Outline of a Theory of Practice

by Pierre Bourdieu

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Pierre Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice is an early outline of a theory that looks at what happens when unique individuals come together in a social setting (practice theory). In particular, Bourdieu is concerned with how modes of domination come to exist and self-perpetuate. Bourdieu's case study is the region of Kabylia in Algieria (where he was stationed during the Algerian War). In the field of sociology, Bourdieu's work is really groundbreaking for its equal concern for the subjective habitus and the objective society and its conventions.

First, it is expedient to give a brief account of Bourdieu's theory and then discuss why it is novel. Bourdieu maintains that individuals have a "habitus," his term invented for convenience's sake to represent the range of habituated emotions, thoughts, and presuppositions that need no rationalization within an individual. A "habitus" depends on one's upbringing, education, and set of experiences. Different conditions of existence provided people with different dispositions. A social class tends to comprise people of a shared "habitus." This "habitus" engages with all social contexts (called "structures" or "fields").

Bourdieu identifies four types of capital: economic (i.e. money), culture (i.e. knowledge and education), social (i.e. powerful friends), and symbolic (i.e. respect and prestige). One's quantity and types of capital determines his or her "habitus."

Bourdieu notes that there are several fields within society (which should not be considered a uniform structure): economic, art, science, and religious fields. Different forms of capital are valuable in different fields. Fields use capital as a means to objectify certain individuals. For example, social capital might be used by nobility to marginalize the peasants class. Education, too, might be used as an objectifying mechanism. Bourdieu even had a name for the conditions of the cultural status quo within a society; he called this doxa. According to Bourdieu, doxa allows dominating classes to remain in power, as these conditions are difficult to challenge when they are unstated.

Where Bourdieu is unique is his contention that there is a dialectical relationship between the individual and society. Thus, Bourdieu seeks a middle way between "phenomenology"—philosophers who were only concerned with consciousness (such as Edmund Husserl)—and "structuralists"—those concerned primarily with the structure and practices of a society (such as Émile Durkheim).

Being an eyewitness to war and colonialism in Algeria proved a fertile experience for the prolific sociologist who sought a reconciliation with phenomenology and structuralism.

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