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What has been the role of the concept of habit in the history of Western social and political thought?

Habit is used in referring to a tendency to act in a given way which has been attained through repetition until it becomes involuntary (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, P.93). In the western social and political thought, habit acts as a disposition mechanism in a liberal government. This is where the western political theorists viewed that certain groups of people not ready to govern themselves due to habit influence. This influence has been in some cases used as a mechanism of rule though colonialism. Through this, those influenced by habit are denied political voice and subjected to a coercive rule based on collective mechanisms. Habits are assumed to be acquired and hardwired into the nervous system. They are then transmitted to the next generation. Through liberal government, there is adoption of individualism. This is where human beings are transformed into mechanism for relaying the government. This is through making them responsible to manage their own conduct (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.101).

How do these three different sociological provide explanations for this transformation:’ social control’, the ‘disciplinary society’, and the ‘civilizing process?

There has been a historical shift from conception that society can be governed through violence to making violence one of the social problems. The new police introduced by Peel was supposed to act as a tool for social control (Taylor, 1997) New discipline is a defining feature for the modern society. By then, violence had ceased to be the best form of punishment. The government mentality had become characterised by order, reason and regularity instead of rituals, customs and violence. The government rationality changed to include codified law, reforms, centralisation and uniformity. People were shaped to be rational and independent with an aim of making them governable. Through use of educational and criminal justice systems, it was possible to spread rationality in the society (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.139).
. The main aim was not only preventing crime but also setting and enforcing a moral and social code to be followed by social class. Social control moved from social order being only maintained through the legal, police and prisons system. Social order started being expressed through an expansive range of social institutions from religion, family to the social institutions. The economic changes through capitalism drove the transformation. The police and prison systems acted as agencies for mediating change. Through social police, attempts were made to spread common morality (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.133).

Civilising process is the historical appearance of restraint, cautiousness and civility. According to Norbert Elias, the modern social form is based on a historical process which included differentiation and imitation (Smith, 2001). The monopolisation of force in the modern state and enhanced conditions of life is what civility was based on. Through restrictions on use of violence it was possible to generate social stability and hence development of civility. In 19th century, self-restraint and control were hegemonic values. Both middle class and working class were expected to conform to these ideals. Through civilising, it was possible to instil middle class disposition. The civil communities became marker of respectable society (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.143).

How do extreme situations challenge sociological understandings of conduct?

In extreme situations, our old adaptive mechanisms fails to apply and in some cases can endanger us and those we are protecting. The situation leads to call for new attitudes, values and manner of living according to the new situation (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.155). The camps have rules (habitus) which shapes the manner of conduct. Extreme situations put one in a battle for survival where in some cases ethics are abandoned. People make efforts to sustain a sense of self and world. The struggle is to retain a sense of self irrespective of hardships. For the camp survivors, they describe exclusion from the world. This is through bodily withdrawal from civilised society and adoption of faith. There are peculiar social divisions which occur during extreme situations. There is also desocialisaton of death. War leads to group solidarity and individual awareness becomes high (McFall, du Gay and Carter, 1998, p.170-177).


McFall, L., du Gay, P. and Carter, S. 1998. Conduct. Sociology and Social Worlds, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Smith, D., 2001. Norbert Elias and modern social theory. London: Sage.

Taylor, D., 1997. The new police in nineteenth-century England: Crime, conflict and control. Manchester: Manchester University Press.