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Review Essay On Pierre Bourdieu Symbolic Violence

Issue 87 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2000 Copyright © International Socialism


In France no intellectual since Jean-Paul Sartre has commanded the attention currently devoted to Pierre Bourdieu.1 Yet while Sartre's notoriety accompanied him virtually throughout his life, Bourdieu's status as a politically engaged intellectual has only fully emerged in the past few years of a career now into its fifth decade.2 This is a direct consequence of the new mood in France opened up since the strike wave of December 1995. Bourdieu's decision to take a prominent stance on the side of France's public sector workers in the conflict that pitted them against the conservative government of Alain Juppé put him at the centre of the intellectual backlash against neo-liberalism. This backlash, and a growing interest in radical ideas, was accelerated but not created by the events of 1995 and had been apparent in various guises throughout the early 1990s, ranging from the Air France strikes and school student protests of 1993, to the impressive vote for the Trotskyist candidate Arlette Laguiller in the May 1995 presidential elections, the success of events such as the International Marx Conference organised by the Actuel Marx review in September 1995, and in the content and popularity of various books published during the first half of the decade, from Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx (1993) to Bourdieu's own The Weight of the World (1993)--a bestseller--Alain Badiou's Ethics (1993) and Daniel Bensaïd's Marx L'Intempestif (1995).3

The Weight of the World became one of the defining books of the 1990s. A collaborative work, it contained dozens of interviews with people living, in one form or another, at the sharp end of society (in run-down housing estates, on the dole, in part time work, factory jobs, etc), interspersed with short essays by Bourdieu and his collaborators on subjects such as 'The Abdication of the State', 'The Shop Steward's World in Disarray' and 'Institutional Bad Faith'. Over 1,000 pages long it sold nearly 100,000 copies in its original format before being published in a cheaper version in 1998. During the same period it was made into at least six plays, one of them staged over three days, and has become a byword for the ravages of the free market. Along with Bourdieu's highly political interventions since 1995 it has been a major factor in what is perhaps his single most notable achievement of recent years, that of 'relegitimising a discourse of resistance'.4

Bourdieu and the 'social movement'

Since the events of December Bourdieu and his collaborators have multiplied their attacks on neo-liberalism. Having set up a publishing house, Liber/Raisons d'Agir (Reasons to Act), they have used it to produce a series of reasonably priced, accessible books covering a range of issues, almost all of which have reached a wide audience. The first to be published, Bourdieu's Sur la Télévision (1997), sold over 100,000 copies and his Contre-feux (1998)5 over 50,000, while Serge Halimi's attack on the media, Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (1997) has sold over 150,000. Others, such as the collective work Le 'Décembre' des Intellectuels Français, on the effect of December 1995 on France's intellectual elite, have all enjoyed similar success. Those active around Raisons d'Agir have formed an association, with groups in Germany, Belgium and also in a number of French towns, notably Grenoble, forming part of a growing network of militant think-tanks, reviews and associations of various kinds all fighting, in diverse ways, the effects of global capitalism. These include the Fondation Copernic,6 established in November 1998 as a rival to the right wing Fondation Saint-Simon, the unemployed workers' associations AC! and APEIS,7 the homeless association Droit au Logement (DAL), the SUD trade union and the loose Groupe des Dix federation of which it is a part, numerous anti-fascist and anti-racist groups, the ATTAC association, set up to establish a 'Tobin tax' on financial speculation, and the increasingly influential monthly Le Monde diplomatique, to which Bourdieu and his collaborators are regular contributors.

Bourdieu himself intervened on various occasions during the December events. He memorably attacked a group of prominent academics, led by the Esprit journal and the sociologist Alain Touraine, who had chosen that moment to become apologists for Juppé by launching a petition in favour of restructuring the social security system.8 ('Keep the list in mind,' Bourdieu said after the events. 'It made visible the network of lackey intellectuals who've been active from day to day, imperceptibly, and therefore invisibly, for years'.9) He also spoke to mass meetings of railway workers in Paris10 and launched a petition the following February calling for an Estates General of the Social Movement (which took place in November 1996). In March 1996 he signed petitions calling for 'legal and social recognition for homosexual couples' and for civil disobedience in the face of racist legislation on immigration. He later supported protests by unemployed workers (addressing their occupation of the École Normale Supérieure in January 1998), backed opposition to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, and published, in the form of an article entitled 'For a Left Left',11 an attack on the Jospin government coalition of Socialists, Communists and Greens, elected in June 1997. The article, written in the aftermath of regional election alliances between the National Front and sections of the traditional right, was full of anger at the apparent increase in the influence of fascism in French society, in particular among the political establishment, and condemned the fakes ('faux-semblants') of the plural left, which had 'disappointed its electorate, demobilised its activists and pushed the most exasperated to the far left'. Faced with the 'neo-liberal troika of Blair-Jospin-Schröder', Bourdieu called on the social movements which had developed since 1995 to join together in an 'international of resistance'.

The breadth of Bourdieu's popularity was underlined by speculation that he would head a list in the European elections of June 1998 (he chose not to) and by the invitation extended by the music and arts magazine Les Inrockuptibles (roughly France's equivalent to the NME) to edit their end of year double issue. Bourdieu used the opportunity to offer space to those generally excluded from the 'media circle': union activists, representatives of the 'social movement', and various other figures associated with the so called 'left of the left', including Susan George. The following year Bourdieu played a leading role in opposing NATO's war in the Balkans.12 Internationalism has been a central theme of his interventions over the last few years. During the Estates General of the Social Movement he called for links to be renewed with the internationalism that had been sidetracked by 'sovietism'.13 More recently he has called for a Europe-wide Estates General of the Social Movement.14

A notable indication of the shift in the intellectual climate since 1995 was the demise in the summer of 1999 of the pro-market think-tank, the Fondation Saint-Simon, which for a decade and a half had churned out reports and studies urging the left to embrace entrepreneurialism. Le Figaro attributed its loss of direction and subsequent decision to fold to the effect of the December strikes and the rallying of a 'not insignificant intellectual fringe' to Bourdieu's anti-liberal stance.15 The pugnacity of his polemical onslaught on neo-liberalism and its acolytes in the world of academia and the media16 has inevitably provoked an angry counter-attack, typified by the peevish efforts of the editorial team of the journal L'Esprit which denounced the 'political populism', 'Stalinism' and 'ultra-leftism' of Bourdieu's public interventions and attempted, rather feebly, to explain his political stance as a reflection of his research ('posturing dressed up as science') which apparently manages to combine determinism with 'theoretical populism'.17 For the editor of Les Temps Modernes, meanwhile, Bourdieu was not a real intellectual, in the tradition of Péguy and Sartre, so much as a 'scientistic pontif, a Cardinal Ratzinger of science, keeping watch over the scientistic orthodoxy of everything written in newspapers'.18 This criticism was echoed in a hostile study by Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, in which she denounced Bourdieu's 'miserabilism' and 'sociological terrorism' and compared him unfavourably to Sartre, whose status had been achieved only after winning an audience on the back of his literary and philosophical works, whereas Bourdieu's legitimacy came not so much from his work as from his institution, the Collège de France.19

In some respects such attacks mirror the treatment meted out to all critical intellectuals in France, from Voltaire and Zola to Sartre and Foucault, who are demonised by the establishment and then lionised by the condescension of posterity. Bourdieu's case is slightly different because of the way in which the events of December 1995 have reconfigured various aspects of French society, not least the prevailing intellectual climate. In the first place, Bourdieu's stance marks a departure from his previous attitude to intervention around major issues, limited before 1995 to supporting the abortive 1981 presidential campaign of a maverick comedian, Coluche, issuing a petition in the same year with Michel Foucault in support of Solidarnosc, and, in 1988, backing the 'exemplary' policies of Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard in New Caledonia. Secondly, the events have dealt a blow to the reaction against Marxism begun by structuralism and pursued in the wake of May 1968 by the post-structuralists and nouveaux philosophes. For sociologists like Touraine, 1995 represented a challenge to their interpretation of 1968. Reality was now undermining the fashion for writing off the working class. Touraine's own efforts to downplay the events of December in his book Le Grand Refus (1996) were, as Daniel Bensaïd has remarked, contradicted on its every page.20 Criticisms of Bourdieu which link his interventions to an apparently deterministic 'Marxist' (and by implication 'outdated') theoretical project are aimed not so much at Bourdieu but at the 'social movement' he defends. As such, they are not only disingenuous but wide of the mark in the sense that Bourdieu's political stance--his attacks on neo-liberalism and his defence of all those engaged in struggle, from strikers to sans-papiers--is, as we shall see below, less a reflection than an antidote to aspects of his theoretical vision, notably the restricted scope for protest, let alone revolution.

Bourdieu's sociology

Pierre Bourdieu was born in the Béarn region of south eastern France in 1930. He graduated from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in 1954 (although he refused to complete his thesis in protest at the regimented education offered by the institution) and went to teach philosophy in a provincial secondary school. In 1956 he was conscripted to fight in Algeria. Having completed his military service he stayed on and between 1957 and 1960 undertook fieldwork in Algeria, returning to Paris in 1960 as Raymond Aron's assistant at the Sorbonne. After three years teaching at the University of Lille he became director of studies at L'École Pratique Des Hautes Études in Paris. Here, and as part of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne which he founded in 1968, he built up a team of collaborators, who continue to work alongside him, notably on the Centre's journal, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales. In 1981 Bourdieu was made a professor at the Collège de France, where he continues to work.

Influenced by Marx as a student, Bourdieu was 'exasperated' by Stalinism,21 and, in Algeria, 'appalled by the gap between the views of French intellectuals about this war and how it should be brought to an end, and my own experiences'.22 His fieldwork in Algeria provided the material for various studies, including Sociologie de l'Algérie (1958),23Travail et Travailleurs en Algérie (1963),24Le Déracinement (1964) and the collection of essays published in 1977 under the title Algérie 1960. In a sense the whole of Bourdieu's work has been constructed as a reaction to the two major intellectual currents of this period, existentialism and structuralism. Bourdieu's concern was to overcome the opposition between the subjectivist emphasis on individual consciousness and the objectivist preoccupation with social structures which these two alternatives seemed to posit. Apparently anxious to distance himself from intellectual 'fads', he rejected the 'soft humanism' of Sartrean existentialism:

    ...refusing to recognise anything resembling durable dispositions, Sartre makes each action a sort of unprecedented confrontation between the subject and the world... If the world of action is nothing other than this universe of interchangeable possibles, entirely dependent on the decrees of the consciousness which creates it and hence totally devoid of objectivity, if it is moving because the subject chooses to be moved, revolting because he chooses to be revolted, then emotions, passions and actions are merely games of bad faith, sad farces in which one is both bad actor and good audience.25

The influence of Algeria

Bourdieu's early work, such as the 'The Kabyle House or the World Reversed',26 was heavily influenced by structuralism although he nevertheless strove to reintroduce agents, 'abolished' by structuralists like Lévi-Strauss and in particular Althusser, for whom subjects were simply the by-products of structures. Activity could not be understood simply as the playing out of rules. In an effort to 'escape the realism of the structure' which converted objective relations 'into totalities already constituted outside of individual history and group history', Bourdieu attempted to examine the 'principle of production of this observed order, and to construct the theory of practice'.27 This led him to explore the reciprocal process of 'incorporation and objectification', whereby individuals produce the objective environment which they internalise:

    ...the analysis of objective structures...is inseparable from the analysis of the genesis, within biological individuals, of the mental structures which are to some extent the product of the incorporation of social structures; inseparable, too, from the analysis of the genesis of these social structures themselves: the social space, and the groups that occupy it, are the product of historical struggles (in which agents participate in accordance with their position in the social space and with the mental structures through which they apprehend this space).28

For Bourdieu this exploration also involved overcoming the distortions inherent in the way in which social science constructs the world. The position of the detached observer of society, he argued, creates a false impression of reality as something static, subject to norms and rules, rather than something fluid and vague. Bourdieu thus strove to develop a 'reflexive sociology' which took a step back from the process of observation and acknowledged the fact that the observer was not a neutral presence but a social actor in his own right. Sociology itself, meanwhile:

    ...would perhaps not be worth an hour's trouble if it solely had as its end the intention of exposing the wires which activate the individuals it observes--if it forgot that it has to do with men, even those who, like puppets, play a game of which they do not know the rules--if, in short, it did not give itself the task of restoring to men the meaning of their actions.29

In the early 1960s Bourdieu developed the notion of 'strategies' as a means of understanding how people acted on their environment, which was to provide the basis for much of his subsequent theoretical framework. Later refined as the 'logic of practice',30 this concept enabled Bourdieu to distance himself from structuralism and to offer an explanation of practice as something which was neither wholly unconscious nor simply the result of rational calculation. The logic of practice is akin to the individual's sense of play. Individuals are therefore as free and as limited as when they engage in any kind of game, finding themselves, for example, instinctively at the point where the ball is about to land but at the same time exercising control over the ball. This requires permanent invention on the part of the player to adapt to infinitely variable situations. Although the player does what the game demands of him, this does not mean that individuals are slaves to rules, since these can be manipulated to the player's advantage, bent and subverted to suit his needs. The player's freedom to invent and to improvise allows for the production of an infinite number of moves made possible by the game, and is subject to the same limits as the game.31

This relationship between subjective outlooks and objective possibilities was central to Bourdieu's study of the concept of time. In Algerian peasant culture time was experienced as part of the natural world like the seasons or the land. It was part of the immediacy of a given situation. There was no conception of the future as a 'broad field of innumerable possibilities'.32 It was simply something to which one had to submit. The notion that time could be wasted or saved, or imagined as a set of future possibilities was alien to this culture. Once the peasantry moved to the city, however, the 'enchantment' of rural life was shattered. 'Entrance into the money economy is coupled with the discovery of time as something that can be wasted, that is, the distinction between empty, or lost, time, or well filled time'.33 It becomes possible to conceive of time as something other than an immediate constraint and to plan for the future. For the destitute urban poor of Algeria this meant that since the objective conditions for liberation did not exist there was no possibility of self emancipation. Subjectively, this would be experienced as the result of the individual's own shortcomings, and therefore as something inevitable or natural. 'The dominated,' Bourdieu argues, 'are always more resigned than populist mystique believes'.34

Bourdieu sharply disagreed with the position adopted by Sartre and Frantz Fanon with regard to post-independence Algeria, in particular their analysis of the revolutionary role that could be played by the peasantry and 'sub-proletariat'.35 Such was the alienation of those at the bottom of society, argued Bourdieu, that they were incapable of transcending their situation, since they were unable to attain consciousness of it in the first place:

    ...those who are in the condition of the sub-proletariat cannot comprehend it, since to do so would presuppose their ability to plan an escape. Because it is impossible not to take it as it is, the dream of escaping only means experiencing the weight of necessity more cruelly.36

In this instance Bourdieu believed that the idealisation of the peasantry and sub-proletariat was a characteristic of the revolutionary elite's populist nationalism: since the masses would be unable to fulfil the role attributed to them, this would provide the justification for the substitution of mass democracy by the rule of a bureaucratic bourgeois elite. As Lane has noted, his work on post-independence Algeria provides the only instance to date of Bourdieu calling for revolutionary solutions.37 There was an obvious echo in his analysis of the peasantry and sub-proletariat of the Marxist concept of alienation.38 The influence of Weber's concept of rational calculation, however, was also clear, and had the greater impact on the subsequent development of Bourdieu's analytical framework, which leaves little room, as we shall see below, for the possibility of revolution:

    Outlooks on the future depend closely on the objective potentialities which are defined for each individual by his or her social status and material conditions of existence. The most individual project is never anything other than an aspect of the subjective expectations that are attached to that agent's class.39

The 'habitus'

This internalisation of objective possibility as subjective expectation was theorised by Bourdieu in the concept of habitus, the form by which this relationship was mediated. Habitus is, according to Bourdieu, the means by which the 'social game' is inscribed in biological individuals. As the possibilities and constraints of social action are incorporated by individuals, their 'feel for the game' becomes a kind of second nature. 'Habitus' thus refers to the way in which an individual's instinctive sense of what might be achieved is structured into a pattern of behaviour, forming, in Bourdieu's own words, 'an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted'.40 The modes of behaviour, or dispositions, produced by the habitus, are passed on through the generations, inculcated from an early age and socially reinforced through education and culture.

The advantage of the concept, as far as Bourdieu was concerned, was that it permitted an understanding of the apparently spontaneous beliefs or opinions (these Bourdieu refers to as doxa) which shape people's view of the world on the basis of a reciprocal relationship between the ideas and attitudes of individuals and the structures within which they operate:

    The source of historical action, that of the artist, the scientist, or the member of government just as much as that of the worker or the petty civil servant, is not an active subject confronting society as if that society were an object constituted externally. The source resides neither in consciousness nor in things but in the relationship between two stages of the social, that is, between the history objectified in things, in the form of institutions, and in the history incarnated in bodies, in the form of that system of enduring dispositions which I call habitus.41

The manner by which the behavioural patterns of the habitus are embedded in individuals may take various forms, manifesting themselves in every aspect of human interaction with the world, not just in terms of ideas or patterns of speech or dress, but also with regard to the body and its demeanour. This aspect, termed hexis, featured in his study of the Béarn peasantry in which Bourdieu described the way that the difficulties experienced by peasants forced to uproot themselves from their traditional practices and customs during the post-war modernisation of France was reflected in their physical and psychological inability to participate in local dances.42

Through such examples Bourdieu sought to show how 'the body is in the social world but the social world is also in the body',43 and how this was manifested in ways of 'standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking'. The core values of the dominant culture, he argued, become inscribed in the apparently insignificant details of 'dress, bearing, physical and verbal manners'. The body becomes a memory and acts as a repository for the principles 'embodied' within it which, since they are placed 'beyond the grasp of consciousness...cannot be touched by voluntary, deliberate transformation, cannot even be made explicit'.44 The habitus, as an instrument of mediation, endlessly engenders 'thoughts, perceptions, expressions, actions' within the limits imposed by 'the historically and socially situated conditions of its production'. As such, Bourdieu believes, it offers a means of conceptualising 'conditioned and conditional freedom' other than as a product of chance or as an immediate reflection of objective structures.45


In the early 1960s many assumed that the upheavals sparked by events in Algeria would topple de Gaulle. That they did not perhaps explains Bourdieu's preoccupation with the study of how the status quo is perpetuated through the reproduction of forms of domination by state institutions and their actors. Having proposed solutions to the problems faced by post-independence Algerians and French peasants confronted with modernisation which were based on the reconciliation of traditional values with the inevitability of change via education, Bourdieu now had to come to terms, in France, with a set of institutions whose role in society was to preserve tradition and existing hierarchies, institutions whose conservation and reproduction were achieved with the collusion of students who participated in the pretence that education was something other than a means to preserve the existing social order.46

The question now posed, the answering of which appeared to mark a further break with structuralism, was how do societies construct and maintain their structures?47 In a series of works devoted to class, culture and the structures of domination, which include Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1970), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), Homo Academicus (1984) and The State Nobility (1989), Bourdieu looked at how power relations within society are maintained by means other than repression. Central to this process is the way economic relations are legitimised by dressing them up as something else. This operation is based on the 'conversion' of economic capital into symbolic capital: 'Wealth, the ultimate basis of power, can exert power, and exert it durably, only in the form of symbolic capital'.48 In this way the real, economic basis of domination may be disguised as something else and relations of dependence presented as the consequence of inequalities of talent or taste or educational ability. The reproduction of structures of domination in society therefore depends on the imposition of cultural values which are presented as universal but whose content and context are politically and historically determined--and therefore arbitrary. This process, which enables direct violence to be dispensed with, Bourdieu termed 'symbolic violence'.

One of the principal functions of symbolic violence is to create the illusion that the forms taken by economic capital to disguise itself have an intrinsic, rather than a purely social value. Much of Bourdieu's work has therefore been devoted to exposing the social mechanisms that lie behind the pursuit of cultural or educational distinction. This pursuit takes the form of competition for resources, or capital, across various social arenas, or fields. According to Bourdieu, each field within society is structured according to what is at stake within it (educational, cultural, economic, political, etc) and is comprised of antagonistic elements who struggle to acquire and preserve capital--economic, cultural, scientific or otherwise. So in the economic field individuals compete to accumulate capital in the form, for example, of money, while in the educational field cultural capital is accumulated in the form of academic qualifications. Once the cultural capital which these and other forms of credentials represent is generally acknowledged, 'relations of power and domination no longer exist directly between individuals',49 but become objective mechanisms, social institutions which reproduce relations of domination without the need for direct intervention by the dominant group in society. The strategies of domination developed by those in control therefore tend to become increasingly indirect.

This reconversion of economic capital into symbolic capital 'cannot succeed without the complicity of the whole group: the work of denial which is the source of social alchemy is, like magic, a collective undertaking'.50 Since the drive to acquire and defend symbolic capital derives from the dispositions generated by the habitus, inherited at birth and subsequently inculcated by family and school, the arbitrary value of whatever symbolic capital is at stake is not recognised. This concept of misrecognition, as we shall see below, is a key part of Bourdieu's analysis. Symbolic violence, meanwhile, is characterised as:

    ...the coercion which is set up only through the consent that the dominated cannot fail to give to the dominator...when their understanding of the situation and relation can only use instruments of knowledge that they have in common with the dominator, which, being merely an incorporated form of the structure of the relation of domination, make this relationship appear as natural.51

The dominated are not only dominated in their heads, but they unconsciously reproduce the structures of domination which enslave them. Domination and submission therefore form more than a one way process since sexual, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and other forms of symbolic domination are exerted 'not in the pure logic of knowing consciousness but in the obscurity of the dispositions of habitus'. The schemes of perception and appreciation which are embedded in the habitus form 'below the level of the decisions of the conscious mind and the controls of the will...the basis of a relationship of practical knowledge and recognition that is profoundly obscure to itself'.52

In Distinction Bourdieu attempted to show how art and cultural consumption served to legitimate social differences. The more life in general is dominated by necessity, the more cultural tastes will tend to be characterised by the down to earth pursuit of natural enjoyment. In contrast the bourgeoisie's aestheticism, its use of stylised forms, reflects an inclination to display its remoteness from the functional and the humdrum. Taking the example of family heirlooms, Bourdieu describes how their value may be measured not just in material terms, but also by their contribution to the spiritual reproduction of the lineage since daily contact with ancient objects transmits a 'sense of belonging to a more polished, more polite, better policed world, a world which is justified in existing by its perfection, its harmony and beauty'. Such instinctive affiliations of taste, argues Bourdieu, do more to 'forge the unconscious unity of a class' than any explicit views or opinions. Likewise:

    ...the social relations objectified in familiar objects, in their luxury or poverty, their 'distinction' or 'vulgarity', their 'beauty' or 'ugliness', impress themselves through bodily experiences which may be as profoundly unconscious as the quiet caress of beige carpets or the thin clamminess of tattered, garish linoleum.53

So deeply rooted are these dispositions in individuals that they are experienced as natural and their social origins (the fact that they are a product of the objective structure of society) remain unrecognised. In this instance misrecognition derives from the tendency to see only differences in lifestyle between different individuals since their position in the class structure of society is obscured. These different cultural tastes are themselves a product of the specific class habitus which everyone develops according to their relationship to economic necessity. The dominant class asserts its lifestyle (based on refined, distinguished pleasures) as the benchmark of 'good taste' to which others must aspire, and in so doing legitimises class differences under the guise of individual virtue or ability.

The imposition of such arbitrary norms and values through symbolic violence is neither recognised as, nor reducible to, economic factors alone. Indeed, argues Looc Wacquant, 'culture is no longer a passive and mystifying reflection of class relations operating through the dominance of the "commodity form" (Marx) but an arena for endless contention in which domination is challenged and must be secured anew'.54 In this way Distinction attempts to show that 'the individual or collective classification struggles aimed at transforming the categories of perception and appreciation of the social world and, through this, the social world itself are indeed a forgotten dimension of the class struggle'.55

The focus of the analysis, however, here and elsewhere, on the way the social order is legitimated, not as a consequence of 'a deliberate and purposive action of propaganda and symbolic imposition', but because agents 'apply to the objective structures of the world structures of perception and appreciation which are issued out of these very structures',56 means that Bourdieu's work confronts similar problems to those addressed within the Marxist tradition (for example, by Lukács and Gramsci), in particular the role played by ideology in forging and perpetuating class domination. The same goes for Bourdieu's analysis of the development of autonomous fields and the part played by the actors within them in reinforcing injustice despite themselves. In his study of the 'state nobility' Bourdieu demonstrates how social divisions are sustained by the process of academic evaluation, unbeknown to those who carry out the evaluations:

    Agents entrusted with acts of classification can fulfil their social function as social classifiers only because it is carried out in the guise of acts of academic classification. They only do well what they have to do (objectively) because they think they are doing something other than what they are doing, because they are doing something other than what they think they are doing, and because they believe in what they think they are doing. As fools fooled, they are the primary victims of their own actions.57

For Lukács it was the division of labour and the increasing sophistication of production under capitalism which gave rise to an ever greater specialisation of skills. In this way 'artificially isolated partial functions' were performed 'in the most rational manner by "specialists" who are specially adapted mentally and physically for the purpose'. As a consequence these partial, autonomous functions develop 'through their own momentum and in accordance with their own special laws independently of the other partial functions of society (or of that part of society to which they belong)'. This process of specialisation makes it progressively harder to conceive of an 'an image of the whole'.58 Lukács's primary concern was to demonstrate how workers could conceive of society in its totality as a result of the conflicts engendered by class exploitation, thus opening up a path to liberation. Despite the common ground between such concerns and Bourdieu's insistence on the role of agency in his own, infinitely more detailed, explorations of the development of autonomous fields, the 'image of the whole' nevertheless remains an elusive one in Bourdieu's work.

Bourdieu and Marxism

A feature of Bourdieu's analyses is his use of various terms associated with Marxism: capital, class, fetishisation and so on. Indeed, it has become commonplace for critics to dismiss Bourdieu's work as Marxist and therefore determinist.59 As a consequence, and perhaps understandably, Bourdieu has steadfastly refused to identify himself with Marxism, dismissing the terms Marxist or Weberian as 'religious alternatives'. Yet he shares his emphasis on concrete, practical reality as the starting point for any understanding of the world, as he acknowledges, with Marx, for whom, 'all social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice'.60 Moreover, Bourdieu's explorations of the relationship between theory and practice, between subjective action and objective structures (The Logic of Practice), and his work on the perpetuation and dissimulation of forms of domination and on the human consequences of that domination, notably in The Weight of the World, engage with themes central to a Marxist understanding of society.

Bourdieu provides powerful contributions to debates at the heart of Marxist theory, in particular with regard to cultural production (The Rules of Art) and consumption (Distinction) and in his analysis of the state and the role played by bureaucracy and education in the reproduction of its domination (Reproduction, Homo Academicus, The State Nobility). The argument which runs through these works is that the ruling class ensures its hold over the means of ideological production, not simply because of the fact of its control, but because it is able to legitimise its privileged status by disguising it as the result of meritocratic triumph through sheer talent.

Bourdieu argues that the Marxist tradition has offered little in the way of analysis of 'specialised agents of production'.61 Whatever the truth of this assertion, his conclusion, that Marxism does more harm than good when it comes to understanding the symbolic power of the state,62 neglects the fact that, as a method, Marxism nevertheless provides the basis for further explorations of the subject. In Bourdieu's own case the argument can be turned on its head. As Jacques Bidet points out, Bourdieu's interest is focused on the mechanisms by which the cultural means of domination are reproduced, but they are discussed with regard to particular fields rather than the social process of production in its entirety. His analysis of cultural production therefore ignores the essential feature of the process of social production: the interplay between relations of production and productive forces. The economy (and by implication history, at least in terms of a sophisticated sense of historical development) is thus evacuated from Bourdieu's work.63

Consciousness and ideology

Although some have held out the possibility that Bourdieu can offer an 'adequate Marxist theory of ideology',64 he has never, in any of his major works, engaged in a systematic way with Marxist theory, restricting his observations to interviews or asides. His most explicit criticism of the Marxist tradition concerns the question of consciousness and ideology. Bourdieu argues:

    The social world doesn't work in terms of consciousness, it works in terms of practices, mechanisms and so forth... By using doxa we accept many things without knowing them, and that is what is called ideology... We must move away from the Cartesian philosophy of the Marxist tradition towards a different philosophy in which agents are not aiming consciously towards things, or mistakenly guided by false representation. I think that is all wrong, and I don't believe in it.65

The error made by Marxists is to overestimate the capacity for resistance 'as a capacity of consciousness'.66 Such idealism, argues Bourdieu, is mistaken because 'cognitive structures are not forms of consciousness but dispositions of the body':

    ...to speak of 'ideologies' is to locate in the realm of representations--liable to be transformed through this intellectual conversion called 'awakening of consciousness' (prise de conscience)--what in fact belongs to the order of belief, that is, to the level of the most profound corporeal dispositions.67

Marxism, argues Bourdieu, tends to confuse, in the terms used by Marx against Hegel, 'the things of logic and the logic of things'. When the distinction is made between the 'class in itself', defined according to objective criteria, and the 'class for itself', based on subjective factors, Marxists present the passage from one to the other as a natural progression, a kind of 'ontological promotion', according either to a determinist logic based on the coming to fruition of objective conditions, or a purely voluntarist conception in which awareness of theory comes about under the enlightened leadership of the party. 'In neither case is anything said about the mysterious alchemy whereby a "group in struggle", personalised collective, historic agent setting down its own ends, rises up out of the objective economic conditions'.68

It is easy to recognise in Bourdieu's criticism the two features, ultra-left voluntarism and determinism, which characterised what passed in a variety of guises for historical materialism or 'Marxism-Leninism' during the last century. Yet Bourdieu's criticisms of Marxism, like the Stalinist and Maoist currents which so distorted the tradition, tend to take a simplified characterisation of the notion of 'false consciousness' as a central feature of the Marxist analysis of ideology. In fact, whatever the ambiguities of Marx's own explorations of the question, subsequent examinations of consciousness and ideology within the Marxist tradition do offer sophisticated analyses of the impact of ideology based on the role of commodity fetishism and self deception in generating 'false consciousness'.69 Indeed, a more accurate formulation, which conveys something of the complexity of the question, is Gramsci's notion of 'contradictory class consciousness', according to which ruling class ideology and its institutions 'do not so much induce in workers a systematically false consciousness as prevent the formation of a coherent revolutionary class consciousness, in particular by impeding the kind of theoretical reflection which would be necessary to remove inconsistencies and to arrive at a coherent analysis of existing society'.70

If the development of revolutionary consciousness were simply a matter of persuading workers to reject ruling class ideas then socialism would be a much more straightforward prospect. In reality, as Bourdieu's own studies demonstrate,71 the problem is not that workers are duped or hoodwinked by ruling class ideology, but that their desire to fight what they know to be unjust is constantly thwarted by the sense that there is no alternative to the status quo. It is this sense of powerlessness which blocks change. It is the lived experience of collective action (December 1995 being a good example), the practical reality of solidarity and the transformative effect of struggle which open up the prospect of an alternative to the status quo. To characterise historical materialism as 'Cartesian', then, obscures the interplay between theory and practice, activity and consciousness which is at its core. This relationship centres on the mediating role of labour as 'the subject-object of the historical process', the point at which human consciousness, which is neither completely free nor simply an instinct or a reflex, and material circumstances interact. They do so in a dynamic way which transforms both.72 Franz Jakubowski offers a lucid summary of how Marxism is able to grasp the relationship between the reality of alienated existence under capitalism and the potential for transformation contained within this situation:

    To the proletarian who is simultaneously thing and man, object and subject, reality reveals that it too has a dual character: it is both essence and appearance, it is both the inner, essential form and the surface. The proletarian's experience of this situation enables him, proceeding from the achieved form of reification, to know the whole of social reality as essence and appearance. Self alienation has reached its peak in the proletariat. By becoming object, thing, man has at the same time become the subject and object of knowledge. This is what 'the self knowledge of reality' means, in the dialectical materialist sense. In the process of man's becoming a thing, the reified structure of reality dissolves and becomes human and social. The fact that man and thing have become one, without man ceasing to be consciously man, reveals the human character of relationships between things.73

Fundamental to Marxist theory is that humans, whatever the constraints imposed on them, are conscious actors and therefore possess the capacity to impose their will. The form which exploitation takes under capitalism means that the reality of class society is generally obscured, but situations are nevertheless thrown up which reveal the class-based and thus historical, rather than eternal and unchanging, nature of society. The Marxist dialectic therefore:

    ...includes in its comprehension an affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.74

Bourdieu's stress on the unconscious incorporation of objective structures leaves little room for conscious action to break out of the circle imposed by the pattern of Habitus--Practice--Structures--Habitus (HPSH).75 Although his outlook shares Marx's emphasis on the transience of objective structures, the apparently relentless manner in which they are able to reassert themselves means that no sooner has the prospect of transformation been opened up than the revolving door of HPSH closes it off and domination is reasserted:

    Each state of the social world is thus no more than a temporary equilibrium, a moment in the dynamics through which the adjustment between distributions and incorporated or institutionalised classifications is constantly broken and restored. The struggle which is the very principle of the distributions is inextricably a struggle to appropriate rare goods and a struggle to impose the legitimate way of perceiving the power relations manifested by the distributions, a representation which, through its own efficacy, can help to perpetuate or subvert these power relations.76

What is unclear, however, is what constitutes these power relations and in particular, what role economic factors play in their configuration. Despite his emphasis on the role played by 'the symbolic aspect of the acts and relations of production...to prevent the economy from being grasped as an economy, that is, as a system governed by the laws of interested calculation, competition or exploitation',77 Bourdieu's conception of the economic field, as Andreani has noted, remains vague. Since he rejects the notion that economic factors determine the social structure as a whole, the economy appears as just one field among many.78

More important, however, is the absence of the concept of exploitation from his work. Although Bourdieu's insistence on the stratification of society along class lines appears to distance his work from the preoccupation with the Nietzschean pursuit of power that characterises other analyses of 'domination', his work leaves open the question of the origins both of classes and the structures of domination that pit them against each other. Moreover, his conceptualisation of capital (and its various forms) as primarily an asset tends to dilute it as a concept, to divest it of its specific meaning within capitalism. Unless explanations of class centre on the question of exploitation, then it becomes just another form of domination.79 If, on the other hand, class is understood as the embodiment of exploitation within the social structure, and individual classes defined 'above all according to their relationship...to the conditions of production...and to other classes',80 then exploitation may be seen to be not so much the product of domination under capitalism as its cause. Otherwise it becomes very hard to see either what gives rise to domination (human nature? psychological 'interests'?) or how forms of domination may change in different societies. Marx's analysis of capital as not just a resource to be acquired, obtained and, if necessary, transformed, but as intrinsic to a system of relations, based on the exploitation of labour and competition, allows for an understanding of what produces the contradictory dynamic of the system.81

It is the absence of any real sense either of what drives the system to reproduce itself, besides the mechanical process of reproduction itself, or of what may subvert or revolutionise this process, which makes the otherwise fruitful concept of habitus appear trapped in a circular process, as Bourdieu's own explanations frequently seem to underline:

    Habitus is thus at the basis of strategies of reproduction that tend to maintain separations, distances, and relations of order(ing), hence concurring in practice (although not consciously or deliberately) in reproducing the entire system of differences constitutive of the social order.82

So saturated with the lifeblood of structures is the habitus that the chances of breaking out of the cycle of reproduction seem subject to interminable constraints. It is perhaps not surprising then that Bourdieu himself should appear so cautious about the prospects for self emancipation:

    Dominated individuals...assent to much more than we believe and much more than they know. It is a formidable mechanism, like the imperial system--a wonderful instrument of ideology, much bigger and more powerful than TV or propaganda. Dissent exists, but not where we look for it--it takes another form.83


One hundred and fifty years ago Marx addressed a Chartist meeting in London with a message about the opposition between 'modern industry and science on the one hand, and modern poverty and decay on the other'. This opposition, between 'the productive forces and the social relations of our time', he argued, 'is an obvious, overwhelming, undeniable fact', concluding:

    Some parties may lament it, others may wish to get rid of modern proficiency and therewith of its conflicts. Or they may believe that such a remarkable progress in industry demands for its completion just as remarkable a retrogression in politics.84

Faced with the political abdication of European social democracy and its capitulation before the market, Bourdieu presents a vigorous, optimistic antidote to the pessimism which has gripped sections of the left.85 His consistent engagement with the various currents of resistance to capitalism and the new mood of combativity opened up in France by December 1995, and pursued in Seattle in November 1999, highlight his concern to unite theory with practice. Paradoxically, however, his characterisation of the role of the critical intellectual as one of developing ideas that might be useful to the social movement implies a tacit acceptance of the division of labour between intellectuals and workers which the classical Marxist tradition seeks to break down.86 Such questions, and numerous others raised by Bourdieu's practical and theoretical interventions (the role of structure and agency, the nature of class, consciousness and ideology, etc) are central concerns of Marxism, as is the emphasis on the practical activity of individuals which dominates Bourdieu's work.

A major difference between the two approaches centres on the role and potential of struggle. Bourdieu's use of the concept of the habitus as the mechanism which mediates human interaction with nature and society allows for the engagement of individuals in struggle but this engagement tends only to reproduce the constraints they are pitted against. By contrast, Marx's emphasis on the mediating role of labour stresses the transformative potential of the relationship between active individuals and nature and society.87 In this sense we may conclude that Bourdieu points towards political outcomes which are limited to 'the art of the possible', whereas the politics of Marxism also invoke 'the art of the impossible', envisaging political intervention as 'not simply something that works well within the framework of the existing relations, but something that changes the very framework that determines how things work...it changes the very parameters of what is considered "possible" in the existing constellation'.88 Despite his reluctance to engage with Marxism, Bourdieu's descriptions of the complexity of modern society and the mechanisms by which ruling class domination is maintained, and his more recent work on the human effects of this process, are an impressive contribution to debates from which Marxists cannot remain aloof. Indeed these, along with many other questions (the role of political organisation, strategy and tactics, the question of reformism and the state, etc), go to the heart of issues raised by his own stand against neo-liberalism, issues which continue to be thrown up in the present climate in which ongoing protests against global capitalism are inevitably accompanied by the search for an alternative to the market.


  1. I am very grateful to Sebastian Budgen, Peter Hallward, Philippe Marlière and Kevin Ovenden for reading and commenting on the draft of this article.
  2. Bourdieu has made no secret of the importance he attaches to the role of the critical intellectual: 'What I defend above all is the possibility and the necessity of the critical intellectual, who if firstly critical of the intellectual doxa secreted by the doxosophers. There is no genuine democracy without genuine opposing critical powers. The intellectual is one of those, and of the first magnitude. That is why I consider the work of demolishing the critical intellectual, dead or alive--Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre, Foucault and some others who are grouped together under the label Pensée 68--is as dangerous as the demolition of the public interest and that is part of the same global enterprise of restoration,' P Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time (Cambridge, 1998), p8. On the ambiguities of his position with regard to the role of the intellectual, see A Callinicos, 'Anthony Giddens or Pierre Bourdieu?', New Left Review 236 (July/August 1999).
  3. D Bensaid, 'A New Radicalism in French Political Philosophy?', paper presented at Maison Française, Oxford, 24 February 2000.
  4. D Bensaïd, 'Désacraliser Bourdieu', Magazine Littéraire, October 1998, p69. When one of the teachers involved in the wave of strikes and occupations against education cuts that swept the Seine-Saint-Denis region in 1998 wrote an article in Le Monde about the situation in schools, his message to those who 'make out they don't understand' the situation was to read The Weight of the World (Le Monde, 28 March 1998).
  5. Published in English as Acts of Resistance, op cit.
  6. This was set up by the late Jacques Kergoat without Bourdieu's participation.
  7. Respectively, Agir ensemble contre le chomage! and L'Association pour l'Emploi, l'Information et la Solidarité des Ch(tm)meurs
  8. The petition was entitled 'Pour une Réforme de la Sécurité Sociale', Le Monde, 3-4 December 1995. Bourdieu then issued a counter-petition, 'Appel des Intellectuels en Soutien aux Grévistes', 4 December 1995.
  9. Le Monde, 26 November 1996.
  10. His speech to strikers at the Gare de Lyon is included in Acts of Resistance, op cit, 'Against the Destruction of a Civilisation', pp24-28.
  11. Le Monde, 8 April 1998.
  12. Le Monde, 31 March 1999.
  13. Le Monde, 26 November 1996.
  14. The appeal was launched on May Day 2000. See Le Monde, 2 May 2000
  15. Cited in Le Monde, 24 June 1999.
  16. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the offensive led by Bourdieu and his collaborators has been the ferocity of their attacks on leading proponents (usually former socialists of one sort or another) of an accommodation to neo-liberalism. By far the most odious of these is France's leading B-52 liberal, Bernard Henri-Lévy, whose insidious anti-immigrant racism is the subject of a scathing attack in Acts of Resistance, op cit ('The Negative Intellectual', pp91-93). Other targets have included contributors to Esprit, the 'Sunday philosopher' Paul Ricoeur and the ex-Maoist writer Philip Sollers who, argues Bourdieu, looks like becoming to literature what Mitterrand was to socialism.
  17. O Mongin and J Roman, 'Le Populisme Version Bourdieu ou la Tentation du Mépris', Esprit 244, July 1988, p162.
  18. C Lanzmann and R Redeker, 'Les Méfaits d'un Rationalisme Simplificateur', Le Monde, 18 September 1998.
  19. J Verdés-Leroux, Le Savant et la Politique. Essai sur le Terrorisme Sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu (Paris, 1998).
  20. D Bensaïd, Lionel qu'as tu fait de notre victoire? (Paris, 1998), p125
  21. P Bourdieu, In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology (Cambridge, 1990), p3.
  22. A Honneth, H Kocyba and B Schwibs, 'The Struggle for Symbolic Order: An Interview with Pierre Bourdieu', cited in R Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (Cambridge, 1992), p14.
  23. This was revised in 1961 and 1962 and published in English as The Algerians in 1962.
  24. Reprinted in abridged form in P Bourdieu, Algeria 1960 (Cambridge, 1979).
  25. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, 1977), pp73-74.
  26. Reprinted in P Bourdieu, Algeria 1960, op cit.
  27. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, op cit, p72.
  28. P Bourdieu, In Other Words, op cit, p14.
  29. P Bourdieu, 'Célibat et Condition Paysanne', cited in D Robbins, The Work of Pierre Bourdieu (Milton Keynes, 1991), p37.
  30. See P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, op cit, and The Logic of Practice (Cambridge, 1990).
  31. P Bourdieu, In Other Words, op cit, pp62-63.
  32. P Bourdieu, 'The Attitude of the Algerian Peasant Toward Time', in J Pitt-Rivers (ed), Mediterranean Countrymen (Paris, 1963), p5. Cited in R Jenkins, op cit, p26.
  33. P Bourdieu, 'The Algerian Subproletariat', in I W Zarman (ed), Man, State and Society in the Contemporary Maghreb (New York, 1973), p83. Cited in R Jenkins, op cit, p27.
  34. P Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (Cambridge, 2000), p231.
  35. For Frantz Fanon the urban 'sub-proletariat', or lumpenproletariat, uprooted and poverty-striken shanty town dwellers, was a spontaneously radical force which would spearhead the revolution. See F Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (London, 1965), and Sartre's accompanying preface.
  36. P Bourdieu, 'The Algerian Subproletariat,' op cit, cited in R Jenkins, op cit, p27. Paradoxically, however, the greater the freedom to act, the more activity is geared to fit what can be done: 'the more power one has, the more one's aspirations are adjusted to chances of realisation'; P Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, op cit, p226.
  37. J F Lane Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction (London, forthcoming), ch 1.
  38. For a discussion of this and other aspects of the relationship between Bourdieu and Marx see Sung-Min Hong, Habitus, Corps, Domination. Sur Certains présupposés Philosophiques de la Sociologie de Pierre Bourdieu (Paris, 1999), ch 4.
  39. P Bourdieu, Algeria 1960, op cit, p53. There is an unmistakable similarity here with Weber's characterisation of action as rational 'in so far as it pursues ends possible within the conditions of the situation' (cited in A Callinicos, Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory (Cambridge, 1987), p114.
  40. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, op cit, p95.
  41. P Bourdieu, In Other Words, op cit, p190.
  42. 'Célibat et Condition Paysanne', Études Rurales, 5-6, 1962. See D Robbins, op cit p37.
  43. P Bourdieu, In Other Words, op cit, p190.
  44. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, op cit, pp93-94.
  45. Ibid, p95.
  46. See D Robbins, op cit, pp50-52.
  47. Ibid, p54
  48. P Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, op cit, p195.
  49. Ibid, p187.
  50. Ibid, p195.
  51. P Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, op cit, p170.
  52. Ibid, pp170-171.
  53. Distinction, op cit, p77.
  54. L Wacquant, 'From Ideology to Symbolic Violence: Culture, Class, and Consciousness in Marx and Bourdieu', International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, October 1993, p131.
  55. P Bourdieu, Distinction, op cit, p483.
  56. L Wacquant, op cit, p133.
  57. P Bourdieu, The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power (Cambridge, 1996), p39.
  58. G Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London, 1983), p103.
  59. See L Ferry and A Renaut, La Pensée 68, Essai sur l'Anti-humanisme Contemporain (Paris, 1985). Chapter 5 is entitled 'Le Marxisme Français: Bourdieu'.
  60. K Marx, Thesis on Feuerbach, cited in R Jenkins, op cit, p68.
  61. P Bourdieu, Practical Reason (Cambridge, 1998), p57.
  62. P Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, op cit, p177. See also his dismissal of those who tried to build on Marx's analysis of ideology, such as Lukács and Goldmann, who, according to Bourdieu, are prone to a 'short-circuit fallacy' which consists of relating cultural production to social production without due attention to the specific mediation of the field of cultural production; P Bourdieu, 'Objectiver le Sujet Objectivant,' in Choses Dites (Paris, 1987) pp112-113.
  63. J Bidet, 'Bourdieu et le matérialisme historique', in J Bidet and E Kounélakis (eds), Dictionnaire Marx Contemporain (Paris, forthcoming). See also D Gartman, 'Culture as Class Symbolization or Mass Reification? A Critique of Bourdieu's Distinction', American Journal of Sociology, September 1991.
  64. S Hall, 'The Hinterland of Science: Ideology and the "Sociology of Knowledge", in Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, On Ideology (London, 1978), p29. Cited in R Jenkins, op cit, p18.
  65. P Bourdieu and T Eagleton, 'Doxa and Common Life', New Left Review, January/February 1992, p113.
  66. Ibid, p114.
  67. P Bourdieu Practical Reason, op cit, p54-5.
  68. P Bourdieu, 'Espace Social et Genèse des "Classes",' Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, no 52/53, 1984, p5. Cited in Sung-Min Hong, op cit, p223.
  69. For a discussion of this question and in particular its treatment by Lukács and Gramsci, see A Callinicos 1987, op cit, and J Rees, The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition (London, 1998). For a stimulating and idiosyncratic analysis of commodity fetishism see S Zizek, The Plague of Fantasies (London, 1998), ch 3.
  70. A Callinicos, op cit, p154.
  71. This question is taken up on a theoretical level in most of his major works and conveyed in very concrete terms in The Weight of the World.
  72. J Rees, op cit, p74. See pages 69-74 for a discussion of this analysis of the role of labour in Marx and Engels.
  73. F Jakubowski, Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism (London, 1990), p116.
  74. K Marx, preface to the second edition of Capital, cited in K Korsch, Three Essays on Marxism (London, 1971), p71.
  75. J Bidet, op cit.
  76. P Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, op cit, p141.
  77. Ibid, p113.
  78. T Andréani, 'Bourdieu au-delà et en deçà de Marx', Actuel Marx 20, 1996.
  79. On this point, in relation to analytical Marxism, see A Callinicos, op cit, p70.
  80. G de Ste Croix, Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London, 1981), pp43-44, cited in A Callinicos, op cit, p51.
  81. In this sense, as Bidet and Andréani point out, comparisons may be drawn between Bourdieu's work and analytical Marxism.
  82. P Bourdieu, The State Nobility, op cit, p3.
  83. P Bourdieu and T Eagleton, op cit, p114. An example of this kind of dissent is given in P Bourdieu, Distinction, op cit, pp143-147, where Bourdieu describes the sense of 'collective disillusionment' based on the 'structural mismatch between aspirations and real probabilities' which gives rise to forms of protest and escapism which go beyond the bounds of trade union or political organisation.
  84. Marx, speech delivered at the Fourth Annual Celebration of the Chartist People's Paper, 14 April 1856, cited in K Korsch, op cit, p70.
  85. One of the more articulate but least plausible examples of this pessimism is Perry Anderson's recent (January/February 2000) New Left Review editorial.
  86. See 'Social Scientists, Economic Science and the Social Movement', in P Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance, op cit, pp52-59. For a selection of Gramsci's writings on the role of the intellectual see Forgacs (ed), The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916-1935 (London, 1999), ch 10.
  87. I am grateful to Kevin Ovenden for stressing this comparison.
  88. S Zizek, 'Towards a Politics of Truth: the Retrieval of Lenin. 100 Years after What is to be Done?', call for conference papers, Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut (Essen, February 2-4 2001).

Pierre Felix Bourdieu (French: [buʁdjø]; 1 August 1930 – 23 January 2002) was a French sociologist, anthropologist,[3]philosopher, and public intellectual.[4]

Bourdieu's work was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, and especially the diverse and subtle ways in which power is transferred and social order maintained within and across generations. In conscious opposition to the idealist tradition of much of Western philosophy, his work often emphasized the corporeal nature of social life and stressed the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics. Building upon the theories of Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Georges Canguilhem, Karl Marx, Gaston Bachelard, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Erwin Panofsky, and Marcel Mauss (among others), his research pioneered novel investigative frameworks and methods, and introduced such influential concepts as cultural, social, and symbolic forms of capital (as opposed to traditional economic forms of capital), the cultural reproduction, the habitus, the field or location, and symbolic violence. Another notable influence on Bourdieu was Blaise Pascal, after whom Bourdieu titled his Pascalian Meditations. Bourdieu's major contributions to the sociology of education, the theory of sociology, and sociology of aesthetics have achieved wide influence in several related academic fields (e.g. anthropology, media and cultural studies, education), popular culture, and the arts.

Bourdieu's best known book is Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979). The book was judged the sixth most important sociological work of the twentieth century by the International Sociological Association.[5] In it, Bourdieu argues that judgments of taste are related to social position, or more precisely, are themselves acts of social positioning. His argument is put forward by an original combination of social theory and data from quantitative surveys, photographs and interviews, in an attempt to reconcile difficulties such as how to understand the subject within objective structures. In the process, he tried to reconcile the influences of both external social structures and subjective experience on the individual (see structure and agency).

Life and career[edit]

Bourdieu was born in Denguin (Pyrénées-Atlantiques), in southern France, to a postal worker and his wife. The household spoke Béarnese, a Gascon dialect. Bourdieu married Marie-Claire Brizard in 1962; the couple had three sons, Jérôme, Emmanuel, and Laurent.

Bourdieu was educated at the lycée in Pau before moving to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. From there he gained entrance to the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), also in Paris, where he studied philosophy alongside Louis Althusser. After getting his agrégation, Bourdieu worked as a lycée teacher at Moulins for a year before his conscription into the French Army in 1955.

His biographers write that he chose not to enter the Reserve Officer's College like many of his fellow ENS graduates as he wished to stay with people from his own modest social background.[6] Deployed to Algeria in October 1955 during its war of independence from France, he served in a unit guarding military installations before being transferred to clerical work.[6]

After his year-long military service, Bourdieu stayed on as a lecturer in Algiers.[7] During the Algerian War in 1958–1962, Bourdieu undertook ethnographicresearch into the clash through a study of the Kabyle peoples of the Berbers, laying the groundwork for his anthropological reputation. The result was his first book, Sociologie de l'Algérie (The Sociology of Algeria, 1958), which became an immediate success in France and was published in America in 1962. He later drew heavily on this fieldwork in his 1972 book Outline of a Theory of Practice, a strong intervention into anthropological theory.[3]

In 1960 Bourdieu returned to the University of Paris before gaining a teaching position at the University of Lille, where he remained until 1964. From 1964 onwards Bourdieu held the position of Professor (Directeur d'études) in the VIe section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (the future École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), and from 1981 the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France (held before him by Raymond Aron and Maurice Halbwachs). In 1968, Bourdieu took over the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, founded by Aron, which he directed until his death.

In 1975, with the research group he had formed at the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, he launched the interdisciplinary journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, with which he sought to transform the accepted canons of sociological production while buttressing the scientific rigor of sociology. In 1993 he was honored with the "Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique" (CNRS). In 1996 he received the Goffman Prize from the University of California, Berkeley and in 2001 the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.[8] Bourdieu died of cancer at the age of 71.[7]


Bourdieu's work is influenced by much of traditional anthropology and sociology which he undertook to synthesize into his own theory. From Max Weber he retained the importance of domination and symbolic systems in social life, as well as the idea of social orders which would ultimately be transformed by Bourdieu from a sociology of religion into a theory of fields.[9]

From Marx he gained his understanding of 'society' as the ensemble of social relationships: "what exist in the social world are relations – not interactions between agents or intersubjective ties between individuals, but objective relations which exist 'independently of individual consciousness and will'."[10] (grounded in the mode and conditions of economic production), and of the need to dialectically develop social theory from social practice.[11]

The class-based nature of artistic taste had already been firmly established by Arnold Hauser in The Social History of Art (1951).

From Émile Durkheim, through Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu inherited a certain structuralist interpretation of the tendency of social structures to reproduce themselves, based on the analysis of symbolic structures and forms of classification. However, Bourdieu critically diverged from Durkheim in emphasizing the role of the social agent in enacting, through the embodiment of social structures, symbolic orders. He furthermore emphasized that the reproduction of social structures does not operate according to a functionalist logic.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, through him, the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl played an essential part in the formulation of Bourdieu's focus on the body, action, and practical dispositions (which found their primary manifestation in Bourdieu's theory of habitus).[12]

Bourdieu was also influenced by Wittgenstein (especially with regard to his work on rule-following) stating that "Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at moments of difficulty. He's a kind of saviour for times of great intellectual distress".[13]

Bourdieu's work is built upon an attempt to transcend a series of oppositions which he thought characterized the social sciences (subjectivism/objectivism, micro/macro, freedom/determinism) of his time. His concepts of habitus, capital, and field were conceived with the intention of overcoming such oppositions.[14]

As a public intellectual[edit]

During the 1990s Bourdieu became more and more involved in political debate, becoming one of the most important public faces of intellectual life in France. While a fierce critic of neoliberalism, Bourdieu was also critical of the "total intellectual" role played by Sartre, and he dismissed Sartre's attempts to intervene in French politics as "irresponsible" and "opportunistic."[15] Bourdieu saw sociology not as a form of "intellectual entertainment" but as a serious discipline of a scientific nature. There is an apparent contradiction between Bourdieu's earlier writings against using sociology for political activism and his later launch into the role of a public intellectual, with some highly "visible political statements".[15] Although much of his early work stressed the importance of treating sociology as a strict scientific discipline (« La sociologie est un sport de combat » — "Sociology is a martial art"), his later career saw him enter the less academic world of political debate in France, raising the issue of whether the sociologist has political responsibilities extending to the public domain.

Although Bourdieu earlier faulted public intellectuals such as Sartre, he had strong political views which influenced his sociology from the beginning. By the time of his later work his main concern had become the effect of globalisation and those who benefited least from it. His politics then became more overt and his role as public intellectual was born, from an "urgency to speak out against neoliberal discourse that had become so dominant within political debate."[15] Bourdieu developed a project to investigate the effects — particularly the harm — of neoliberal reforms in France. The most significant fruit of this project was the 1993 study 'The Weight of the World,' although his views are perhaps more candidly expressed in his articles.[16] 'The Weight of the World' represented a heavyweight scientific challenge to the dominant trends in French politics. Since it was the work of a team of sociologists, it also shows Bourdieu's collaborative character, indicating that he was still in 1993 reluctant to accept being singled out with the category (he deplored the term 'role'[17]) of public intellectual. Nevertheless, Bourdieu's activities as a critical sociologist prepared him for the public stage, fulfilling his "constructionist view of social life" as it relied upon the idea of social actors making change through collective struggles. His relationship with the media was improved through his very public action of organizing strikes and rallies that raised huge media interest in him and his many books became more popular through this new notoriety. One of the main differences between the critical sociologist and public intellectual is the ability to have a relationship with popular media resources outside the academic realm.[18] It is notable that in his later writings Bourdieu sounded cautionary notes about such individuals, describing them as "like the Trojan Horse[19] " for the unwanted elements they may bring to the academic world. Again Bourdieu seems wary of accepting the description 'public intellectual,' worrying that it might be difficult to reconcile with science and scholarship. Research is needed on what conditions transform particular intellectuals into public intellectuals.[15]


Bourdieu routinely sought to connect his theoretical ideas with empirical research and his work can be seen as sociology of culture or, as he described it, a "Theory of Practice". His contributions to sociology were both evidential and theoretical (that is, calculated through both systems). His key terms were habitus, capital and field.

He extended the idea of capital to categories such as social capital, cultural capital, financial capital, and symbolic capital. For Bourdieu each individual occupies a position in a multidimensional social space; he or she is not defined only by social class membership, but by every single kind of capital he or she can articulate through social relations. That capital includes the value of social networks, which Bourdieu showed could be used to produce or reproduce inequality.

Ultimately, each relatively autonomous field of modern life, such as economy, politics, arts, journalism, bureaucracy, science or education engenders a specific complex of social relations where the agents will engage their everyday practice. Through this practice, they develop a certain disposition for social action that is conditioned by their position on the field (dominant/dominated and orthodox/heterodox are only two possible ways of positioning the agents on the field; these basic binary distinctions are always further analysed considering the specificities of each field). This disposition, combined with every other disposition the individual develops through his engagement with other fields operating within the social world, will eventually come to constitute a system of dispositions, known in Bourdieu's lexicon as a habitus. Dispositions - a key concept in Bourdieu's work - can be conceived as a sense of the game, a partly rational but partly intuitive understanding of fields and of social order in general, a practical sense, a practical reason, giving rise to opinions, tastes, tone of voice, typical body movements and mannerisms and so on. The dispositions constitutive of habitus are therefore conditioned responses to the social world, becoming so ingrained that they come to occur spontaneously, rather like 'kneejerk' opinions. It follows that the habitus developed by an individual will typify his position in the social space. By doing so, social agents will often acknowledge, legitimate and reproduce the social forms of domination (including prejudices) and the common opinions of each field as self-evident, clouding from conscience and practice even the acknowledgment of other possible means of production (including symbolic production) and power relations.

Though not deterministic, the inculcation of the subjective structures of the habitus can be observed through statistical data, for example, while its selective affinity with the objective structures of the social world explains the continuity of the social order through time. As the individual habitus is always a mix of multiple engagements in the social world through the person's life, while the social fields are put into practice through the agency of the individuals, no social field or order can be completely stable. In other words, if the relation between individual predisposition and social structure is far stronger than common sense tends to believe, it is not a perfect match.

Some examples of his empirical results include showing that, despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (such as classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly tie in with their social position; and showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style – all part of cultural capital – are a major factor in social mobility (for example, getting a higher-paid, higher-status job).

Pierre Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, preserve their social privileges across generations despite the myth that contemporary post-industrial society boasts equality of opportunity and high social mobility, achieved through formal education.

Bourdieu was an extraordinarily prolific author, producing hundreds of articles and three dozen books, nearly all of which are now available in English.

Theory of class distinction[edit]

Bourdieu developed theories of social stratification based on aesthetic taste in his 1979 work Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (in French, La Distinction), published by Harvard University Press. Bourdieu claims that how one chooses to present one's social space to the world — one's aesthetic dispositions — depicts one's status and distances oneself from lower groups. Specifically, Bourdieu hypothesizes that children internalize these dispositions at an early age and that such dispositions guide the young towards their appropriate social positions, towards the behaviors that are suitable for them, and foster an aversion towards other behaviors.

Bourdieu theorizes that class fractions teach aesthetic preferences to their young. Class fractions are determined by a combination of the varying degrees of social, economic, and cultural capital. Society incorporates “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, [...as] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction.”[20] Those attributes deemed excellent are shaped by the interests of the dominating class. He emphasizes the dominance of cultural capital early on by stating that “differences in cultural capital mark the differences between the classes.”[21]

The development of aesthetic dispositions are very largely determined by social origin rather than accumulated capital and experience over time. The acquisition of cultural capital depends heavily on “total, early, imperceptible learning, performed within the family from the earliest days of life.”[20] Bourdieu argues that, in the main, people inherit their cultural attitudes, the accepted “definitions that their elders offer them.”[22]

He asserts the primacy of social origin and cultural capital by claiming that social capital and economic capital, though acquired cumulatively over time, depend upon it. Bourdieu claims that “one has to take account of all the characteristics of social condition which are (statistically) associated from earliest childhood with possession of high or low income and which tend to shape tastes adjusted to these conditions.”[23]

According to Bourdieu, tastes in food, culture and presentation are indicators of class because trends in their consumption seemingly correlate with an individual’s fit in society.[24] Each fraction of the dominant class develops its own aesthetic criteria. A multitude of consumer interests based on differing social positions necessitates that each fraction “has its own artists and philosophers, newspapers and critics, just as it has its hairdresser, interior decorator, or tailor.”[25]

However, Bourdieu does not disregard the importance of social capital and economic capital in the formation of cultural capital. For example, the production of art and the ability to play an instrument “presuppose not only dispositions associated with long establishment in the world of art and culture but also economic means...and spare time.”[26] However, regardless of one’s ability to act upon one’s preferences, Bourdieu specifies that “respondents are only required to express a status-induced familiarity with legitimate...culture.”[27]

“[Taste] functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a given...social space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position.”[28] Thus, different modes of acquisition yield differences in the nature of preferences.[29]

These “cognitive structures...are internalized, ‘embodied’ social structures,” becoming a natural entity to the individual (Bourdieu 468). Different tastes are thus seen as unnatural and rejected, resulting in “disgust provoked by horror or visceral intolerance (‘feeling sick’) of the tastes of others.”[30]

Bourdieu himself believes class distinction and preferences are “most marked in the ordinary choices of everyday existence, such as furniture, clothing, or cooking, which are particularly revealing of deep-rooted and long-standing dispositions because, lying outside the scope of the educational system, they have to be confronted, as it were, by naked taste.”[31] Indeed, Bourdieu believes that “the strongest and most indelible mark of infant learning” would probably be in the tastes of food.[32] Bourdieu thinks that meals served on special occasions are “an interesting indicator of the mode of self-presentation adopted in ‘showing off’ a life-style (in which furniture also plays a part).”[32] The idea is that their likes and dislikes should mirror those of their associated class fractions.

Children from the lower end of the social hierarchy are predicted to choose “heavy, fatty fattening foods, which are also cheap” in their dinner layouts, opting for “plentiful and good” meals as opposed to foods that are “original and exotic.”[33] These potential outcomes would reinforce Bourdieu’s “ethic of sobriety for the sake of slimness, which is most recognized at the highest levels of the social hierarchy,” that contrasts the “convivial indulgence” characteristic of the lower classes.[34] Demonstrations of the tastes of luxury (or freedom) and the tastes of necessity reveal a distinction among the social classes.

The degree to which social origin affects these preferences surpasses both educational and economic capital. Demonstrably, at equivalent levels of educational capital, social origin remains an influential factor in determining these dispositions.[27] How one describes one’s social environment relates closely to social origin because the instinctive narrative springs from early stages of development.[35] Also, across the divisions of labor, “economic constraints tend to relax without any fundamental change in the pattern of spending.”[36] This observation reinforces the idea that social origin, more than economic capital, produces aesthetic preferences because regardless of economic capability, consumption patterns remain stable.

Theory of power and practice[edit]

At the center of Bourdieu's sociological work is a logic of practice that emphasizes the importance of the body and practices within the social world. Against the intellectualist tradition, Bourdieu stressed that mechanisms of social domination and reproduction were primarily focused on bodily know-how and competent practices in the social world. Bourdieu fiercely opposed Rational Choice Theory as grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Social agents do not, according to Bourdieu, continuously calculate according to explicit rational and economic criteria. Rather, social agents operate according to an implicit practical logic—a practical sense—and bodily dispositions. Social agents act according to their "feel for the game" (the "feel" being, roughly, habitus, and the "game" being the field).

Bourdieu’s anthropological work was dominated by an analysis of the mechanisms of reproduction of social hierarchies. Bourdieu criticized the primacy given to economic factors in the analysis of social order and change. In terms of order, he stressed that the embedded capacity of social actors to actively impose and engage their cultural productions and symbolic systems plays an essential role in the reproduction of social structures of domination. What Bourdieu called symbolic violence is the self-interested capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is either ignored, or posited as natural, thereby justifying the legitimacy of existing social structures. This concept plays an essential part in his sociological analysis.

For Bourdieu, the social world has gradually divided into what he calls fields. For him, the differentiation of social activities led to the constitution of various, relatively autonomous, social spaces in which competition centers around particular species of capital. These fields are treated on a hierarchical basis—with economic power usually governing—wherein the dynamics of fields arise out of the struggle of social actors trying to occupy the dominant positions within the field. Bourdieu embraces prime elements of conflict theory like Marx. Social struggle also occurs within fields hierarchically nested under the economic antagonisms between social classes. The conflicts which take place in each social field have specific characteristics arising from those fields and that involve many social relationships which are not economic.[11]

Pierre Bourdieu developed a theory of the action, around the concept of habitus, which exerted a considerable influence in the social sciences. This theory seeks to show that social agents develop strategies which are adapted to the needs of the social worlds that they inhabit. These strategies are unconscious and act on the level of a bodily logic.

Theory about media and cultural production[edit]

Bourdieu’s most significant work on cultural production is available in two books: The Field of Cultural Production (1993) and The Rules of Art (1996).

Bourdieu builds his theory of cultural production using his own characteristic theoretical vocabulary of habitus, capital and field.

David Hesmondhalgh writes that “by ‘Cultural production’ Bourdieu intends a very broad understanding of culture, in line with the tradition of classical sociology, including science (which in turn includes social science), law and religion, as well as expressive-aesthetic activities such as art, literature and music. However, his work on cultural production focuses overwhelmingly on two types of field or sub-field of cultural production (...): literature and art.”[37]

According to Pierre Bourdieu “the principal obstacle to a rigorous science of the production of the value of cultural goods” is the “charismatic ideology of ‘creation’ “ which can be easily found in studies of art, literature and other cultural fields. In Bourdieu’s opinion charismatic ideology ‘directs the gaze towards the apparent producer and prevents us from asking who has created this “creator” and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the “creator” is endowed’.[38]

For Bourdieu, a sociologically informed view of an artist ought to describe their influences, antagonisms, etc., i.e. their relations to the field of production; and also should describe their attitudes to their readers, enthusiasts or detractors, i.e. their relations to the field of consumption. Further, a work of literature, for example, may not adequately be analysed either as the product of the author's life and beliefs (a naively biographical account), or without any reference to the author's intentions (as Barthes argued). In short, "the subject of a work is a habitus in relationship with a 'post', a position, that is, within a field." [39]

According to Bourdieu, cultural revolutions are always dependent on the possibilities present in the positions inscribed in the field.

Field and habitus[edit]


A field is a setting in which agents and their social positions are located. The position of each particular agent in the field is a result of interaction between the specific rules of the field, agent's habitus and agent's capital (social, economic and cultural).[40] Fields interact with each other, and are hierarchical: Most are subordinate to the larger field of power and class relations.[41]

Instead of confining his analysis of social relations and change to voluntaristic agency or strictly in terms of class as a structural relation, Bourdieu uses the agency-structure bridging concept of field: any historical, non-homogeneous social-spatial arena in which people maneuver and struggle in pursuit of desirable resources. Much of Bourdieu's work observes the semi-independent role of educational and cultural resources in the expression of agency. This makes his work amenable to liberal-conservative scholarship positing the fundamental cleavages of society as amongst disorderly factions of the working class, in need of disciplinary intervention where they have assumed excessive privilege. Unsurprisingly given his historical and biographical location, however, Bourdieu was in practice both influenced by and sympathetic to the Marxist identification of economic command as a principal component of power and agency within capitalist society,[42] in contrast to some of his followers or the influential sociologist Max Weber.


Bourdieu's concept of habitus was inspired by Marcel Mauss's notion of body technique and hexis. The word itself can be found in the works of Norbert Elias, Max Weber, Edmund Husserl and Erwin Panofsky as re-workings of the concept as it emerged in Aristotle's notion of Hexis.[43] For Bourdieu, habitus was essential in resolving a prominent antinomy of the human sciences: objectivism and subjectivism. Habitus can be defined as a system of dispositions (lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought and action).

The individual agent develops these dispositions in response to the objective conditions it encounters. In this way Bourdieu theorizes the inculcation of objective social structures into the subjective, mental experience of agents. For the objective social field places requirements on its participants for membership, so to speak, within the field. Having thereby absorbed objective social structure into a personal set of cognitive and somatic dispositions, and the subjective structures of action of the agent then being commensurate with the objective structures and extant exigencies of the social field, a doxic relationship emerges.

Habitus is somewhat reminiscent of preexisting sociological concepts such as socialization, but habitus also differs from the more classic concepts in several important ways. Firstly, a central aspect of the habitus is its embodiment: Habitus does not only, or even primarily, function at the level of explicit, discursive consciousness. The internal structures become embodied and work in a deeper, practical and often pre-reflexive way. An illustrative example might be the 'muscle memory' cultivated in many areas of physical education. Consider the way we catch a ball - the complex geometric trajectories are not calculated; it is not an intellectual process. Although it is a skill that requires learning, it is more a physical than a mental process and has to be performed physically to be learned. In this sense, the concept has something in common with Anthony Giddens' concept of practical consciousness.

Habitus and doxa[edit]

Doxa refers to the learned, fundamental, deep-founded, unconscious beliefs, and values, taken as self-evident universals, that inform an agent's actions and thoughts within a particular field. Doxa tends to favor the particular social arrangement of the field, thus privileging the dominant and taking their position of dominance as self-evident and universally favorable. Therefore, the categories of understanding and perception that constitute a habitus, being congruous with the objective organization of the field, tend to reproduce the very structures of the field. A doxic situation may be thought of as a situation characterized by a harmony between the objective, external structures and the 'subjective', internal structures of the habitus. In the doxic state, the social world is perceived as natural, taken-for-granted and even commonsensical.

Bourdieu thus sees habitus as an important factor contributing to social reproduction because it is central to generating and regulating the practices that make up social life. Individuals learn to want what conditions make possible for them, and not to aspire to what is not available to them. The conditions in which the individual lives generate dispositions compatible with these conditions (including tastes in art, literature, food, and music), and in a sense pre-adapted to their demands. The most improbable practices are therefore excluded, as unthinkable, by a kind of immediate submission to order that inclines agents to make a virtue of necessity, that is, to refuse what is categorically denied and to will the inevitable.[44]

Reconciling the objective (field) and the subjective (habitus)[edit]

As mentioned above, Bourdieu used the methodological and theoretical concepts of habitus and field in order to make an epistemological break with the prominent objective-subjective antinomy of the social sciences. He wanted to effectively unite social phenomenology and structuralism. Habitus and field are proposed to do so.

Bourdieu's ambition to unite these sociological traditions, which had been widely thought to be incompatible, was and remains controversial. The most important concept to grasp is habitus. Crudely put, the habitus is the system of dispositions which individuals have. Sociologists very often look at either social laws (structure) or the individual minds (agency) in which these laws are inscribed. Great sociological arguments have raged between those who argue that the former should be sociology's principal interest (structuralists) and those who argue the same for the latter (phenomenologists). When Bourdieu instead asks us to consider dispositions, he is making a very subtle intervention in sociology. He has found a middle ground where social laws and individual minds meet and is arguing that our proper object of analysis should be this middle ground: dispositions.

Dispositions are also importantly public and hence observable. If I prefer brie to Camembert but keep this fact secret — never showing my preference, scrupulously giving no evidence from which my preference may be observed or deduced — then the preference remains strictly private. It may be aptly called a preference, but it is not a disposition in Bourdieu's sense and arguably not in the everyday sense either. A disposition performs, enacts a preference; however trivial, even when disputing the relative merits of cheeses, a disposition is a public declaration of where one stands, what one's allegiances are.

Amongst any society of individuals, the constant performance of dispositions, trivial and grand, forms an observable range of preferences and allegiances, points and vectors. This spatial metaphor can be analysed by sociologists and realised in diagrammatic form.[45] Ultimately, conceptualising social relations this way gives rise to an image of society as a web of interrelated spaces. These are the social fields.

For Bourdieu, habitus and field can only exist in relation to each other. Although a field is constituted by the various social agents participating in it (and thus their habitus), a habitus, in effect, represents the transposition of objective structures of the field into the subjective structures of action and thought of the agent.

The relationship between habitus and field is two-way. The field exists only insofar as social agents possess the dispositions and set of perceptual schemata that are necessary to constitute that field and imbue it with meaning. Concomitantly, by participating in the field, agents incorporate into their habitus the proper know-how that will allow them to constitute the field. Habitus manifests the structures of the field, and the field mediates between habitus and practice.

Bourdieu attempts to use the concepts of habitus and field to remove the division between the subjective and the objective. Whether or not he successfully does so is open to debate. Bourdieu asserts that any research must be composed of two "minutes." The first an objective stage of research—where one looks at the relations of the social space and the structures of the field. The second stage must be a subjective analysis of social agents' dispositions to act and their categories of perception and understanding that result from their inhabiting the field. Proper research, he says, cannot do without these two together.[46]

Species of capital and symbolic violence[edit]

Bourdieu extended the notion of capital, defined as sums of money or assets put to productive use. For Bourdieu, these assets could take many forms which had not received much attention when he began writing. Bourdieu habitually refers to several principal forms of capital: economic, symbolic, cultural and social. Loic Waquant describes their status in Bourdieu's work in these terms: "Capital comes in 3 principal species: economic, cultural and social. A fourth species, symbolic capital, designates the effects of any form of capital when people do not perceive them as such."[47]

Bourdieu sees symbolic capital (e.g., prestige, honor, attention) as a crucial source of power.[48] Symbolic capital is any species of capital that is, in Loïc Wacquant's terms "not perceived as such," but which is instead perceived through socially inculcated classificatory schemes. When a holder of symbolic capital uses the power this confers against an agent who holds less, and seeks thereby to alter their actions, they exercise symbolic violence.

Symbolic violence is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents who then take the social order to be just. It is the incorporation of unconscious structures that tend to perpetuate the structures of action of the dominant. The dominated then take their position to be "right." Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the spectre of legitimacy of the social order.

In his theoretical writings, Bourdieu employs some terminology used in economics to analyze the processes of social and cultural reproduction, of how the various forms of capital tend to transfer from one generation to the next. For Bourdieu, formal education represents the key example of this process. Educational success, according to Bourdieu, entails a whole range of cultural behaviour, extending to ostensibly non-academic features like gait, dress, or accent. Privileged children have learned this behaviour, as have their teachers. Children of unprivileged backgrounds have not. The children of privilege therefore fit the pattern of their teachers' expectations with apparent 'ease'; they are 'docile'. The unprivileged are found to be 'difficult', to present 'challenges'. Yet both behave as their upbringing dictates. Bourdieu regards this 'ease', or 'natural' ability—distinction—as in fact the product of a great social labour, largely on the part of the parents. It equips their children with the dispositions of manner as well as thought which ensure they are able to succeed within the educational system and can then reproduce their parents' class position in the wider social system.

Cultural capital refers to assets, e.g., competencies, skills, qualifications, which enable holders to mobilise cultural authority and can also be a source of misrecognition and symbolic violence. For example, working class children can come to see the educational success of their middle-class peers as always legitimate, seeing what is often class-based inequality as instead the result of hard work or even 'natural' ability. A key part of this process is the transformation of people's symbolic or economic inheritance (e.g., accent or property) into cultural capital (e.g., university qualifications).

Bourdieu argues that cultural capital has developed in opposition to economic capital. Furthermore, the conflict between those who mostly hold cultural capital and those who mostly hold economic capital finds expression in the opposed social fields of art and business. The field of art and related cultural fields are seen to have striven historically for autonomy, which in different times and places has been more or less achieved. The autonomous field of art is summed up as "an economic world turned upside down,"[49] highlighting the opposition between economic and cultural capital.

For Bourdieu, "social capital is the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."[50]


Bourdieu insists on the importance of a reflexive sociology in which sociologists must at all times conduct their research with conscious attention to the effects of their own position, their own set of internalized structures, and how these are likely to distort or prejudice their objectivity. The sociologist, according to Bourdieu, must engage in a "sociology of sociology" so as not to unwittingly attribute to the object of observation the characteristics of the subject. She/he ought to conduct their research with one eye continually reflecting back upon their own habitus, their dispositions learned through long social and institutional training.

It is only by maintaining such a continual vigilance that the sociologists can spot themselves in the act of importing their own biases into their work. Reflexivity is, therefore, a kind of additional stage in the scientific epistemology. It is not enough for the scientist to go through the usual stages (research, hypothesis, falsification, experiment, repetition, peer review, etc.); Bourdieu recommends also that the scientist purge their work of the prejudices likely to derive from their social position. In a good illustration of the process, Bourdieu chastises academics (including himself) for judging their students' work against a rigidly scholastic linguistic register, favouring students whose writing appears 'polished', marking down those guilty of 'vulgarity'.[51] Without a reflexive analysis of the snobbery being deployed under the cover of those subjective terms, the academic will unconsciously reproduce a degree of class prejudice, promoting the student with high linguistic capital and holding back the student who lacks it — not because of the objective quality of the work but simply because of the register in which it is written. Reflexivity should enable the academic to be conscious of their prejudices, e.g. for apparently sophisticated writing, and impel them to take steps to correct for this bias.

Bourdieu also describes how the "scholastic point of view"[52] unconsciously alters how scientists approach their objects of study. Because of the systematicity of their training and their mode of analysis, they tend to exaggerate the systematicity of the things they study. This inclines them to see agents following clear rules where in fact they use less determinate strategies; it makes it hard to theorise the 'fuzzy' logic of the social world, its practical and therefore mutable nature, poorly described by words like 'system', 'structure' and 'logic' which imply mechanisms, rigidity and omnipresence. The scholar can too easily find themselves mistaking "the things of logic for the logic of things" — a phrase of Marx's which Bourdieu is fond of quoting.[53] Again, reflexivity is recommended as the key to discovering and correcting for such errors which would otherwise remain unseen, mistakes produced by an over-application of the virtues that produced also the truths within which the errors are embedded.[54]

Science and objectivity[edit]

Bourdieu contended there is transcendental objectivity, only when certain necessary historical conditions are met. The scientific field is precisely that field in which objectivity may be acquired. Bourdieu's ideal scientific field is one that grants its participants an interest or investment in objectivity. Further, this ideal scientific field is one in which the field's degree of autonomy advances and, in a corresponding process, its "entrance fee" becomes increasingly strict. The scientific field entails rigorous intersubjective scrutinizing of theory and data.[55] This should make it difficult for those within the field to bring in, for example, political influence.

However, the autonomy of the scientific field cannot be taken for granted. An important part of Bourdieu's theory is that the historical development of a scientific field, sufficiently autonomous to be described as such and to produce objective work, is an achievement that requires continual reproduction.[56] Having been achieved, it cannot be assumed to be secure. Bourdieu does not discount the possibility that the scientific field may lose its autonomy and therefore deteriorate, losing its defining characteristic as a producer of objective work. In this way, the conditions of possibility for the production of transcendental objectivity could arise and then disappear.[57]


Bourdieu takes language to be not merely a method of communication, but also a mechanism of power. The language one uses is designated by one's relational position in a field or social space. Different uses of language tend to reiterate the respective positions of each participant. Linguistic interactions are manifestations of the participants' respective positions in social space and categories of understanding, and thus tend to reproduce the objective structures of the social field. This determines who has a "right" to be listened to, to interrupt, to ask questions, and to lecture, and to what degree.

The representation of identity in forms of language can be subdivided into language, dialect, and accent. For example, the use of different dialects in an area can represent a varied social status for individuals. A good example of this would be in the case of French. Until the French Revolution, the difference of dialects usage directly reflected ones social status. Peasants and lower class members spoke local dialects, while only nobles and higher class members were fluent with the official French language. Accents can reflect an area's inner conflict with classifications and authority within a population.

The reason language acts as a mechanism of power is through forms of mental representations it is acknowledged and noticed as objective representations: as a sign and/or symbol. These signs and symbols therefore transform language into an agency of power.[58]


Bourdieu "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan".[7] His works have been translated into two dozen languages and have affected the whole gamut of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. They have also been used in pedagogy.[59] Several works of his are considered classics, not only in sociology, but also in anthropology, education, and cultural studies. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (La Distinction) was named as one of the 20th century's ten most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association.[60]The Rules of Art has significantly affected sociology, history, literature and aesthetics.

In France, Bourdieu was seen not as an ivory tower academic or "cloistered don" but as a passionate activist for those he believed to be subordinated by society. In 2001, a documentary film about Bourdieu – Sociology is a Martial Art – "became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Émile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre in French public life and slugging it out with politicians because he thought that was what people like him should do."[7]

For Bourdieu, sociology was a combative effort, exposing the un-thought structures beneath the physical (somatic) and thought practices of social agents. He saw sociology as a means of confronting symbolic violence and exposing those unseen areas where one could be free.

Bourdieu's work continues to be influential. His work is widely cited, and many sociologists and other social scientists work explicitly in a Bourdieusian framework. One example is Loïc Wacquant, who persistently applies the Bourdieusian theoretical and methodological principles to subjects such as boxing, employing what Bourdieu termed participant objectivation (objectivation participante), or what Wacquant calls "carnal sociology." In addition to publishing a book on Bourdieu's lasting influence, novelist Édouard Louis uses the legacy of Pierre Bourdieu as a literary device.[61]

Bourdieu also played a crucial role in the popularisation of correspondence analysis and particularly multiple correspondence analysis. Bourdieu held that these geometric techniques of data analysis are, like his sociology, inherently relational. "I use Correspondence Analysis very much, because I think that it is essentially a relational procedure whose philosophy fully expresses what in my view constitutes social reality. It is a procedure that 'thinks' in relations, as I try to do it with the concept of field," Bourdieu said, in the preface to The Craft of Sociology.[62]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Algeria 1960: The Disenchantment of the World: The Sense of Honour: The Kabyle House or the World Reversed: Essays, Cambridge University Press 1979.
  • Les héritiers: les étudiants et la culture (1964), Eng. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture, University of Chicago Press 1979.
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See also[edit]


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