Habit: History of the Concept

Charles Camic*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


This article examines aspects of the history of the concept of habit in Western social thought. As an expression, the concept of habit has generally referred to a disposition to act as one has previously acted, whether in regard to simple behaviors, more complex forms of conduct, or broader characterological tendencies (habitus). Among social thinkers who have used the concept, habit has generally been applied to recurrent forms of moral, economic, political, and religious conduct insofar as these occur more or less automatically, thus differing from reflective forms of human action that entail the deliberative selection of means and ends by normative standards. While the history of the concept of habit has been roughly coextensive with the entirety of Western intellectual history, four phases are distinguished. The first phase, running from antiquity to the early 1800s, was marked by the frequent discussion of the role and significance of habit by thinkers ranging from Aristotle to the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The second phase, extending from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century, was characterized by two contending developments. One of these was the invocation of the concept of habit by a great many European and American social theorists, including Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, and the use of the concept, in tandem with models of reflective action, to analyze human conduct in the social world. The second development in this period was the effort on the part of natural scientists to restrict habit to more elementary human and subhuman behaviors. The third phase, beginning roughly in the late 1910s, saw the successful appropriation of habit, narrowly conceived, by behaviorist psychologists and, in a strong countermovement, the abandonment of the concept by a majority of European and American social thinkers, who for the next half century conceptualized all human conduct exclusively in reflective terms. The fourth phase, extending from the early 1980s to the present time, has witnessed steps by social theorists and empirical researchers to revive and elaborate the concept of habit and to examine the relationship between habitual and reflective forms of human action.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInternational Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences: Second Edition
PublisherElsevier Inc
Number of pages5
ISBN (Electronic)9780080970875
ISBN (Print)9780080970868
StatePublished - Mar 26 2015


  • Action
  • Ancient social thought
  • Aristotle
  • Attitude
  • Behavior
  • Behaviorism
  • Bourdieu, Pierre
  • Durkheim, Emile
  • Enlightenment
  • Habitus
  • Kant, Immanuel
  • Reflective model of action
  • Thomas, W.I. and Znaniecki
  • Watson, John Broadus
  • Weber, Max

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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