Pierre Bourdieu

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2253

Article abstract: Using methods and theories from sociology and anthropology, Bourdieu developed a theory of human action as practice based and argued that this perspective transcends a false distinction between subjectivism and objectivism.

Early Life

The son of a civil servant, Pierre Bourdieu was born on August 1, 1930, into a lower-middle-class family in the Béarn, a rural region of southeastern France. In the early 1950’s, Bourdieu attended the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, an elite teacher-training school in Paris. During these formative years, Bourdieu’s thinking was particularly influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, as well as by the classical sociological writings ofÉmile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Karl Marx. Bourdieu graduated with a degree in philosophy, although he did not write a thesis. He refused to comply with this standard requirement in protest against what he described as the authoritarian nature of the education available at the École Normale Supérieure.

After a year of teaching, Bourdieu was conscripted into the French army and, in 1956, was sent to Algeria. Bourdieu’s experience in Algeria was pivotal in his development as an intellectual. His stay in Algeria, then a French colony, exposed him to the clash between indigenous and European civilizations. There he observed at first hand the breakdown of traditional social structures caused by the colonial situation and the impact of European civilization.

Life’s Work

When Bourdieu returned to France in 1960, he retained his original interest in seeking answers to philosophical questions—about the nature of mind, agency, and personhood—but he sought to address those questions in terms of concepts, methods, and perspectives adapted from the social sciences, including the disciplines of anthropology and sociology.

In the 1960’s, Bourdieu held a series of important positions within French academic culture, including director of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (1964) and the founder and director of the Centre de Sociologie Européene (1968). These positions furthered the development of Bourdieu’s scholarly career. He began to publish profusely on a diverse array of topics and became internationally prominent and influential as a social theorist. In 1981, Bourdieu was named the senior chair in sociology at the most elite and prestigious French academic institution, the Collège de France, a far remove from his origins as the son of a civil servant from a rural community.

Bourdieu characterized himself as an “oblate,” a term that conventionally refers to a child from a poor family entrusted to a religious foundation to be trained for the priesthood. In using this term to describe himself, Bourdieu acknowledges the importance of France’s educational system in the development of his thinking, career, and social position. Bourdieu’s self-characterization simultaneously conveys his understanding of professional academics as a sort of secular “priesthood” and acknowledges the extent to which his rise to a position of prominence in that social order cannot be explained exclusively in terms of his own individual effort.

In his research and through his studies, Bourdieu repeatedly sought to show that what seems “natural” in society is, in fact, socially constructed. That is, the “natural” or typically taken-for-granted order of any social system is actually the product of specific social actions, relationships, and institutions. Whether addressing marriage among the Kabyle of Algeria, the structure of France’s educational system, or the role of social science in politics, Bourdieu was concerned with exposing—and analyzing—what might be called the covert functions of social institutions. The institutions of marriage, education, and social science (to name only a few) function to produce and reproduce relationships of power and influence among different classes of people.

According to Bourdieu, social life consists of a struggle for predominance among the members of different classes. The struggle, however, is not the war of “all against all” envisioned by philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in which physical strength is the crucial determinant of privilege. For Bourdieu, social life is akin to a well-regulated game, but one in which the rules of the game are understood and used correctly only by a privileged few, those who established these rules. The crucial determinant of superior social standing is “a feel for the game.”

This game is complicated because the players, privileged or otherwise, are not necessarily aware of how the organization of the game systematically produces unequal results. Bourdieu argued that neither the privileged classes nor those without special privileges are wholly conscious of the ways in which the established rules work to the benefit of the game’s privileged players. Consequently, those who succeed in the game understand their successes as the confirmation of natural, personal gifts; those who participate in the game without success interpret their failures as the result of their personal lack of skill, talent, or determination. Thus, the organization of the game not only serves to accrue further privileges to those players who already possess them but also provides a justification or legitimation of this (unequal) outcome.

Bourdieu first systematically presented this account of social order in The Inheritors, which he coauthored in 1964 with Jean-Claude Passeron. The Inheritors investigated the relationship between French students’ social origins and their academic success. Education, Bourdieu and Passeron concluded, operates to reproduce and legitimize divisions among different social classes. Members of privileged classes are more likely to be able to afford advanced education for their children. In addition, as students, children from privileged backgrounds are better prepared to succeed in school because their upbringing has made them familiar with the unspoken and undeclared rules of the game in that environment. Officially, such students succeed because they are “gifted,” but in reality, Bourdieu argued, these gifts are only a reflection of their privileged social backgrounds.

What exactly have the privileged students in Bourdieu’s study inherited? Bourdieu argued that the skills and sensibilities necessary for social success are forms of cultural and symbolic capital. Bourdieu used the term “capital” to link this pair of concepts to Karl Marx’s analysis of economic capital. However, whereas Marx and other social theorists focused on the distribution of material wealth (in the form of money, property, and stocks, for example) as the basis for divisions among classes, Bourdieu emphasized how the transmission of other valuable, but not strictly economic, resources contributes to class division.

Thus, Bourdieu argued that knowledge, skills, taste, and sensibility constitute forms of “cultural capital,” while prestige, honor, and fame constitute forms of “symbolic capital.” Like economic capital, cultural and symbolic capital can be transmitted. Parents may pass on to their children not only their household and savings but also their knowledge, social skills, and status. Moreover, in some cases, the different forms of capital may be exchanged or used as equivalents. For example, the cultural capital of an elite education—made official in the form of the academic diploma—may contribute to an individual’s chances of securing a job that pays a high wage, and in turn, the accumulation of economic capital may also be a source of prestige. Bourdieu concluded that the transmission of cultural and symbolic capital is no less crucial to the production and reproduction of social classes than the transmission of material capital.

In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu developed the theoretical concepts of “habitus” and “field” in an effort to analyze the relationship between individuals’ knowledge, skills, and sensibilities and the situations in which those individuals act. Bourdieu used the term “habitus” to designate individuals’ socially and culturally acquired capacities. These capacities allow individuals to respond “naturally,” in any given social situation, in a way that is immediate and appropriate. In developing the concept of habitus, Bourdieu emphasized that individuals are not necessarily aware of all of the choices that they make, or of the strategic benefits that result from those choices. “Field” in turn refers to the situations in which individuals live and act. Bourdieu contended that any field has its own balance of power that defines and regulates it.

Dissatisfied with prior accounts of human agency that emphasized either individuals’ subjective orientations to the world or the objective constraints of the world on individual agency, Bourdieu argued that habitus and field stand in interdependent relationship to each other. Thus, in any given situation, when acting, individuals adapt their habitus to the specifics of the field; and, in doing so, they produce and reproduce the balance of power that defines and regulates that situation. In this way, Outline of a Theory of Practice develops a recurrent theme in Bourdieu’s work, the notion that all action is strategically oriented, even when individuals are not necessarily aware—or wholly aware—of the ways in which their actions serve their own interests, individually and as members of a class.

Throughout his work, Bourdieu drew attention to the ways that language, as a social institution, functions as a form of symbolic capital and must therefore be understood as a source of symbolic power. He addressed this theme explicitly in the collection of essays published as Language and Symbolic Power.

Bourdieu criticized the structuralist accounts of language and language use developed by Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky. According to Bourdieu, both Saussure and Chomsky employed theoretical distinctions that hid language’s function as a form of symbolic power. Saussure distinguished between langue, or language as a system of signs, and parole, or speech as the realization of the system by particular speakers; and Chomsky distinguished between “competence,” the capacity of an ideal individual to produce an infinite number of utterances, and “performance,” the actual use of language in specific, concrete situations. Bourdieu objected to these approaches on the grounds that their theoretical distinctions—between langue and parole, competence and performance—assume a preestablished set of linguistic practices as dominant and legitimate.

By contrast, Bourdieu argued that language use in any given situation is the product of a complex set of social, historical, and political conditions that the theories of Saussure and Chomsky ignore. Bourdieu demonstrated that an understanding of language must take into account the part played by language use in the construction of social reality and the contribution that it makes to the constitution of classes. Through language use, Bourdieu contended, humans create more or less authorized ways of seeing and interpreting the social world, and any adequate philosophical or scientific analysis of language must, therefore, take account of how individuals and classes use language in struggle against one another for the symbolic authority to impose a certain vision of the social world as legitimate and, indeed, natural.


A philosopher by training, Bourdieu’s most immediate contributions were to the social scientific disciplines of anthropology and sociology. His theoretical and empirical studies of education, especially the links between social background and academic success, became the foundations of the sociology of education. Likewise, his conception of cultural and symbolic capital and his explanation of their transmission attained the status of orthodoxy in social scientific accounts of class and social stratification. Although there may have been disagreement about specifics, the fundamental aspects of the perspective that Bourdieu developed became widely accepted in the social sciences.

Almost certainly, one basis for the general acceptance and even popularity of Bourdieu’s work is its promise as a set of tools for critical reflection on the relationship between self and society—a central theme in philosophy, even if Bourdieu’s approach is largely sociological. By Bourdieu’s own account, his work was intended to encourage readers to recognize their own social status and their personal identities not as individual achievements but instead as the product of social structures and classification systems that shape individuals’ tastes, attitudes, and conduct. Such recognition, Bourdieu contended, may lead individuals to rethink how their own conduct contributes to—and might potentially transform—the social world in which they act and live.

From this perspective, the diverse scope of Bourdieu’s work is unified by its recurring inquiry into the conditions for the realization of individuals’ authentic selves—as practical, social agents. This emphasis should contribute to his work’s enduring significance in the field of philosophy.

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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