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date: 26 July 2021

Introduction: Pierre Bourdieu, a Twentieth-Century Life

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides a concise summary of the life, work, and significance of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His life, the authors argue, must be understood in the context of twentieth-century French society. His own personal trajectory through the French academic hierarchy must be put in the context of the expansion of mass education in France during the late twentieth century. His concern with power and domination can be traced back to his experience as an unwilling soldier in France’s colonial occupation of Algeria. His eventual ascent to the top of France’s academic hierarchy resulted in a series of critical studies of the French elite: the professoriate, artists, writers, and so on. This retelling of Bourdieu’s biography is followed by a summary of the subsequent chapters of the Handboook.

Keywords: Bourdieu, sociology, France, Algeria, education

In this Oxford Handbook we consider the writings and influence of the great social scientist Pierre Bourdieu, who was born in 1930 and passed away in 2002. The catalogue of Bourdieu’s key concepts and major works is well known and has been widely discussed (see, for instance, Wacquant 2004). Some have argued that many of Bourdieu’s ideas were embedded in debates and theoretical traditions stretching back centuries; others contend that they represent novel, even revolutionary, contributions that have spawned entirely new research programs. We endorse both of these perspectives, and many chapters in this Handbook extend these themes.

We would like to begin, however, by following a line of biographical interpretation articulated by the historian Jonathan Sperber (2014) in his recent biography of Karl Marx. Sperber’s argument is that we can best understand the writings and influence of the great critical theorist Marx by situating him in the context of what was a quintessentially “nineteenth-century life.” We in turn commence with a few notes considering how Bourdieu himself, as a person and a scholar, embodied a very twentieth-century life.

To begin, there is the story of Bourdieu’s trajectory through social space. Bourdieu grew up in a remote region of southern France. He was the grandson of peasants, and his father became a postman around the time of Pierre’s birth. A gifted and hard-working student, Pierre Bourdieu left his home region to attend the elite Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and then entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, the traditional breeding ground of major French intellectuals, from Durkheim to Sartre to Foucault. From the latter he would graduate with a degree in philosophy, then the most prestigious of disciplines in France. Many commentators have described this trajectory as an unexpected and even miraculous one, given what we assume about the rigidity of class boundaries and the limits of intergenerational mobility in modern societies. Bourdieu himself, in his attempt at a sociological analysis of his own conditions of production, described upwardly mobile students such as himself as “oblats miraculés,” or dedicated (p. 2) servants of the academic cult, who achieve a miraculous trajectory but nonetheless feel like outsiders to the consecrated educational elite.

While not denying that Bourdieu’s trajectory was unusual, the fact that he himself coined a term to describe it suggests that it was not entirely idiosyncratic. In his work The State Nobility, Bourdieu (1998 [1989]) argued that the twentieth century witnessed a transformation from a “direct mode” of reproduction to a “school-mediated” one. The former allowed the powerful (the landed elite, long known in France as the Second Estate, along with the emergent bourgeoisie) to transfer their wealth and privileges across generations via direct inheritance. The latter requires the offspring of wealthy families to first convert their material capital into cultural capital, whose display is then rewarded by success in the system of elite schools. While the informal varieties of cultural capital that the children of the upper class acquire at home early in life (such as a particular accent or knowledge of the arts) serve them well in the school system, true hard work is required of these inheritors, and many in fact fail to reconvert their family’s cultural capital into material capital (via prestigious degrees leading to top jobs in the state or private sector). A figure like Bourdieu, in this framework, is not a miracle, but rather the outcome of an inherent “contradiction of the scholastic mode of reproduction” (Bourdieu 1998: 287). This modern scholastic mode of reproduction entails sacrificing some members of the dominant class who fail to inherit their inheritance, but also permits some precocious and ambitious members of subordinate classes into the upper echelons of the social structure—individuals such as the “scholarship boy” Bourdieu.

Weininger and Lareau, in Chapter 11 of this volume, flesh out Bourdieu’s argument about this emergent school-mediated mode of reproduction. They argue that its “underlying cause is undoubtedly the need to come to grips with the massive expansion of tertiary education in France [and indeed, worldwide] during the [mid-twentieth century], and the consequent dramatic increase in the representation of working-class students in colleges and universities” (Weininger and Lareau, this volume). As with Marx’s famous argument about contradictions within the capitalist mode of production, Bourdieu’s work illuminates contradictions within the school-mediated mode of reproduction. The twentieth-century mass expansion of tertiary education produced just such a contradiction, and hence the very possibility for the emergence of a social scientist like Bourdieu.

Following Bourdieu’s graduation from the École Normale Supérieure, he taught for a year at a lycée in Moulins, a small town in provincial France, before being conscripted into the French army in 1955 and deployed to Algeria. Here Bourdieu found himself in the midst of another twentieth-century global development rebellions by the colonized people of the Western empires against their colonizers. France, like other European powers, had over the past four centuries established colonial holdings around the world. These included territories in the Americas (present-day Haiti, Grenada, Martinique, and parts of Mexico and Brazil), Asia (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), and Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Gambia).

(p. 3) Bourdieu would stay in Algeria as a teacher and researcher until 1960, midway through the ultimately successful Algerian war for independence that took place from 1954 to 1962. Algeria was among the last of France’s major foreign colonial holdings, and France’s attempt to suppress the revolutionary movement there was especially violent and oppressive. During his time in Algeria, Bourdieu conducted extensive fieldwork among the Berber-speaking Kabyle, introduced to them by his student and field collaborator Adbelmalek Sayad. Upon returning to France, his writings on the effects of colonialism upon the Kabyle were widely read and discussed.

Several contributors to this Handbook argue that Bourdieu’s experiences in Algeria were foundational to his overall theoretical project—for his theory of history, of power, and of symbolic violence. None is as provocative as Franck Poupeau in Chapter 18, “Pierre Bourdieu and the Unthought Colonial State,” which argues that Bourdieu’s eventual elaboration of a comprehensive theory of the state derived indelibly from his early—and firsthand—witnessing of the French state’s futile attempt to maintain colonial rule in Algeria.

A defining feature of Bourdieu’s trajectory after his return to France was a commitment to empirical research, in opposition to the philosophical tradition in which he had been trained. In this regard, he was a key protagonist in a larger struggle of the twentieth century to establish and legitimize the social sciences—and sociology in particular—as a valid domain of scientific knowledge (Abbott 2010). In France in particular, because of philosophy’s long history as the “queen of disciplines” (Bourdieu 2007: 5), sociology remained a suspect field. Dating back to Durkheim’s attempt to establish sociology as an independent discipline through efforts such as the founding of the journal L’Année Sociologique in 1898, the idea that society needs a special discipline to study itself has been constantly advanced, contested, and defended.

Bourdieu described this struggle in the paper “Sociology and Philosophy in France since 1945: Death and Resurrection of a Philosophy without Subject” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1967). The task of proving sociology’s status as a scientific field was a difficult one in France, as it was in the United States and elsewhere worldwide (Burawoy 2008; Ross 1992). In this regard, Bourdieu’s unrelenting work to re-establish the existence of “social facts” was a remarkable achievement of the late twentieth century.

Two specific achievements in his life stand out as moments in the legitimation of twentieth-century sociology as a whole. In 1975, he established Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, a journal notable not only for its scientific rigor but also for its formal and stylistic experimentalism. Alongside research articles of the standard academic variety, Actes routinely published (and continues to publish) raw field notes, short reviews and essays, interview excerpts, photographic spreads, and other nontraditional pieces aimed at pushing the limits of academic discourse. By opening the research and writing processes to sustained scrutiny, the journal’s formal innovations put into action its founder’s commitment to methodological reflexivity (for more on Actes, see Wacquant 1999).

Then, in 1979, Bourdieu published La Distinction (published in English as Distinction in 1984), a work that would become known—jokingly—as Bourdieu’s “suicide.” This was (p. 4) because the structure of its argument was homologous to that of Durkheim’s seminal study of suicide, which showed that even the most personal of all acts—that of taking one’s own life—was not immune to sociological analysis. Durkheim instead argued that suicides are both patterned and correlated with various indicators of social isolation and rapid social change. He thus established that sociology could delineate and study a new range of phenomena known as social facts, which were to be granted a sui generis stature vis-à-vis any individual case.

In Distinction (1984), Bourdieu would make a parallel argument regarding similarly personal and private decisions. He argued that many of the seemingly personal choices of everyday life—what to wear, to eat, to display on one’s walls, or to make of the latest blockbuster movie—could be explained through reference to the overall class structure (in particular, the overall volume of one’s capital and the relative composition of cultural and economic capital). If sociology could explain why you like red wine rather than scotch, or Michael Bay’s Transformers over David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, then it was saying something profound about the world more generally.

Toward the end of his life, Bourdieu was drawn out of the French academic field and into a more global political battle. This was the distinctly late-twentieth-century countermovement against neoliberalism that unfolded during the 1980s and 1990s (Bourdieu 2003). In the United States and United Kingdom, political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher spearheaded an attack on public assistance for the poor and all those who were not explicitly contributing to the market. For Bourdieu, who had spent decades researching and writing about long-standing inequalities in French society, this stimulated a new genre of writing and led him to create a new publishing house, Raisons d’agir Editions.

The writings from this phase of his career—Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market (1999) and its sequel, Firing Back (2003), are perfect examples—were less academic, more polemical, and more pointed than the works that preceded them. Here Bourdieu moved beyond the cold value-neutrality of the Weberian tradition by staking out a series of fundamental principles that should ground sociology as a vocation (see, in particular, his 2000 statement, “For a Scholarship with Commitment”). As he experienced the world shifting around him, he decided that he could not be neutral on a moving train. He joined in a movement of prominent late-twentieth-century scholars—among them Jurgen Habermas, Mahmood Mamdani, Dorothy Smith, Noam Chomsky, and Ulrich Bech—to defend the idea, rapidly receding, that states have an obligation to protect their citizens from the market, including from the indignities of commodifying oneself.

Bourdieu’s life, we have argued, can be read as a twentieth-century one. Our purpose in this Handbook is to reflect on his legacy from the perspective of the early twenty-first. To this end, we have brought together multiple essays from contributors who have spent a good deal of time thinking about, working with, and carrying on the Bourdieuian tradition. We have organized these contributions into five parts: regional patterns of appropriation, attempts to use his work to capture emergent global-level phenomena, how Bourdieu has been used in various discipline and subfields, the embeddedness of his concepts, and their generativity for building research programs.

(p. 5) Part I: Regional Patterns of Appropriation

We begin this volume with a series of chapters that point to some general patterns in the way Bourdieu’s ideas have circulated to, and developed within, new regional settings and disciplinary frameworks. Broadly speaking, the process tends to be driven not by abstract intellectual affinities, but by the concrete efforts of scholars to address problems and questions current in their research environments. The search for useful analytic tools, in other words, underpins Bourdieu’s appropriation in new settings. It follows that selective and purposeful readings of Bourdieu tend to predominate over wholesale appropriations of his ideas.

In Chapter 2, “Bourdieu’s International Circulation: An Exercise in Intellectual Mapping,” Marco Santoro, Andrea Gallelli, and Barbara Grüning paint a broad portrait of how Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus developed in each of the world’s regions, and how this development tended to reflect the initial circumstances of his arrival. In the United States, for instance, where many scholars first encountered Bourdieu through the myriad references to Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977) that pervaded the education debates of the 1980s, the French sociologist came to be known as a “reproduction theorist,” even if this label would have been nonsensical to those familiar with his earlier writings on Algeria, which thematized rupture and transformation. Several of the other chapters in this volume also offer a sense of how scholars in other settings arrived at their own pictures of Bourdieu. They show that the effort to bring Bourdieu to specific new regions of the world has yielded valuable tests of his theory.

As Johs Hjellbrekke and Annick Prieur show in Chapter 3, “On the Reception of Bourdieu’s Sociology in the World’s Most Equal Societies,” Bourdieu’s work found “several distinct lines of reception” in the Scandinavian countries starting in the 1970s. But the encounter also posed certain challenges to Bourdieu’s theory. With their strong traditions of equal opportunity to higher education, the Scandinavian countries seemed to refute any idea that schools function principally as tools of stratification. Furthermore, because the opposition between economic and cultural capital was not as stark in Scandinavia as in much of the West, the region resisted the conventional structuralist mapping associated with his approach. “The question of whether cultural capital exists, and, if yes, what it looks like, have guided much of the Bourdieu-inspired research in Scandinavia,” Hjellbrekke and Prieur report. And yet, the authors argue, Scandinavian scholars have found considerable utility in the notion of social space, which, against “one-dimensional hierarchies” of traditional class analysis, offers a useful tool for capturing the distinctiveness of the Scandinavian class structure.

In Chapter 4, “Bourdieu’s Uneven Influence on Anglophone Canadian Sociology,” John McLevey, Allyson Stokes, and Amelia Howard show that the reception of Bourdieu’s work followed a parallel pattern in the Great White North. There Bourdieu’s (p. 6) ideas were filtered first through the lens of political economy, then cultural sociology. The intra-disciplinary split created a tale of “two Bourdieus”: among political economists, he became known as a neo-Marxist, whereas in cultural sociology—a subfield preoccupied with the relationship between consumption and inequality—he became known specifically as the theorist of cultural capital.

Whereas Hjellbrekke and Prieur, and McLevey, Stokes, and Howard consider how Bourdieu’s ideas have been transplanted to some of the world’s most equal societies, Karl von Holdt in Chapter 5 takes up the challenge of “Reading Bourdieu in South Africa,” one of the world’s most unequal societies. If one common criticism of Bourdieu is that he is a theorist of how structures of power and domination reproduce themselves, then South Africa constitutes a key test for his theory. Here is a country that, after centuries of minority (white) rule, underwent a successful (and for the most part peaceful) transfer of power in the mid-1990s. But despite the formal institution of democracy in the country, inequality, violence, and crime remain extremely high. Von Holdt advances the provocative thesis that it is precisely because Bourdieu articulated a sophisticated theory of how power perpetuates itself that we can develop his ideas to produce theoretical tools for understanding resistance to power—even violent, physical power. To quote von Holdt: “Bourdieu’s focus on the mechanisms of order and the concepts he finds it necessary to elaborate in order to explore this—field, habitus, classification, symbolic power and symbolic violence—may point us toward exactly the sites that must be examined if we are to think about the limits of order. Symbolic violence may help us to think about physical violence; habitus may help us to think about resistance.” In particular, von Holdt describes in rich detail the symbolic transgressions and covert mobilizations of workers and students against the apartheid regime, and suggests that they represented “a new habitus . . . composed of dispositions to resistance, bravery and defiance.” Von Holdt’s chapter, we think, represents a model for using Bourdieu to study particular sorts of non-Western societies.

So, too, does Liliana Pop’s Chapter 6, “Bourdieu in the Post-Communist World,” which surveys the varied literature that draws on Bourdieu to make sense of the dramatic transformations following the collapse of Soviet rule. While “the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe was initially interpreted through Cold War lenses, as a victory for liberalism,” subsequent market and political dislocations have necessitated a more nuanced view. It is in this context, Pop argues, that “Bourdieu’s concepts have proved deeply generative” and are suited to capturing the “complex interplay between continuity and change, agency and structure, symbolic and material power” that marks the post-communist experience. Furthermore, in its concern with the forces and directions of systemic change, Bourdieu’s work “might even foreshadow ways of responding to coming challenges to the social sciences, as we confront the consequences of a new industrial revolution and planetary climate threats.”

As these chapters suggest, the most fruitful engagements with Bourdieu have generally been those that treat his concepts as flexible heuristic tools rather than rigid operational devices. By the same token, narrow interpretations of Bourdieu have often led to misreadings and reductive uses of his work. As McLevey, Stokes, and Howard show in (p. 7) Chapter 4, the concept of cultural capital was initially understood in Canadian scholarship in narrow (or as Bourdieu might put it, substantialist) terms, as referring specifically to the objects of cultural consumption and accumulation rather than the manner thereof, or, better still, the cultural competence being demonstrated through the choice of such objects. Put differently, Canadian scholars tended to equate cultural capital with the appreciation of specifically highbrow goods, notwithstanding Bourdieu’s own wish to abolish the notion that highbrow taste occupies a realm separate from vulgar or lowbrow judgment. In its “fundamental state,” Bourdieu (1984: 243–245) insisted, cultural capital consists of “dispositions of the mind and body” capable of signaling cultural competence, not a fixed category of goods. This misreading led to a somewhat confused debate in Canada in which scholars tried to position themselves “against” Bourdieu by showing that the relevant mode of symbolic distinction—namely, cultural “omnivorousness” (Peterson and Kern 1996)—was different from the sort of cultural competence Bourdieu found in France.

At the frontier of research carried out in Bourdieu’s wake is the growing effort to use the French sociologist’s ideas to illuminate emergent phenomena at the global level. Three chapters in this volume take up this task by tracing the growing use made by scholars, in separate arenas, of the concept of transnational fields. As Gisèle Sapiro observes in Chapter 7, “Field Theory from a Transnational Perspective,” Bourdieu himself generally used the field concept in specifically national contexts, by referring, for example, to the French literary field, the American field of higher education, and so forth. This tendency sometimes led to charges of “methodological nationalism.” And yet, Sapiro points out, “nowhere in his work does Pierre Bourdieu say that fields are necessarily limited to the perimeters of the nation-state.” Focusing on the literary field, she argues that strategies of transnationalization have become increasingly pivotal to the dynamics of literary production in the twenty-first century. In a similar vein, Niilo Kauppi in Chapter 8, “Transnational Social Fields,” considers transnationalization in the realm of formal politics through a case study of the European Parliament. Kauppi’s aim is to “develop a political sociology approach to the study of the evolving relationship between the redistribution of resources and the structuration of social spaces beyond the nation-state.” Key to understanding emergent transnational fields, he argues, is the idea of a “state nobility,” or a bureaucratic elite whose members are trained at top institutions and, despite differences in their political views, share a common habitus. The fields they build may be “less structured than fields at national . . . levels. But they are not necessarily weak fields.” Finally, Antonin Cohen’s Chapter 9, “Pierre Bourdieu and International Relations,” considers Bourdieu’s influence on a discipline to which the French sociologist paid little regard in his lifetime. As Cohen shows, international relations scholars have employed the notion of transnational fields as an alternative to concepts like epistemic community and advocacy network—often to favorable effect, albeit “sometimes at the risk of inconsistency with the theory of Pierre Bourdieu.”

Bourdieu was highly critical of traditional disciplinary and subdisciplinary boundaries, which he believed served professional rather than intellectual ends. Consequently, his work often defies easy classification. Several of the contributors to this volume look (p. 8) at how Bourdieu’s work has diffused to, and made an impact on, specific disciplines and subfields. Weininger and Lareau discuss the legacy of Bourdieu’s work for the study of education and inequality in Chapter 11. Early studies such as The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture (published in 1964 with Jean-Claude Passeron) and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (published in 1970, also with Passeron) argued that schools function as machines for reproducing inequality, by valuing the cultural capital upper-class students inherit from their families. Weininger and Lareau describe the impact of these studies on the sociology of education in the United States, but they also put the argument in the context of the French education system of the 1960s. “The phenomenon of ‘democratizing’ access to higher education—understood as a central element of societal ‘rationalization’—is centrally implicated in [Bourdieu and Passeron’s] problematization of the traditionalistic, heavily ritualized ‘misunderstanding’ which binds teachers and students.” Weininger and Lareau then describe how Bourdieu’s understanding of the relationship between education and inequality evolved. In his later work, he conceptualized this relationship quite differently. “Bourdieu’s view of the relation between education and mobility during this [latter] period crystallizes into a view considerably more complex than the one apparent in his early work.” Specifically, he describes a school-mediated mode of reproduction, which entails permitting some degree of class mobility in return for greater legitimacy of the system as a whole. Certainly, Weininger and Lareau imply, this evolution of Bourdieu’s thinking lays to rest the notion that his theory of education was one of direct and seamless reproduction.

Tim Hallett and Matthew Gougherty take up a similar task in Chapter 12, “Bourdieu and Organizations: Hidden Traces, Macro Influence, and Micro Potential.” Many scholars have noted that organizations—entities like firms, schools, churches, social movements, and trade unions—were rarely treated as independent units of analysis in Bourdieu’s sociological studies. As Hallet and Gougherty summarize the paradox, “Although Bourdieu was a premier scholar of social organization, formal organizations were rarely the primary focus of his sociology.” It did not help that Bourdieu did not engage with the field of organizational studies as it developed in Europe through the work of thinkers such as Michel Crozier or Erhard Friedberrg, or with organizational theorists in the United States such as James Thompson or Rosabeth Kanter. Part of the issue had to do with how organizational studies in France was harnessed to public administration, a field that Bourdieu was deeply critical of. But there was also an ontological issue: it is not readily apparent where organizations fit within the famous triumvirate of habitus, capital, and field. In his work on the academic system, for instance, Bourdieu referred to schools as classification machines functioning to transform informal cultural capital (such as a classed accent) into formal cultural capital (grades and degrees). In works such as The State Nobility, he would treat specific organizations such as government ministries as member elements of the larger field of the state. And in his work on the economy, he would argue that firms themselves can be conceptualized as fields. Hallet and Gougherty offer a novel and important argument as to how Bourdieu’s (p. 9) work has been and is being used in organizational theory. They argue that this is taking place at both the macro and micro ends of the organizational studies world, and furthermore that the work of Erving Goffman offers a means to facilitate this diffusion: “we bridge the ideas of Goffman and Bourdieu in order to strengthen research on the microfoundations of institutions while recognizing the dynamic nature of organizational life.”

Another substantive domain into which Bourdieu’s theory has diffused is the study of religion. This diffusion is recounted by Terry Rey in Chapter 13, “Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion: Recent Developments, Directions, and Departures.” Rey argues that scholars of religion were slow to take seriously Bourdieu’s contributions (even though religion was a central theme in Bourdieu’s own work, so much so that his essay on the “Structure and Genesis of the Religious Field” is the theoretical template for his other field analyses). Like Durkheim, Bourdieu recognized the existence of religion as a “social fact,” an aspect of humanity that we externalize and use so as to provide us with a mission in life and an existential comfort. Such an argument did not sit well with many traditional religious scholars. As Rey writes, however, “the number of incisive commentaries, germane translations, and illuminating Bourdieu-oriented anthropological, historical, sociological, and theological studies of religion has grown considerably in recent years.” Rey expertly catalogues which of Bourdieu’s concepts have been appropriated by scholars of the religious world. For instance, many scholars now argue that “one’s religious habitus is one’s habitus as manifest, perceptive, and operative in the religious field.” Rey here acknowledges Bourdieu’s debt to Weber’s idea of Heilsguten, or “goods of spiritual salvation,” that function as capital within the religious field and are associated with different players in the field (such as priests, prophets, and sorcerers). Finally, Rey provides extensive summaries of the key monographs that have come out in recent years using Bourdieu to analyze various religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He ultimately concludes that “there is a notable enthusiasm among scholars of religion that is by now quite international, aided in part by significant translations of relevant texts.”

In a similar vein, Christophe Charle—a historian who worked with Bourdieu for more than 30 years—considers how Bourdieu has revitalized the study of intellectuals in Chapter 14, “The Transdisciplinary Contribution of Pierre Bourdieu to the Study of the Academic Field and Intellectuals.” Noting Bourdieu’s adamant “refusal of official barriers between disciplines,” Charle shows how the French sociologist drew variously on history, philosophy, sociology, literature, and art history in carving out a novel perspective on the subject—one capable of avoiding the traps to which earlier approaches fall prey. Charle identifies the three most vital precepts or “methodological rules” guiding Bourdieu’s sociology of intellectuals: the use of a historical method; the insistence on cross-national, particularly intra-European, comparisons; and the emphasis on demonstrating an “organic link between the study of the intellectual field and the study of the field of power.” As Charle shows, understanding the world of academics and intellectuals was a central task in Bourdieu’s sociology, and a prerequisite for the sort of “scholarship with commitment” that he considered the scholar’s vocational calling.

(p. 10) The Distinctiveness of Bourdieu’s Concepts

One theme that emerges clearly from the chapters in this volume is that Bourdieu’s concepts are highly distinctive. Not only what they refer to, but also the way these concepts function semantically, sets them apart from their counterparts in other theories. Two aspects of this distinctiveness deserve particular attention: namely, the embeddedness of Bourdieu’s concepts and their generativity. First, Bourdieu’s concepts show an unusual concern with the task of embedding themselves in past theories so as to correct errors and false assumptions inherited from the past. Following Bachelard, he insists that sociology must begin by establishing an “epistemological break” from everyday folk knowledge and commonsense understandings. This precept echoes Durkheim’s classic dictate that the sociologist effect a break with “prenotions” before embarking on an investigation. But Bourdieu takes this point a step further by warning also against scholastic common sense, or unexamined orthodoxies built into scholarly doctrine and discourse. The latter, Bourdieu says, tend to foreclose rather than encourage truly scientific inquiry. Throughout his work, Bourdieu was also deeply concerned with combating the reifying effects of language. Like his kindred spirit Wittgenstein, he was keenly aware of the power of naming, and of the ability language has to give a natural or self-evident appearance to historically specific relationships. Racial classifications, for instance, confer the status of nature to a set of divisions rooted in mutable social relationships, just as ideological labels reify often tenuous alliances in the political field. Bourdieu’s concepts are thus geared to the difficult task of undoing language’s “freezing” effects.

The embedded quality of Bourdieu’s concepts becomes apparent in Erik Neveu’s Chapter 15, “Bourdieu’s Capital(s): Sociologizing an Economic Concept,” which gives extended consideration to the multivalent notion of capital. Bourdieu uses the term capital to refer broadly to any socially valued resource—any “collection of goods and skills, of knowledge and acknowledgments” that one can “mobilize to develop influence, gain power, or bargain for other” resources. By rendering the concept in such breadth, Bourdieu means to critique the homogenizing tendency of economic thought. As Neveu puts it, “Economic capital is not something natural or self-evident,” since “its power depends on a complex network of institutions, regulations, and cognitive tools.” The term capital thus acquires meaning not only from its positive referentiality—that is, in terms of what it refers to—but also from its negation of economic reductionism. By positing a multiplicity of capitals, Bourdieu pluralizes both the aims of social action and the sources of social power, even as he pushes against homogeneous conceptions of human interest and rationality.

Several of the contributors to this volume examine the embeddedness of Bourdieu’s concepts by putting him into conversation with select theories or theorists. In Chapter 16, “The Poverty of Philosophy,” Michael Burawoy sets up an imagined dialogue between Bourdieu and Marx “around their divergent theories of history, social (p. 11) transformation, symbolic domination, and contentious politics.” This is a stimulating endeavor, as the two thinkers represent traditions of critical thought, that is, traditions whose raison d’être is the unmasking of power relations in an effort to undermine them. The title of his chapter refers to Burawoy’s contention that Bourdieu and Marx depart from a “point of agreement,” namely, “their common critique of philosophy that Marx calls ‘ideology’ and Bourdieu calls ‘scholastic reason.’ ” The two scholars then take divergent paths from philosophy. Marx argues that workers are destined to become a revolutionary class, whereas Bourdieu would reproach Marx for having no theory of how a potential class—a “class on paper”—becomes an actual class. Burawoy mobilizes a powerful defense of Marx, arguing that Bourdieu neglects the tradition of Marxist theory after Marx (such as the work of Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School). Even more important, Burawoy makes explicit a key difference between the two theoretical traditions. Marxism, in all of its guises, is committed to the working class as the revolutionary agent within a capitalist mode of production. Bourdieu, in contrast, ultimately puts “faith in reason, whether through symbolic revolutions organized by intellectuals or via the immanent logic of the state.”

Chapter 17, Bourdieu and Schutz: Bringing Together Two Sons of Husserl,” by Will Atkinson, attempts to make explicit how Bourdieu’s work is embedded within the phenomenological tradition represented by Alfred Schutz and Edmund Husserl. Bourdieu’s initial interests and early writings were focused on the lived experience of French colonialism in Algeria under French rule. In fact, it was the provisional topic of his dissertation. As Atkinson explains, “in [Bourdieu’s] earliest empirical research on the transformation of temporal perception among Algerian peasants under colonialism—in which intuition of the forthcoming grounded in seasonal cycles and the ritual calendar clashed with the capitalistic mindset of positing the future as a set of possibilities—the ultimate conceptual bedrock, even if not explicitly cited, is Husserl’s analysis of temporal consciousness.” His later studies, even though they became more quantitative and structural, were always sensitive to how actors experienced their everyday worlds. One need only revisit his rich descriptions, in Distinction, of how working-class men prefer bananas over apples, beef over fish, because in both cases one is able to center oneself in the back rather than the front of one’s mouth. The working-class, masculine habitus manifests itself in a natural pulling—to the gutteral and coarse way of speaking, eating, and living. Atkinson argues effectively that Bourdieu was a carrier of this tradition, of bracketing the larger context in order to recount thickly the nature of experience. Unfortunately, as Atkinson describes, Bourdieu throughout his career made many—and one may even argue, extraneous—efforts to distance himself from the phenomenological tradition. Atkinson, in a fair and impartial way, recounts the source of such fault lines. But his argument is ultimately a positive one: though his writings may have at times belied the fact, Bourdieu was ultimately a “son of Husserl,” a phenomenologist in spirit, if not always explicitly so.

Like Burawoy and Atkinson, Franck Poupeau, in Chapter 18, seeks to embed Bourdieu’s theory and research in relation to issues and engagements that were rarely made explicit in Bourdieu’s own writings. For Poupeau, Bourdieu’s last doctoral (p. 12) student, it is puzzling that, as Bourdieu attempted to systematize a theory of the state, he made scant reference to France’s long and violent history of colonialism in Algeria—a colonization morphing into war that he had witnessed firsthand! As Poupeau writes, it must be the case that implicitly “an analysis of colonial domination provides the matrix used by Bourdieu to construct an analytical model of the ‘universal’ state of which Europe and, particularly, France are the self-proclaimed representatives.” The stakes of this project are high, for the very categories of state thought—such as racial typologies, the definition of criminal acts, educational curricula—penetrate us and appear natural to us. State thinking continually rides on the amnesia of its own genesis, so to speak. Poupeau further develops this theme by discussing Bourdieu’s relationship with Abdelmalek Sayad, a young Algerian student who served as a key field assistant for Bourdieu. At one point, Bourdieu took Sayad with him to Béarn, his home region, which led him to see anew how his own trajectory through the French education system illuminated a power project, namely, “the unification of the national state and obligatory education—the education system being an instrument of integration, which enables submission.” In short, the French government’s occupation of Algeria paralleled the dominance of urban Paris over rural France. Bourdieu’s discovery of this parallel, Poupeau argues, was key to his development of a theory of the state more generally.

Where does Bourdieu belong in the wider pantheon of social theorists? In Chapter 19, “Bourdieu’s Unlikely Contribution to the Human Sciences,” John Levi Martin describes Bourdieu as the unintentional linchpin between Gestalt psychology and American pragmatism. His signature achievement, Martin argues, lies in his view of social action as founded on embodied judgment and aesthetic response. Yet this same focus tended to “cut against the French rationalist vocabulary that he inherited.” To advance our understanding of aesthetic response, Martin argues, we will need better theories of its fine-grained elements, including how people intuit the socially “valid qualities of social objects” and how their “felt impulsions” lead them in particular directions. Thomas Medvetz reaches a similar conclusion in Chapter 20, “Bourdieu and the Sociology of Intellectual Life.” He argues that Bourdieu’s concern with the distinctive forms and products of intellectual life stands as a “thematic linchpin” of his work. Assessing Bourdieu’s contribution in this area, Medvetz finds “a deeply buried tension within Bourdieu’s work between the view of social action as rooted in bodily and aesthetic capacities, and the rationalist commitment to science.” “Having committed himself generally to a rationalist stance,” Medvetz argues, Bourdieu acknowledges but leaves under-theorized “the practical, aesthetic features of intellectual production.” It will be up to sociologists after Bourdieu to develop fuller accounts of “intellectual practical sense.”

A second distinctive feature of Bourdieu’s concepts is their generativity, or the fact that they are meticulously calibrated to the goal of fostering empirical research, as opposed to referring to classes of objects or “things in the world” in the most straightforward sense. First-time readers may find this quality exasperating, since it means that Bourdieu is generally not interested in offering handy definitions of his concepts. Rather than offering built-in revelations and disclosures, his concepts are founded on a logic of (p. 13) injunction, meaning that they supply directives to carry out research in particular ways or protections against common errors and omissions.

The generative quality of Bourdieu’s concepts becomes apparent across three chapters that examine the methodological implications of the concepts of field and capital. In Chapter 21, “Is a Bourdieusian Ethnography Possible?,” Jeffrey Sallaz argues that the two concepts rest on a set of broad propositions in Bourdieu’s work about the direction of historical change, which in turn contain an implicit claim about which research methods are most useful in advanced societies. Because macro-historical change tends toward societal “differentiation,” Bourdieu says, power and authority are increasingly concentrated in impersonal social institutions rather than face-to-face relationships—a fact that over time tends to undermine ethnography’s scientific power. Field and capital, Sallaz writes, are “of an ontological status that essentially renders them invisible to ethnographic documentation. The scientific instruments necessary to see them are simply not tools of the ethnographer’s trade. Only statistics . . . can document the existence of social facts such as social fields.” Chapter 22 by Frédéric Lebaron and Brigitte Le Roux (“Bourdieu and Geometric Data Analysis”) and Chapter 23 by Julien Duval (“Correspondence Analysis and Bourdieu’s Approach to Statistics”) examine Bourdieu’s favored statistical technique for explicating the structure of social space and its specific derivatives, fields. As Lebaron and Le Roux argue, few scholars have recognized “the extent to which [the field] concept is linked to a practice of empirical research and, even more specifically, to a particularly original use of statistical tools.” They show that the technique of geometric data analysis gives mathematical expression to the relational style of thinking that Bourdieu argued was essential to sociology. Duval traces the history of Multiple Correspondence Analysis, Bourdieu’s favored technique for constructing fields and social spaces—whose logic, he said, “corresponds exactly to what, in my view, the reality of the social world is.” The chapter illustrates Bourdieu’s belief that theory and methodology were inseparable, with the choice of data dictating one’s theoretical reconstruction of the world, and, vice versa, the choice of theory directing one’s empirical vision.

The generativity of Bourdieu’s concepts is likewise apparent in the notion of habitus, which, as Wacquant elaborates in Chapter 24, “A Concise Genealogy and Anatomy of Habitus,” refers to “sociosymbolic structures . . . deposited inside persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and patterned propensities to think, feel, and act in determinate ways, which in turn guide them in their creative responses to the constraints and solicitations of their extant milieu.” But as both critics and followers of Bourdieu have noted, merely invoking the term habitus reveals very little, apart from the general idea that human agency should be understood as a kind of embodied capacity. A statement such as “The Algerian peasant obeyed the dictates of her habitus” is not only a malapropism; more important, it tells us nothing about the nature or cause of the action in question. The misuse rests on a mistaken view of habitus as an explanatory device, rather than an organizing principle for social research: it is an injunction to “historicize the agents” in question by making explicit the principles of their perceptions, judgments, and actions. Put differently, habitus supplies a bundle of (p. 14) questions for the researcher: How does the agent under investigation cognitively carve up the world? What are her criteria of evaluation and judgment? What are her spontaneous, practical reflexes? And, crucially, how and in what institutional contexts did these dispositions form?

In Chapter 25, “Habitus and Beyond,” Claudio Benzecry recounts how Bourdieu used the habitus concept at each phase of his career. He further identifies several themes that unify the concept and keep it consistent, even as it was used for so many different research projects. One is a focus on the body, on the way in which we as social agents are flesh and blood beings, rather than rational calculators. Another theme is an insistence upon always contextualizing social action in its historical context. Each habitus reflects “the combination of the particular situation that the agent confronts, the particular dispositions she carries, and the constraints that past and collective forces place on her.” Another contribution of Benzecry’s chapter is to trace out how Bourdieu’s use of the habitus concept helped to stimulate a renewed interest among US sociologists in dispositional theories. One outcome of this has been a vibrant and ongoing debate about how to conceptualize habitus and put it to use in the service of empirical research: “dispositional accounts of social action have become so central that few scholars are offering explicit alternatives when conducting empirical examinations.” If anything, Benzecry cautions against becoming too cavalier in how we invoke and use the habitus concept. It requires rigorous research design and serious thinking about mechanisms and processes.

Connell and Mears make a related argument in Chapter 26, “Bourdieu and the Body.” They argue that an enduring legacy of Bourdieu, for American scholars especially, has been to bring the body into sociology generally and studies of inequality specifically. “The work of Pierre Bourdieu, principally through the concepts of habitus and embodied cultural capital, continues to provide a framework to see how class position is written on the body and expressed through classed styles of walking, talking, gesturing, eating, drinking, and so forth.” As this quote makes clear, the authors highlight a sort of dialectic between the larger class structure and any individual’s experience of his or her body. On one hand, our class positions—the material resources available to us throughout the life course—write themselves on us in a very physical way. Malnutrition as a child stunts physical and mental growth; chronic stress makes us more susceptible to illnesses of every sort; children who grow up in poverty are less likely to visit museums or attend plays; and so on. On the other hand, our bodies make us—our class and our status—legible to others. A regional accent spoken in an urban center, not knowing to put one’s napkin on one’s lap before beginning a formal meal, standing with poor posture at a dinner party—all these and other bodily attributes can stigmatize one as uncivilized or uncouth. Connell and Mears extend Bourdieu’s conceptual oeuvre by referring to such bodily attributes as bodily capital, and by delineating the specific spaces in which it can function as a form of value. These include urban neighborhoods, nightclubs, romantic markets, and even the labor market, where many service employers demand aesthetic labor. But they conclude on a positive note, by emphasizing the emergence of social movements mobilized around stigmatized bodily identities, such as “disability activism (p. 15) through public art,” and “[r]ejection of systems of compulsory heterosexuality . . . compulsory able-bodiedness . . . and the cult of thinness.”

Another way to think of the generativity of Bourdieu’s concepts is to recognize that they point to unresolved conflicts and tensions in the world, rather than to settled conditions or states of affairs. This quality reflects a deliberate epistemological choice on Bourdieu’s part, consistent with his radical historicism, which holds that all social facts are products of history, rather than expressions of natural or fundamental principles. Thus while Bourdieu’s concepts point to durable oppositions and tendencies in the social world, they generally stop short of making hard predictions about how these same oppositions will play out in the future. A good example may be found in his claim that the field of power is structured “horizontally” by the opposition between material and symbolic forms of capital. This is a falsifiable prediction, albeit a loose and open-ended one, that anticipates historical variation with respect not only to the balance of forces among material and symbolic capitals, but also to the objects and practices that become forms of capital in the first place.

The overarching point is that Bourdieu’s concepts are meant to sketch out a sociological research program for other scholars to take up, rather than provide ready-made answers to sociological questions. This tendency is discussed in Chapter 27 by Jens Arnholtz, “Tensions, Actors, and Inventions: Bourdieu’s Sociology of the State as an Unfinished but Promising Research Project,” which outlines the major themes in Bourdieu’s sociology of the state. Against the characteristically North American tendency to represent Bourdieu as a theorist of stasis and “reproduction,” Arnholtz shows that a close reading of Bourdieu on the state shows that “tensions and inventions” are actually the dominant theme in this work. Not fait accompli, in other words, but open-ended struggles and creative, improvisational maneuvers constitute the core of social action in his rendering.

George Steinmetz, in Chapter 28, “Bourdieusian Field Theory and the Reorientation of Historical Sociology,” describes how historical sociologists have seized upon the open-endedness of Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field. Steinmetz recounts Bourdieu’s years as a student, including the influence of his dissertation advisors George Canguilhem, a renowned historian of philosophy, and Raymond Aron, one of the few historical sociologists working at the time. Following a short flirtation with the “blissful structuralism” of Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu returned to history as he crafted his notion of field. For a field can only be studied genetically, by looking at the historical process by which it achieved a sufficient degree of autonomy vis-à-vis economic and other temporal powers. The same general idea holds for Bourdieu’s deployment of the habitus concept, as a way to capture how social agents are products of their environments but nonetheless improvise and act strategically in relation to their circumstances. Ultimately, Steinmetz concludes that “Bourdieu’s central concepts of habitus and field . . . introduce a fundamentally historical temporality into the theory of the social actor and her relations to her environment.” A corollary of this argument is that Bourdieu is not the reproduction theorist that some of his critiques have labeled him. To buttress this contention, Steinmetz surveys a variety of studies of historical sociology outside of France that will be an essential resource for historians and historical sociologists.

(p. 16) In Chapter 29, “The Relevance of Bourdieu’s Concepts for Studying the Intersections of Poverty, Race, and Culture,” Kerry Woodward addresses a new direction for Bourdieu-inspired studies. In only one book, Masculine Domination, did Bourdieu dedicate sustained analytic attention to the issue of gender inequality; after his Algerian research, only rarely did he address topics of race and ethnicity; and, despite his long-standing research agenda on power and inequality, Bourdieu said surprisingly little about the experience of living in poverty in rich countries. Meanwhile, there has developed a significant literature in the United States on intersectionality, “designed to think about the ways race and gender interact—in particular, the ways in which the experiences and structural positions of women of color are unique from those of both white women and men of color.” Woodward argues convincingly that concepts such as cultural capital can be expanded to capture the strategies that disadvantaged groups mobilize to garner resources, such as welfare benefits. As Woodward elegantly states, intersectionality scholars “raised the concern that Bourdieu’s concepts had become ways to frame poor people of color as lacking, and instead demanded that we consider the context of people’s primary social worlds.”

Together, these observations about Bourdieu’s concepts go a long way toward explaining the skepticism many critics have toward his work. As we have noted, the building blocks of Bourdieu’s theory rarely, if ever, function as handy operational tools, amenable to easy definition or measurement. Instead, they are meant as heuristic devices for avoiding specific errors, orienting social research in productive ways, and fostering the genetic mode of thinking. To a critic, this quality may suggest evasiveness—and indeed, there is no question that Bourdieu’s concepts place a greater than usual burden on the researcher in their application. To those who have fruitfully deployed these notions in research around the world, however, the same quality counts as a virtue. It means that Bourdieu is less interested in claiming credit for particular discoveries, and it suggests a more collaborative view of social scientific discovery. Science being a cogitamus—we think together—we should move beyond the logic of credit and blame and recognize that for all its monumental scope and ambition, Bourdieu’s work does not offer—indeed, is not meant to offer—a laundry list of “creditable” truths, immutable laws, or fixed answers to sociological questions. Rather, it is the consummate “anti-theoretical” theory, built on the premise that social scientific progress is possible only through dogged empirical investigation. By design, it suggests, a theory’s value is naught when left sitting on the shelf or invoked in a ritualistic manner. There are no occasions on which it can “do the work for you,” or exempt the social scientist from the difficult business of empirical research. Given this point, and given Bourdieu’s own suspicion of academic superstars and cults of personality, we are confident he would be happy to remain “uncreditable” in this sense. It follows that the most fitting way to recognize his legacy is not to honor him by a scholastic cult, but to approach his theories like a set of construction tools and use them to build new knowledge. We believe the chapters in this Handbook pay homage to his legacy in precisely this way.


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