Pierre Bourdieu Criticism

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Toril Moi (essay date autumn 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Moi, Toril. “Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture.” New Literary History 22, no. 4 (autumn 1991): 1017-49.

[In the following essay, Moi analyzes Bourdieu's social theory in the context of feminist critical thinking.]


Feminist theory is critical theory; feminist critique is therefore necessarily political. In making this claim I draw on the Marxist concept of “critique,” succinctly summarized by Kate Soper as a theoretical exercise which, by “explaining the source in reality of the cognitive shortcomings of the theory under attack, call[s] for changes in the reality itself” (93). In this sense, Soper writes, feminist critique comes to echo critical theory as developed by the Frankfurt School with its emphasis on “argued justification for concrete, emancipatory practice” (93).1 This is clearly an ambitious aim, which would require me to situate Pierre Bourdieu's social theory in relation to the specific French social formation which produced it. Such analysis would require substantial empirical research: there is no space for such an undertaking in this context.

I have therefore called this paper “Appropriating Bourdieu.” By “appropriation” I understand a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to taking it over and using it for feminist purposes.2 Appropriation, then, is theoretically somewhat more modest than a full-scale critique and has a relatively well-defined concrete purpose. Neither “appropriation” nor “critique” rely on the idea of a transcendental vantage point from which to scrutinize the theory formation in question. Unlike the Enlightenment concept of “criticism,” the concept of “critique” as used here is immanent and dialectical. My proposal of “appropriation” and “critique” as key feminist activities is intended to contest the idea that feminists are doomed to be victimized by what is sometimes called “male” theory. If I prefer to use terms such as “patriarchal” and “feminist” rather than “male” and “female,” it is precisely because I believe that as feminists we struggle to transform the cultural traditions of which we are the contradictory products.


Since the 1960s the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, professor of sociology at the Collège de France and directeur d'études at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, has published over twenty books on anthropology, cultural sociology, language and literature. Only recently, however, has he found an audience outside the social sciences in the English-speaking world. One of the reasons for such relatively belated interdisciplinary interest is surely the fact that his resolutely sociological and historical thought, which owes far more to classical French sociology, structuralism, and even Marxism than to any later intellectual movements,3 could find little resonance in a theoretical space dominated, in the humanities at least, by poststructuralism and postmodernism. Today, however, there is a renewed interest in the social and historical determinants of cultural production. The fact that Bourdieu has always devoted much space to problems pertaining to literature, language and aesthetics makes his work particularly promising terrain for literary critics.4

In a recent paper, the British cultural sociologist Janet Wolff puts the case for a more sociological approach to feminist criticism: “[I]t is only with a systematic analysis of sexual divisions in society, of the social relations of cultural production, and of the relationship between textuality, gender and social structure,” she writes, “that feminist literary criticism will really be adequate to its object.”5 I agree with Wolff that feminist criticism would do well to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the social aspects of cultural production.6 Bourdieu's sociology of culture, I would argue, is promising terrain...

(The entire section is 102,628 words.)