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Pierre Bourdieu

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 Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)


Bourdieu was born in Denguin in the South Atlantic Pyrenées and educated at the lycée in Pau, before moving to the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. From there he gained entrance (like Foucault and numerous critical social scientists before him) to study philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure. He studied with Louis Althusser  and became a school teacher at Moulins from 1955 to 1958.

In 1958, following in the footsteps of  Lyotard, he took up a post as lecturer in the faculty of Algiers at a time when the Independence movement there was becoming particularly violent. For Bourdieu, the conflict between the Algerian people and French colonists could only be clarified by understanding the original economic and social structures and conditions of the indigenous civilisations. He chose to study the Kabyle peoples - the Berbers. The result was his first book, The Algerians..

In 1960 he returned to Paris and taught at the University of Paris until 1964, when he took up a post at the From 1964 on, Bourdieu held the position of Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (the future École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales). In 1968, he took over the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, which he directed until his death. In 1981 he was appointed to the chair of Sociology at the Collège de France.



The Wikipedia article on Bourdieu gives a succinct account of his influences:


"Bourdieu's work is influenced by much of traditional 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 into a theory of fields.

From Karl Marx, among other insights he gained an understanding of 'society' as the sum 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'. (grounded in the mode and conditions of economic production), and of the need to dialectically develop social theory from social practice.

From Emile Durkheim, finally, he inherited a certain deterministic and, through Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralist style that emphasized the tendency of social structures to reproduce themselves. However, Bourdieu critically diverged from these Durkheimian analyses 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.

One should not neglect Bourdieu's philosophical influences: 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).

Bourdieu's work is built upon the attempt to transcend a series of oppositions which characterized the social sciences (subjectivism/objectivism, micro/macro, freedom/determinism). In particular he did this through conceptual innovations. The concepts of habitus, capital, and field were conceived, indeed, with the intention to abolish such oppositions."

These conceptualisations.

form a mutually suppporting analytical structure through which Bourdieu is able to move beyond the previously simplistic Marxist analytic of class - and indicate instead the social and cultural processes whereby hegemony is maintained and social relations are reproduced.


The habitus, for Bourdieu, constitutes a set of acquired patterns of thought, behavior, and taste  These patterns, or "dispositions," are the result of internalization of culture or objective social structures through the experience of an individual or group. Membership of the group is created, determined and maintained through the use of different symbolic languages. Differences in linguistic abstraction operate as boundary filters - both separating different levels of the social hierarchy and at the same time instrumentally defining and monitoring social movement between them. One must "learn" or adopt the new language of any other level in the social hierarchy to be allowed to participate in its operation. Language in this sense operates as what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has termed a mechanism of social distinction.

This is to say that the social hierarchy in any society corresponds to the levels of abstraction of the linguistic forms through which it operates. Hence, as  Berger and Luckmann have noted, the objectivated distinctions between different social realities and between their corresponding linguistic systems are increasingly and ongoingly experienced as real. This lends an objectivated sense of order to the social framework as a whole so that, for instance, the social reality which operates at the level of university knowledge is seen within the common stock of objectivated and legitimated knowledge  of society as a whole to be a superior form of knowledge to that which operates in everyday life. This holds true within the boundaries of any overarching social collectivity which accepts the legitimacy of the university as a legitimate and legitimating social institution.

Any movement between these language/social systems is controlled, so as to maintain the social order implicit in the social reality as a whole by maintaining the relative autonomy of the linguistic spheres through the policing and continual demarcation of their conceptual as well as their geographical boundaries. What this means in everyday terms is that in any society, hierarchical distinctions tend to become sedimented and objectivated through their respective languages such that the very notion of hierarchy itself becomes similarly sedimented and synonymous with a "natural" social order. Thus a person who wishes to move "up" the social and linguistic hierarchy is required to learn and to accept that s/he must learn an entirely new language system. This system is correspondingly more abstract, and at the same time must be accepted as a superior explanation of reality than that from which s/he originates.

Since the objectivated "superiority" of this "higher" social realm must be internalised by the social climber as a function of institutional acceptance, this almost invariably sets up an internal conflict between internalised social realities which frequently acts as a substantial disincentive to upward mobility. Berger and Luckmann describe how lower class children not only absorb a lower class perspective in their formative years (with all of the received and accepted sedimentations of class circumscriptions) but are also faced with internalised conflicts, when they desire to migrate from their culture of origin.   Freire points to a similar phenomenon in which the child's reflective and internalised "family" self - that which is formed in the context of family perspectives and values - is brought into conflict with the internalised and deprecated self which emerges from the reflective experience of living in a classed society.  Bourdieu calls this framework of cultural dispositions the habitus.  

Bourdieu calls this totality the "habitus" - suggesting a habituated "life space", which operates through an awareness (albeit unconscious) of a series of socially-constructed oppositions.  Inscribed within the habitus is the:

"... whole structure of the system of conditions, as it presents itself in the experience of a life-condition occupying a particular position within that structure.. The most fundamental oppositions in the structure (high/low, rich/poor etc.) tend to establish themselves as the fundamental structuring principles of (social) practices and the perception of practices. As a system of practice-generating schemes which expresses systematically the necessity and freedom inherent in its class condition, and the difference constituting that position, the habitus apprehends differences between conditions, which it grasps in the form of differences between classified, classifying practices (products of other habitus), in accordance with principles of differentiation, which being themselves the product of these differences are objectively attuned to them and therefore tend to perceive them as natural."

In other words, occupations, education, income level, titles, academic qualifications, sporting achievements, material possessions, residential location, manner of dress and speech, all tend to influence as well as express the social status and power of the individual. Each aspect of our lives carries with it a different value in our own and other social groups. These different values make up the sum total of what Bourdieu calls cultural capital and symbolic capital. This is why, we lay such great store in driving the "right" car and being seen with the "right" people. The habitus is found if not in  all of the properties, then at least in a loose unconscious relationship which binds them together. Indeed, property as such can be seen as a mechanism for allowing the exercise of the social distinctions which the habitus bestows.

Bourdieu shows in more detail how these linguistic and cultural barriers operate through the establishment of cultural codes. He describes how a "work of art" contains a coded language system which operates to distinguish between those individuals who exist at different levels of the social hierarchy:

"The definition of cultural nobility is the stake in a struggle which has gone on unceas¬ingly, from the seventeenth century to the present day, between groups differing in their ideas of culture and of the legitimate relation to culture and to works of art, and therefore differing in the conditions of acquisitions of which these dispositions are the product... The logic of what is sometimes called... the "reading" of a work of art, offers basis for this opposition. Consumption is, in this case, a stage in the process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception. A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code into which it is encoded. The conscious or unconscious of explicit or implicit schemes of perception and appreciation which constitutes pictorial or musical culture is the hidden condition for recognizing the styles characteristic of a period, a school or an author, and, more generally for the familiarity with the internal logic of works that aesthetic enjoyment presupposes... Thus the encounter with a work of art is not "love at first sight" as is gen¬erally supposed, and the act of empathy, Einfühlung which is the art-lover's pleasure, presupposes an act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code." 

It is through processes such as these that cultural capital is acquired and augmented, and by which social hierarchies are maintained and social and cultural reproduction takes place. The medium for this process is, according to both  Foucault and Bourdieu, the body, upon which the values, attitudes and distinctions are at one and the same time impressed and repressed. 

Bourdieu has left a lasting impression not only in the field of sociology, but in almost every branch of the social sciences. It is not without reason that he has been called, "the greatest French intellectual of the 20th Century".

To download a more complete and detailed analysis of Bourdieu's theory of the Habitus in a PDF Hegemony and Space click here

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