When Pierre Bourdieu wrote Outline of a Theory of Practice, structuralism and structural Marxism were the dominant modes of thought in his native France. Fearful that advances in the understanding of actual human conduct would falter because of the developing orthodoxy of these perspectives, Bourdieu wrote Outline of a Theory of Practice to offer an alternative to the accounts of human action provided by structuralism and by abstract sociological theory. As the book’s title suggests, the argument that Bourdieu advanced as an alternative was not yet complete; as an “outline” of a theory of practice, this book stands as a point of departure for an approach that Bourdieu continued to develop and refine in numerous other publications after the appearance of Outline of a Theory of Practice.

Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice is an unusually complex book, and the author’s stated intention is to challenge his readers. As a reflection on scientific practice, Outline of a Theory of Practice promises to “disconcert both those who reflect on the social sciences without practicing them and those who practice them without reflecting on them.” Neither the presentation of Bourdieu’s argument nor the construction of his sentences is straightforward.

The book’s argument does not follow an obvious, linear progression. Concepts introduced and employed in one section may be reintroduced under different definitions and with altered emphases, giving the reader the impression that the development of Bourdieu’s argument is more like a rocky, twisting path—which sometimes doubles back on itself and other times disappears altogether—than a unobstructed, straight sidewalk. Bourdieu requires that his reader actively work, sentence by sentence, to understand his argument. Nevertheless, Outline of a Theory of Practice is a rewarding text to those willing to take the time to understand Bourdieu’s challenging argument.

Action and Practice

The book has two aims: first, to evaluate why previous accounts of human action, in philosophy and especially social science, have failed to adequately explain human action, and second, on the basis of this critique, to develop an original account of how human action should be understood. For Bourdieu, the key to an adequate understanding of human action is “practice.”

As Bourdieu employs the term, “practice” can refer both to conventional or routinized ways of doing something (such as marriage customs or ways of speaking) and to disciplined training (such as an athlete practicing a particular skill). Human action is “practical” in at least two senses of the term. First, action is composed of and conducted through practices; and, second, action is never abstract, it is always oriented to some actual outcome. Bourdieu quotes approvingly from Karl Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” (1888): “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

Bourdieu argues that previous theories of human action fail because they do not come to terms with human action as a practical matter. Moreover, Bourdieu proposes that the failure of these theories is partly the consequence of theorists’ inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that theorizing about human action is, itself, a form of practical human action. These two themes recur throughout the four sections of Outline of a Theory of Practice.

Rules and Social Action

The book’s first section is titled “The Objective Limits of Objectivism.” Bourdieu uses the term “objectivism” to refer to analyses of the social world in terms of the object relations that structure human conduct. His treatment of objectivism focuses on accounts of human action that explain action as rule-governed.

It is frequent and even conventional in a great deal of social philosophy, anthropology, and sociology to argue that social action is orderly insofar as it is governed by socially shared rules. From this perspective, in any given situation individuals know how to act because they apprehend the situation and recognize the rule, or rules, that direct action in that situation.

Bourdieu rejects this perspective as too simple. According to him, rules could not possibly determine social action because those rules and the situations in which they apply (or do not apply) always require active interpretation. Far from having their actions determined by rules, practical actors engage in what Bourdieu describes as the “art’ of necessary improvisation.” Thus, Bourdieu contends, norms and rules should be understood as providing interpretive resources for strategic action.

Bourdieu presents an example from his ethnographic fieldwork among the Kabyle of Algeria to illustrate his point. Bourdieu studied the social organization of kinship and marriage among the Kabyle. According to Kabyle custom, the most appropriate and desirable form of marriage involved the union of “patrilateral parallel cousins” (that is, marriage to a specific member of one’s kin). However, only 3 percent or 4 percent of Kabyle marriages involved parallel cousins. Analyzing this discrepancy, Bourdieu concluded that the official rules of marriage among the Kabyle did not determine who would marry whom. In actual practice, the Kabyle invoked the rule of marriage between parallel cousins selectively, only as specific circumstances required. What mattered in practice, Bourdieu contended, was not the official rule, but the strategies that different parties involved in a potential marriage employed in order to advance their own interests.

The Habitus

If an objectivist explanation of human action as rule-governed fails, then what is the alternative? Bourdieu addresses this question in the book’s second, and perhaps most important section, “Structures and the Habitus.” “Habitus” is originally a Latin word associated with Aristotelian philosophy, referring to a habitual or regular condition, state or appearance, especially of the body.

Bourdieu uses the term “habitus” to refer to the organized production of practices (the organized ways of doing things) that are both regulated and regular, even though they are not the product of obedience to rules. The habitus is, Bourdieu elaborates, a system of “dispositions,” “tendencies,” “propensities,” or “inclinations.”

In using this cluster of terms to describe the habitus, Bourdieu alerts the reader to the tacit, typically taken-for-granted character of the organization of practice. Dispositions constitute “practical sense,” the basis on which humans act in any given situation. Individuals need not be conscious of how their actions are organized—nor need they be wholly aware of how their actions are strategically organized—in order to advance their own interests as individuals and as members of a class. Therefore, the habitus contributes to the production, and reproduction, of the existing social order “invisibly,” without individuals’ conscious awareness, even though the habitus exists only through those individuals’ own actions. The habitus comes to have a structuring function even though it is not in itself a structure, although individuals may (mistakenly) apprehend the habitus as such. In this way, the reproductive function of the habitus is hidden, resulting in the production of a commonsense world endowed with the appearance of objectivity.

The habitus is the key to Bourdieu’s conception of humans as active agents, although they cannot be wholly conscious of their own agency. Bourdieu writes, “Each agent, wittingly or unwittingly, willy nilly, is a producer and reproducer of objective meaning.” Bourdieu emphasizes that this point is especially true for humans who attempt to construct systematic theories of human action.

A Critique of Theories of Practice

The book’s third section, “Generative Schemes and Practical Logic: Invention Within Limits,” focuses specifically on Bourdieu’s critique of the methods and perspectives of social science. Bourdieu introduces the section by remarking that the idea of a “point of view” on practice is possible only if one “stands back so as to observe.” That is, to have a “point of view” on practice—to be an observer of practice—is to detach oneself from practice itself. Having a “point of view” on practice is, Bourdieu asserts, the privilege of those who hold high positions in the social structure.

Bourdieu includes in this privileged group both social scientists and philosophers who have attempted to produce systematic theories of practice. These theories fail for two reasons. Some theories of practice fail to recognize that the objects of knowledge are socially constructed; these theories slip into a form of positivist materialism, in which individuals’ capacities as sense-making agents are ignored. Alternatively, other theories of practice fail to recognize that insofar as the objects of knowledge are socially constructed, they are constructed in and through practical activity; in this case, the objective character of social structures is ignored, and these theories become a sort of idealist intellectualism.

This critique is summarized in the handful of densely written, challenging paragraphs that introduce this section of the book. Bourdieu proceeds to devote the bulk of the section to detailed ethnographic analysis of the rituals, myths, and practices that constitute the yearly calendar of the Kabyle of Algeria. The purpose of these extensive descriptive passages is to demonstrate Bourdieu’s critique that theories of practice that attempt to portray practice in systematic terms can never wholly account for actual instances of practice.

The ideal version of the Kabyle calendar that an anthropologist might construct is not, and cannot be, the same as the calendar as it is experienced and used by the Kabyle themselves. The...

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Additional Reading

Brubaker, Roger. “Rethinking Classical Social Theory: The Sociological Vision of Pierre Bourdieu.” Theory and Society 14 (1985): 745-775. A somewhat specialized (though still accessible) account of Pierre Bourdieu’s writing, Brubaker’s article critically evaluates Bourdieu’s position relative to the founding figures of sociological theory, including Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim.

Calhoun, Craig, Edward LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, eds. The Social Theory of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. A dozen essays by Anglo-American commentators,...

(The entire section is 248 words.)