Outline of a Theory of Practice

by Pierre Bourdieu

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pierre Bourdieu's 1972 Outline of a Theory of Practice is a sociological treatise (translated to English in 1977). It largely draws on Bourdieu's fieldwork in Algeria. French-born Bourdieu was conscripted into the French Army in 1955 and served in Algiers guarding military units and as a clerk. Bourdieu thereafter stayed in Algiers as a lecturer and studied the Kabylian peoples. His work as an ethnographer furnished the material for his Outline of a Theory of Practice.

As a work of ethnography and sociology, Outline of a Theory of Practice essentially introduces "practice theory" for which Bourdieu would become known. This abstract practice theory attempts to explain the individuals' relationship to other individuals as well as to his or her culture.

Bourdieu begins by disavowing that society's inner workings can be governed by a set of rules. Instead, he proposes that basic practices give rises to manifold schemes that are human inventions. These schemes (among the Kabylian people) give rise to customary (not explicit) law.

Bourdieu next proposes the concept of a "habitus"—a highly personalized disposition unique to each person that governs how this person behaves in a group. A "habitus" is made up of economic, social, and cultural capital, which leads to an overall symbolic capital that determines how an individual will behave and be treated in a given social context. When studying specifically how individuals behave in groups, Bourdieu insists that researches must look to how individuals behave physically rather that symbolically. Concepts, according to Bourdieu, can only explain so much about human behaviors and institutions (such as marriage).

Systems of classification give rise to doxa, which are fields wherein traditional classifications are deployed in natural settings. A doxa is culture-specific and can be changed when diverse cultures interact or when excluded groups propose a disruption of orthodoxy.

Bourdieu later discusses the the various types of capital—economic, symbolic, and social. He agues that these types are reasonably transferable (i.e., one type can become another type), but that they are equally objectifying. Violence is another form of objectification. However, brute force (only seldom used even among the Kabylian people) has largely been replaced by mechanized strategies of domination, such as the practice of gift-giving (which puts one party in debt to the other).

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