University of Wisconsin–Madison

Writing about Habitus in Introductory Anthropology

Professor Sissel Schroeder, Anthropology 112: Principles of Archaeology

Habitus and Mental Maps Assignment


From its antiquarian beginnings (which we will discuss in the final unit of this class), archaeologists have been interested in geographic space and the disposition of human activities across space (as well as through time). This interest in the spatial dimension leads us to carefully plot the locations of archaeological sites on regional maps, to draw accurate and to-scale birds-eye views of individual sites and the spatial arrangement of features, to precisely plot the location of individual artifacts within an excavation unit. Our goal in creating these kinds of maps is to capture as accurately as possible the physical appearance of the landscape and its topography, resources, the locations of archaeological sites, and the locations of various archaeological phenomena within a site, and to do so in a manner that will be useful to future generations of archaeologists (an “objective” map). Empirically-grounded interpretations of such spatial data tend to emphasize demography, territories, social organization, economic resources, technology, and how the land was used by people—the kinds of spatial opportunities and constraints that were once available to people.

Today, we continue to record spatial data with as much accuracy and detail as possible. However, beginning in the early 1990s, many archaeologists started to emphasize the social and symbolic dimensions of landscapes when they were constructing interpretations from the evidence they had collected and recorded. In this social-symbolic view, “landscape” is different from geographic space—it is an entity that exists through being experienced, perceived, and contextualized by the people who inhabit the space. Archaeologists became preoccupied by Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (1977), which stresses the extent to which non-verbalized, but often unconscious, forms of learned behavior inhibit change and constrain the ability of individuals to act as free agents. When this concept of habitus is applied to space, space is seen as the “practiced space” that is experienced in the place that one inhabits in geographic space. It might be useful to think about how the space around you has been shaped by previous generations of people (and you) and how the space in turn shapes you and your actions.

The goal of this assignment is to help you recognize the kinds of challenges that archaeologists face when they try to integrate the empirically-grounded interpretations of static spatial data that emphasize what the archaeologist sees as important to past peoples, usually settlement patterns, subsistence practices, and ancient technology, with interpretations informed by the concept of habitus. You will also reach a deeper appreciation for why it is so important to justify and support your interpretations with evidence so that they make sense to other people.

Mental Map

What is being mapped here is an abstraction, not physical reality itself but the generalized impressions that real form makes on an observer indoctrinated in a certain way (Lynch 1960:143).

Mental maps are personal and are usually a mix of your objective knowledge of the world around you (based on your observations) and your subjective perceptions of that world that are influenced by how you use and experience space. Mental maps help to create a framework for understanding the world—in the past, the present, and the future. Mental maps are thus idiosyncratic and dynamic.

In this assignment you will explore mental maps as a way of understanding your own experience of the world. In discussion section, you will have the opportunity to learn how your fellow students understand their experiences of the world and to see how these may be similar to or different from your own. In particular, you will consider how aspects of your identity and upbringing influence the ways in which you experience and use space.

Instructions for Assignment 3

This assignment is worth a total of 20 points. The breakdown of points is provided below.

Part 1: Draw a mental map of your hometown or, if you are from a rural area, the county in which you live. If you feel constrained by the size of the paper, you can do two maps—you can draw one map that shows the entire community or county and then you can draw a box around the segment of the map that you feel you know the best and draw this area on a second map (all of it—some parts of it you might know better than others). At the end of this document are some examples. (Worth 8 points)

The Basics:

  • For each map, use an 8.5×11 sheet of paper (letter size)—no bigger, no smaller! It can be plain or graph paper.
  • No cheating by looking at a map of your hometown (or asking friends and family for help)—you should draw only what you remember from your own experience.
  • Include a north arrow, a legend for any symbols/colors that you use, and a way of referring to parts of the map that you explicitly mention in your essay (you could name these, give them letters or numbers, or use another system that makes sense)—you will want other people to be able to read and understand your map so that they could navigate their way through your town or county.

Some Things to Help Get You Started:

  • Make a list of places that you frequent—think very broadly about the types of places you go to and use. You can also include things like landmarks—places that you observe in the landscape or think of as significant in your own mind even if they are not places you frequent.
  • Think about the major streets that you use—are there certain routes that you take frequently to get to and from certain places?
  • Consider how your most common modes of transportation influence how you get from place to place (e.g., walking, driving, buses, bicycles, taxis, or subways). Include things like bus and subway stops, bus routes and bike paths if that is how you get around your hometown.
  • Consider labeling neighborhoods or districts if you know them well or even if you do not know many streets or details of that area.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave parts of your map blank—remember that you should only draw what you know, and leave blank the things that you do not know. Your map may look somewhat schematic, and that is fine!
  • Don’t strive for “objective” accuracy—the goal is to represent your hometown as you experience it and know it. Don’t obsess over street names or accurately depicting how streets curve or connect with one another. Don’t stress about scale or accurate representation of distance.
  • Feel free to include historical information—places that were formerly important but are no longer places you visit regularly (your elementary school for example), or places that no longer exist but are nonetheless meaningful to you in your memories of you hometown (in other words the map can reflect your historical memory as well as more recent memories/associations).
  • Your map should include 5 object types:
    • Paths, streets, roads, transportation routes (major and minor)
    • Districts and neighborhoods (business, historic, campus, etc.)
    • Edges and boundaries (breaks on the map between districts; consider how these are defined—fixed, vague, fluid)
    • Nodes (meeting places, locations where pathway cross)
    • Landmarks (prominent places of interest, either natural or built)
  • Examples of places to consider including:


o   Places you have lived

o   Schools you have attended

o   Shopping districts

o   Shops

o   Malls

o   Restaurants

o   Taverns

o   Coffee shops

o   Community centers

o   Gyms

o   Baseball and Soccer Fields

o   Basketball and tennis courts

o   Swimming pools

o   Golf courses

o   Places where you or your parents have

o   Churches, temples, synagogues, mosques,

o   Friends’ houses

o   Grocery stores

o   Drug stores

o   Parks

o   Water features (lakes, coastlines,
rivers, etc.)

o   Topographic features (hills, mountains,
valleys, caves, etc.)

o   Gas stations/convenience stores

o   Bus stops/subway stops

o   Stop signs/stop lights

o   Libraries

o   Country clubs

o   Doctor’s offices

o   Hospitals

o   Museums

o   Police departments

o   Fire departments

Part 2: Write an essay in which you address the questions listed below. Remember to provide explicit references to you map (or parts of your map) when appropriate. Justify your answers. Maximum of 4-5 pages double spaced text. (Worth 12 points)

  1. Start by presenting a bit of background on your hometown or county—where is it located; how large/small is it; what is the topography like; what are the major industries/businesses there; etc.
  2. What was it like drawing these maps? Was it hard? Easy? Frustrating? Were you tempted to cheat by looking at published or on-line maps? What made you want to cheat?
  3. Where on your map do you feel the most safe/comfortable, and where do you feel the least safe? Think about comfort both in terms of personal safety, but also in terms of where you fit in and feel like you belong. What makes a place feel “safe” for you? What makes a place feel “unsafe”?
  4. What about the edges and blank/sparse parts of your map?
    1. What is the center of your map? Why did you choose to center your map on this feature?
    2. Why did you leave some areas of your map blank, or sparsely filled?
    3. What did you choose not to include and why?
    4. How did you choose the boundaries of your map? What lies beyond the boundaries of your map?
  5. Did mapping make you more aware of the parts of your hometown/county that you do not know very well?
  6. Think about the different aspects of your identity: gender, class, race, ethnicity, religion, ability/disability, nationality, socioeconomic status, education, and so forth. How do these different parts of your identity appear (or not) on your map? Do you see these areas reflected at all in your map? What does this map say about you? What does it not say?
  7. (Answer either 7a or 7b)
    1. If someone else looked at your map from the perspective of an archaeologist grounded in empirical data, what kinds of dimensions of your hometown do you think would be emphasized in their interpretations? How would these compare with yours? How do you think they would you go about integrating these empirically-grounded interpretation(s) with interpretations informed by the concept of habitus?
    2. Consider what would happen if an archaeologist excavated your hometown in 200 years and created a detailed to-scale map. Then they find your map in the archives. How much correspondence would there be between your map and the excavation map? Why might there be differences?

References Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre  1977     Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lynch, Kevin      1960     The Image of the City. MIT and Harvard, Boston, MA.