collective understandings interact, shape and modify each other. The experience of women, which formed the basis for the focus group work, reflected directly on gendered roles and upon social and geographical place. Pre-existing relations in the local area clearly had an effect so that structural change interacted with traditional forms of patriarchal domination. This meant individuals working to define their roles in the battle between habitus and conflicting expectations based in current structural conditions, to sustain individual agency.

7.9 In managing identities there is a process of reference between individual and group that is constructed through talk. It is a process however, which is not entirely free and creative as in some conceptions of agency but one which recognises the significance of existing relations and structures and which mediates and develops individual and collective responses to them. The aim of the material related here is to illustrate how the group can provide access to this dynamic understanding of habitus.


8.1 The main argument advanced here is that habitus and field provide a means by which we can explain orientations to action, and that the interaction of collective and individual consciousness, which is central to this process, can be made visible through focus groups. This is based in an understanding of structures interacting with agency, providing complex and changing limits and boundaries that are manifest through collective and individual action. Elements of two kinds of collective consciousness have been alluded to here, a gendered consciousness which women related to generally, and a consciousness based in a local class culture, which was clearly differentiated between groups. In relation to this consciousness people were orienting their own situations and expectations, not simply to conform to the collective but to both make sense of, and to contribute to, the modification of that collective view. It is possible, further, to incorporate goal orientated action into these accounts recognizing that such action has both intended and unintended consequences.

8.2 Gendered identities are closely bound up with domestic and work roles and changes in the economic and employment structures are bringing about challenges to those roles. It is at these times that we can see people most obviously making conscious choices, acting in relation to goals formed against a background of constraint. This was evidenced through the focus group material in reflecting on the interaction of cultural resources with the current effect of processes of class, gender and locality.

8.3 The understanding of the relationship between structure and action derived here implies a place for action as existing within the boundaries and springing from the space created by structure. It is the complex and reflexive nature of this relation which makes such an interpretation tenable and which retains action as a meaningful concept, exemplified in the earlier discussion of class as process rather than simply a structural force. The straightforward marriage of reflexivity and detraditionalisation has been questioned (Adkins 2003) and this article does not suggest that there is a smooth translation between the two. People have been described here reproducing their gender relations, but reproducing, or challenging them, in their experience of relations based in intersecting structures of class and of place. The focus group discussions were able to access understandings based in the effects of economic change in shifting habitus and the changing relative significance of particular kinds of capital, but also the adaptive persistence of class and gendered processes underlying those forms. How consciousness, in turn, informs action is significantly shaped by the structural position the women and their partners are placed in, in their class, their place and their lifestage. The processes of adaptation, which take place at the level of the individual and the household, inevitably feed into, and are reinforced by, the dominant culture, thereby contributing to structural adaptation. The theoretical discussion of these issues has necessarily been limited in favour of developing the argument in relation to focus groups. This paper has sought to identify how these processes might be accessed in social research through the use of focus groups.

8.4 In the focus groups women were relating primarily, in some areas of their lives, to issues of class, while identifications on gendered grounds seemed more important in others. Models of partnership in some aspects of domestic life co-existed with power struggles with partners in others. The processes of the group are ones which continually construct, adapt and reconstruct these understandings as conditions change. In allowing the group to take its own course, some members conform to group pressure and remain silent when their experience is not common. This has been seen as a cost of focus group research, and yet it can also instance a real social process through which the formation of collective consciousness can be explored and understood. In developing an account which accesses these processes the focus group can offer a qualitative level which comprehends both elements of collective and individual action. It allows us to understand consciousness based in habitus and the expectations it creates, but also the relative and changing contributions of collective and individual agency in shaping that consciousness.

8.5 An adequate explanation of the social world must incorporate the structural factors in people's lives. To this must be brought an understanding of people's action, their own interpretations of their action as well as the effect of history and the sedimentation of practices and relations in a place. Together these elements build to provide a picture of structure as dynamic and multi-layered and to develop a processual understanding of its relation to action. The value of focus groups in this context is that they can give some insight into how these processes are developed and reinforced, but also how change in structural condition is incorporated into local cultural understandings. This takes Cohen's (1985) point that culture evolves, 'because it suits' people and argues further that through this method we can see how cultures might be accessed as a way of understanding the dynamic bases of adaptation in response to structural change.


1 The issue of class is not simply identified here- poor and intermediate groups might be better described as fractions of the working class, while the affluent group might be more closely aligned with the middle class- although they contained partners of a mixture of manual and white collar/professional workers all of them had a more central labour market position.


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