Pierre Bourdieu Introduction - Essay


Pierre Bourdieu 1930-2002

French sociologist, nonfiction writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Bourdieu’s career through 2002.

Widely recognized for his work in the fields of sociology and cultural anthropology, Bourdieu's central focus was social class and the established cultural and social institutions that can reinforce the constraints of social class. Bourdieu approached the study of culture and sociology from a Marxist perspective and often used Marx's works to expound on theories regarding the role of education, media, and the intellectual in society. Although Bourdieu was a well-known and controversial figure in French intellectual circles for many decades, his work was almost unknown in the United States until the early 1980s. He garnered attention in American intellectual circles upon the publication, in 1984, of the English translation of his most famous work, La Distinction (1979; Distinction), an analysis of the significance of personal taste and its relationship with social status. Since then, a number of his works have been translated into English and he is often cited as one of the most important sociological theorists of the twentieth century.

Biographical Information

Bourdieu was born August 1, 1930, in Denguin, a small village in southwestern France, to Albert, a postmaster, and Noemie Bourdieu. Bourdieu attended the École normale superiéure in Paris, where most of his fellow students were financially and culturally elite. He graduated at the top of his class in 1954 with a degree in philosophy, and began teaching at a high school in Moulins in 1955. Bourdieu then accepted a teaching position in colonial Algeria at the University of Algiers, remaining there for almost two years. He returned to France in 1960 and began working as a professor of sociology at the University of Paris and then at the University of Lille. In 1964, Bourdieu became director of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne. His first major publication, Le Reproduction (Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture) appeared in 1970. In this work, Bourdieu presented what would become a common theme in all of his works. Focusing on the field of education, he argued that the French educational system perpetuated existing social and cultural divisions. He developed this and other ideas regarding art, society, and culture in a number of books and essays over the years, often collaborating with colleagues. His thoughts on power and social status in France were influenced by his rural background and his experiences in Algeria. In addition to his books and research, Bourdieu also launched the journal Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales in 1975. The goal of this publication was to dismantle mechanisms to which Bourdieu attributed the preservation of the status quo in social and economic power. Bourdieu remained a part of the French academic network for most of his career, and beginning in the 1990s, became a high-profile political activist, asserting that “the sociologist must intervene” when politics shift toward a direction he or she finds worrisome. He continued to research and write until his death from cancer, on January 23, 2002.

Major Works

Bourdieu was a prolific writer, publishing over twenty-five books and over three hundred essays and articles during his career. Besides Distinction and Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture, his best-known works include Esquisse d'une theorie de la pratique (1972; Outline of a Theory of Practice), Homo Academicus (1984), Règles de l'art (1992; The Rules of Art), The Field of Cultural Production (1993), and Domination masculine (1998; Masculine Domination). In these works, he examined ideas regarding individuals and institutions, theorizing that all human action takes place within a preset social and economic order. According to Bourdieu, existing social and cultural systems of hierarchy determine how people or individuals can acquire “capital.” From an economic perspective, money and material ownership determine one’s position and power in society; from a cultural perspective, one’s “capital” is determined by social position, which, in the case of rich and educated people, affords them a power and status not easily gained by those at a lower level in society. Thus, according to Bourdieu, culture and intellectual expertise can also serve as means of domination. He presented these assertions first in Distinction, in which he demonstrated the role of social class in shaping cultural preferences. Also contained in this work are a number of terms made famous by Bourdieu, including such descriptors as “cultural capital” and “habitus.” Although he was a sociologist by training, Bourdieu’s books cover a wide variety of subjects, and his social activism during the 1980s and political activities during the 1990s brought him much attention in France beyond his field of expertise.

Critical Reception

While he has been well known in French intellectual circles since the 1960s, Bourdieu’s work has only recently begun to garner critical and scholarly attention outside of France. He has been compared with such French philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others whose radical theories have resulted in the furthering of social causes. Indeed, according to critic Richard Shusterman, “After the death of [Michel] Foucault, in 1984, Pierre Bourdieu became the last great exemplar of this tradition.” Bourdieu's detractors have characterized his theories as overly pessimistic and deterministic, due to their focus on the pervasiveness of competition, dominance/subjugation, and the unconscious willingness of the subjugated to cede power to the dominant. Katha Pollitt is among numerous critics who have responded to this allegation; in her words, “[Bourdieu] retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation.” Critic Anne Friederike Müller similarly stated, “To counter the frequent reproach of determinism, Bourdieu would answer that he advocated liberation through knowledge.” Bourdieu’s later writings were subject to much controversy which critics have suggested had less to do with the theories he expounded than with discomfort over his markedly high-profile involvement, as a sociologist, in political activity. Pollitt, evaluating Bourdieu’s oeuvre, stated that his writings were “probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era.”