Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu 1930-2002

The background of Pierre Bourdieu is a departure from Marxism and coming closer to Weber. He was still a radical. Class dominance gets challenged at the superstructure level, therefore not directly on economic class interests but at the level of the cultural. As with Weber, social ideas generate their own partial autonomy. People have class interests but those with the most capital surpluses can trade them in for symbolic capital in order to buy future power or tying others in now.
Economic capital is equities and surpluses in high business salaries; social capital is high among the communicating networking of high social status people; cultural capital is in educational degrees and socially considered aesthetic quality; and symbolic capital is a form of honour and loyalty. These capitals can have their own surpluses, their own storage as if in some imaginary bank (as well as real banking for the economic) and can be traded.
Whilst he drew on Levi-Strauss' structuralist anthropology for objective structure, he found it dead to action and agency (like an individual social actor), unlike with his use of subjective existentialism. So he wanted the two combined, where people acted (more than just following structural rules) within a received objective world.
Bordieau was moving beyond the celebrated continental structuralism before Giddens' structuration theory and Bhaskar's transformational model of social action, both of which also tried to break the division between subjectivism and objectivism, using both Wittgenstein and phenomenology, and seeing strutures as enabling as well as constraining.
Actors do not engage in the precision of rational choice theory; they do still set out to maximise returns for themselves and their own in a utilitarian fashion. People might not make rational choices as if they are rational agents, but they do operate skilfully and practically according to the shared understanding they receive in specialities. In this Bourdieu draws upon social phenomenology, Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein as well as Goffman. It is not acting according to explicitly known theory, nor is it always conscious. The taken-for-granted mental world prior that leads directly to a good overall feel for it and acting according to the practical knowledge therein is called Doxa. This echoes views of Peter Berger and what constitutes the sociology of knowledge. Doxa is also like a deep paradigm. Heresiarchs can crack any one doxa: they might be a group within a high social status ruling class with plenty of cultural capital but little economic capital, like the poor, heroic, serious artist.
The basis of how symbolic capital works was Marcel Mauss' work The Gift, so that the symbolic exchange that takes place has a binding effect. Honour and loyalties get bound together within social systems of exchange. For Bourdieu, economic capital is converted into symbolic capital in order to gain sufficient obligation back and create relationships of dependence from lower social classes. Also economic capital can be deferred via symbolic capital, for example in purchasing education for one's own offspring which costs money but is rewarded by reproducing the family in high status positions. Cultural capital works via superior aesthetic taste, and that taste relates to social position: actual preferences relate to social status. These different categories of capital emphasise that (like for Marx) capital is a form of social relation.
This receiving and social acting begins in childhood, with dispositions of perception, thought and actions towards practices, improvisations, attitudes or bodily movements, and dispositions combine to generate habitus of a practical sense of the world by which all sorts of action strategies can be generated.
Just as Wittgenstein had different language games so Bourdieu understands the divisions of more practical knowledge into fields. Dispositions then are effectively socialisation and habitus is having gained the social world of that field into one's mental make-up. Dispositions are adjusted by the continuing constraints of the social world actually inhabited, including those constraints specific to social status. Thus the combining into a habitus is affected too, and therefore action back into that social world.
The work of Basil Bernstein is relevant here. His suggesting once strong contextualised transmission of middle class values and later weaker transmission of values based on work orientation, comes into this understanding of dispositions; then also comes habitus and having a whole grasp of dispositions among middle class members and therefore the strategies of speaking in elaborate and restrictive codes that give advantage to the middle class. (Care is needed here with a terminology clash: Bourdieu's use of restricted is for high cultural value art whereas expanded is mass art that does not require specialist decoding).
People therefore become acclimatised, skilled operators in their social fields rather like a person drives a car. Most of the time it seems semi-conscious once learned, and social status and power reproduces itself.
The inflexibility of dispositions and durability of each habitus do not account for change so well. So this approach is good for suggesting how things reproduce and stay the same, but not so good for explaining change.
Bourdieu is useful for considering always that the economy is also a symbolic and cultural activity, and utiility lies in these. In terms of consumption it is of course all about taste (utility is ultimately a psychological term of satisfaction in rational choice economic theory), and his postmodern notion is that aesthetics are determined by social position and do not have Kantian independence. Taste is collective. In terms of production those who avoid the mass market can earn the cultural capital of insiders' approval and this can be traded for economic capital with some loss of status (a good example could be how Jack Vettriano sells a lot of his paintings but is regarded as having low cultural capital among artists). Avant garde art is at first seemingly opposed to the economy of commercial production (as in art is sacred and "consecrated" whereas volume production is profane) - until of course the cultural production of this art is recognised as having its own logic of a higher value higher risk economy than the pumping out of prints and popular styles with a clearly more mass economic objective. Who buys cultural value art? Once again it is people of high status who can defer their economic capital into symbolic capital, and who demonstrate their social status derived aesthetic value. Some art is bound to be more economic and popular: cinema, photography and jazz could never return enough cultural capital. Bourdieu about television spoke of "cultural fast food"
Bourdieu has a methodological impact. Theory has to be grounded in research. He did not agree with sociological models that paid little attention to actual empirical realities. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste was empirical study of taste within social classes and looking at the uneven distributions of aesthetic dispositions. Such capital upholds social authority. He showed social dominance in research findings (especially in education) and how superiority was shown in a process of symbolic reproduction among the socially favoured with a beneficial habitus for them (over working class habitus) generating better strategies. His study of his own locality of peasants in Béarn and why some did not marry was historical as much as sociological.
Bourdieu introduces the notion of participant objectivation. The area of research is an objective world of the habitus. It is important also in this processes to get inside people's motives for actions - their own skills and abilities in acting. Thus objective and subjective are combined. Furthermore, the researcher is not an all seeing objective eye, but should be self-critical in one's own presuppositions. This approach is called doing reflexive sociology.
There are a number of criticisms to consider.
First of all it is quite possible to have high cultural capital surpluses and high economic capital surpluses. The works of Jane Austen have not lost their high cultural capital simply because they sell alot. Nor do great works of art have to sell for less because people buy endless books or posters with them on show. Also categories of art vary internally in their cultural capital: there are art versions of cinema, photography and jazz. Of course Bourdieu discusses a rarified community keeping up its social role by producing academically interpreted artwork. It may be, though, that the dynamics of the art market are purely to uphold savings: that a class of people trade in money-absorbing artworks of no particular value other than in their money-holding role. A widespread view that some art is "just crap" must diminish their cultural value, as with the Turner Prize and the constant need to defend it, but these artworks continue to trade and be emblems of wealth, and carry on demanding high prices for passing between the wealthy and institutions.
Secondly there seems to be some overlap in symbolic and cultural capital. If cultural capital is socially derived then its task is to uphold social status and is a purchase. Visits to the opera have this social role, in the UK, via high seat prices and so some people identify with it. Culture is symbolic anyway, and art joins music in being less precise symbolic forms of expression than words. Education is more than investment in forms of reproducing honour, but is an investment into the cultures of words and skills with presentation strategies that translate into social and economic gain. Presumably networking is a social capital to be transferred into other forms of capital, and is akin to being in a profession, meant in broad sociological terms of a restricted membership of people where members approve new recruits according to its ethos that may involve training and socialisation into it (thus including, sociologically, a "profession" of artists). Professions, of course, set up scarcity and therefore high fees (whatever the ethics of the product being purchased, including that of profession-regulated, service-based, honest advice). Allowing for this kudos of association, I would suggest three forms of capital - economic, social and symbolic, the latter including the cultural.
Thirdly there is some lack of clarity about the terms doxa, dispositions and habitus, and quite when fields are employed or something more total and holistic is being discussed, and one wonders whether there is a need for all these terms at all. Dispositions have a kind of cod-psychology about them; both dispositions and habitus are the process of socialisation and the separation of these seems more analytical than real. The objective-subjective combination is that we have society in our individual heads and that we remain individuals in society with some freedom to act creatively. Furthermore if doxa is a deep paradagm (deeper than Kuhn's understanding) then habitus is a merging of doxa and habitus - society in the individual mind. Once we have dispositions, are we not then socialised into the doxa as we achieve habitus? The habitus is then waiting for us to, well, inhabit it. So perhaps just two terms could suffice - fields and habitus. Nor do we always intend to act in some utilitarian manner by increasing stocks of different forms of capital, and arguably some forms of capital as described are not utilitarian. The material-spiritual exchange that Marcel Mauss discusses might be called utilitarian at one level, but given the material-spiritual difference it might be called sacrificial or even tribal.
Bourdieu represents an approach to cultural theory, grounded in the empirical and what groups of people do, to be discovered by participant objectivation (why not participant observant objectification?). He tries to set this out logically through use of plenty of terminology. Well, here is the reflexive part: he is trying to acquire symbolic (including cultural) capital of the sociologists with whom he networked, by using his own rarified analytical terminilogy for their academic approval, when it might be a lot simpler and presentable to more people. It might sell a few more books if it did become clearer, and it might be more coherent and therefore increase both its economic and symbolic capital.

Pierre Bourdieu was born 1 August 1930 in the Béarn area of France. He died January 23 2002 from cancer. He studied Philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure under Louis Althusser and was a schoolteacher at Moulins between 1955 and 1956. Then for two years he was conscripted into the military in Algeria and wrote Sociologie d'Algérie, the Algerians, published in 1958, as a result - looking at the Berbers under colonialism and seeing what their original kinship structres were. These structures were at variance from social action, and so structure and action needed to be combined. He went on to teach at the University of Algiers to 1960 and on to universities at Paris and Lille up to 1964. A longer job was from 1964-1981 as Director of Studies at École Pratique des Hautes Études as well as being Director of the Centre de Sociologie Européen from 1968 and becoming Professor of Sociology at the Collège de France in 1981. Bourdieu was anti-globalisation and fought against neo-liberal dominance.

Beart, Patrick (1998), Social Theory in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Polity Press, 29-33.

Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Nice, Richard (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Emanuel, Susan (1996), The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Callinicos, A. (1999), Social Theory: A Historical Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press, 287-295.

Wikipedia. (2007), Pierre Bourdieu, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Monday April 09 2007, 20:06]


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful