Outline of a Theory of Practice

by Pierre Bourdieu

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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.

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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."

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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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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 303

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

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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

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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

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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

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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 more that the scholar attempts to exert a firm grasp on the phenomenon by creating a systematic description or analysis of it, the more the phenomenon slips away, like sand through the fingers of a tightly clinched fist. Bourdieu writes: “The problem is that the calendar cannot be understood unless it is set down on paper, and that it is impossible to understand how it works unless one fully realizes that it exists only on paper.” The scholar is thus left holding not the thing itself but a model of it. The Kabyle calendar, as rendered by a scholarly observer, is, Bourdieu contends, a “synoptic illusion,” bearing little resemblance to the Kabyle experience of social time.

With regard to theories of practice, Bourdieu argues that any scheme of perception is necessarily developed in and acquired through actual practice and that through this process of formation, these schemes of perception come to function as if they have an objective status. This is the case, according to Bourdieu, whether or not the schemes of perception belong to and are employed by either laypersons or scholarly analysts. Because social scientists (and, to some extent, philosophers) have failed to recognize the practical origins of their own schemes of perception (that is, the practical origins of their own theories), they have correspondingly failed to provide adequate accounts of practice itself.

Bourdieu concludes the section by claiming that the Greek philosopher Plato’s remark, “The philosopher is a mythologist,” must be taken “literally.” Bourdieu identifies theorists’ unacknowledged preoccupation with the logic or systematics of their own theories as, itself, a form of mythmaking: “Logical criticism inevitably misses its mark: Because it can only challenge the relationships consciously established between words, it cannot bring out the incoherent coherence of a discourse that, springing from underlying mythic or ideological schemes, has the capacity to survive every reductio ad absurdum.” For Bourdieu, the actual organization of practice exists independently of scholarly attempts to provide systematic, logical accounts of it.

In the final section of Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu introduces a theory of “symbolic power,” based on his critique of previous social theory and his development of the concept of the habitus. This sketch of “symbolic capital” and its relation to the habitus serves as the basis for the continuation of Bourdieu’s theory in his subsequent books, including La Distinction: Critique social du jugement (1979; Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1984) and Le Sens pratique (1980; The Logic of Practice, 1990).

Outline of a Theory of Practice contributed significantly to Bourdieu’s stature as one of the most important social theorists in the second half of the twentieth century. Bourdieu’s work undertakes the general project of understanding society and social relations as well as the more specific task of understanding the relationship between the historical pattern of social relations (in the form of “structures”) and the actual actions and interactions of real people (as evidence of their “agency”). For scholars and other individuals who treat the constitution of society, the organization of social relationships, and the explanation of human agency as issues of enduring significance for philosophy and the social sciences, Bourdieu’s work continues to be influential.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

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, addressing the work of Bourdieu from interdisciplinary perspectives. In the final essay, Bourdieu responds to the issues and themes raised by the other contributors.

Fowler, Bridget. Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage, 1997. Sets Bourdieu’s theory and methods in their intellectual context and offers a critical survey of his thinking on capitalism, modernity, and contemporary culture. Fowler includes a substantial discussion of the relationship between Bourdieu’s work and that of philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

Jenkins, Richard. Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge, 1992. One of the best, most accessible introductions to Bourdieu’s work. In concise, readable prose, Jenkins reviews the full range of Bourdieu’s scholarly output and offers an even-handed critique of it.

Robbins, Derek. The Work of Pierre Bourdieu: Recognizing Society. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991. Provides a chronological account of the development of Bourdieu’s work. Instead of comparing Bourdieu’s work with that of other social theorists, Robbins examines how Bourdieu has developed and reconfigured his own methods and concepts over time.

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