French philosopher, anthropologist, sociologist, and public intellectual, Pierre Bourdieu rose from the relative obscurity of provincial France to become one of the most influential thinkers in the social sciences. His most famous work, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, was named one of the 20th century’s 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association.
Born the son of the village postmaster in Denguin, in the Pyrenees’ district of southwestern France, Bourdieu was known locally as a star rugby player. He studied philosophy at the École Normale Superiéure, then worked as a teacher for a year until he was drafted into the army. He was posted to Algeria as part of the French mission to pacify its rebellious colony. Bourdieu stayed in Algeria from 1959 to 1960 to lecture at the University of Algiers and study the lives of the Kabyle people. Of the experience, he once said, “I thought of myself as a philosopher and it took me a very long time to admit to myself that I had become an ethnologist.”
Returning to France, Bourdieu taught at the University of Paris (1960-1962) and at the University of Lille (1962-1964). In 1964, he joined the faculty of the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes. He became known for an elegant series of structuralist accounts of Kabyle life, the most famous of which, The Kabyle House, not only describes how the layout of a typical Kabyle house encodes local cosmologies but suggests that these cosmologies are reproduced among Kabyle by the process of living in the house and inhabiting these meanings. This interest in how cultural systems are reproduced in and through everyday life was central to work done by Bourdieu and his colleagues when he became director of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne in 1968. Bourdieu argued in his 1970 work La Reproduction that the French educational system operated to reproduce the French cultural system, and particularly class differences. He returned to the issue of class reproduction in his most important work, Distinction.
Bourdieu continued and extended these ideas in the journal Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, which he launched in 1975. The publication, 2 years later, of an English translation of his Outline of a Theory of Practice led to his becoming one of the world’s most frequently cited social scientists. In 1981, he was appointed to the prestigious chair of sociology at the Collège de France. By the mid-1990s, Bourdieu had become a public figure in France, appearing on television shows, supporting striking rail workers, and speaking on behalf of the homeless. His 1996 work, On Television, was an unexpected bestseller. In 1998, he published an article in the newspaper Le Monde comparing the “strong discourse” of neoliberal economics with the position of the psychiatric discourse in an asylum, which became popular among antiglobalization advocates. Bourdieu died of cancer in Paris on January 24,2002.
Bourdieu’s theoretical work was rooted in an effort to overcome the epistemological divide in social theory between the description of objective social structures and efforts to capture the subjective lived worlds of the people being studied. This divide was especially pronounced in the debates between the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism and philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte’s existentialism that raged on the French academic scene in Bourdieu’s formative intellectual years. His solution to the problem was the concept of habitus, the predispositions to act in certain ways that people develop by living in social institutions (such as the Kabyle house or the French school system). Habitus is neither entirely constraining nor entirely under a person’s control. In one paper, Bourdieu gives the example of a provincial French accent, which, even though it may put one at a disadvantage in Paris, is not so easy to change. Growing up in a provincial village, one trains one’s vocal apparatus to pronounce sounds in particular ways, literally embodying the local culture.
That an accent may be less valued in Paris brings up two more of Bourdieu’s key concepts, that of symbolic capital and social field. Bourdieu argued that in addition to economic capital, people’s social worth was determined by possession of various forms of symbolic capital (linguistic, social, cultural), the ability to enact or display, through one’s habitus, valued cultural forms. Social fields are particular social domains defined by the kinds of capital valued in them. People whose enculturation has provided them with valued cultural capital tend to do better than those who start with less valued capital, but particular individuals may be able to accumulate valued capital in spite of their backgrounds. To make matters more complex, people usually inhabit more than one social field; the Parisian accent one struggled to master in Paris may make one appear affected or effeminate back home.
The different forms of capital are transferable— certain forms of symbolic capital can be converted to economic capital (as when linguistic ability leads to a diploma, which leads to a higher paying job) or to social capital (as when displays of particular forms of femininity or masculinity lead to a successful marriage). Caught in the tension between different social fields and different forms of habitus, people employ their practical reason—their sense of the situation and how to act in it—to define goals, pursue them, and rationalize their successes and failures.
As the theory of practice became more and more clearly articulated in Bourdieu’s voluminous writings, it was hailed as a major contribution that solved a number of critical problems in social science: It could be used to contextualize statistical information or to examine the behavior of individuals, thus bridging the macro/micro divide in social science methodologies. It accepted each individual as a choice-making actor with a unique life trajectory while yet offering ways to describe how choice making is constrained by the structured social fields within which people act.
Many anthropologists were particularly attracted by the ways in which Bourdieu’s project took such standard disciplinary interests as enculturation and difference and demonstrated how they could be linked to local production of power. Practice theory also lends itself well to ethnographic modes of research and description.
Bourdieu has been criticized for any number of things, from his sometimes impenetrable writing style to a tendency toward “sociological terrorism” in his treatment of scholars of differing views. One of the most cogent critiques by anthropologists has been the concern that Bourdieu’s notions of capital and practical reason naturalize economic reason (the weighing of risk and reward by social actors), in contradistinction to the more common anthropological assumption that economic reason is but one historically produced form of cultural logic. Another has been Bourdieu’s tendency to overemphasize the importance of how symbolic capital can be converted into economic capital, rather than acknowledging that social and symbolic capital—such as strong kin bonds or deep religious faith—may be valued for themselves.
Bourdieu was extremely conscious of his own position as a French intellectual analyzing and criticizing the French academic system and the role of intellectuals in it. His concept of reflexivity in social science extends beyond scientists’ acknowledging their positions in the systems they study, to include also their awareness of their positions in the field of knowledge production. Studying the conditions of its own production of knowledge is the best way to enable social science to overcome those conditions, he argues. Moreover, reflexive awareness of how we ourselves have been, and continue to be, produced as social persons allows us greater insight into, and empathy with, the ways in which those we study are produced. These concerns are explored in several works, most accessibly in Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology, published with Loic Wacquant.
- Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice (Richard Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Translation of Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, précède de trois études d’ethnologie kabyle, 1973)
- Bourdieu, P. (1987). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste (Richard Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bourdieu, P., with Wacquant, L. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Calhoun, C., LiPuma, E., & Postone, M. (1993). Bourdieu: Critical perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Reed-Danahay, D. (2004). Locating Bourdieu. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.