Pierre Bourdieu

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Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre-Félix Bourdieu (August 1, 1930-January 23, 2002) was a French sociologist. In his obituary, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom said he "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan". His book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. Although he has a formidable reputation amongst sociologists in the English-speaking world, he is much less well-known among the general Anglophone intelligentsia than Foucault or Jacques Derrida.

In France, Bourdieu was not seen as an ivory tower academic or cloistered don, but as a passionate activist for those he believed subordinated by society. Again, from The Guardian: "[In 2003] a documentary film about Pierre Bourdieu — Sociology is a Combat Sport — became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Emile 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."

He was born in Denguin (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) into a postman's family. From 1962 to 1983 he was married to Marie-Claire Brizard.

Bourdieu studied philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure. He worked as a teacher. During the Algerian War of Independence in 1958-1960, and while serving in the French army, he undertook ethnographic research, laying the groundwork for his sociological reputation. Bourdieu held since 1964 a professorship at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and since 1981 a chair at the Collège de France . In 1968, he founded the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, the research center that he directed until his death. In 1993 he was honored with the "Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique" (CNRS).

He routinely sought to connect his theoretical ideas with empirical research, grounded in everyday life, and his work can be seen as cultural sociology or as a theory of practice.

Bourdieu was both completely empirical and a master theorist, a rare if not unique combination in sociology. His key terms were habitus and field. He extended the idea of capital to categories such as social capital, and cultural capital. For Bourdieu the position an individual is located at in the social space is defined not by class, but by the amount of capital across all kinds of capital, and by the relative amounts social, economic and cultural capital account for.

He was also known as a politically interested and active leftist intellectual, supporting work against the influences of political elites and neoliberal capitalism. He was the left's enemy of itself: the French Socialist party used to talk of la gauche bourdieusienne, their enemies on the left.

Some examples of his empirical results include:

  • showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts in France, people's artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with the position in the social space
  • showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style — all part of cultural capital — are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job).

Pierre Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, reproduce themselves even under the pretence that society fosters social mobility.

Bourdieu was extraordinarily prolific, author of hundreds of articles and many books, only some few dozens of which are available in English. His style is dense in English translation: and even more unexpected for those prepared for the sociological jargon but not for the literary effects that strike the English-speaker as mannered and unnecessary.

Bourdieu's critical conflict theory

Bourdieu shared Weber's view that society, contrary to traditional Marxism, cannot be analyzed simply in terms of economic classes and ideologies. Much of his work concerns the independent role of educational and cultural factors. Instead of analyzing societies in terms of classes, Bourdieu uses the concept of field: a social arena in which people manoeuvre and struggle in pursuit of desirable resources. A field is a system of social positions, structured internally in terms of power relationships. Different fields can be quite autonomous and more complex societies have more fields.

Bourdieu's theory is one of social reproduction: of how one generation of a group ensures that it reproduces itself and passes on its traits to the next. The main source of modern success is education, but Bourdieu argues it has a much wider role than the narrowly academic one it is formally tasked with. What is necessary for educational success is a whole range of cultural behavior, extending to ostensibly non-academic features like gait or accent. Privileged children have learned this behaviour, as have their teachers. Children of unprivileged backgrounds have not. The children of privilege fit into the world of educational expectations with apparent 'ease'. The unprivileged are found to be 'difficult', to present 'challenges'. Yet both behave as their upbringing dictates. Bourdieu regards this 'ease', or 'natural' ability as in fact the product of a great social labour 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 class position in the wider social system.

Bourdieu sees the legitimation of cultural capital as crucial to its effectiveness as a source of power. It is seen as symbolic violence, violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity. What this means is that people come to experience systems of meaning (culture) as legitimate; there is a process of misunderstanding or misrecognition of what is really going on. So it comes that working class children see it as legitimate that their middle-class peers have more success in the educational system as based on their objective performance. A key part of this process is the transformation of people's cultural habits or economic positions into symbolic capital that has legitimacy and is seen as real. Symbolic capital is nothing more than economic or cultural capital which is acknowledged and recognized and then tends to reinforce the power relations which constitute the structure of social space.

Habitus can be defined as a system of dispositions: durably acquired schemes of perception, thought and action, engendered by objective conditions but tending to persist even after an alteration of those conditions. Bourdieu sees habitus as the key to reproduction because it is what actually generates the regular practices that make up social life. It is the product of social conditioning and so links actual behavior to class structure.

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, and in particular their own set of internalized structures.

Bourdieu's sociology in general can be characterized as an investigation of the pre-reflexive conditions that generate certain beliefs and practices that are generated in capitalist systems.

Bourdieu's work


  • Mesthrie, R., J. Swann, A. Deumert, W.L. Leap (2000) Introducing Sociolingustics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Moores, S. (1993) Interpreting Audiences: The Ethnography of Media Consumption. London: Sage.

See also

External links

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