Pierre Bourdieu

Table of Contents


In the words of  Shusterman, ‘France’s leading living social theorist’ (Shusterman 1999: 1), Pierre Bourdieu is, along with Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential of those French thinkers ‘whose work succeeded structuralism’ (Calhoun et al. 1993: 7). There are few aspects of contemporary cultural theory (which crosses fields such as cultural studies, literary studies, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, gender studies, psychoanalysis and film and media studies) to which Bourdieu has not made a significant contribution. His concepts of habitus, field and capital, for instance, constitute what is arguably the most significant and successful attempt to make sense of the relationship between objective social structures (institutions, discourses, fields, ideologies) and everyday practices (what people do, and why they do it). Most of the ‘big’ theoretical issues being debated and explored in the world of contemporary theory gender and subjectivity, the ‘production’ of the body, communicative ethics, the public sphere and citizenship, the politics of cultural literacy, the relationship between capitalism, culture and cultural consumption, ‘ways of seeing’, the transformation of society through the forces of globalisation—are to some extent explicable in terms of, and have benefited from, Bourdieu’s ‘technologies’ of habitus, field and capital.


Being heavily influenced by philosophers like Martin Heidegger and the phenomenologist Ponty, Bourdieu became interested in structuralist anthropology by Claude Levi-Strauss.
Anthropology and allied: However, his dissatisfaction with the inability of structuralist anthropology to take into account or make sense of the practical (and strategic) dimensions of everyday life led to two of his most famous critiques of anthropology, Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977a) and The Logic of Practice (1990b).
On education: His works on education focused on the role that secondary and tertiary education play in reproducing social and cultural classification and stratification; the ‘education’ books that have attracted most attention in the English-speaking world include Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1977b) and Homo Academicus (1988)
On culture and gender: Perhaps the best known of his books in English, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), is an empirically based critique of Kantian aesthetics. More recently, Bourdieu has extended his interest in the field of cultural production by writing the strongly polemical On Television (1998c); and this more openly ‘interventionist’ approach has also resulted in books on the politicising of arts funding (Free Exchange (1995), with the German artist Hans Haacke), gender relations, in Masculine Domination (2001), the everyday pressures and predicaments of lower class groups in contemporary France in the multi-authored The Weight of the World (1999a) and globalisation and the withdrawal of the state from social life, in Acts of Resistance: against the New Myths of our Time (1998b).
More recent works: He has recently written three books—Practical Reason: on the Theory of Action (1998d), Pascalian Meditations (2000) and Masculine Domination (2001)—which clarify and elaborate upon, in a quite personal way, his work, methodologies, theories and relations to different fields such as philosophy, history and sociology.

Principal concepts developed by Bourdieu:

Anthropology and Structuralism:

To understand Bourdieu’s version of structuralism we need to look upon two aspects of Saussure’s work are important. First, his distinction between the grammatical or logical structure of language (langue) and the everyday, improvisational hurly-burly of speech (parole), together with his insistence that the former is the appropriate domain for the location and analysis of meaning, laid the foundation for the structuralist method: the true nature of social phenomena as relational systems of meaning is to be sought in structure, which lies somehow behind or beneath the phenomenal world of appearances. Second, he argued that aspects of culture or social life other than language could also be treated as systems for the signification of meaning, each with an appropriate structure or structures to be revealed or deciphered.

Cultural field and the habitus:

Bourdieu has tried to understand and explain the relationship between people’s practices and the contexts in which those practices occur.
Cultural field:
Bourdieu refers to the contexts—discourses, institutions, values, rules and regulations—which produce and transform attitudes and practices as ‘cultural fields’. For him the cultural field operates through cultural capital, illusion, universalisation, symbolic violence and misrecognition.
A cultural field can be defined as a series of institutions, rules, rituals, conventions, categories, designations, appointments and titles which constitute an objective hierarchy, and which produce and authorise certain discourses and activities. But it is also constituted by, or out of, the conflict which is involved when groups or individuals attempt to determine what constitutes capital within that field, and how that capital is to be distributed. Bourdieu understands the concept of cultural field to refer to fluid and dynamic, rather than static, entities. Cultural fields, that is, are made up not simply of institutions and rules, but of the interactions between institutions, rules and practices.
The definition of capital is very wide for Bourdieu and includes material things (which can have symbolic value), as well as ‘untouchable’ but culturally significant attributes such as prestige, status and authority (referred to as symbolic capital), along with cultural capital (defined as culturallyvalued taste and consumption patterns)...For Bourdieu, capital acts as a social relation within a system of exchange, and the term is extended ‘to all the goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation’. (Harker et al. 1990: 1)
Reproduction and transformation:
Bourdieu explains the competition for capital within fields with reference to two terms, reproduction and transformation. By and large, agents adjust their expectations with regard to the capital they are likely to attain in terms of the ‘practical’ limitations imposed upon them by their place in the field, their educational background, social connections, class position and so forth. Consequently—and to a certain extent, paradoxically—those with the least amount of capital tend to be less ambitious, and more ‘satisfied’ with their lot; in Bourdieu’s terms, ‘the subjective hope of profit tends to be adjusted to the objective probability of profit’ (2000: 216). What this leads to is a reproduction of symbolic domination:
What Bourdieu describes as: the realistic, even resigned or fatalistic, dispositions which lead members of the dominated classes to put up with objective conditions that would be judged intolerable or revolting by agents otherwise disposed...help to reproduce the conditions of oppression. (2000: 217)
This feature however, does not stop agencies from gambling for capital in order to improve their position within a field. For example a lowly academic can become famous if s/he has a chance to write a column in a reputed news paper. This might encourage many underclasses to join academia, however according to Bourdieu, this kind of gambling is doomed to failure. Although a lower class migrant family may strive to get its children educated, the habitus of the children will, in advance, disqualify them from success, both in the sense that the children will signal, in everything they do and say, their unsuitability for higher education, and as a corollary, the children will themselves recognise this, and more or less expect failure. As Bourdieu writes: ‘Those who talk of equality of opportunity forget that social games...are not “fair games”. Without being, strictly speaking, rigged, the competition resembles a handicap race that has lasted for generations’ (2000: 214–15).
Misrecognition and symbolic violence:
Bourdieu understands misrecognition as a ‘form of forgetting’ that agents are caught up in, and produced by. He writes:
The agent engaged in practice knows the world...too well, without objectifying distance, takes it for granted, precisely because he is caught up in it, bound up with it; he inhabits it like a garment...he feels at home in the world because the world is also in him, in the form of the habitus (2000: 142–3)
Misrecognition is the key to what Bourdieu calls the function of ‘symbolic violence’, which he defines as ‘the violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (1992d: 167). In other words, agents are subjected to forms of violence (treated as inferior, denied resources, limited in their social mobility and aspirations), but they do not perceive it that way; rather, their situation seems to them to be ‘the natural order of things’. One of the more obvious examples of the relation between misrecognition and symbolic violence can be seen in the way gender relations have, historically, been defined in terms of male domination. Every aspect of women’s bodies and activities was ‘imprisoned’, to some extent, by the workings of the habitus. Female bodies were both read as having significance which demonstrated their inferiority (they were weak, soft, unfit for hard work, unable to take pressure), and were inculcated (at home, school, church) with a ‘bodily hexis that constitutes a veritable embodied politics’ (1992d: 172).
Patriarchy, in this account, cannot be understood simply in terms of coercion by one group (men) of another (women). Rather, we can say that gender domination took (and takes) place precisely because women misrecognised the symbolic violence to which they were subjected as something that was natural, simply ‘the way of the world’. Consequently they were complicit in the production of those things (bodily performances, for instance) which worked to reinscribe their domination. Of course, as cultures change, there is always the prospect that men can be caught up in the same form of imprisonment; that is, maintain an attachment to certain performances of masculinity which are no longer acceptable or functional, and thus counterproductive.
Illusio and universalisation:
This more or less unthinking commitment to the logic, values and capital of a field corresponds to what Bourdieu calls ‘illusio’, which is:
The fact of being caught up in and by the game, of believing . . . that playing is worth the effort …, to participate, to admit that the game is worth playing and that the stakes created in and through the fact of playing are worth pursuing; it is to recognise the game and to recognise its stakes. When you read, in Saint-Simon, about the quarrel of hats (who should bow first), if you were not born in a court society, if you do not possess the habitus of a person of the court, if the structures of the game are not also in your mind, the quarrel will seem ridiculous and futile to you. (1998d: 76–7)
Thus, for example the rule in atheletics, which forbids sports personnel to take any money in exchange of their sporting activities in Olympics, however, there is nothing to stop them to take travelling expenses and other facilities including high paid government or corporate jobs. When the Spanish amateur champion Manuel Santana was asked, privately, why he did not turn professional, he replied that he couldn’t afford the drop in salary. Brundage, being international president of Olympic Games, initiated Olympic movement – to universalise itself so that its values would become synonymous with the field as a whole. The so-called ‘Olympic ideals’, which emphasise disinterested values (‘sport for sport’s sake’), were reproduced by governments, the media, bureaucrats, sports administrators and teachers as criteria (capital) for differentiating ‘true’ sportspeople. This had a number of manifestations. In the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, professional American football received very little media coverage or public attention compared to (supposedly) amateur college football. And amateur tennis players who won tournaments like Wimbledon became national heroes, while the professional circuit, dubbed ‘a circus’, was more or less ignored by the media. In both cases the professionals were much better sportspeople than those in the amateur ranks, but this did not translate into cultural (or even economic) capital. The Olympic movement’s attempts to universalise its values and capital were not, of course, universally successful. In some sub-fields (such as golf, soccer and boxing), professionals were generally accorded a higher status, and received more media and public attention, than amateurs. And in rugby league (a sport played predominantly in the north of Britain and eastern Australia), professionalism became the means by which the sport and its working class fans distinguished themselves from a rival code (rugby union) and its supporters (the upper classes). But even where a sport was clearly professional (golf, soccer, boxing, rugby league), its core values and discourses—what Bourdieu would call its ‘doxa’—were usually articulated (by the media, officials, and by sportspersons giving interviews) as being tied to the notion of ‘sport for sport’s sake’. This is another example of illusio: although by the middle of the last century many sports were operating on a professional basis (soccer in Europe and South America, golf and tennis in the United States and Europe), most members of the field were still ‘spoken’ by the discourses of what we might call ‘inalienable sport’.
Inalienable culture and market:
When we refer to sport as ‘inalienable’, we mean that it was supposedly above the values of the marketplace. Soccer players earned high salaries, and were treated—and sold—by clubs as a form of commodity. But if an English soccer star in the 1950s were interviewed about his reasons for playing the game, he would invariably cite a number of motivations—glory, representing his country, helping his teammates, pleasing the local supporters, even just having fun, all of which might be true. What he could not say, however, was that he was doing it for the money; that would have automatically earned him the contempt and anger of the fans and everyone else in the field. The only capital that a soccer player could legitimately refer to was inalienable cultural capital such as international honour, longevity, skill, loyalty to a team or town, toughness or a sense of fair play.
Habitus and objectivism/subjectivism
Most of the fields in which Bourdieu has worked, such as sociology, anthropology, ethnography and linguistics, have been split between objectivist and subjectivist explanations of human practice. In his introduction to The Logic of practice, Bourdieu writes that ‘Of all the oppositions that artificially divide social science, the most fundamental, and the most ruinous, is the one that is set up between subjectivism and objectivism’ (1990b: 25). The notions of cultural field and the habitus were created’ by Bourdieu primarily as a means of thinking beyond this subjectivist–objectivist split. What do the terms ‘subjectivist’ and ‘objectivist’ actually mean? Loïc Wacquant describes subjectivism, or the subjectivist point of view, as that which:
Asserts that social reality is a ‘contingent ongoing accomplishment’ of competent social actors who continually construct their social world via ‘the organized artful practices of everyday life’...Through the lens of this social phenomenology, society appears as the emergent product of the decisions, actions, and cognitions of conscious, alert individuals to whom the world is given as immediately familiar and meaningful. (1992d: 9)
The most common example of this way of thinking is Hollywood action movies starring Arnold Scwarzeneggar where, they are usually in control of their ideas, thoughts and behaviours, and they determine their environment through the strength of their will and their physical ability. In fact in most of Schwarzenegger’s films (and in action films starring actors such as Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis) the story is really about the battle between the individual hero who is courageous, strong, principled and free thinking, and his environment which is invariably bureaucratic, deterministic, dehumanised, corrupted and narrow minded. Bourdieu accepts that subjectivism is useful in that it draws attention to the ways in which agents, at a practical, everyday level, negotiate various attempts (by governments, bureaucracies, institutions, capitalism) to tell them what to do, how to behave, and how to think. In other words it serves as an antidote to those Marxist theories (associated with the Frankfurt School) which presume that people are ‘cultural dupes’ mindlessly consuming the ideologies of government and capitalism.
Bourdieu, however, rejects the subjectivist approach because it fails to take in to account the close connection between the objective structure of culture and which include the values, ideas, desires and narratives produced by, and characteristic of, cultural institutions such as the family, religious groups, education systems and government bodies, on the one hand, and the specific tendencies, activities, values and dispositions of individuals, on the other.
Objectivism is useful for Bourdieu because it allows him to decode ‘the unwritten musical score according to which the actions of agents, each of whom believes she is improvising her own melody, are organized’ (1992d: 8). The best known body of objectivist theory is structuralism, which was practiced in, and influenced, just about every major humanities and social sciences discipline, including linguistics (Saussure and Jakobson), anthropology (Lévi-Strauss), literature (the Russian Formalists), cultural studies (Barthes), Marxism (Althusser) and psychoanalysis (Lacan).
Structuralism as Bourdieu sees it:
There are three main insights which Bourdieu takes from structuralism, and which clearly influenced his notions of cultural field and the habitus.
First, structuralist accounts of practice start from the premise that people more or less reproduce the objective structures of the society, culture or community they live in, and which are articulated in terms of ideas, values, documents, policies, rituals, discourses, relations, myths and dispositions. The catch cry of structuralism was Lévi-Strauss’ observation that ‘myths think in men, unbeknown to them’ (Hawkes 1997: 41). In other words, while people think that they are employing various modes of communication (‘sign systems’ such as written and spoken language, or bodily gestures), in fact those sign systems produce them, and their activities, thoughts and desires.
Second, sign systems not only ‘think’ people into existence; they also determine how they perceive the world. What this means is that ‘reality’ is both produced and delimited by whatever sign systems we have at our disposal. In contemporary society we perceive and understand people aged, say thirteen years and under, in terms of the word ‘child’. This connotes a number of things, including distinguishing that person from an adult. But as the French historian Philippe Aries has pointed out, what we understand by that word did not exist in the sixteenth century; up to then twelve-year-olds would have been viewed and treated as miniature adults.
The third point Bourdieu takes from structuralism is the notion of relational thinking. Reality and people are ‘processed’ through the meaning machines that constitute our sign systems; but the signs in those systems mean nothing in themselves; they only ‘mean’ insofar as they are part of a sign system, and can be related to other signs in that system. For instance, the term ‘Coca Cola’ does not derive its meaning from any real thing that is out there in the world. Rather, we understand ‘Coca Cola’ in relation to other terms, called ‘binaries’ (‘Coca Cola’ means, among other things, not ‘Pepsi’, not ‘Perrier’, not ‘yak juice’).
These three points can be summed up as follows:
·         objective structures produce people, their subjectivities, their
worldview; and, as a consequence
·         they also produce what people come to know as the ‘reality’
of the world; and
·         every thing, object and idea within a culture only has meaning
in relation to other elements in that culture.
Structuralism therefore, can be understood as a form of objectivism, where it sets out to establish objective regularities independent of individual consciousness and will. It raises objectively at least the forgotten question of the particular conditions which makes doxic experience of the social world possible.

The strength and weakness of structuralism/objectivism:
The deterministic aspect of human practice as Bourdieu sees has the ability to see practice as only the reproduction of structures and no more. The most prominent short coming as he sees it is in what stereotypic anthropologists does. Anthropologists seeking out primitive culture objectivise “other” in terms of their own cultural notions. In sum, anthropologists objectifying other culture fail to objectify their own practices.
The second and even more acute problem that Bourdieu sees is that failing to understand that descriptions of objective regularities (That is, structures, laws, systems) do not tell us how people use—inhabit, negotiate, or elude—those objective regularities.
Subjectivism and objectivism remain useful notions in attempting to account for practice, mainly because they point to the shortcomings of their ‘other’. Subjectivism draws attention to the point that objectivist maps of a culture (such as laws, rules, and systems) edit out intentionality and individuality (or what is referred to as ‘agency’). Objectivism points out that individuality and intentionality are regulated by cultural contexts—that is, we can only ‘intend’ what is available to us within a culture.
Habitus and bodily hexis:
Bourdieu refers to the partly unconscious ‘taking in’ of rules, values and dispositions as ‘the habitus’, which he defines as ‘the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations . . . [which produces] practices’ (1977a: 78). In other words, habitus can be understood as the values and dispositions gained from our cultural history that generally stay with us across contexts (they are durable and transposable). These values and dispositions allow us to respond to cultural rules and contexts in a variety of ways (because they allow for improvisations), but the responses are always largely determined—regulated—by where (and who) we have been in a culture.
As agents move through and across different fields, they tend to incorporate into their habitus the values and imperatives of those fields. And this is most clearly demonstrated in the way the relationship between field and habitus functions to ‘produce’ agent’s bodies and bodily dispositions: what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘bodily hexis’. We may think of the body as something individual, as subject to, belonging to, and characteristic of, the self. But, as Bourdieu points out, this notion of the ‘individual, self-contained body’ is also a product of the habitus:
this body which indisputably functions as the principle of individuation . . ., ratified and reinforced by the legal definition of the individual as an abstract, interchangeable being . . . [is] open to the world, and therefore exposed to the world, and so capable of being conditioned by the world, shaped by the material and cultural conditions of existence in which it is placed from the beginning...(2000: 133–4)
There are a number of further points that Bourdieu associates with habitus
First, knowledge (the way we understand the world, our beliefs and values) is always constructed through the habitus, rather than being passively recorded.
Second, we are disposed towards certain attitudes, values or ways of behaving because of the influence exerted by our cultural trajectories. These dispositions are transposable across fields.
Third, the habitus is always constituted in moments of practice. It is always ‘of the moment’, brought out when a set of dispositions meets a particular problem, choice or context. In other words, it can be understood as a ‘feel for the game’ that is everyday life.

Finally, habitus operates at a level that is at least partly unconscious. Why? Because habitus is, in a sense, entirely arbitrary; there is nothing natural or essential about the values we hold, the desires we pursue, or the practices in which we engage.

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