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Summary Article: Bourdieu, Pierre from The Encyclopedia of Literary and Cultural Theory

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was an influential French theorist whose work has had a major impact on ethnography, sociology, and philosophy. Born in Denguin, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region of France, Bourdieu studied philosophy at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, finishing agregation in 1955. He taught at the Lycée Banville in Moulins in 1954, but was called to carry out military service in Algeria from 1958 to 1960, during which time he fostered his interest in ethnographic research. After returning to France, he held a series of administrative posts at various institutions, including as director of studies at the Ecole pratique des hautes etudes in 1964, and the chair of sociology at the Collège de France (1981-2). He and Luc Boltanski founded the influential interdisciplinary journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales in 1975. Over his career, Bourdieu received many awards for his scholarship, including the “Médaille d'or du centre national de la recherche scientifique” (1993), the University of California, Berkeley's Goffman Prize (1996), and the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (2002).

Greatly influenced by thinkers such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, Bourdieu worked tirelessly to understand society in its entirety. He published his first book, Sociologie de l'Algérie in 1958, and had begun publishing works of cultural criticism and theory by the mid-1960s, beginning with Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (1965) and The Love of Art: European Museums and their Public (1966). The ideas that would serve as driving themes in his most important work seem to have crystallized by 1968, with the publication of “Outline of a sociological theory of art perception,” perhaps influenced in part by the social unrest in France that led to the series of student and worker protests in May of that year. This “outline” presents the theoretical analysis of cultural competence and social conditions that would later culiminate in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984[1979]), arguably Bourdieu's most influential book. The essay introduces his concepts of terms such as “field,” “habitus,” “art-capital (which he would later call “cultural-capital”), and “distinction,” as well as his seminal argument that cultural distinctions perceived as natural individual gifts are in fact products of social and historical conditions. Although Bourdieu outlines this argument primarily in terms of the visual arts, it provides the germ for the broader exploration of culture that he would launch in Distinction.

In Distinction, Bourdieu explores the social conditions necessary to acquire certain tastes, and argues ultimately that taste is dependent largely on “distance from necessity” (1984[1979]: 177). Based on surveys concerning preferences in art, music, cuisine, etc., he claims that taste results from the intermingling of economic and cultural capital. Economic capital refers of course to available financial resources, while cultural capital pertains more to familiarity with and competence in perceiving cultural artifacts (paintings, musical compositions, works of literature, etc.) By analyzing the correlation between these preferences and the social classes (designated in this study mostly by profession, income, and social trajectory), Bourdieu demonstrates that the differences in taste among the separate classes and among fractions within each class extend beyond the strictly “cultural” to encompass every aspect of modern life, resulting in what he deems the “habitus,” or the defining characteristics of social choices and actions that define one's status within and among the various classes. In his final analysis, Bourdieu focuses his capacious research to argue that the pervasiveness of these attitudes acts to preserve the social structure, maintaining the distances between the various classes and class fractions, using the labels of culture and taste to disguise the true social mechanisms at work. The International Sociological Association ranked Distinction “as the 6th most important social scientific work of the 20th century” (Swartz & Zolberg 2004).

Distinction laid the foundation for much of Bourdieu's subsequent work, particularly regarding terminology. Among the concepts introduced in Distinction, two of the most important and most consistently used are the terms “habitus” and “field.” Habitus is an extremely complex term describing the total system of practices, predispositions, and inclinations of an individual or group. Habitus both influences and is influenced by its adherents. It arises through gradual and lengthy exposure to certain activities and ways of thinking and perceiving, but is perpetuated by the individuals who choose to act within its framework. Habitus extends to all fields of perception (see below for discussion of “field”), and tends to be similar among members of the same social class. Although habitus strongly influences agents’ actions, for Bourdieu it isn't an all-determining force; each agent still makes conscious decisions within the structure of habitus that influence their habitus as much as they are influenced by it.

“Field [champ]” refers to an individually structured social space governed by its own internal rules and conflicts. Bourdieu focuses most persistently on the economic, political, cultural, and educational fields, each of which is relatively autonomous but which also interacts with and influences all the others. Each field's rules or laws is determined by competition among agents within the field for control of the field's capital (see below). These power structures are so determining that any change in the position of agents within the field tends to change the field itself. Bourdieu most broadly examines the cultural field in Distinction, and in later works delves more deeply into individual fields such as higher education in Homo Academicus (1988 [1984]), and the media in On Television (1998b[1996]).

“Capital” in Bourdieu's terminology denotes the resources for which agents compete within a given field. These resources endow the agent with influence, power, and position within the field. Each field's capital is constituted differently, and bestows different degrees of power within the larger social space. For example, economic capital consists almost entirely of monetary holdings, and tends to grant more social power than educational capital, which consists usually of the academic degrees held by an agent. Cultural capital is slightly more complex, but refers to an agent's perceived ability and license to engage the cultural field. Cultural capital generally consists of social recognition of either cultural judgments (critics) or cultural production (artists). Just as agents inhabit more than one social field, they also possess more than one form of capital, though usually to correlating degrees. For example, within the dominant classes, agents possessing the highest cultural capital tend to possess the lowest economic capital. Finally, symbolic capital is the influence an individual achieves through social recognition or prestige, which he may use to his advantage.

Bourdieu's most influential work following Distinction is slightly more limited in scope, but examines similar phenomena. Homo Academicus applies the methodology of Distinction specifically to the academic community, revealing that power structures within the university function very similarly to those in the world at large. Bourdieu first examines the power structures among the traditional disciplines: sciences, arts, medicine, and law, in order of ascending power both within and outside the university. Using the protests of May 1968 as context, he discusses attitudes toward institutional change and reform among the various disciplines, and attempts to situate the newer social sciences (including sociology) within these structures. He argues that those higher in social class and in the university hierarchy tend to favor the traditional power structure, much as in the outside world, and the more traditional disciplines tend to be less receptive to change than the newer ones. He also discusses degree devaluation, each discipline's ability to replenish itself and maintain its place in the power structure, and how most disciplines subvert their place in that structure by refusing adequately to adapt to changing trends and currents within education and society in general.

Bourdieu consistently sought to transcend traditional academic distinctions and barriers, most notably those between researcher and subject, but for most of his career he upheld the separation of academic and public life. He had even criticized intellectuals and scholars, most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, who involved themselves with political activism. Much of Bourdieu's later work, however, directly engages the public political field, often in the form of more generalized and accessible lectures, many of which were later collected and published. In general, these later writings defend elements of social welfare such as “pensions, job security, open access to higher education,” and other public interests against encroaching free market capitalism (Swartz 2004). On Television (1998b[1996]) takes on the French media and criticizes the dangerously simplified version of politics offered by popular media in general, while Acts of Resistance (1998a) and Counterfire (2003 [1998]) attempt a call to action among academics and intellectuals to fight back against the “imposition on the entire world of the neo-liberal tyranny of the market” (2003 [1998]: 9).

One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, Bourdieu left an indelible mark on academia. His most direct impact is on the field of sociology and the social sciences in general, where he demonstrated that rigorous scientific methodology was necessary even outside of the “hard” sciences. Bourdieu constantly encouraged researchers to examine themselves as well as their subjects, in order to gain more complete and accurate results. In the field of cultural studies, his work demonstrates the valuable cultural knowledge gained from studying popular culture, and set the standard for examining the relationship between popular and high culture. Most importantly, his writing presents the interactive and mutually influential relationship between culture and material conditions.

SEE ALSO: Class; Marx, Karl; Weber, Max

  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice (trans. Nice, R. ). Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA. (Original work published 1972.).
  • Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (trans. Nice, R. ). Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA. (Original work published 1979.).
  • Bourdieu, P. (1988). Homo Academicus (trans. Collier, P. ). Stanford University Press Stanford. (Original work published 1984.).
  • Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice (trans. Nice, R. ). Stanford University Press Stanford. (Original work published 1980.).
  • Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (ed. Johnson, R. ). Polity Cambridge.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1998a). Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time (trans. Nice, R. ). Polity Cambridge.
  • Bourdieu, P. (1998b). On Television (trans. Ferguson, P. P. ). New York Press New York. (Original work published 1996.).
  • Bourdieu, P. (2003). Counterfire: Against the Tyranny of the Market (trans. Wacquant, L. J. D. ). Verso London. (Original work published 1998.).
  • Bourdieu, P.; Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. University of Chicago Press Chicago.
  • Swartz, D. L. (2004). From critical sociology to public intellectual: Pierre Bourdieu and politics. In D. L. Swartz; V. L. Zolberg (eds.), After Bourdieu: Influence, Critique, Elaboration. Kluwer Dordrecht, pp. 333-364.
  • Swartz, D. L.; Zolberg, V. L. (eds.) (2004). After Bourdieu: Influence, Critique, Elaboration. Kluwer Dordrecht.
    © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

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