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.