The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays (Key Issues in Modern Sociology)

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Macrosociological theories are distinguished by their explanatory ambition. In particular they have three characteristics: They link structural divisions in society to observable behaviors; they develop explanations for why, given those divisions, societies can reproduce themselves; and they sketch the processes through which societies change. When successful, these theories thus offer some account of stratification, reproduction, and social change. First, like network analysis, its basic social ontology resonates with the lived experience of elite academics, who are the main consumers of this social theory.

Social change can thus be achieved without identifying an external nonacademic agent that might carry that change forward.


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In a period in which such a social agent is far from apparent, the appeal of shortcut politics of this sort is obvious. Although it may seem abstract, it is, unfortunately, indispensable for understanding his work. Capital refers to resources.


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Bourdieu identifies three main varieties: economic understood basically as income and ownership , social basically understood as connections , and cultural informal education, cultural objects, and credentials. These can be measured in two dimensions: quantity and structure. Thus, particular agents may possess more or less total amounts of capital, and this capital may be structured in different proportions.

The concept of capital is thus supposed to provide a map of the main social divisions in contemporary society.

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In general, habitus produces patterns of behavior that reproduce the social agent in the position he or she currently occupies. Fields are agonistic social games in which agents struggle with one another over some socially defined stake, such as profit or prestige. Although there are an unspecified number of such fields, the economic field, the political field, and the field of cultural production are among the most important.

Bourdieu sees social reality as made up fundamentally of fields, and social action as action in fields. The consequences of the general use of this metaphor are profound, and I examine them in detail in the subsequent section. Symbolic power derives from the misrecognition of historically contingent social relations, especially the rules that govern particular fields, as if they were given by nature.

These contexts are then stably reproduced, because the process that links capital, habitus, and field together is systematically distorted by lay understandings that serve to legitimate the existing unequal distribution of resources symbolic power.

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Bourdieu uses these concepts to develop an account of stratification, social reproduction, and social change. His ambition is then to develop a social theory of the same range and power as the classical social theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.

Pierre Bourdieu

Does he succeed? Habitus provides the basic frameworks of cultural tastes; 11 it embodies a fund of tacit knowledge 12 and even shapes orientations to the body. A privileged empirical domain for studying habitus is taste, because tastes make dispositions and schemas of appreciation tangible. Thus, as a way of empirically demonstrating the connection between class and habitus, Bourdieu attempts to demonstrate a connection between class position and differences in aesthetic tastes. This is most evident in the book that many consider to be his masterpiece, La distinction Distinction , in English.

Bourdieu’s Class Theory

One would expect a book about class and taste such as La distinction to begin with a conceptualization of class. One problem is that Bourdieu inflates the notion of class in La distinction to such an extent that he undermines its usefulness as a concept for empirical research. Thus, he writes:. The second passage is equally troubling. Bourdieu here adds two new and untheorized dimensions to class: scholastic capital and trajectory. But their relationship to economic and cultural capital, his main dimensions of social division, is not explained.

For example, it is never clear whether scholastic capital is a form of cultural capital or a separate type of capital altogether. Is it possible, for example, to have little culture capital but lots of scholastic capital? Thus, his scheme of the space of social positions contains a series of seemingly irrelevant from the point of view of class analysis social differences.

This creates a serious problem for his work on class and tastes because, in the absence of a clear concept of class, any difference in taste along any social dimension recorded in his surveys becomes evidence of a class difference in habitus. Paradoxically, then, for a book often considered a classic of sociological theory, La distinction suffers from a common error of empiricist social research: the concepts and indicators Bourdieu uses collapse into one another, so that any array of evidence would seem to be compatible with his argument.

At times Bourdieu seems to try to solve this problem by resorting to the tautological claim that habitus is in fact an indicator of class rather than an outcome of it. There is a conceptual warrant for this claim in much of his work. Bourdieu often discusses habitus as an internalization of class position and, in his work on capital, speaks of habitus as an embodied form of capital. These problems of conceptualization are not abstract theoretical concerns. The results of the table were suggestive, showing that only 1 percent of artisans found that an automobile accident might make a nice photo, while 17 percent of professors and artistic producers had this view.

Similarly, while 37 percent of educators and artistic producers thought that cabbages might make a nice photo, only 7 percent of the working-class respondents thought this. To recall, the habitus cannot be indicated by differences in one particular domain of tastes. Similarly, while 16 percent of the educators and artistic producers reported painting, only 4 percent of the working-class respondents did so. Even within highly focused areas, like taste in movies, the idea of a single transposable class habitus does not seem to be supported.

However, other films in the same survey were appreciated by all four occupational groupings. Instead, certain sorts of activities and tastes seem relevant to class, others much less so. But he simultaneously puts forward a second, very different account. Basically, his argument here is that a wide range of middlebrow tastes are oriented to the search for substitutes for legitimate high culture. In fact, all of his writings on culture are marked by two formally incompatible claims: on the one hand, that each class, or more broadly, social group, has its own habitus and therefore its own schemas of perception and appreciation tastes ; on the other, that the petit-bourgeoisie and working class are dominated by the schemas and perceptions of the dominant class.

To assert both arguments simultaneously is incoherent. First, since Bourdieu offers no clear conceptualization of class, it is unclear how the differences of taste he finds relate to class differences in any sense. Second, even accepting that the occupational categories he uses do represent classes in some way, the patterns he finds are incompatible with the theory of habitus.

In fact, his evidence points in the opposite direction: that some very specific forms of cultural practice are strongly linked to some occupational groups while others are not.


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Third, Bourdieu is in fact implicitly working with two incompatible models of the relationship between culture and class, one that conceives of habitus as stratified by class and another that conceives of them as shared across classes. Bourdieu, of course, acknowledges the pervasive class inequality of modern capitalism.

This imposes a problem very familiar to the tradition of western Marxism. Given the obvious inequalities and injustices of contemporary capitalism, how is it possible that such societies can stably reproduce themselves over time? So the difference between pragmatism and practice theory probably lies in the translation of experience into a performative interpretation.

Innovation is immediately absorbed by the integrating activity of knowledge production. The practices arising from experimentation are basically emergent, as they appear as qualitatively new forms of symbolic and material complexity empirically embodied in human action. By stressing the idea of emergence, human action or practice could be understood as a dynamic that highlights and reflects the social persistence of established patterns of assumptions as well as possibilities for innovation and change.

But in contrast to established social theories that have already developed around the social impact of emergence, such as those of Niklas Luhman, the conflation of practice theory and pragmatism forces us to recast emergence within qualitative and quantitative observation and methodological reflections on our proper practice as social scientists. Observing the dynamics of differentiation in contemporary Lebenswelten , we must deal with the concomitance of reproduction and emergence.

More precisely, I suspect that a combination of practice theory and pragmatism shall show a dynamic interrelation between the categories sens pratique — disposition — reproduction — experience — emergence. The problem of the dichotomy of reflective knowledge and practical knowledge could be resolved by a pragmatist approach without abandoning the methodological equipment of practice theory.

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Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

In short, the particularities of acting by recasting models of specific dispositions in specific situations or social fields could be comprehended, depending on the degree of generalization, by applying both structural analysis and an analysis of emergent processes. Tome premier , Paris, PUF, Beck S. Bergson H. Bogusz T. Debaise D. Peirce, James, Dewey , Paris, Vrin. Dewey J. Dewey, , vol.

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