Pierre Bourdieu

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Pierre Bourdieu (August 1, 1930 – January 23, 2002) was a French sociologist whose work employed methods drawn from a wide range of disciplines, from philosophy and literary theory, to sociology and anthropology. The most notable aspects of Bourdieu's theory concern the development of methodologies, combining both theory and empirical data that attempt to dissolve some of the most troublesome problems in theory and research and trying to reconcile such difficulties as how to understand the subject within objective structures (in the process, trying to reconcile structuralism with agency). Bourdieu also pioneered methodological frameworks and terminologies, such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of "habitus," "field," and "symbolic violence." Bourdieu's work emphasized the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics. Bourdieu was an avid political activist, and a staunch opponent of modern forms of globalization. He saw sociology as a weapon against social oppression and injustice, commenting that "sociology is a combat sport insofar as it is used to defend against the domination of symbolic systems and the imposition of distorting categories of thought." In this way, Bourdieu used the weapons of the intellect to uncover mechanisms, heretofore unknown, that continue the separation and inequalities of different social groups, in his struggle for a better world for all.


Pierre Bourdieu was born on August 1, 1930, in Denguin, (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) in France, where his grandfather was a sharecropper and his father was a postman and later, a postmaster. He married Marie-Claire Brizard in 1962, and had three sons.

Bourdieu studied philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure. After achieving his agrégation, he worked as a teacher for a year. During the Algerian War of Independence in 1958-1962, and while serving in the French army, he undertook ethnographic research, laying the groundwork for his sociological reputation.

From 1964 on, Bourdieu held the position of Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, in the VIe section, the future Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, and from 1981, the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France (held before him by Raymond Aron, Maurice Halbwachs, and Marcel Mauss). In 1968, he took over the Centre de Sociologie Européenne that Aron had founded, the research center that he directed until his death.

In 1975, he launched the interdisciplinary journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, with which he sought to transform the accepted canons of sociological production while buttressing the scientific rigor of sociology. In 1993, he was honored with the Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique|CNRS). In 1996, he received the Goffman Prize from the University of California at Berkeley and in 2002, the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Bourdieu's contributions to social theory were both empirical and theoretical. His work builds upon theories of phenomenologists such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Edmund Husserl, as well as philosophers of science like Georges Canguilhem and Gaston Bachelard, and the sociology of Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim, among others. A notable influence on Bourdieu was Blaise Pascal after whom Bourdieu titled the book Pascalian Meditations. He is well known for his book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, in which he tried to connect aesthetic judgments to positions in social space.

His key terms were habitus, field, and symbolic violence. He extended the idea of capital to categories such as social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital. For Bourdieu, an individual occupies a position in their "social space" and is defined not by social class, but by the amount of all kinds of capital they possess, and by the relative amounts symbolic, social, economic, and cultural capital account for.

He was also known as a politically engaged and active social scientist, who felt uncomfortable in the role of the intellectual, supporting workers against the influences of political elites and neoliberal capitalism. He was even considered the left's enemy of itself: the French Socialist party used to talk of la gauche bourdieusienne, their enemies on the left.

Some examples of his empirical results include:

  • showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (for example, classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with their social position
  • showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling, and style—all part of cultural capital—are a major factor in social mobility (for example, getting a higher paid, higher status job).

Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, reproduce themselves even under the pretense that society fosters social mobility—particularly through education.

Bourdieu was an extraordinarily prolific author of hundreds of articles and three dozen books, nearly all of which are now available in English. His style is dense in English translation, but he was considered an elegant and incisive writer both in France and in neighboring European countries other than England.

Theory of power and practice

At the center of Bourdieu's sociological work is a logic of practice that emphasizes the importance of the body and practices within the social world. Bourdieu stressed that mechanisms of social domination and reproduction were primarily focused on bodily know-how and competent practices in the social world. Bourdieu fiercely opposed Rational Action Theory as grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Social agents do not, according to Bourdieu, continuously calculate according to explicit rational and economic criteria. Rather, social agents operate according to bodily know-how and practical dispositions. Social agents operate according to their "feel for the game" (the "feel" being, roughly, habitus, and the "game" being the field).


Bourdieu shared Weber's view that society, contrary to traditional Marxism, cannot be analyzed simply in terms of economic classes and ideologies. Much of his work concerns the independent role of educational and cultural factors. Instead of analyzing societies in terms of classes, Bourdieu uses the concept of field: A social arena in which people maneuver and struggle in pursuit of desirable resources. A field is a system of social positions (for example, a profession such as the law) structured internally in terms of power relationships (consider the power differential between judges and lawyers). More specifically, a field is a social arena of struggle over the appropriation of certain species of capital.

The field of power is peculiar in that it exists "horizontally" through all of the fields and the struggles within it control the "exchange rate" of the forms of cultural, symbolic, or physical capital between the fields themselves. A field is constituted by the relational differences in position of social agents, and the boundaries of a field are demarcated by where its effects end. Different fields can be either autonomous or interrelated (e.g. the separation of power between judiciary and legislature) and more complex societies have more fields. Fields are constructed according to underlying nomos, the "law" that governs practices within a field. The principles underlying one field are often irreducible to those underlying another, as in the noted disparity between the nomos of the aesthetic field that values cultural capital and in some sense discourages economic capital, and that of the economic field which values economic capital. Agents subscribe to or participate in a particular field not by way of explicit contract, but by their practical acknowledgement of the stakes. The acknowledgement of the stakes of the field and the acquiring of interests and investments prescribed by the field is termed illusio.


Bourdieu's influential concept of habitus was developed to resolve the paradox of the human sciences: Objectifying the subjective. It can be defined as a system of dispositions: Lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought, and action, in Bourdieu's words, "appreciation, and action that result from the institution of the social in the body" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992 :127). This connection between the objective and subjective is grounded in the physical body:

At the center of the notion of habitus is the corporeal scheme—the structure and capacities of our body—through which we learn by assimilating or modifying habits and dispositions. Through these bodily capacities and orientations agents are able to, in turn, engage with the world of others. This is a matter of the body because what is incorporated are motor skills and socially learned postural and gestural sets that create distinct forms of motility and perception (Lande 2005).

The individual agent develops these dispositions in response to the objective conditions they encounter, but they remain subjective things. In this way Bourdieu theorized the inculcation of objective social structures into the subjective, mental experience of agents.

Having thereby absorbed objective social structure into a personal set of cognitive and somatic dispositions, and the subjective structures of action of the agent then being commensurate with the objective structures of the social field, doxa emerge. Doxa are the fundamental, deep-founded, unthought beliefs, taken as self-evident, that inform an agent's actions and thoughts within a particular field. Doxa tends to favor the particular social arrangement of the field, thus privileging the dominant and taking their position of dominance as self-evident and universally favorable. Therefore, the categories of understanding and perception that constitute a habitus, being congruous with the objective organization of the field, tend to reproduce the very structures of the field. Bourdieu thus saw habitus as the key to social reproduction, because it is central to generating and regulating the practices that make up social life.

Symbolic capital and symbolic violence

Bourdieu saw symbolic capital (things such as prestige, honor, the right to be listened to) as a crucial source of power. Symbolic capital is any species of capital that is perceived through socially inculcated classificatory schemes. When a holder of symbolic capital uses the power, this confers against an agent who holds less, and seeks thereby to alter their actions, they exercise "symbolic violence." Symbolic violence is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents who then take the social order to be desirable. Symbolic violence is in some senses more powerful than physical violence, in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals and imposes the vision of the legitimacy of the social order.

In his theoretical writings, Bourdieu employed some economic terminology to analyze the processes of social and cultural reproduction, of how the various forms of capital tend to transfer from one generation to the next. For Bourdieu, education represents the key example of this process. Educational success, according to Bourdieu, entails a wide range of cultural behavior, extending to ostensibly non-academic features like gait or accent. Privileged children have learned this behavior, as have their teachers. Children of unprivileged backgrounds have not. The children of privilege, therefore, fit the pattern of their teachers' expectations with apparent ease; they are "docile." The unprivileged are found to be "difficult," to present "challenges." Yet both behave as their upbringing dictates. Bourdieu regards this ease, or natural ability—distinction—as in fact the product of a great social labor, largely on the part of the parents. It equips their children with the dispositions of manner as well as thought which ensure they are able to succeed within the educational system and can then reproduce their parents' class position in the wider social system.

Cultural capital (for example, competencies, skills, qualifications) can also be a source of misrecognition and symbolic violence. Therefore, working class children can come to see the educational success of their middle-class peers as always legitimate, seeing what is often class-based inequality as instead the result of hard work or even "natural" ability. A key part of this process is the transformation of people's symbolic or economic inheritance (e.g. accent or property) into cultural capital (e.g. university qualifications—a process which the logic of the cultural fields impedes but cannot prevent.


Bourdieu insisted on the importance of a reflexive sociology, in which sociologists must at all times conduct their research with conscious attention to the effects of their own position, their own set of internalized structures, and how these are likely to distort or prejudice their objectivity. The sociologist, according to Bourdieu, must engage in a "sociology of sociology" so as not to unwittingly attribute the object of observation the characteristics of the subject. One must be cognizant of their own social positions within a field and recognize the conditions that both structure and make possible discourses, theories, and observations. A sociologist, therefore, must be aware of his or her own stakes and interests in the academic or sociological field and render explicit the conditions and structures of understanding that are implicitly imbued in his or her practices within those fields.

Bourdieu's conception of reflexivity, however, is not singular or narcissistic, but must involve the contribution of the entire sociological field. Sociological reflexivity is a collective endeavor, spanning the entire field and its participants, aimed at exposing the socially conditioned, subconscious structures that underlay the formulation of theories and perceptions of the social world.

Bourdieu asserted that there are specific social conditions of existence of a scientific field. Bourdieu's ideal scientific field is one that persistently designates upon its participants an interest or investment in objectivity.


The concept of habitus is foundational to Bourdieu’s theory of social research. Bourdieu combined a structuralist framework with close attention to subjectivity in social context. A key relationship in bridging objectivism and subjectivism in social research, for Bourdieu, is that between habitus and field via practices. To study the subjective-objective nature of social practices, the researcher may take on the perspectives of both research subject and observer in kind of double participant observation, which combines the objective study of the world with reflexive knowledge of the subject(s) of the study. The double objectification in his method is described by Jenkins (1992:50):

First, there is the work done in the act of observation and the objectification or distortion of social reality which it is likely to produce. Second, there is an awareness of that distortion and of the observer as a competent social actor in his/her own right.

A problem with the conceptualization of habitus can be seen to enter in Bourdieu’s view of social life. In Bourdieu's focus on practices and habitus, they are neither objectively determined nor products of free will. Habitus are cultural structures that exist in people’s bodies and minds. Fields are sets of relations in the world. Through practices, fields condition habitus and habitus inform fields. Practices mediate between the inside and outside. But, habitus cannot be directly observed.

In Bourdieu's theory, agency is not directly observable in practices or in the habitus, but only in the experience of subjectivity. Hence, some argue that Bourdieu’s project could be said to retain an objectivist bias from structuralism. Further, some critics charge that Bourdieu's habitus governs so much of an individual's social makeup that it significantly limits the concept of human agency. In Bourdieu's references to habitus it sometimes seems as if so much of an individual's disposition is predetermined by the social habitus that such pre-dispositions cannot be altered or left behind.


Pierre Bourdieu's obituary in The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom said Bourdieu "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France… a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan."

His works have been translated into two dozen languages and have had an impact on the whole gamut of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. Several works of his are considered classics, not only in sociology, but also in anthropology, education, and cultural studies. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste was named as one of the twentieth century's ten most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. His book, Outline of a Theory of Practice is among the most cited in the world. The Rules of Art has impacted the fields of sociology, history, literature, and aesthetics.

In France, Bourdieu was not seen as an "ivory tower" academic or "cloistered don," but as a passionate activist for those he believed subordinated by society. The Guardian reported that "[In 2003] a documentary film about Pierre Bourdieu—Sociology is a Combat Sport—became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre in French public life, and slugging it out with politicians because he thought that was what people like him should do."

Bourdieu's work has continued to be influential, and sociologists such as Loïc Wacquant have persisted to apply his theoretical and methodological principles in what Wacquant calls "carnal sociology." Carnal sociology takes Bourdieu's conception of habitus as grounded in the body, and focuses on the importance of the body in the production and reproduction of social practices, while simultaneously recognizing the conditions under which the body takes its form.


Selected works:

  • 1970. La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d'enseignement. Paris, France: Minuit. English 1990. With Jean-Claude Passeron Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London:Sage. ISBN 0803983204
  • 1972. Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d'ethnologie kabyle. English 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052129164X
  • 1979. La distinction. English 1987. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Reprint 2002. ISBN 0674212770
  • 1984. Homo Academicus Paris, France:Les Éditions de Minuit. English 1988. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717982
  • 1987. Choses dites. English 1990. In Other Words: Essays toward a Reflective Sociology. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717257
  • 1991. The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804716986
  • 1992. The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804720118
  • 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology with Loic Wacquant. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226067416
  • 1992. Les régles de l'art. English 1996. Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804726272
  • 1996. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804726892
  • 1997. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public. Polity Press. ISBN 0745619142
  • 1998. Contre-Feux. English 2003. Fighting Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market. New Press. ISBN 1565847385
  • 1998. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804733635
  • 1998. La domination masculine. English 2001. Masculine Domination. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804738203
  • 1999. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804738459
  • 1999. On Television. New Press. ISBN 1565845129
  • 1999. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. New Press. ISBN 1565845234
  • 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804733325
  • 2000. State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Polity Press. ISBN 0745620280
  • 2002. Science de la science et réflexivité. English 2006.Science of Science and Reflexivity. Polity Press. ISBN 074563060X
  • 2005. The Social Structures of the Economy. Polity Press. ISBN 0745625401

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052129164X
  • Calhoun, C. et al. 1993. Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226090930
  • Elias, Norbert. 2000. The Civilizing Process. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0631221611
  • Fowler, Bridget. 1997. Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations. London: Sage Publications. ISBN 0803976267
  • Jenkins, Richard. 1992. Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415285275
  • Lande, Brian. 2005. Bourdieu's Key Concepts: Habitus, Capital, Field. Retrieved January 25, 2008.
  • Lane, Jeremy F. 2000 Pierre Bourdieu. A Critical Introduction. Pluto Press. ISBN 0745315011
  • MacLeod, Jay. 2004. Ain't No Makin' It. Colorado: Westview Press, Inc. ISBN 0813341876
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1934. "Les Techniques du corps" Journal de Psychologie 32 (3-4). Reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, 1936, Paris: PUF.
  • Wacquant, Loic. 2005. "Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics." Polity Press. ISBN 0745634885

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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