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Pierre Bourdieu

and his Sociological Theories

Sociology, the science (or study) of contemporary human group behavior, is an oft-maligned discipline. Dismissed as hopelessly left or worse, as irrelevant, Sociology is perceived as a recent upstart among the sciences, and only a minor player in the humanities, arts and sciences. The situation is rather the inverse, however. Pierre Bourdieu, although contributing important theories, concepts and ideas to the fields of linguistics, philosophy, politics and history was first and foremost a working sociologist; Pierre Bourdieu may be the greatest thinker of the late 20th century, and by this I mean he is the senior contemporary of Edward Said, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Noam Chomsky, Fernand Braudel, and Michel Foucault.

Whereas structures are pre-formative, constraining determinants, post-structural theory is liberational, open to human innovation, self-direction, agency, etc. Thus a dialectical materialist and structural social philosophy has given way to a post-modern and post-structural critical theory corrosive of sustained social inequities. Thus the pitiful, limited, but self-empowering existential will has returned, inside its new Bourdieuian cultural economy, its habitus and field. Whereas capitalism and globalization (neo-liberal globalism) is highly structural, contemporary social theorists have returned to a more nuanced and transactional analysis, which once again gives substantial credit to human agency, contingency, enlightened self-interest and moral value choice. Existential free will is back as pessimistic materialists grumble and adapt, favoring Bourdieu’s most structural and determining aspects.

The Bourdieu Thought System

To problematize Bourdieu, several things must happen simultaneously. His theories and terms have been studied, rebuked and enthusiastically twisted, and the core Bourdieu philosophy is a problem—I will try to give a consensual account and highlight the major rebukes and assaults that the critics have launched against him. Another problematic is the various impacts of Bourdieu’s approach, or theory. The sociologist’s cannon of texts, Bourdieu’s own and his critics, form a system, a structure, an intelligence ready to analyze, with interior logic and compelling rationales, where schools, workplaces, social spaces, families, history, psychological assumptions, linguistic and anthropological models are all vehicles of gain within the cultural exchange of a market, the new theory’s “cultural economy.”

His tint (or taint) is etched, now, in thought, in practice, in discourse. Of this range we will focus on the educational structures and the new sociology which informs family rearing, aspirations and theories of development. Certainly a major problem of Bourdieu theory, to thoughtful critics, is over-determinism. Second, his convertible cultural ‘Capital’ analogy is debatable. Thirdly, general questions are addressed to his theory of “misrecognized symbolic violence.” This part of his approach sees him at his farthest ‘left’ and in his most sweepingly critical mode, and I mean critical in its newer theoretical sense. This approach to schooling is sweeping, fearless, exhaustive and corrosively deconstructive.

Bourdieu, Class and Marx

Bourdieu specifically disavowed being Marxist, although his penetration into social philosophy meant that a great many powerful 20th century social theorists adopted and approved his theories. He was Marxist by adoption and general acclaim, so to speak, and many casual readers and harried graduate students probably find a general Marxism inherent in a universal theory of social and cultural capital. This core analogy has branded Bourdieu, unfairly, with a red capital ‘K.’ Bourdieu probably moved to a more conservative position over time as his generational habitus (if not his field) would suggest (although as a media savvy French public intellectual he was well known late in his life for consistently opposing neo-liberal globalization).

Certainly these are the bundle of problems inside the intelligence system that is the Bourdieu approach to society; its level of old-style Marxian thought, the extent of his determinism and his naiveté vis a vis “symbolic violence” are three principle problems.

Broadly, the class structure, free will and the nature of human political relations are the triple problematic of Bourdieu’s new sociological model.

Power, the question of the nature of individual agency in the social world and the ideas of class and capital are all under review and post-modernists have only been able to engross parts of Bourdieu, as do liberals and moderate thinkers. Conservatives have no use for Bourdieu as he exposes (or proposes?) deep structural power imbalances and methods of elite reproduction of advantages (in ways they had always suspected sociologists of doing). In fact, liberational transformation, the very stuff of the new critical theory and philosophical Marxism (as opposed to post 1917 militant national communism)—the project of unmasking hidden social imbalances and oppressive routines, which sociologists and political scientists focused on in the 20th century, reached its zenith in the Bourdieu mentality. Not really Marxist, but relying on class differences and a capital market analogy, Bourdieu transcended dialectical materialism and elevated the discourse to a more subtle and nuanced level.

Most interesting is the calm comprehensiveness of Bourdieu, which straddles and encompasses previously polarized theories and concepts, he shed light on dark ideational spaces. For example, the field and habitus theory fully allows for the sociologists’ inherent need to see heavy social influences in individuals’ behavior, and he shows the potentials and limits of people’s general range of actions, without denying human agency and freedom to act. The habitus is only the arrangement of controlling (limiting) factors, within the mutually legitimized field and habitus the individual is relatively free and often acts unpredictably. Most properly, to those who accused him of over-determinism, Bourdieu would contend, ‘I am not talking about the individual; I am talking about the behavior off the large numbers, the statistically significant populations.’ In other words Bourdieu was writing about class—a chronic structural problem to many, a merit-denying fiction to others. Bourdieu knew more about class than anyone else at the turn of the millennia, his Distinction and the supporting books and articles show a mastery of class variations and manifestations unmatched by anyone else, a colossal mentation upon strata, doxy, consciousness, reproduction and identity (in their theoretical senses). So only in the broadest sense can it be said that Bourdieu followed the reductionist class approach of the Victorian thinker, Karl Marx.

The Style and Impact of Bourdieu

Stylistically, Bourdieu’s language has caused some difficulty, but I find it tolerable in translation. His asides are logically related to the main clauses and the level of the detail and articulation are only equal to the fineness of his fluent discrimination. His uplifting and eye-opening scientific literary style is an inherent standing argument for free will, independent moral action, human agency and intellectual production. While my reading of Foucault, Adorno and Derrida are often slowed by obscurant and meandering digression, Bourdieu retains clarity, thematic focus and sharpness in all but the rare passages. Even his transcribed spontaneous phrases are variegated in cohesive and compelling subtlety—although this clarity I perceive is not always so clear to his critics, interpreters and fellow sociologists. I would say Bourdieu is less bluntly materialist than Marx and has a more complex, yet compelling concept of ideation and social conflict than Hegel. Bourdieu is commonly said to be the heir to Weber and Durkheim. What the new model of ‘cultural capital’ has done is to raise the social values and the values of mental or spiritual feelings of Weberian well-being (satisfactory self-placement in class rank) to the level of (roughly) the pound sterling.

If fields engage the energy of dominated fractions of the dominant majority, in other words, if intellectuals, philanthropists and policy makers are engaged full time in these competitive games for limited and ritualized totemic rewards, programmatic bestowals and calibrated affirmations, then this non-material, non-physical, non-pound sterling resource—Bourdieu’s cultural capital—must be of a value somehow equable to the obvious, gross economic value system, the material base, Kapital. And here is Bourdieu’s greatest achievement. The language of cultural capital runs parallel to, is linked to, and is obviously related to wealth, but cultural capital has a somewhat different distribution, a varied concentration, and an ambiguous overall relation to tangible wealth. Far from being a callous offer of inane sophistry to the less well off, Bourdieu theory critically assails, but objectively validates, the status seeking dominated fraction of the dominant minority; it offers cynics and critics an unflinching look inside the logic of merit, bureaucracy and wealth-influenced upper middle class passages. Bourdieu, ever the conscientious social scientist, describes rather than prescribes; he validates and raises questions about class behavior and reproduction of elite advantages via amassed cultural capital. I will state here what many think, but what few sociologists will state aloud, i.e., “We read Bourdieu with pride, we internalize his jargon and world view and we feel empowered, elevated—we know, cynically, we are amassing cultural capital, we even know that the Machiavellian mastery of Bourdieu theory is enhancing our cultural capital, our self-esteem, our symbolic status, importance and distinction.” Bourdieu’s work suggests this line of thought, a post-modern aspect, a self-referencing and ironic awareness of the oppressive nature of one’s own self-interested lifestyle and language choices. The intellectual is faced with an awkward paradox, where contemporary social theory critically empowers one, and may hold the capacity to transform the individual and society, but in the status system of the cultural capital exchange market (the site of reproduction) the practicing intellectual forms a defensive coalition with wealth and capital systems to legitimate the oppressive and deplorable status quo. Is this problematic? We must see that it is.

The Plongeur and the Professor

It is important to remember that advances in one’s recognized mental wealth, one’s cultural capital, must be based on distinct structural machinations of the rewards-giving group within one’s field—not on one’s own independent learning, like deeply reading, for example.

The plongeur who has read Proust, Erich Fromme, Marx, Derrida, Foucault and the great sociologists is still a plongeur, while a Ph.D., Chair and Society President, who may not have read as widely or as incisively as the plongeur, is still the Chair. The Chair has amassed the cultural capital (along with Weberian self-esteem and other intangibles) from the institutions, the field of organized competitive endeavor he inhabits. The Toynbee-reading plongeur has more cultural capital than the ‘tabloids and porno’ reading plongeur, but only a limited trickle of cultural capital can be independently garnered, to get culturally “wealthy” one must interact with others in the field one has entered, buffets, boards, clubs, auctions, journals, etc., must be employed. Sadly the Foucault-mastering plongeur is not only relegated to the lower working economic class, but to the “literate tavern employee” cultural field, i.e., oblivion.

Of course a plongeur washing dishes forty hours a week has to devote more marginal time to reading than the lecturer, subsidized graduate student or the sabbaticalist doctor of letters. Leisure is the key to cultural distinction (both subjectively and objectively) and here Thorstein Veblen is the precursor to the new economic model.

A Night at the Opera: The Paradox of Class and Wealth

Whether hierarchically stratified according to the Cohen model or ordinally numbered in the Cambridge ranking system, the social classes offend one another and commit symbolic violence to one another and to those below.

The chauffeured executive’s younger, third, “trophy” wife gamely apes the coiffed symphony board dames, while the classically literate patron disdains the downtown banker and all the above ignore the proletariat on the sidewalk beyond the lobby of the opera house. As certainly as these lower, middle and upper classes know there own net assets and debts, they know their rank in the world of “culture.” This is undoubtedly what Emile Durkheim would call a social fact. Stepping into the lobby, the banker may think, “One more board museum appointment and one more fund-raiser for the college and I will surpass So-and-so, although I will never match the worth What’s-his-name, I am light-years beyond the slovenly You-know-who.” Here You-know-who may be a wealthy classmate, one economically stratospheric but without foundations, degrees or honorary board memberships—or more likely, there is rough parity of their economic levels, and this cultural capital is the deciding factor in the sum of “class status.”

Since this is the knowledge interior to the mind, and manifest in social behavior, certainly the reality of an encompassing value system of cultural capital is “true” or a social fact. Does this approach devalue class tensions? Probably. Does it weaken the contrast of economic of economic class distinctions—yes, because the distinctions are weakened “out there” or “in reality” by the encroachments on oligarchic cultural hegemony by savvy cultural actors in their fields, behaving within their habitus.

Does all this ignore or minimize chronic economic disparities? Again, yes, probably because that is not the social issue Bourdieu addressed. By exposing to other intellectuals, in somewhat convoluted French, this system of domination, reproduction and one-upmanship in their competitive arena, Bourdieu acts to transform, empower and liberate—mentally if not politically or financially—all who can appreciate his thought system, his new intelligence system. Which is to say those who most need the theory, the less educated and advantaged masses, are unable to sup upon wry Bourdieu. Thus intellectuals, with their personal investment in the institutions and assumptions of their fields and habiti, are the only receivers attuned to the Bourdieu frequency. Bullwinkle, Gilligan and Jerry Springer all reach mass markets multiplied many times over the numbers of Bourdieu readers. The working and middle and professional and high elite classes (with the exception of some graduate level social scientists) are utterly blind to the linguistic, psychological and philosophical keys to their own liberation. Meanwhile the intellectuals, the gate keepers and symbolic assailants active in the competitive cultural market are forced to read about their own bourgeois clannishness, their pecking orders, arbitrary self-promoting aesthetics and snobby aggrandizement methods.

The paradox and central irony (the big problematic) of Bourdieu is that the ones he speaks to, he doesn’t speak for, and the ones he speaks for, he doesn’t speak to…and it is likely to stay this way for some time. In the 21st century, in a postmodern period, intellectuals will continue to read Bourdieu with deflated jadedness and hidden pride, while most everyone else (highly literate plongeurs excepted) will watch Springer and remain quite ignorant of reproduced advantage, the limitations due to habitus, the cruel generational machinations in various cultural fields and the misrecognition of the symbolic violence in the structures.