Study Guide

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu Biography

Biography (Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Using methods and theories from sociology and anthropology, Bourdieu developed a theory of human action as practice based and argued that this perspective transcends a false distinction between subjectivism and objectivism.

Early Life

The son of a civil servant, Pierre Bourdieu was born on August 1, 1930, into a lower-middle-class family in the Béarn, a rural region of southeastern France. In the early 1950’s, Bourdieu attended the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, an elite teacher-training school in Paris. During these formative years, Bourdieu’s thinking was particularly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, as well as by the classical sociological writings ofÉmile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Bourdieu graduated with a degree in philosophy, although he did not write a thesis. He refused to comply with this standard requirement in protest against what he described as the authoritarian nature of the education available at the École Normale Supérieure.

After a year of teaching, Bourdieu was conscripted into the French army and, in 1956, was sent to Algeria. Bourdieu’s experience in Algeria was pivotal in his development as an intellectual. His stay in Algeria, then a French colony, exposed him to the clash between indigenous and European civilizations. There he observed at first hand the breakdown of traditional social structures caused by the colonial situation and the impact of European civilization.

Life’s Work

When Bourdieu returned to France in 1960, he retained his original interest in seeking answers to philosophical questions—about the nature of mind, agency, and personhood—but he sought to address those questions in terms of concepts, methods, and perspectives adapted from the social sciences, including the disciplines of anthropology and sociology.

In the 1960’s, Bourdieu held a series of important positions within French academic culture, including director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (1964) and the founder and director of the Centre de Sociologie Européene (1968). These positions furthered the development of Bourdieu’s scholarly career. He began to publish profusely on a diverse array of topics and became internationally prominent and influential as a social theorist. In 1981, Bourdieu was named the senior chair in sociology at the most elite and prestigious French academic institution, the Collège de France, a far remove from his origins as the son of a civil servant from a rural community.

Bourdieu characterized himself as an “oblate,” a term that conventionally refers to a child from a poor family entrusted to a religious foundation to be trained for the priesthood. In using this term to describe himself, Bourdieu acknowledges the importance of France’s educational system in the development of his thinking, career, and social position. Bourdieu’s self-characterization simultaneously conveys his understanding of professional academics as a sort of secular “priesthood” and acknowledges the extent to which his rise to a position of prominence in that social order cannot be explained exclusively in terms of his own individual effort.

In his research and through his studies, Bourdieu repeatedly sought to show that what seems “natural” in society is, in fact, socially constructed. That is, the “natural” or typically taken-for-granted order of any social system is actually the product of specific social actions, relationships, and institutions. Whether addressing marriage among the Kabyle of Algeria, the structure of France’s educational system, or the role of social science in politics, Bourdieu was concerned with exposing—and analyzing—what might be called the covert functions of social institutions. The institutions of marriage, education, and social science (to name only a few) function to produce and reproduce relationships of power and influence among different classes of people.

According to Bourdieu, social life consists of a struggle for predominance among the members of different classes. The struggle, however, is not the war of “all against all” envisioned by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in which physical strength is the crucial determinant of privilege. For Bourdieu, social life is akin to a well-regulated game, but one in which the rules of the game are understood and used correctly only by a privileged few, those who established these rules. The crucial determinant of superior social standing is “a feel for the game.”

This game is complicated because the players, privileged or otherwise, are not necessarily aware of how the organization of the game systematically produces unequal results. Bourdieu argued that neither the privileged classes nor those without special privileges are wholly conscious of the ways in which the established rules work to the benefit of the game’s privileged players. Consequently, those who succeed in the game understand their successes as the confirmation of natural, personal gifts; those who participate in the game without success interpret their failures as the result of their personal lack of skill, talent, or determination. Thus, the organization of the game not only serves to accrue further privileges to those players who already possess them but also provides a justification or legitimation of this (unequal) outcome.

Bourdieu first systematically...

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