Pierre Bourdieu

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Toril Moi (essay date autumn 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14648

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 for feminists precisely because it allows us to produce highly concrete and specific analyses of the social determinants of the literary énonciation. This is not to say that such determinants are the only ones that we need to consider, nor that feminist critics should not concern themselves with the énoncé, or the actual statement itself.7 Again I agree with Janet Wolff who holds that feminist criticism fails in its political and literary task if it does not study literature both at the level of texts and at the level of institutions and social processes. I should perhaps add that just as it is absurd to try to reduce the énoncé to the énonciation (for instance by claiming that every statement can be fully explained by one's so-called “speaking position”), it is equally absurd to treat texts as if they were not the complex products of a historically and socially situated act of utterance, the énonciation.

If I am interested in Bourdieu, then, it is not because I believe that his theory of the social construction of conceptual categories, including that of “woman,” somehow makes all other theory formations superfluous. There can be no question of abandoning Freud for Bourdieu, for instance. Nor can we afford to neglect textual theories in favor of sociology of psychology. I do not wish, either, to reduce the work of the French sociologist to a simple tool for literary critics. For Bourdieu also has considerable theoretical relevance for feminism. In this paper, for instance, I hope to show that a Bourdieuian approach enables us to reconceptualize gender as a social category in a way which undercuts the traditional essentialist/nonessentialist divide.

Bourdieu's general theories of the reproduction of cultural and social power are not per se radically new and original. Many of his most cherished themes have also been studied by others. To some, his general theory of power may seem less original than that of a Marx or a Foucault; his account of the way in which individual subjects come to internalize and identify with dominant social institutions or structures may read like an echo of Gramsci's theory of hegemony; and his theory of social power and its ideological effects may seem less challenging than those of the Frankfurt School.8 For me, on the other hand, Bourdieu's originality is to be found in his development of what one might call a microtheory of social power.9 Where Gramsci will give us a general theory of the imposition of hegemony, Bourdieu will show exactly how one can analyse teachers' comments on student papers, rules for examinations and students' choices of different subjects in order to trace the specific and practical construction and implementation of a hegemonic ideology. Many feminists claim that gender is socially constructed. It is not difficult to make such a sweeping statement. The problem is to determine what kind of specific consequences such a claim may have. It is at this point that I find Bourdieu's sociological theories particularly useful. For a feminist, another great advantage of Bourdieu's microtheoretical approach is that it allows us to incorporate the most mundane details of everyday life in our analyses, or in other words: Bourdieu makes sociological theory out of everything.

Refusing to accept the distinction between “high” or “significant” and “low” or “insignificant” matters, Bourdieu will analyse various ways of chewing one's food, different forms of dressing, musical tastes ranging from a predilection for “Home on the Range” to a liking for John Cage, home decoration, the kind of friends one has and the films one likes to see, and the way a student may feel when talking to her professor. In one sense, then, some of my interest in Bourdieu is grounded in my basic conviction that much of what patriarchal minds like to trivialize as gossip, and as women's gossip at that, is in fact socially significant. But it is one thing to make such a claim, quite another to make a convincing case for the claim. After reading Bourdieu I now feel confident that it is possible to link the humdrum details of everyday life to a more general social analysis of power. This in itself ought to make his approach attractive for feminists looking for a mode of social analysis which seeks to undo or overcome the traditional individual/social or private/public divide. Again it may be necessary to stress that I am not arguing that Bourdieu is the only thinker to take a theoretical interest in everyday life. What I am arguing, however, is that I know of no other theory formation which allows me to make highly complex, yet quite concrete and specific links between, say, my fascination with Simone de Beauvoir, my tendency to eat fish in restaurants, and my specific position in a given social field.

It nevertheless remains true that until very recently Bourdieu himself has not had much to say about women.10 This means that the place of gender in his thought is somewhat undertheorized. A feminist approaching Bourdieu must necessarily ask whether his major concepts can simply be applied to gender or whether they require rethinking and restructuring in order to become usable for her purposes. She will also have to raise the question of social change. Are Bourdieu's theories, with their insistance on the way in which social agents internalize dominant social values, capable of theorizing change? Is Bourdieu implying that social power structures always win out? That amor fati—love your destiny—is an appropriate motto for every socially determined act? Crucial for feminists and socialists alike, these questions will be considered below.


At this point it is necessary to introduce some of Bourdieu's key concepts. Two of his most fundamental terms, field [champ] and habitus, are deeply interdependent. A field may be defined as a competitive system of social relations which functions according to its own specific logic or rules. “A field,” Bourdieu writes, “is a space in which a game takes place [espace de jeu,] a field of objective relations between individuals or institutions who are competing for the same stake” (Questions de sociologie, 197). In principle, a field is simply any social system which can be shown to function according to such a logic.

But if the field is a competitive structure, or perhaps more accurately a site of struggle or a battlefield, what is at stake? Generally speaking, any agent in the field may be assumed to seek maximum power and dominance within it. The aim is to rule the field, to become the instance which has the power to confer or withdraw legitimacy from other participants in the game. Bourdieu defines legitimacy as follows: “An institution, action or usage which is dominant, but not recognized as such [méconnu comme tel], that is to say, which is tacitly accepted, is legitimate” (Questions de sociologie, 110). Such a position of dominance is achieved by amassing the maximum amount of the specific kind of symbolic capital current in the field. In his pioneering article of 1966, “Champ intellectuel et projet créateur,” Bourdieu presents a striking analysis of the interrelations between the writer's project and the structures of the intellectual field. The intellectual field, he argues, is relatively autonomous in relation to the whole social field and generates its own type of legitimacy. This is not to say that the social field is not present within the intellectual field, but rather that it is present only as a representation of itself, a representation, moreover, which is not imported from outside, but produced from within the intellectual field itself.

The intellectual and educational fields, like any other such, have their own specific mechanisms of selection and consecration. Intellectual legitimacy as a symbolic value is produced by the field itself and may be defined as that which is recognized—or in Bourdieu's term, consecrated—by the field at any given time. In order to achieve legitimacy, the agents in the field have recourse to many and varied strategies. These strategies, however, are rarely if ever perceived as such by the agents themselves. Instead, each field generates its own specific habitus, which Bourdieu defines as “a system of dispositions adjusted to the game [of the field]” (Questions de sociologie, 34). “For a field to work,” he writes, “there must be stakes, and people ready to play the game, equipped with the habitus which enables them to know and recognize the immanent laws of the game, the stakes and so on” (110). Habitus, then, may be seen as the totality of general dispositions acquired through practical experience in the field. At one level, then, habitus is practical sense (le sens pratique). In some ways, habitus may be compared to what educationalists have called the “silent curriculum”: those norms and values that are inculcated through the very forms of classroom interaction, rather than through any explicit teaching project. For Bourdieu, however, habitus is an active, generative set of unformulated dispositions, not a store of passive knowledge.

As the internalized set of tacit rules governing strategies and practices in the field, the habitus of a field is destined to remain unarticulated. Insofar as the field cannot function without its specific habitus, any field is necessarily structured by a series of unspoken and unspeakable rules for what can legitimately be said—or perceived—within the field. In this sense, Bourdieu writes, the whole field functions as a form of censorship (see Questions de sociologie, 138-42). Within the field, every discourse is euphemistic in the sense that it has to observe the correct forms, legislated by the field, or risk exclusion as nonsense (in the case of the intellectual field, excluded discourses would tend to be cast as stupid or naive).

If the field as a whole, however, functions as a form of censorship, every discourse within the field becomes at once an enactment and an effect of symbolic violence. This is so because a field is a particular structure of distribution of a specific kind of capital. The right to speak, legitimacy, is invested in those agents recognized by the field as powerful possessors of capital. Such individuals become spokespersons for the doxa and struggle to relegate challengers to their position as heterodox, as lacking in capital, as individuals whom one cannot credit with the right to speak. The powerful possessors of symbolic capital become the wielders of symbolic power, and thus of symbolic violence. But given the fact that all agents in the field to some extent share the same habitus, such richly endowed agents' right to power is implicitly recognized by all, and not least by those who aspire one day to oust them from their thrones. That different factions within the (battle)field fight to the bitter end over politics, aesthetics, or theory does not mean that they do not to some extent share the same habitus: in the very act of engaging in battle, they mutually and silently demonstrate their recognition of the rules of the game. It does not follow, as far as I can see, that they will all play the game in the same way. The different positions of different players in the field will require different strategies. To the extent that different agents have different social backgrounds (they may come from different geographical regions, be of different class, gender or race and so on), their habitus cannot be identical.

The same thing goes for legitimacy as for “distinction” (distinction, after all, is nothing but legitimate taste). The whole point of the process of imposing legitimacy is to reach a point where the categories of power and distinction merge. Legitimacy (or distinction) is only truly achieved when it is no longer possible to tell whether dominance has been achieved as a result of distinction or whether in fact the dominant agent simply appears to be distinguished because he (more rarely she) is dominant (see Distinction, 92).

In Le sens pratique, Bourdieu defines symbolic violence as “soft” violence, or as “censored and euphemized violence, which is to say that it is unrecognizable and acknowledged [méconnaissable et reconnue]” (216-17). One has recourse to symbolic violence when open or direct violence (such as economic violence, for instance) is impossible. It is important to realize that symbolic violence is legitimate and therefore literally unrecognizable as violence. If explicit ideological or material struggle between groups or classes develops, such as class conflict or the feminist struggle, symbolic violence may be unmasked and recognized for what it is. In the very moment it is recognized, however, it can no longer function as symbolic violence (see Le sens pratique, 230, n. 27). Insofar as they tend to deny the importance of economic structures, precapitalist societies, Bourdieu argues, make widespread use of symbolic violence. In late capitalist societies, on the other hand, symbolic violence flourishes most perniciously in the domains of art and culture, perceived as sacred refuges for disinterested values in a hostile, sordid world dominated by economic production (see Le sens pratique, 231).


For Bourdieu, the educational system is one of the principal agents of symbolic violence in modern democracies.11 It is also a pivotal factor in the construction of each individual's habitus. In La Noblesse d'état he studies the way in which the imposition of social power in the educational system is linked to the transmission or reproduction of power in other social spheres.12 The function of the educational system, Bourdieu argues, is above all to produce the necessary social belief in the legitimacy of currently dominant power structures, or in other words: to make us believe that our rulers are ruling us by virtue of their qualifications and achievements rather than by virtue of their noble birth or connections. The coveted diploma or exam paper becomes a token of social magic, the emblem of a transformational exercise which truly changes the essence of the chosen elite.13 To claim that something is an effect of social magic, Bourdieu reminds us, is not of course to say that it is illusory or unreal: “One must be noble in order to behave nobly; but one would cease being noble if one did not behave as a noble. In other words, social magic has very real effects. To assign somebody to a group with a superior essence (nobles as opposed to commoners, men as opposed to women, cultured people as opposed to uneducated people and so on) operates an objective transformation determining a learning process which in its turn facilitates a real transformation apt to bring that person closer to the definition that has been bestowed on him” (Noblesse, 157, my translation). The fact that distinguished products of the educational system are distinguished as a result of the social belief in their distinction, then, does not mean that they do not in fact also possess some objective competence (the ability to read Greek, solve complex equations, or whatever). Such competence, however, has very little to do with the nature of the tasks they will be called upon to perform as, say, managing directors of important companies or members of politically powerful commissions. The fact that the educational system necessarily produces some competence without for that matter ceasing to exercise social magic is a phenomenon Bourdieu labels the “ambiguity of competence.” This ambiguity, then, is precisely what enables the educational system to make such an efficient or convincing contribution to the legitimization and naturalization of power.

The reproduction of power, however, is not merely an effect of education. On the contrary, the evidence produced by Bourdieu would seem to indicate that whereas the educational system has an indispensable role to play as one of the most important agents of legitimate symbolic violence, social agents rich in political and economic power know how to overcome the educational hurdle if they have to. If persons from disadvantaged social groups require all the educational capital they can obtain if they are to advance in society, members of more favoured classes can get further on less educational capital, simply because they have access to large amounts of other kinds of capital.

Bourdieu convincingly shows how the educational system favours the bourgeoisie even in its most intrinsically academic exercises. The consequences are ominous: students lacking in cultural capital (for instance those of modest social origins) tend to fare badly at a very early stage in their educational careers. According to Bourdieu there is an almost perfect homology between the class position of the individual pupils and their teachers' intellectual judgments of them. Defined as failures, these students become failures in precisely the same way as the distinguished students become distinguished.

When it comes to measuring social success in later life, however, Bourdieu chillingly demonstrates how a certain lack of educational capital can be compensated for by the possession of other forms of capital. Money and political power (that is, economic and political capital in Bourdieu's terms) are obviously important here. But in La Noblesse d'état he also places much emphasis on a new concept, that of social capital. Social capital is defined as “relational power,” that is to say the number of culturally, economically, or politically useful relations accumulated by a given person. In France it would seem that the “great” bourgeois families maintain or reproduce their social standing by relying on extensive networks of family members with large amounts of capital in different fields. Thus one family may comprise outstanding medical doctors, powerful bankers, influential politicians, and perhaps an important artist, writer or professor. In this way the family as an extended group can be said to have heavy symbolic investments safely spread across the whole social field. This was also true for the great noble families under the ancien régime, and, as Bourdieu drily remarks, this is why even a revolution tends to have little impact on the fortunes of such family networks. Persons from this kind of background can be shown regularly to achieve higher positions of power in relation to their educational capital than members of less favored social groups. Or in other words: a star pupil at the École Polytechnique who is also the son of a prominent politician is far more likely to become the president of an important bank than an equally successful student at the École Polytechnique whose father happens to be a mere worker, schoolteacher, or engineer.

And if the son or daughter of the prominent banker somehow fails to get into Polytechnique, there are other, less prestigious but “classy” educational establishments, such as the new breed of private schools focusing on business and management, which compensate for their lack of intellectual prestige by their upmarket, “modern” image. For the offspring of the privileged, such “little” schools (as opposed to the “great,” intellectually highly prestigious state schools such as the École Normale, the Polytechnique, and so on) produce an educational cachet which allows them to aspire, after all, to positions of a certain economic or political power. For the sons and daughters of the less favoured classes, however, such schools hold little promise. Again, the social logic at work is the same: if capital is what it takes to produce more capital, an agent lacking in social capital at the outset will not benefit greatly from a relatively non-prestigious (“low-capital”) education.

The ideological role of the education system, then, is to make it appear as if positions of leadership and power are distributed according to merit. The existence in every educational institution of a tiny percentage of what Bourdieu likes to call “miraculous exceptions” (des miraculés—educationally highly successful members of disadvantaged groups) is precisely what allows us to believe that the system is egalitarian and meritocratic after all.14 For Bourdieu, then, the widespread democratic belief in education as a passport to freedom and success is no more than a myth: the myth of the école libératrice is the new “opium of the people.”


Taste or judgment are the heavy artillery of symbolic violence. In Distinction, Bourdieu denounces the “terrorism [of] the peremptory verdicts which, in the name of taste, condemn to ridicule, indignity, shame, silence … men and women who simply fall short, in the eyes of their judges, of the right way of being and doing” (511): “[There is terrorism] in the symbolic violence through which the dominant group endeavour to impose their own life-style, and which abounds in the glossy weekly magazines: ‘Conforama is the Guy Lux of furniture,’ says Le Nouvel Observateur, which will never tell you that the Nouvel Obs is the Club Méditerranée of culture.15 There is terrorism in all such remarks, flashes of self-interested lucidity sparked off by class hatred or contempt” (511).

These are not the comments of a man who believes in the inevitability of the status quo: Distinction is nothing if not a work of critique, a theoretical intervention which assumes that the very fact of exposing the foundations of bourgeois esthetics will contribute to its transformation.16 In order to discover how Bourdieu would argue this case, it is necessary to turn to an earlier work, Outline of a Theory of Practice. For Bourdieu, “every established order tends to produce … the naturalization of its own arbitrariness” (164). In a highly traditional, relatively stable and undifferentiated society, this process is so successful as to make the “natural and social world appear as self-evident” (164). Such self-evidence is what Bourdieu calls doxa. Doxa is to be distinguished from orthodoxy (the effort to defend the doxa), as well as from heterodoxy (the effort to challenge the doxa) insofar as these two positions more or less explicitly recognize the possibility of different arrangements. To defend the “natural” is necessarily to admit that it is no longer self-evident.

A “doxic” society is one in which the “established cosmological and political order is perceived not as arbitrary, i.e., as one possible order among others, but as a self-evident and natural order which goes without saying and therefore goes unquestioned” (166). Or to put it differently, this is a society in which everybody has a perfect sense of limits (see 164). In such a society there is no place for opinion in the liberal sense of the word, or as Bourdieu puts it: “what is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as tradition” (167). In such a society, then, there is no space for change or transformation. Entirely doxic, social power rules without opposition: this is a universe in which the very question of legitimacy does not even arise.

What, then, does it take for critique—and thus for change—to enter the social space? On this point Bourdieu is recognizably marxisant: the condition of possibility for a critical discourse which would “bring the undiscussed into discussion,” he writes, is an “objective crisis, which, in breaking the immediate fit between the subjective structures and the objective structures, destroys self-evidence practically” (168-69). “The would-be most radical critique always has the limits that are assigned to it by the objective conditions,” he continues: “Crisis is a necessary condition for a questioning of doxa but is not in itself a sufficient condition for the production of a critical discourse” (169).

Crisis, then, is necessary for critique to develop, and crisis is always a matter of praxis. The class struggle is the obvious example of such a crisis, but it is not the only one: other social groups, such as women or ethnic minorities, or the old or the young, may also constitute themselves as social agents challenging specific power structures. The reason why crisis alone is not sufficient to trigger critical discourse is obvious: only the dominated classes or groups have an objective interest in “pushing back the limits of doxa and exposing the arbitrariness of the taken for granted,” as Bourdieu puts it (169). The dominant classes, on the other hand, will take up their position as orthodox defenders of the integrity of the doxa. The emergence of a critical discourse becomes a stake in the very social struggle which at once enables and limits it.

For Bourdieu, crises also provoke a redefinition of experience, giving rise to new forms of language. When the everyday order is challenged by an insurgent group, hitherto unspoken or private experience suddenly finds itself expressed in public, with dramatic consequences:

“Private” experiences undergo nothing less than a change of state when they recognize themselves in the public objectivity of an already constituted discourse, the objective sign of their recognition of their right to be spoken and to be spoken publicly: “Words wreak havoc,” says Sartre, “when they find a name for what had up to then been lived namelessly.” Because any language that can command attention is an “authorized language,” invested with the authority of a group, the things it designates are not simply expressed but also authorized and legitimated. This is true not only of establishment language but also of the heretical discourses which draw their legitimacy and authority from the very groups over which they exert their power and which they literally produce by expressing them: they derive their power from their capacity to objectify unformulated experiences, to make them public—a step on the road to officialization and legitimation—and, when the occasion arises, to manifest and reinforce their concordance.


This account of the way in which previously dominated experience is legitimated and constituted qua experience in the very act of being given public utterance, strikes me as a particularly useful theorization of feminist practice with its emphasis on constructing a language expressing women's experience. On this theory, to study feminist discourse is to situate it in relation to the structures of the field in which it arises. A truly critical (that is to say, anti-doxic) account of feminism, then, would be one which also reflects on the social conditions of possibility of feminist discourse. Or in other words: feminism as critique must also be a critique of feminism.

In this way, the would-be critic of the doxa finds herself obliged to reflect on the conditions which produce her as a speaker. As an intellectual, her position becomes particularly ambiguous, insofar as her social or political critique necessarily also finds itself caught up in the mechanisms and strategies—the habitus—of the intellectual field she is in. Bourdieu's own role as an intellectual setting out to describe and explicate the tacit rules of the intellectual game is of course no exception. Any effort to make a specific analysis public—to objectify it, as Bourdieu puts it—must include the speaker (see also Distinction, 12).

But such “objectification” of one's own position can never be complete. If the intellectual field itself constitutes the “site of objectification, the unseen standpoint, the blind spot of all theories” (Distinction, 511), it follows, Bourdieu adds, that “scientific work on [such an] object is inseparable from work on the working subject” (Distinction, 511). In this way the cultural sociologist finds herself in a position analogous to that of the psychoanalyst, that is to say, not as one who has managed to jettison her own unconscious, or who is free from blindspots, but rather as somebody who can be expected to recognize the strategies of the unconscious for what they are when they manifest themselves. “Sociology is rarely more akin to social psychoanalysis than when it confronts an object like taste,” Bourdieu writes in Distinction (11). And for Bourdieu as for Freud, the way to change goes through the verbalization and analysis of the unspoken and repressed rules that govern our behaviour. The point to be remembered, however, is that such discourse itself is the product of the very crisis it seeks to resolve.

Change, then, is not impossible in Bourdieu's scheme of things: symbolic violence is not the only form of violence in society. Insofar as symbolic violence is deeply doxic, it may be challenged on precisely the same grounds and in the same ways as the doxa. But social change is grounded in practice, in the objective conditions of everyday life. In this context the revolutionary role of intellectuals is bound to be relatively limited. Insofar as intellectuals may contribute to change through the production of discourse, they can only do so when the social structure they inhabit is in an explicit or implicit state of conflict. The very fact of producing a critical discourse, however, helps to legitimize the experience which directly or indirectly has contributed to producing the critique in the first place.17 In this way, I take it, critical discourses do not simply remain derivative or marginal in relation to the material and practical conditions which enable them to come into existence, but come to produce material and practical effects in their own right. This is why such discourses, in their limited way, can be seen as transformative of practice.


What, then, can Bourdieu's sociology of culture add to a feminist analysis of social power structures? Recently, in an effort to show that his own approach can expand beyond class, Bourdieu has turned to the question of the social construction of gender. In principle, such a turn ought not to surprise us. As Rogers Brubaker has shown, Bourdieu's concept of “class” is so indistinct as to be applicable to any social group whose members share a certain number of material and social conditions and thus also develop a common habitus. In an unpublished paper from 1989 entitled “La Construction sociale du sexe,” Bourdieu starts from the assumption that men and women do in fact constitute two such social groups, and then proceeds to analyse the social relations between men and women in exactly the same terms as any other set of social relations between a dominant and a dominated class. This analysis is expanded and developed in “La Domination masculine,” published in September 1990.18 In 1990, for the first time, Bourdieu's journal, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, devoted two special issues to questions of sexual difference.19 Questions of patriarchal power and the social construction of gender would therefore seem finally to be acknowledged as central issues for Bourdieu's sociological enterprise.

For Bourdieu the sexual division of human beings into two fundamental categories is a thoroughly arbitrary cultural construction. For him, sexism—like racism—is an essentialism: “It [sexism] aims to ascribe historically produced social differences to a biological nature functioning like an essence from which every actual act in life will be implacably deduced” (“Domination,” [“La Domination masculine”] 12). Such essentialism is politically nefarious insofar as it is invoked to predict and thus to control the behaviour of every member of a given social group. On this point, then, Bourdieu's analysis rejoins that of many socialist or materialist feminists over the past two decades.

The invocation of biology as the “root” or “cause” of any specific social practice is deeply suspect to Bourdieu. To believe that the so-called biological “facts” of reproduction, for instance, are the causes of the sexual division of labor, which hands “important” tasks to men and “low” or “menial” tasks to women, is precisely to be in the grips of phallocentric thought. Far from ruling our social life, Bourdieu writes, our perceptions of the biology of reproduction are the effects of the thoroughly arbitrary social construction of gender divisions which they are supposed to legitimate and explain (see “Domination,” 14).

While the invocation of biology allows the social construction of sexual difference to appear motivated or “natural,” its real function is to mask the true, socially produced power relations between the sexes, to present social gender divisions as doxic, that is to say, as that which cannot be questioned. For Bourdieu, then, sexual oppression is above all an effect of symbolic violence. As such, the traditional relationship between the sexes is structured by a habitus which makes male power appear legitimate even to women.20 Insofar as symbolic violence works, it produces women who share the very same habitus which serves to oppress them. In a wholly doxic society, women as social agents will freely choose the social destiny which they cannot in any case expect to escape: amor fati or “self-confirming prophecy” are terms Bourdieu uses to describe the position of such women.

To produce a gender habitus requires an extremely elaborate social process of education or Bildung. For Bourdieu, an important aspect of this process is the inscription of social power relations on the body: our habitus is at once produced and expressed through our movements, gestures, facial expressions, manners, ways of walking, and ways of looking at the world. The socially produced body is thus necessarily also a political body, or rather an embodied politics. Thus even such basic activities as teaching children how to move, dress, and eat are thoroughly political, in that they impose on them an unspoken understanding of legitimate ways to (re)present their body to themselves and others. The body—and its apparel such as clothing, gestures, make-up and so on—becomes a kind of constant reminder (un pense-bête) of sociosexual power relations.

It follows from Bourdieu's understanding of the social effects of gender divisions that the dominant group—in this case men—do not escape the burdens of their own domination. Through a reading of the episode in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse where Mrs. Ramsay overhears Mr. Ramsay's monologic recitation of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and pities him for his childish preoccupations with intellectual prestige and his masculine delusions of grandeur, Bourdieu makes the point that the sexual division of labour assigns to men the most prestigious and therefore the most serious games. This is certainly true, but it is hardly news to feminists. Bourdieu's own formulation is nevertheless striking: men, he says, are socialized to take serious games seriously.21 According to Bourdieu this has a series of unpleasant side effects for the men themselves, effects which may be qualified as the noblesse oblige syndrome.

Only an outsider, or perhaps somebody lacking in legitimacy within the dominant group, can expect to see through what Bourdieu calls the “masculine illusion”—the illusion of self-importance. But this is not a necessary effect of marginalization; on the contrary, only exceptional agents who somehow find themselves in a position relatively free from various forms of dependence can expect to get away with the superb irony of a Virginia Woolf. Thus women who laugh at male self-importance in university seminars may find themselves constructed not as lucid critics of male ridicule, but as frivolous females incapable of understanding truly serious thought. And to say that a construction prevails is to say that it becomes a social fact with real effects for those agents' careers. In some circumstances, then, female laughter may be an excellent instrument of critique and in other instances quite counterproductive.

The example of Virginia Woolf would seem to demonstrate that critique and change may occur even within fairly traditional social structures of gender. What, then, does it take to change dominant gender relations, to undo “la dominance masculine”? Given the fact that patriarchal power22 would seem to be universal, it is exceptionally hard to “denaturalize,” Bourdieu writes, since such critical unmasking tends to come about as the result of the historical encounter with other ways of life (see “Domination,” 7). It is striking—and somewhat surprising—to notice how close Bourdieu's analysis on this point comes to that of Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex. Like Bourdieu, Beauvoir sees male domination as a universally existing social phenomenon and as such particularly likely to be mistaken for nature:

Throughout history they [women] have always been subordinated to men, and hence their dependency is not the result of a historical event or a social change—it was not something that occurred. The reason why otherness in this case seems to be an absolute is in part that it lacks the contingent or incidental nature of historical facts. A condition brought about at a certain time can be abolished at some other time, as the Negroes of Haiti and others have proved; but it might seem that a natural condition is beyond the possibility of change. In truth, however, the nature of things is no more immutably given, once for all, than is historical reality. If woman seems to be the inessential which never becomes the essential, it is because she herself fails to bring about this change.

(The Second Sex, 18-19)

Focusing on women's complicity in their own oppression, Beauvoir here raises a question more recent feminist theory often has sought to avoid. For Beauvoir, there can be no liberation until women themselves cease to reproduce the power mechanisms that confine them to their place. In spite of her own valiant efforts to construct a social understanding of the female condition, Beauvoir nevertheless overestimates the ease with which change may be accomplished. Nowhere is her existentialist voluntarism with its characteristic underestimation of the effect of social and psychological structures more apparent than in her profound belief that, in 1949, she and other professionally trained women of her own generation had already “won the game” (27).23

Bourdieu, on the other hand, certainly does not underestimate the difficulties of breaking loose of patriarchal shackles. It follows from his theory that the effects of symbolic violence do not necessarily disappear even if social conditions change. Here Simone de Beauvoir's own life furnishes an excellent illustration of his point. Earning her own living, leading a life independent of social conventions and believing in her own freedom, Beauvoir nevertheless displays the most painful conflicts and contradictions when it comes to asserting emotional autonomy or intellectual independence in relation to Sartre. While such difficulties may well be analysed from a psychoanalytic perspective, they should also—simultaneously—be grasped as the political effects of the socially constructed habitus of a bourgeois woman brought up in Paris in the 1910s and 1920s. There can be no doubt, either, that Bourdieu is right to point to the powerful and lasting effects of the social construction of our body as well as our subjectivity. One cannot “liberate the victims of symbolic violence by decree,” he writes (“Domination,” 12).

In its insistence on the way in which women's habitus is produced by the symbolic violence that oppresses them, Bourdieu's analysis in “La Domination masculine” comes across as somewhat bleak, or even despondent. What is required to effectuate change, according to Bourdieu, is “collective action which sets out to organize a symbolic struggle capable of questioning practically every tacit presupposition of the phallonarcissistic vision of the world” (“Domination,” 30). This is certainly true, but in my view, it is precisely what the feminist movement has been striving to do for the past few decades. Luckily we are not today in a position where we have to start this struggle afresh. If Bourdieu's analysis of gender in “La Domination masculine” ends up sounding such a gloomy note, it is not least because the bulk of his empirical material is taken from his own field work in Kabylia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Judging from his evidence, it would appear that at that time, Kabylia was indeed a near-doxic society insofar as gender relations were concerned. While Bourdieu is probably right to claim that such a society may reveal more clearly than others the way in which gender comes to be experienced (and not just represented) as natural, his reliance on his Kabyle material makes him underestimate, in my view, the level of crisis we are experiencing in gender relations today. On his own theory, such social crisis produces the conditions for social change on a scale unthinkable in a more doxic situation.

In contemporary society, then, the position of women—and of men—in relation to social power is far more complex and contradictory than Bourdieu would seem fully to acknowledge.24 Such complexity is precisely what allows for questioning of received notions: in my view, current gender relations are by no means tacitly and unquestioningly accepted, or in other words, they are by no means entirely doxic. In many areas of social life today, there is an outspoken and ferocious battle between what Bourdieu would call the orthodox and the heterodox. This is not to say that social change takes place at a uniform pace in all social fields. If there is explicit struggle over the received order of things in one field, it does not follow that the same absence of natural or doxic gender differences dominates in others. This complex social situation is, in my view, at once a problem and a source of great strength for the feminist project of social transformation.

For contemporary feminist theory the strength of Bourdieu's analysis is perhaps not so much his specific analysis of the social relations between the sexes—the effects described by him are, after all, fairly well known—as the fact that he manages to eschew the traditional essentialist/antiessentialist divide. Firmly antiessentialist, Bourdieu's analysis does not lose sight of the fact that if women are socially constructed as women, that means that they are women. Or to put it in the terms of current theoretical debates within feminism: sexual differences are neither essences nor simple signifiers, neither a matter of realism nor of nominalism, but a matter of social practice. Sexual differences or sexual identities, then, cannot simply be deconstructed away: real social change is required to empty these categories of current meanings. This is not to say that the deconstruction of sexual metaphysics is not a useful activity in the struggle against patriarchy: it is rather to indicate that only the existence of a social crisis—a power struggle—on the level of gender can enable such a potentially critical activity to take place in the first place.


Bourdieu's analysis of the oppression of women as a matter of habitus and symbolic violence would seem logically to presuppose the idea of a field. If gender has a habitus, there must, surely, be a field (champ) in which this habitus can come into play. But how can one conceptualize a field of gender? Arguing that the concept of habitus is crucial for feminism, Beate Krais claims that the concept of field is rather useless, since it is impossible to isolate a “distinctive field where gender is of special relevance.”25 But if Krais is right, two of Bourdieu's most central concepts—field and habitus—would seem to be in jeopardy. While it may be gratifying to a feminist to argue that the introduction of gender (and, I would suspect, race) as a fundamental term in Bourdieu's theory produces a grievous conceptual problem, I am not convinced that it is the case. Rather, I would argue, it would seem that gender—like class—is part of a field, but that this field is the general social field, rather than any specific field of gender.

Sociologically speaking, gender would seem to behave in an unusually relational way. There seems to be no limit to its chameleonlike capacity for change in value and importance according to its specific social context. One of the advantages of Bourdieu's theory is that it not only insists on the social construction of gender, but that it permits us to grasp the immense variability of gender as a social factor. But if we assume that gender is a particularly combinatory social category, one that infiltrates and influences every other category, it would precisely seem to have much in common with the concept of social class in Bourdieu's own theories. All his analyses of education, art, and taste tend to show the influence of social class on the habitus of individual agents. Yet he never studies social class as a “pure” field in its own right. Nor does he ever talk about “class capital.” Rather it would seem that class is part of what he sometimes calls the “whole social field”: that which underpins or structures all other fields. This “whole social field” may then be imported into another field as a field-specific representation of itself (see “Champ intellectuel et projet créateur”).26

Such a conceptualization of gender is not unproblematic. It does not, for instance, resolve the general problem of the relationship between gender and class. The question of whether race can be theorized in such terms would also require further investigation. Bourdieu's own discussions of gender sometimes, but by no means always, occur in contexts where it is assumed that class is a “more fundamental” social category (this would for instance seem to be the case in Distinction). In his most recent publication, “La Domination masculine,” however, he explicitly states that “male domination constitutes the paradigm (and often the model and stake) of all domination” (30-31). It nevertheless does not follow that male power is always the most central power relation at stake in every social situation. My own tentative view is that we may try to see both class and gender as belonging to the “whole social field” without specifying a fixed and unchangeable hierarchy between them. The advantage of such an approach is that it enables us to escape a futile dogmatism which would declare the absolute primacy of class over gender or of gender over class.27 Instead we might be able to seize the complex variability of these social factors as well as the way in which they influence and modify each other in different social contexts.

A field is a space structured by competition and exchange and thus behaves much like a market. If, as the very term “symbolic capital” implies, the “whole social field” is assumed to behave according to a logic of exchange, a Marxist might argue that this in itself is an ideological analysis of social relations, one which pre-supposes something like a Hobbesian view of human self-interest as the prime mover of social relations. This is not necessarily a theory compatible with current feminist ideals for social interaction. On the other hand, it must be said that feminists have never been reluctant to analyse current gender arrangements in terms of interests and benefits.28

Leaving these questions aside, I would now like to turn to the productive implications of theorizing gender in Bourdieuian terms. In Western democracies sexual oppression tends to take the form of symbolic violence. As we have seen, in times of social crisis symbolic violence ceases to function as such and is replaced by more overt forms of violence. In this sense the increase in physical violence against women since the emergence of the new women's movement signals the fact that gender relations now are constantly in crisis.

The imposition of femaleness on women (or in other words, the gendering of women as socially female) can be seen as another example of social magic.29 This is why Simone de Beauvoir is quite correct to insist on the fact that one isn't born a woman, one becomes one. As we have seen, social magic is a socially sanctioned act which attributes an essence to individual agents, who then struggle to become what in fact they already are declared to be. In other words: to cast women as women is precisely to produce them as women. From a social perspective, without this categorizing and defining act of symbolic violence, women would simply not be women. Theorized in this way, the category of woman is neither an essence nor an indeterminate set of fluctuating signifiers, but an arbitrarily imposed definition with real social effects. Like all other social categories, the category of woman therefore at once masquerades as and is an essence. While it is necessary to deconstruct the category of woman, it should be remembered that such deconstruction remains politically toothless unless it also demonstrates the social interests at stake in the construction of this or any other “social essence.”

The difference between a feminist appropriation of Bourdieu and certain other forms of materialist feminism is not, of course, the emphasis on gender as a socially constructed category, but the fact that a Bourdieuian perspective also assumes that gender is always a socially variable entity, one which carries different amounts of symbolic capital in different contexts. Insofar as gender never appears in a “pure” field of its own, there is no such thing as pure “gender capital.” The capital at stake is always the symbolic capital relevant for the specific field under examination. We may nevertheless start from the assumption that under current social conditions and in most contexts maleness functions as positive and femaleness as negative symbolic capital.

In order to illustrate some of the concrete consequences of these positions, I will use the case of Simone de Beauvoir to provide a few cursory examples. When analysing the social position and habitus of one particular woman it is easy to overestimate the effects of one specific social factor such as femaleness, or to ascribe to gender alone the effects of a much more complex and interconnected web of factors such as sex, class, race and age (see Distinction, 105-6). This amounts to saying that although social agents are undoubtedly always gendered, one cannot always assume that gender is the most relevant factor in play in a given social situation. But insofar as gender is implicated in all other social fields, it is always in principle a relevant factor in all social analysis: one can therefore never discard it without further examination. If feminists sometimes are guilty of overemphasizing gender to the detriment of other factors, then, this is a venial sin compared to the massive repression of gender routinely carried out by the great majority of workers in every intellectual discipline.

In the case of Simone de Beauvoir, it would seem that we are dealing with a particularly suitable subject for a gender-based analysis. Born into a bourgeois Paris family, Beauvoir grew up in circumstances very similar to those of her male friends, colleagues, and competitors at the time. The only obvious social stigma from which she suffers in the educational and intellectual fields of her day is that of femaleness. When analysing certain tensions and contradictions in her discourse, then, it is therefore not unreasonable to ascribe them to the fact of her femaleness. In the case of other French women writers, however, the analysis of the impact of gender would be far more complex. I am thinking of Christiane Rochefort, born into the Parisian working class, or Marguerite Duras, growing up as a “poor white” in a French colony, or, at the other end of the social scale, of Marguerite Yourcenar, an aristocrat of independent means.

A feminist analysis of the impact of gender on a woman's discourse and consciousness must also bear in mind that to be a member of a disadvantaged minority within a given institution or field in no way guarantees that one will develop a revolutionary or oppositional consciousness. On the contrary: ostensibly egalitarian institutions tend to breed consent rather than opposition, particularly among the miraculés—the miraculous exceptions. For the paradox is that members of minority groups who do succeed in such a system are at least as likely to identify with it as the enabling cause of their own success as to turn against its unjust distribution of symbolic capital. In this way, for instance, the very fact that Simone de Beauvoir was a brilliant student, combined with the fact that she met with very little overt institutional discrimination at any point in her career, would certainly dispose her to identify with the intellectual values of the system, rather than to revolt against them. Such implicit intellectual solidarity with the dominant French educational institutions of her time can in fact be traced in the very texture of her style and rhetoric.

Bourdieuian categories are always relational, always determined by their fluctuating relationship to other categories. One interesting consequence of this is that we cannot assume that femaleness will carry equal amounts of negative capital throughout a woman's life or in all social fields. Socially speaking, then, it follows that sometimes a woman is a woman and sometimes she is much less so. In some contexts, “femaleness” may even be converted from a liability to an advantage.

In general, the impact of femaleness as negative capital may be assumed to decline in direct proportion to the amount of other forms of symbolic capital amassed. Or to put it the other way round: although a woman rich in symbolic capital may lose some legitimacy because of her gender, she still has more than enough capital left to make her impact on the field. In the case of exceptionally high amounts of capital, femaleness may play a very small part indeed. In sociological terms such cases are so rare as to be negligible. For literary critics, however, it is not an entirely irrelevant problematic, since until recently the very fact of being a non-neglected woman writer was so rare as to turn the author into a miraculée almost per definition.30 The works of such women cannot be read in the same way as those of writers lacking in symbolic capital. Their relationship to the works of more or less legitimate male colleagues will also be different from that of their less well endowed sisters.

When it comes to explaining why it is that some exceptional women writers manage to accumulate more symbolic capital than others, Bourdieu's concept of social capital becomes particularly interesting. As we have seen, social capital is defined as relational capital, or in other words, the power and advantages one gains from having a network of “contacts” as well as a series of other, more personal or intimate personal relations. Social capital helps its possessor to develop and increase other forms of capital and may greatly enhance his or her chances of achieving legitimacy in a given field.

By the early 1950s, Simone de Beauvoir had developed considerable social capital in addition to the intellectual capital she had accumulated through her education and early career. At this stage, then, her gender does not produce the same effects as, say, in 1943, when she was an unknown philosophy teacher publishing her very first novel. A social agent as richly endowed in intellectual and social capital as Beauvoir was in the 1950s will not suffer the most usual effects of gender discrimination in the intellectual field: she will not be silenced, ignored, or relegated to subservient positions in the contexts where she appears. Paradoxically, it is the very fact that such a woman has become impossible to ignore that inspires some of the more outrageous sexist attacks on such women. Some patriarchal souls, and particularly those whose own position in the field is threatened in some way or other, find the very thought of a female monstre sacré extremely hard to swallow. The very intensity of the sexist onslaughts on Beauvoir in the later parts of her life, then, could be read as the effects of her legitimacy, rather than as serious threats to that legitimacy.31 Needless to say, such a reading of sexist responses would not be at all appropriate if applied to the younger, less prestigious Beauvoir, or indeed to other young, unknown women writers without conspicuous amounts of cultural or social capital.

The concept of social capital also allows us to grasp the social significance of Beauvoir's relationship to Sartre. Beauvoir often said that she did not owe her postwar success to Sartre. Although it is true that he never used his influence to further her projects, the very fact of being his companion enabled her quickly to gain access to important institutional contexts (including those of Gallimard and Les Temps modernes) and thus to wield a considerable amount of symbolic power in the cultural field. It is not unfair to point out that without Sartre she would not have gained access to these contexts quite so easily. To my mind, then, there can be no doubt that, at least from about 1943 onwards, Beauvoir's relationship with Sartre significantly increased her social capital and thus helped her to maximize her intellectual and literary capital.

It should be noted that there is nothing gender specific about Sartre's role here. Traditionally women have performed exactly the same kind of service for men. This is particularly obvious if one looks for instance at the role of society hostesses and literary salons in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.32 In this case women exceptionally well endowed with social capital would put it at the disposal of aspiring young artists or writers from undistinguished social origins. As a result, their intellectual or artistic careers would be significantly advanced. Social capital is above all a matter of personal relations. Since some personal relations are sexual and intimate as well as social, it follows that aspiring artists of both sexes risk squandering their artistic capital by loving unwisely. From a purely social point of view, outstanding female intellectuals have often loved very wisely indeed: think of George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, or indeed of Simone de Beauvoir.33

An analysis of gender as a socially variable effect of social magic has obvious implications for feminist theory. Insofar as the accent is placed firmly on social practice, and on the shifting social relations between gender and other fields, this is a truly nonessentialist, yet historically and socially concrete, analysis of the shifting significance of gender. To say that Simone de Beauvoir was a woman, then, is no longer to invoke a rather static or predictable social category, but to open for highly flexible analysis of a variable and often contradictory network of relations. Such an analysis cannot remain on the level of generalities: it must engage with specific social institutions and practices, and it must show precisely how these factors influence the intellectual choices and strategies of the writer in question. The attraction of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture is that it may help us to do precisely that.


I have argued that Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture may be of considerable use to literary and/or cultural critics. Yet my claim is not that Bourdieuian theory provides us with new models of narrativity or a better understanding of rhetoric or tropology than current textual theories. On the contrary: insofar as his is not a theory of textuality at all, a purely Bourdieuian reading is unthinkable.34 What his analyses may help us to see, however, is the way in which certain texts enter into field-related intertextual relations with other texts. Once we have perceived these relations, we may then go on to use them to produce new readings of the texts in question.

To be consistent, such a Bourdieuian strategy must of course also be applied to Bourdieu's own works. At first glance, at least, his texts would seem to situate themselves in intertextual relations above all to the work of Sartre and Derrida. In the early 1950s when Bourdieu started studying philosophy, Sartre was the dominant French philosopher. Derrida, on the other hand was Bourdieu's fellow student (his petit camarade, as it were) at the École Normale Supérieure. The intertextual links between Bourdieu's work and that of Sartre are numerous, but perhaps best illustrated in Bourdieu's enduring concern with Flaubert. In some ways it is tempting to say that Bourdieu's whole project may be seen as an effort to do what Sartre could not do in L'Idiot de la famille: provide an exhaustive analysis of every social and individual determinant of agency and subjectivity. Bourdieu's implicit polemic against Derridean aesthetics is nowhere more obvious than in Distinction, but can also be traced in his persistent effort to vindicate empirical methods of research against what he would call the unscientific textual idealism of dominant trends in French philosophy.

But, one may ask, what are the effects of such analyses on what many take to be the primary task of the literary critic—that of reading texts. A simple example from my own experience may help to provide a concrete answer to this question. In Sexual/Textual Politics I devote considerable space to a discussion of Hélène Cixous's highly influential essay “The Laugh of the Medusa.” At the time of writing (1984) I was perfectly well aware of the fact that the French text of that essay was originally published in a special issue of the literary magazine L'Arc devoted to Simone de Beauvoir. It is difficult not to notice the fact that there is a photograph of Simone de Beauvoir on the cover, and that the issue opens with an interview with Jean-Paul Sartre conducted by Simone de Beauvoir herself. Yet I utterly failed to grasp the implications of the discursive and institutional aspects of Cixous's énonciation. The significant point that escaped me is the fact that in “The Laugh of the Medusa” there is not a single reference to Simone de Beauvoir. Now, it is true that this issue of L'Arc is entitled Simone de Beauvoir et la lutte des femmes, and that several other essays deal with various topics concerning the situation of women in France without mentioning Simone de Beauvoir by name.35 Apart from “The Laugh of the Medusa,” however, every one of the essays in this issue is consonant with Beauvoir's own feminist positions. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is also the only essay to deal with women's writing, a field in which Beauvoir after all has a certain claim to fame.

Today I would not hesitate to analyse this phenomenon as an effort to snub Beauvoir, a deliberate challenge to the doyenne of French feminism, and, more specifically, as Cixous's bid for power—legitimacy—within the field of French feminism. Implicitly casting Beauvoir as orthodox, Cixous's defiant exclusion of the author of She Came to Stay and The Second Sex signals her need to erase a figure she perceives as the powerful and censorious origin of her own discourse.

Drawing on Bourdieu's work on French intellectual styles, I also think one can show that in the very act of denouncing the rhetoric of male-dominated French philosophy (which is that of Beauvoir in The Second Sex, for instance), Cixous displays a range of the very same rhetorical strategies (silencing of the opposition, tendentious summary of unnamed opponents' views, generalizing from one's own particular experience, and so on). This is not surprising: Cixous's own bid for legitimacy cannot succeed were she to jettison all the hallmarks of the field she is in. Given her rhetoric, that field can now be defined as that of the French intellectual field in general, not simply that of French feminism. In this context it is easy to show that in 1975 it is Cixous, not Beauvoir, who most masterfully displays the strategies and moves likely to be defined as “high” or “canonical” in the French intellectual field.36 This is no doubt an important reason why “The Laugh of the Medusa” produced such a powerful impact in 1975, and thus did so much to secure the prestige of its author, at the direct expense, I would argue, of that of Simone de Beauvoir. Drawing on Bourdieuian categories, then, it is possible to show that the rhetoric of Cixous's brilliant essay more or less unwittingly enters into conflict with her explicit message of generosity, openness, and receptivity to the text of the other writer/woman.

What then, is the status of these observations on Cixous's essay? In my view, they all, including my comments on the significance of certain rhetorical moves typical of French philosophy, contribute to an understanding of the énonciation of “The Laugh of the Medusa.” As argued above, however, the énoncé can never simply be reduced to the énonciation. While the latter certainly constrains the former, this constraint is best envisaged as a horizon or limit to what is speakable, rather than as a set of unmediated reflections to be faithfully reproduced in the énoncé. The énoncé, then, must necessarily still be read in ways which may not be directly related to the position of the speaker.

As a reader of “The Laugh of the Medusa,” I might go on to use my Bourdieuian insights to produce an intertextual reading of Cixous's essay with The Second Sex. My hypothesis would be that a careful reading of the texts—perhaps one drawing on psychoanalytic as well as deconstructive strategies—would show that the obliterated figure of the powerful mother is a problem not only for Beauvoir, but for Cixous as well. No doubt the Oedipal mother Cixous seeks to displace has many names: what I am arguing here is that one of them is that of Simone de Beauvoir.

Such a reading is not the only desirable reading of “The Laugh of the Medusa” nor indeed of The Second Sex. It does not, for instance, oblige me to reject my own theoretical analysis of Cixous's text in Sexual/Textual Politics. Moreover, one may also produce elegant intertextual readings of these two texts without having read Bourdieu. The problem for any intertextual reading, however, is to counter the charge of arbitrariness. Paradoxically, it is precisely because there is, in principle, no limit to the number of possible intertexts to any given text, that it becomes necessary explicitly to justify one's choice of any particular intertext. In the case of Cixous and Beauvoir, then, the advantage of a Bourdieuian approach is, first, to provide us with a series of insights about the relations between Hélène Cixous and the feminist and intellectual fields in France, and between “The Laugh of the Medusa” and The Second Sex. It also enables us to note and interpret a series of formal rhetorical moves in the texts (the presence or absence of footnotes, quotations, and certain names, for instance) as recognizable power bids in a specific intellectual field. And, finally, such an approach provides a reply to the question of why one should juxtapose these specific texts in the first place and why such an intertextual reading should be considered relevant and interesting. I am old-fashioned enough to believe that such questions still matter.


  1. For another discussion of feminism as critique see Benhabib and Cornell, eds.

  2. I first tried to develop the concept of appropriation in a paper reprinted under the title “Feminist, Female, Feminine.”

  3. I am not arguing that Bourdieu is a Marxist. For his critique of certain forms of traditional Marxism see “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups.”

  4. See for instance “Flaubert's Point of View” and Ce que parler veut dire, as well as Distinction. See also “Sartre,” and the closely related work on Sartre and Les Temps modernes by one of Bourdieu's students, Anna Boschetti. In this introductory context I would also like to mention Bourdieu's inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, “Leçon sur la leçon” and the collection of short essays entitled Choses dites as accessible and readable examples of his cultural criticism. A selection of essays from Choses dites, together with Bourdieu's inaugural lecture, have now been published in English under the title In Other Words: Essays Toward a Reflexive Sociology. New readers of Bourdieu's social theory should perhaps start with this volume and then go on to Outline of a Theory of Practice, Questions de sociologie, “Le Marché des biens symbolique,” “The Production of Belief,” “Champ du pouvoir,” and at least the first few sections of Distinction. Then they might turn to Le sens pratique and La Noblesse d'état. Yvette Delsaut has produced a full bibliography of Bourdieu's work up to and including 1988, a bibliography now readily available in English in In Other Words, pp. 199-218. Loïc J. D. Wacquant has conducted, edited, and annotated a series of interviews with Bourdieu under the title An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. When published, this book will provide by far the most pedagogical, accurate, and accessible introduction to Bourdieu's work in English.

  5. I am quoting from the English manuscript version of her paper “Texts and Institutions: Problems of Feminist Criticism.” In the French published version the quote can be found on p. 181. The English version will be published in Wolff's forthcoming collection of essays Feminine Sentences.

  6. Bourdieu does not provide the only theoretical inspiration for such work. The whole tradition of British cultural criticism from Raymond Williams to the Birmingham school would be another obvious source of inspiration.

  7. For Emile Benveniste's original definitions of the terms énoncé and énonciation, see his “Les relations du temps” and “L'appareil formel.” For my own view on the relation between Benveniste's énonciation and Julia Kristeva's theory of language as the discourse of the speaking, embodied subject, see my Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir, p. 53 n. 2 and p. 87 n. 3.

  8. My claim, then, is not that Bourdieu somehow supersedes or finally transcends these other theories. In order fully to grasp the relative strengths and limitations of Bourdieu's theories, one would need to produce a careful reading of his works in relation to the whole tradition of Western Marxism on the one hand, and to French sociology and ethnology on the other: such an appraisal is not my purpose here.

  9. This specific formulation was first coined by Terry Eagleton.

  10. This is not to say that Bourdieu systematically ignores the question of women in earlier works. There are sustained and interesting discussions of the position of women in Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Héritiers (1964) and La Reproduction (1970), and in Bourdieu, La Distinction (1979) and Le sens pratique (1980).

  11. It is important to stress that Bourdieu's work is based on the French educational system. This is a system which is ostensibly egalitarian and meritocratic in a way which is not true for, say, the British educational system with its clear-cut class-based divisions between public schools and state schools. Some of Bourdieu's conclusions about the discriminatory and oppressive nature of the French educational system may come as a surprise to the French, while in Britain the very same points may seem rather obvious, precisely because the British educational system does not mask its symbolic violence as well as the French.

  12. For other works on education and the intellectual field in France, see Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Héritiers and La Reproduction, Bourdieu's own Homo Academicus, and the essays “Epreuve scolaire” and Bourdieu and Saint-Martin, “Les catégories de l'entendement professoral” (these two papers are now revised and included in La Noblesse de l'état). See also the closely related work by Boschetti, Charle, and Fabiani.

  13. As mentioned above (n. 12), Bourdieu's work on the social power of the tokens of educational capital is based on empirical research in France. In other countries certain educational diplomas do not necessarily carry such high social prestige as in France. This does not mean that the educational systems of other nations are not crucial to the reproduction of social power: what remains to be studied is precisely how the educational system interacts with other social institutions and structures in different countries. There is no reason why Bourdieu's general point about social magic—the socially sanctioned belief in the value of certain tokens and insignia—should not be deployed in contexts quite different from those of the French educational system.

  14. This still leaves the problem of where the miraculés come from. In Les Héritiers Bourdieu and Passeron point to specific and exceptional constellations in the family of the successful student from the peasantry as one element that may explain the relatively successful educational career of the individual in question. This is clearly not all there is to be said about the matter. Bourdieu, himself a miraculé, would seem to be well placed to produce a fuller analysis of this question.

  15. Here Bourdieu uses exactly the same rhetorical strategy against Le Nouvel Observateur. I take it that the difference is that Bourdieu is not in a position of power in relation to Le Nouvel Observateur. His ironic echoing of their rhetoric can thus be read as a denunciation, not as a celebration of the strategy. I have previously argued that in some cases Luce Irigaray's ironic use of mimicry functions in a similar way (see Sexual/Textual Politics, 140).

  16. In his paper on “Habitus, Field of Power and Capital” Craig Calhoun also argues that Bourdieu's theory should be seen as critical theory in the tradition of the Frankfurt school.

  17. I should make it clear that I am not arguing that such legitimizing expressions of experience must always take the form of intellectual discourse.

  18. In fact, I have consulted three different papers by Bourdieu dealing specifically with gender. First there is the full-length unpublished 1989 manuscript entitled “La Construction sociale du sexe” (50 pp.). A somewhat rewritten excerpt from this paper appeared in English in 1989 under the title “He whose word is law.” Finally, there is Bourdieu's 1990 essay published in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, entitled “La Domination masculine.”

  19. Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 83 and 84 (June and September 1990).

  20. It is, of course, impossible to use the term habitus without raising the question of the social conditions which give rise to it (see “Domination,” 11).

  21. This formulation is taken from “La Construction sociale du sexe” (p. 37). This specific turn of phrase has been left out of “La Domination masculine.” The argument nevertheless remains the same. It is also expressed in “He whose word is law,” where Bourdieu writes that the “specific process of socialization of which they [men] are the products inclines them to take seriously those games that the social world constitutes as being serious, and to ‘play them seriously’” (13).

  22. I use the terms patriarchal or masculinist power or domination as synonyms to Bourdieu's “domination masculine.” It is well known that the term “masculine” in French may correspond either to “male” or to “masculine” in English. It is clear that what Bourdieu has in mind is domination by males, but it is equally clear that for him it is unthinkable to posit such a domination without at the same time positing the concomitant social construction of masculinity and so-called masculine values. When I use the term “patriarchy” I do not mean to indicate any specific social theory of patriarchal rule. For me, the term is equivalent to the idea of “domination by men.”

  23. “En gros, nous avons gagné la partie,” she writes in French (29).

  24. Bourdieu does insist, however, that there is always space for “cognitive struggle” over the meaning of the world (“Domination,” 15). The paradox is, according to Bourdieu, that when or if the dominated group applies the schemes of dominant thought to their own situation, they cannot fail to expose the logic of that thought. The question is, I suppose, whether they themselves always realize the political implications of their own insights. But Bourdieu also points out that even the closest-knit mythical categories of sexual difference leave a space for reinterpretation within the very same schemes of thought. Let us assume that if patriarchal thought holds that men are superior because they have penises, women might counter that they are superior because they have breasts. In such an exchange there is no challenge to the fundamental structure of patriarchal thought, yet that very thought certainly gives space for conflict, even on its own terms. The problem with this account, as it appears in “La Domination masculine,” is that Bourdieu does not sufficiently elaborate his understanding of the nature of male power in society. If it is seemlessly efficient in its imposition of symbolic violence, it would seem to be difficult ever to get out of it. If it isn't, we need to know more about the gaps and contradictions in its mode of operation, which may provide the space for critique and resistance. A more complex theory of ideology and its relations to the contradictions of power might be helpful here. For a truly complex understanding of ideology, see Terry Eagleton, Ideology: An Introduction.

  25. I am quoting from the manuscript, p. 6. The paper will be published in Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone, eds.

  26. I have not been able to discover a sustained account of the precise relationship of specific fields to the “whole social field.” The way in which specific fields relate to each other and to the general social field strikes me as somewhat undertheorized in Bourdieu's work.

  27. Perhaps a similar move might be productive when it comes to theorizing race as well.

  28. Much more work needs to be done on this subject. Many more problems than the ones I touch on here are raised by Bourdieu's field theory. Some of these are discussed in Thompson, Lamont, Calhoun and in Garnham and Williams. The implications of these debates for feminism remain to be discussed.

  29. Bourdieu would seem to agree. In “La Domination masculine” he stresses both the crucial role of symbolic violence when it comes to upholding male power (see 11), and the process of symbolic consecration essential to the reproduction of such “mythico-ritual” systems (see 15).

  30. There is also the complicated problem of the difference in a writer's status in her own life and after her death. It would be anachronistic to assume that Stendhal, to give an obvious example, carried as much literary capital in his own lifetime as he does in ours.

  31. The virulence of sexist attacks on Beauvoir in the 1970s and 1980s, however, is not an effect of legitimacy. The emergence of the women's movement made it impossible to ignore the fact that relations between the sexes were in a state of crisis. In France, the appearance of the women's movement in the early 1970s led to a predictable intensification of explicit struggle between the sexes. One sign of this struggle is that the general level of sexist invectives in newspaper and magazine articles increases.

  32. I am grateful to Pierre Bourdieu for suggesting this example.

  33. I am not at all arguing that these women only achieved symbolic capital through their social relations, only that the social capital obtained through marriage or stable liaisons may have helped them to maximize other forms of symbolic capital more rapidly and more efficiently than they could have done without these relationships.

  34. It may be necessary to add that I am using a fairly narrow definition of “textual” theory: I am referring to the vast body of work dealing with, say, narratology, genre, rhetoric, figures, tropes, and so forth.

  35. The editors, Bernard Pingaud and Catherine Clément, explain that for political reasons Simone de Beauvoir herself chose to be “une parmi d'autres, une femme entre autres, anonyme” (1). Given the title, layout and contents of this special issue, that anonymity is nevertheless somewhat illusory. I have already mentioned the cover photograph and the initial interview where Beauvoir makes Sartre discuss his views on women. There is also a discussion between Simone de Beauvoir and several other militant feminists, and a series of essays on various aspects of women's situation, including an essay by Sylvie Le Bon (Beauvoir's close friend, later her adoptive daughter) on The Second Sex.

  36. For a discussion of Beauvoir's relative lack of distinction in the French intellectual field, or what one might call her “petit bourgeois appeal,” see my “Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman.”

I am grateful to Pierre Bourdieu for his encouragement in my struggle to develop a productive feminist perspective on his theories and to Craig Calhoun for valuable bibliographical information. I would also like to thank Penny Boumelha, Terry Eagleton, Jonathan Freedman, Ian Glenn, John Guillory, Diana Knight and Janet Wolff for their careful critical responses to various drafts of this essay. My work was much helped by the incisive discussions of early versions of this paper presented at the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change at the University of Virginia and at the Graduate Conference of the English Department at the University of Houston in the spring of 1990. I am also deeply grateful for the critical feedback I received from my lectures and seminars on Bourdieu in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in May and June of 1990: my Australian interlocutors enabled me at long last to finish this paper. Finally, I would like to thank Ralph and Libby Cohen for their intellectual generosity and friendliness.

Portions of this essay were presented at the Commonwealth Center.

Works Cited

L'Arc, 61: Simone de Beauvoir et la lutte des femmes, 1971.

Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxième sexe. (Coll. Folio) Paris: Gallimard, 1943. The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

Belsey, Catherine and Jane Moore, eds. The Feminist Reader: Essays in Gender and the Politics of Literary Criticism. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Benhabib, Seyla and Drucilla Cornell, eds. Feminism as Critique: On the Politics of Gender. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Benveniste, Emile. “Les relations de temps dans le verbe français,” Problèmes de linguistique générale. Vol. 1 (Coll. Tel). Paris: Gallimard, 1966: 237-50.

———. “L'appareil formel de l'énonciation.” Problèmes de linguistique générale. Vol. 2 (Coll. Tel). Paris: Gallimard, 1966: 79-88.

Boschetti, Anna. Sartre et “Les Temps modernes.” Paris: Minuit, 1985.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Champ intellectuel et projet créateur.” Les Temps modernes, 246 (Nov. 1966): 865-905.

———. “Le Marché des biens symboliques.” L'Année sociologique, 22 (1971): 49-126.

———. “Champ du pouvoir, champ intellectuel et habitus de classe.” Scolies. Cahiers de recherches de l'Ecole normale supérieure, 1 (1971): 7-26.

———. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1977.

———. La Distinction. Critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Minuit, 1979. Trans. Richard Nice. Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: RKP, 1984.

———. “The Production of Belief.” Media, Culture and Society. (1980), 2: 261-93.

———. Le sens pratique. Paris: Minuit, 1980.

———. “Sartre.” London Review of Books, 20 Nov. 1980: 11-12.

———. “Epreuve scolaire et consécration sociale. Les Classes préparatoires aux grandes écoles.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 39 (1981): 3-70.

———. Ce que parler veut dire: L'économie des échanges linguistiques. Paris: Fayard, 1982.

———. “Leçon sur la leçon.” Paris: Minuit, 1982. Trans. Matthew Adamson. “A lecture on the lecture.” Bourdieu, In Other Words, 177-98.

———. Homo Academicus. Paris: Minuit, 1984.

———. Questions de sociologie. Paris: Minuit, 1984.

———. “The Social Space and the Genesis of Groups.” Theory & Society, 14 (1985): 723-44.

———. “Flaubert's Point of View.” Trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. Critical Inquiry, 14.3 (Spring 1988): 539-62.

———. “La Construction sociale du sexe.” Unpublished manuscript, 1989.

———. La Noblesse d'état: Grandes écoles et esprit de corps. Paris: Minuit, 1989.

———. “He whose word is law.” Trans. Robin Buss. Liber, 1:12-13; in TLS, October 6-12, 1989.

———. In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Trans. Matthew Adamson. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford UP, 1990.

———. “La Domination masculine.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 84 (Sept. 1990); 2-31.

———. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Ed. Loïc J. D. Wacquant. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

——— and Jean-Claude Passeron. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture. Trans. Richard Nice. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979. Originally published as Les Héritiers: les étudiants et la culture. Paris: Minuit, 1964.

——— and Jean-Claude Passeron. La Reproduction: élements pour une théorie du système d'enseignement. Paris: Minuit, 1970.

——— and Monique de Saint-Martin. “Les Catégories de l'entendement professoral.” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 3 (1975): 68-93.

Brubaker, Rogers. “Rethinking Classical Theory: the Sociological Vision of Pierre Bourdieu.” Theory & Society, 14 (1985): 745-75.

Calhoun, Craig. “Habitus, Field of Power and Capital: The Question of Historical Specificity.” Unpublished manuscript, 1989.

Calhoun, Craig, Edward LiPuma and Moishe Postone, eds. Toward a Reflexive Sociology: The Social Theory of Pierre Bourdieu. Cambridge: Polity P, 1990.

Charle, Christophe, Naissance des “intellectuels” 1880-1900. Paris: Minuit, 1990.

Cixous, Hélène. “Le Rire de la Méduse.” L'Arc, 61 (1975): 39-54. Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” In Marks and Courtivron, 245-64.

Delsaut, Yvette. Bibliographie des travaux de Pierre Bourdieu. Paris: Centre de sociologie européenne, 1986. Trans. Matthew Adamson. “Bibliography of the works of Pierre Bourdieu, 1958-1988.” In Bourdieu, In Other Words, 199-218.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso, 1991.

Fabiani, Jean-Louis. Les Philosophes de la république. Paris: Minuit, 1988.

Garnham, Nicholas and Raymond Williams. “Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Culture: An Introduction.” Media, Culture and Society, 2 (1980): 209-23.

Krais, Beate. “Gender and Symbolic Violence: Female Suppression in the Light of Pierre Bourdieu's Theory of Social Practice.” In Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone.

Lamont, Michèle. “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida.” American Journal of Sociology, 93.3 (November 1987): 584-622.

Marks, Elaine and Isabelle de Courtivron, eds. New French Feminisms. Brighton: Harvester, 1980.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. London: Methuen, 1985.

———. “Feminist, Female, Feminine.” In Belsey and Moore, 117-32.

———. Feminist Theory and Simone de Beauvoir. The Bucknell Lectures in Literary Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

———. “Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman.” The Yale Journal of Criticism, 4.1 (Fall 1990): 1-24.

Soper, Kate. “Feminism as Critique.” New Left Review, 176 (July/August 1989): 91-112.

Thompson, John B. Studies in the Theory of Ideology. Cambridge: Polity P, 1984.

Wolff, Janet. “Textes et institutions: problèmes de la critique féministe.” Recherches sociologiques, 20 (1988), no. 2-3: 175-93.

———. Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture. Cambridge: Polity P, 1991.

Jonathan Loesberg (essay date winter 1993)

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SOURCE: Loesberg, Jonathan. “Bourdieu and the Sociology of Aesthetics.” ELH 60, no. 4 (winter 1993): 1033-56.

[In the following essay, Loesberg surveys Bourdieu's theories of cultural and sociological analyses as they pertain to aesthetics.]

Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical project begins—not precisely chronologically, but with an intrinsic logic—as the attempt to formulate a method of sociological and anthropological analysis that mediates between simply reproducing the perceptions of the culture studied and a scientific codification of those perceptions that gives them objective shape, but not a shape that corresponds to anything in the workings of that culture.1 Driven by the exigencies of that project, Bourdieu has ended up defining a series of concepts and concerns that has recently revivified among literary critics and theorists an interest in the sociology of literature. In particular, most centrally in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, he has offered a powerful explication of “taste,” in all its meanings from choices in art through choices in dress, furniture, and the like, to taste in food, both as a unified subject matter and as a method for producing and reproducing power differences among social classes.2 In Language and Symbolic Power, he has focused the same analysis on the subject of language, claiming that meaning, both linguistic and literary, depends on the same activities of power and social differentiation.3 And a series of articles on Flaubert in particular and aesthetics in general—which he promises as a next book—has again discussed aesthetics and aestheticism in nineteenth-century France in terms of the same sociological analysis.

All of these works explicitly contest formal theories of culture, of language, of aesthetics, of literature, with an analysis that argues the main force of these discourses as creating and maintaining hierarchies of power and domination. Bourdieu, himself, talks of this analysis as fundamentally transgressive, remarking in the English language preface to Distinction that, “although the book transgresses one of the fundamental taboos of the intellectual world, in relating intellectual products and producers to their social conditions of existence—and also, no doubt, because it does so—it cannot entirely ignore or defy the laws of academic or intellectual propriety which condemn as barbarous any attempt to treat culture, that present incarnation of the sacred, as an object of science” (D [Distinction], xiii). This claim to transgress is fairly absurd. Bourdieu's project is surely now a central one in literary studies. But the claim of his analyses upon our attention is not the novelty of thinking that literature, canon formation, culture and language have some connection to the manifestation of social power, rather the methods he has given for articulating that connection more clearly. Bourdieu, in other words, has said with theoretical detail and precision, something that literary critics have been looking for a way of saying for some time.

In working out the connections among the various aspects of Bourdieu's theories in this essay, I do not really want to dispute this central sociological claim in the service of some reformulated formalism. Rather, I want to look at its dependence upon another aspect of my title, not the sociological analysis of aesthetics, but the kind of sociological analysis that aesthetics produces. Without trying to trump Bourdieu by showing that he reproduces the aesthetics he ostensibly contests, I will argue that at crucial moments, at the moments in which he most pointedly moves from the anthropological to the literary and in which he most clearly leads to the uses literary critics have made of him, he deploys the aesthetics he simultaneously analyzes. This dependence shows not some formalist problem of infinite reflection, but rather that the politics critics want from Bourdieu's analysis of culture can only be fully outlined through an analysis of the sociology that determines the turn to such discourse, an analysis that like Bourdieu's is simultaneously aesthetic and sociological.

Both Bourdieu's argument about how culture works and the mode of analysis he applies to culture and aesthetics to make that argument have their roots in the theory of practice that he opposes to anthropological structuralism. To understand the basis of Bourdieu's cultural concerns, then, we must first understand the goal of that theory. He begins by proposing three modes of knowledge of the social world, which exist in a dialectical relationship with each other. The first form, which he variously calls primary or phenomenological, “sets out to make explicit the truth of primary experience of the social world, i.e. all that is inscribed in the relationship of familiarity with the familiar environment, the unquestioning apprehension of the social world which, by definition, does not reflect on itself and excludes the question of the conditions of its own possibility” (O [Outline of a Theory of Practice], 3). This mode of knowing is the experience that participants of a particular social world have of it. It is neither available to an observer, since he does not know as a participant, nor describable by a participant without his ceasing to experience it as a participant: “One cannot really live the belief associated with profoundly different conditions of existence, that is, with other games and other stakes, still less give others the means of reliving it by the sheer power of discourse” (L [Logic of Practice], 68). Effectively, this primary knowledge creates the subject for research and discourse, but it has no other relationship to theoretical or anthropological knowledge, either as goal or as method.

The structuralism that Bourdieu spends most of his theory criticizing, he nevertheless sees as providing a necessary beginning to anthropological knowledge: it is “a necessary moment in all research” because of “the break with primary experience and the construction of objective relations which it accomplishes” (O, 72). Structuralism, which Bourdieu also calls objectivism, accomplishes this break by abandoning the impossible task of reproducing primary experience for a description of the connections and relations among the practices it observes without experiencing: “The philosophical glosses which, for a time, surrounded structuralism have neglected and concealed what really constituted its essential novelty—the introduction into the social sciences of the structural method or, more simply, of the relational mode of thought which, by breaking with the substantialist mode of thought, leads one to characterize each element by the relationships which unite it with all others in a system” (L, 4). And Bourdieu never abandons the task of describing relations. His dissatisfaction with structuralism pertains to the status of the relations and structures it posits.

Essentially, for Bourdieu, structuralism falters because it produces the structures it uses to explain experiences and practices with an attention to logical relationship that has no connection with the rules that actually produce practice. The relations structuralism proposes come from outside practice: “The ‘grouping of factual material’ performed by the diagram is in itself an act of construction, indeed an act of interpretation … the difficulty was made all the greater by the fact that interpretation cannot put forward any other proof of its truth than its capacity to account for the totality of the facts in a completely coherent way” (L, 10-11). In effect, diagrams and logical structures provide coherence to a mass of primary experiences but nothing shows that the coherence determines how the practices occur. They are external superimpositions, designed to comprehend, but with nothing that shows the comprehension to be other than an interpretive construct.

But Bourdieu argues objectivism's arbitrariness from more than the mere fact of its structures' externality. The structures and diagrams proposed derive from a logic that in principle has no connection to practices they structure:

In contrast to logic, a mode of thought that works by making explicit the work of thought, practice excludes all formal concerns. Reflexive attention to action itself, when it occurs (almost invariably only when the automatisms have broken down), remains subordinate to the pursuit of the result and to the search (not necessarily perceived in this way) for maximum effectiveness of the effort expended. So it has nothing in common with the aim of explaining how the result has been achieved, still less of seeking to understand (for understanding's sake) the logic of practice, which flouts logical logic.

(L, 91)

Because an agent engaging in a practice has no interest in a formal explanation of that practice but merely in “maximum effectiveness of the effort expended,” any formal explanation simply cannot correspond to anything within the practice that produces it or determines its shape. Even a subconscious design or motivation, still could not correspond to the kinds of formal diagrams structuralism proposes, because the rules that govern practice simply do not follow formal logic, “logical logic.”4 We seem to have reached a familiar impasse for which relativist critics of claims to objective knowledge have shown considerable fondness. On the one hand, one cannot describe primary experience and still convey the feeling that makes it primary. On the other, the descriptions one can offer lack accuracy precisely because, lacking the feeling of primariness, they do not correspond to primary experience.5

Refusing to abandon structuralism's turn to relation and connection, Bourdieu must define a mode of describing these relations and rules that neither imposes them from the outside nor turns from the actual working of practice toward a formalism imposed by its own logic. He wants then a description that both accepts its separateness from primary experience, that provides objective explanations, but whose explanations in fact explain the rules that govern a practice as it is engaged in. Practice, he argues, follows no formal rules of logic, flouts logical logic, but it does have certain kinds of systemic regularities that agents follow, even if unconsciously. Bourdieu's theory of a Logic of Practice describes what such regularities look like, how one generates them, how they differ from the rules of structuralism. One can get an idea of the difference between the regularities of structuralism and the practical logic that his theory tries to articulate in a moment in which Bourdieu sums up the differences between structuralism's theories of kinship and marriage and his own:

This takes us a long way from the pure—infinitely impoverished—realm of the ‘rules of marriage’ and ‘the elementary structures of kinship’. Having defined the system of principles from which the agents are able to produce (and understand) regulated, regular matrimonial practices, we could use statistical analysis of the relevant information to establish the weight of the corresponding structural or individual variables. In fact, the important thing is that the agents' practice becomes intelligible as soon as one is able to construct the system of principles that they put into practice when they immediately identify the sociologically matchable individuals in a given state of the matrimonial market; or, more precisely, when, for a particular man, they designate for example the few women within practical kinship who are in a sense promised to him, and those whom he might at a stretch be permitted to marry.

(L, 199)

In other words, when one knows how an agent knows who he might marry and how he might make his choices, one can describe the system of principles he uses unaware that actually guide his practice. This sounds more different from structuralism than perhaps it actually is. The principles Bourdieu proposes involve the homologies, symmetrics and transferences familiar to reader's of structural diagrams, either anthropological or literary critical. Bourdieu certainly describes his subjects with greater specificity and refers more to particular situations. The externality of structuralism, though, results not from its abstractness but from its formalism. And specificity of reference does not reduce the formalism of principles.

The real difference between Bourdieu's logic and structuralism's lies in the concepts and methods Bourdieu develops that allow him to produce the regularities he defines. These ideas and practices have not only been those that have influenced literary critics, but also they are, I will argue, permeated by aesthetic modes of interpretation and evaluation. In this light, Bourdieu's turn from marriage and kinship structures to the topics of culture and aesthetics becomes comprehensible not merely as a contingency in his intellectual development but as an absolutely logical development in his practice. If he can produce a sociology of aesthetics, if he can comprehend aesthetics within a sociological explanation, then the aesthetics that permeates his key anthropological concepts and ideas will be contained within the sociology of that larger practice. I will detail the aesthetic elements in Bourdieu's concepts of the habitus and of symbolic capital, and in each case, will argue the potential destructiveness for the task of analyzing the sociology of aesthetics in the dependence of these concepts on aesthetics. I will then show how the project of containing culture and aesthetics within a larger sociology both recuperates the aesthetics of his practice but also finally comes to rest in a process that enacts both sociological and aesthetic analysis simultaneously. Finally, I think, an analysis of Bourdieu's project shows that one can see the politics of aesthetics only by accepting the aesthetic quality of that project.

Bourdieu's definition of the habitus practically designs the concept for use by literary and cultural critics. Like Foucault's discursive formation or Jameson's structurally articulable political unconscious, it proposes structures that determine individual action, thus allowing the political analysis of language, works of art and cultural institutions without necessary reference to the beliefs or awareness of specific individuals caught up in those larger structures. As with the opposition between his logic of practice and structuralism's logic, though, Bourdieu insists on the specific, unformal element of the habitus:

The conditions associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor.

(L, 53)

The habitus is thus a system that generates action, but does not correspond to any definable rules. The actions it produces have regularity but the regularity has no external shape; thus the activity has orchestration but no conductor. Because the habitus regulates very specific, practical choices of individual agents, and because it corresponds much more closely to the specificity of the historical or social situations it analyzes than do more overarching concepts such as the discursive formation, it is clearly attractive to historicist literary critics or literary critics of ideology and culture. The habitus seems to describe just the kind of concrete detail that frequently elicits literary or cultural interest. Thus Toril Moi praises Bourdieu precisely for the potential specificity of his explanations: “Bourdieu's originality is to be found in his development of what one might call a microtheory of social power. Where Gramsci will give us a general theory of the impositions of hegemony, Bourdieu will show exactly how one can analyze teachers' comments on student papers, rules for examinations and students' choices of different subjects in order to trace the specific and practical construction and implementation of a hegemonic ideology.6

But literary critics may be comfortable deploying the concept of the habitus for historical and sociological analysis, as much because its working is thoroughly familiar as because of the greater specificity of analysis it allows. The habitus in fact constructs the field in which practice occurs and is read as that most familiar of literary objects, the organic whole that operates purposively without purpose:

In other words, if one fails to recognize any form of action other than rational action or mechanical reaction, it is impossible to understand the logic of all the actions, that are reasonable, without being the product of a reasoned design, still less of rational calculation; informed by a kind of objective finality without being consciously organized in relation to an explicitly constituted end; intelligible and coherent without springing from an intention of coherence and a deliberate decision; adjusted to the future without being the product of a project or a plan.

(L, 51)

“Finality” and “end,” are the French renderings of the words in Kant's Critique of Judgment that get translated in English as “purposiveness” and “purpose.”7 Thus “informed by a kind of objective finality without being consciously organized in relation to an explicitly constituted end” comes fairly close to Kant's definition of beauty as “the form of purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.” And the final clause above virtually paraphrases Kant's application of the aesthetic judgment to the perception of nature as having a teleology that is neither mechanical nor intended, but simply part of its internal constitution.8 The habitus, creating of practice an orchestrated activity without a conductor, makes of it an aesthetic object, readable by the same interpretive methods. Indeed, the logic of practice as constructed by the habitus, finally, distinguishes itself from the rules of structuralism in terms of the artistry of its patterning: “The coherence without apparent intention and the unity without an immediately visible unifying principle of all the cultural realities that are informed by aquasi-natural logic (is this not what makes the ‘eternal charm of Greek art’ that Marx refers to?) are the product of the age-old application of the same schemes of action and perception which, never having been constituted as explicit principles, can only produce an unwilled necessity which is therefore necessarily imperfect but also a little miraculous, and very close in this respect to a work of art” (L, 13). Bourdieu's difficulty in precisely describing the rules for interpreting the logic of practice or for adducing a habitus finally comes down to the aesthetic patterning of the practice by the habitus. One does not recognize such patterns scientifically. But, then, literary critics might not normally feel that as a difficulty.

Despite the difficulty of describing the concept of the habitus precisely, it functions centrally in Bourdieu's argument in the way that Kant's concept of aesthetic disinterestedness functions, sociologically, as mode of distinguishing dominating from dominated classes. And this significance makes its own aesthetic patterning at least somewhat ironic. The core argument of Distinction against Kant is twofold. First, one finds Kant's criterion of disinterestedness only in the aesthetic ideas of the elite: “When one sets about reconstructing its logic, the popular ‘aesthetic’ appears as the negative opposite of the Kantian aesthetic … the popular ethos implicitly answers each proposition of the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ with a thesis contradicting it” (D, 41). But, second, the popular aesthetic, which affirms the importance that art appeal to pleasure and moral interest, does not merely oppose an elite aesthetic. That elite aesthetic uses the internal difference that disinterest creates between art and everything else to create a social distinction: “It should not be thought that the relationship of distinction (which may or may not imply the conscious intention of distinguishing oneself from common people) is only an incidental component in the aesthetic disposition. The pure gaze implies a break with the ordinary attitude towards the world which, as such, is a social break” (D, 31). In other words, regardless of the intention of the individual, the elite experience of perceptual disinterest, as taught by Kantian aesthetics, creates the experience of social distinction. But a theoretical difference between two aesthetics (the difference being one's affirmation of difference, the other's denial of it) could only function as an experience of social difference for those who believed in difference if the theories that each class held were not theories at all but practices determined by habitus (Bourdieu uses the word both as a singular and as a plural).

And indeed, the habitus works in Distinction to allow us to misinterpret learned and acquired aesthetic tastes as natural to us and therefore as creating natural distinctions. The habitus confuses the learned with the natural as part of the way it works, without regard to aesthetics particularly: “The habitus is necessity internalized and converted into a disposition that generates meaningful practices and meaning-giving perceptions; it is a general transposable disposition which carries out a systematic, universal application—beyond the limits of what has been directly learnt—of the necessity inherent in the learning conditions” (D, 170). In effect, the habitus allows us both to think that we have chosen what is necessary to us and to think that what we have learned is actually natural to us. When this transformation determines our modes of living in the general area of taste as well as the specific area of aesthetic taste, it allows us to misinterpret acquired tastes as primary, experiential preferences: “Even in the classroom, the dominant definition of the legitimate way of appropriating culture and works of art favours those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines, since even within the educational system it devalues scholarly knowledge and interpretation as ‘scholastic’ or even ‘pedantic’ in favour of direct experience and simple delight” (D, 2). Thus the political effect that arises from the way the habitus constructs the aesthetic: early experience of “legitimate culture” occurs in the dominating classes and with it the sense of the aesthetic as a natural pleasure. Consequently one can distinguish one class from another in terms of its greater possession of this more elite natural pleasure.

The aesthetic shape of the habitus has a devastating implication for this argument, if one takes it seriously. Bourdieu has been arguing that the Kantian aesthetic of disinterest is, on the one hand, simply a taste of the elite and on the other a social tool of domination, and that a taste inherent in a single class gets transformed into a tool that distinguishes classes because of the way the habitus makes over the learned into the natural. But if the habitus in general works according to the rules of the aesthetic, having purposiveness without purpose and the coherence and unity of works of art (Kant defines all of this integral shaping as the way that artistic perception is separate from pleasure or moral judgment and therefore disinterested), then the preference of the dominating classes for a Kantian experience of the aesthetic is not a simple class preference constructed by the habitus. A Kantian aesthetic allows one to recognize the larger shaping forces of society and thus to write the work that seemingly questions that aesthetic. At the moment of placing the aesthetic as a political force, he deploys its most characteristic distinguishing acts of interpretation. One critic has argued that Bourdieu's is a “project which from the outset has necessitated an unequivocal negation of all idealist conceptions of art.”9 This negation does not seem to have stopped him, however, from having artistic conceptions at the outset.

Perhaps even more important to the literary critical deployment of Bourdieu's theories is his concept of symbolic capital and the related idea of symbolic power.10 Like the idea of the habitus, this idea has clear value for sociological analyses of literary works and history. One may circumvent the debate over whether economic or historical explanations of literary works and forms ever succeed in comprehending their subjects or whether there will always be something in excess of the economic, the sociological or the historic that constitutes the literary, by redescribing that excess, in its very aesthetic purity, as embodying a symbolic capital, distributing a symbolic power. According to one definition, despite its label, symbolic capital does not, unlike the habitus, operate in a particularly literary way. Symbols—linguistic, literary and cultural—simply get exchanged in a way analogous to economic exchange, and dependent upon economic value or some other manifestation of material base, for their working. Working with Bourdieu's early explanation in Outline of a Theory of Practice, for instance, one article distinguishes between the working of symbolic power and capital and what Bourdieu calls the “economism” of Marxism in this way:

The classical Marxist tradition emphasises the political functions of symbolic systems, and explains the connections between these systems in the interests of the dominant class, and the problem of false consciousness in the dominated classes. From Bourdieu's perspective this approach tends to reduce power relations to relations of communication. The real political function which he sees symbolic systems as fulfilling is their attempt to legitimate domination by the imposition of the ‘correct’ and ‘legitimate’ definition of the social world.11

Here, classical Marxists describe symbolic systems essentially in terms of their propaganda value, while Bourdieu sees them as more powerfully creating a social space in which the interests of the dominant class get legitimated for everyone. Still these systems finally function to legitimate some power structure that lies beneath their symbolism and gives it its power. They exist in an homologous or an analogous relation to the power—still essentially economic—that they legitimate.

Bourdieu frequently does use the concept in this way, and to great effect. Arguing that language has a symbolic power in excess of its power to communicate, for instance, Bourdieu contends that “utterances are not only (save in exceptional circumstances) signs to be understood and deciphered; they are also signs of wealth, intended to be evaluated and appreciated, and signs of authority, intended to be believed and obeyed” (LSP [Language and Symbolic Power] 66). And he further contends that language's communicative power frequently depends upon the authority and wealth it also signifies. Discussing the dependence of felicity in J. L. Austin's theory of performative speech on institutions of social power and hierarchy, he remarks that “only a hopeless soldier (or a ‘pure’ linguist) could imagine that it was possible to give his captain an order. The performative utterance implies ‘an overt claim to possess such or such power’, a claim that is more or less recognized and therefore more or less sanctioned socially” (LSP, 75).

As long as behind the symbolic power of symbolic capital is some real power (usually in some definable relation to real capital), this method works quite well and provides suggestive explanations of certain kinds of cultural and stylistic effects. Bourdieu's explanation of the political significance of Heidegger's style avoids the usual discussions of the connection between his philosophy and his Nazism by noting that Heidegger's importance to the field of philosophy, in the first instance, related to a seemingly absolute split between what a text said and its simplest meaning. This split may have discouraged any consideration of political significance of what was said, but its form enacted another kind of political effect:

For academic logocentrism, whose limit is set by the verbal fetishism of Heideggerian philosophy—the philological philosophy par excellence—it is good form which makes good sense. The truth of the relation between philosophical aristocratism (the supreme form of academic aristocratism) and any other type of aristocratism—including the authentically aristocratic aristocratism of the Junkers and their spokespersons—is expressed in the imposition of form and the prohibition against any kind of ‘reductionism’, that is, against any destruction of form aimed at restoring discourse to its simplest expression and, in so doing, to the social conditions of its production.

(LSP, 151)

Heidegger's style, by its refusal of social relevance, its insistence on an integral form as its value, validates a professional class of philosophers whose privilege in understanding Heidegger is analogous, in its philosophical aristocratism, to an “authentically aristocratic aristocratism.” Bourdieu even goeson to explain the role of this academic aristocratism of philosophy for its practitioners in terms of their class background: “The petit-bourgeois elitism of this ‘cream’ of the professorial body constituted by philosophy professors (who have often come from the lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie and who, by their academic prowess, have conquered the peaks of the hierarchy of humanist disciplines to reach the topmost ivory tower of the educational system, high above the world and any worldly power) could hardly fail to resonate harmoniously with Heidegger's thought” (157-58). In effect, Heidegger's style receives symbolic power from its ability to validate the professionalism of academic philosophy. And the validation has value because it marks the academic arrival of its practitioners into an elite (even if only an academic elite) class that they, as petite-bourgeoisie, have striven to occupy. Symbolic power, defined this way, must always be referred to some more “authentic” power.

Except to the extent that any analogical concept operates through figurative transfer, the concept of symbolic capital is not yet particularly literary or aesthetic—no more so, at any rate, than any other analogy. Its explanatory power, in fact, rests on its separation from the literary, its establishment of a ground beneath the linguistic or the stylistic that gives them value and power. By the same token, though, and for that reason, this version of symbolic capital does not manage to resolve the aesthetic into the social or the historical. All that Bourdieu says about the social significances of the linguistic, the literary, the stylistic, could be true and their value could still be constituted by some pure aesthetic content. Thus a reviewer ends a fairly favorable account of Distinction with the following complaint: “The assertion that aesthetic discrimination rests upon principles of social inclusion and exclusion in no way logically discounts the possibility of justifying universal norms of aesthetic appreciation.”12

Perhaps more importantly, this definition of symbolic capital cannot explain the working of culture or art when they cease to align themselves directly with economic or power benefits for which they can thus no longer be cashed in. Because Bourdieu wants precisely to explain that which seems to indicate the pure aesthetic, he is drawn to explain its definition sociologically in terms of symbolic power. But these explanations soon lead to a covert recreation of an intrinsic aesthetic value. For instance, Bourdieu explains the aesthetic disposition of disinterest generally in terms of its dependence upon a space freed from economic need; thus experiencing aesthetic disinterest will coincide with having the economic means to do so. But he also realizes that the aesthetic thus exists in a certain opposition to the concept, at least, of economic power. Thus a purer engagement in aesthetics become a way of claiming freedom from an economic domination that is part of one's field:

It is not surprising that bourgeois adolescents, who are both economically privileged and (temporarily) excluded from the reality of economic power, sometimes express their distance from the bourgeois world which they cannot really appropriate by a refusal of complicity whose most refined expression is a propensity towards aesthetics and aestheticism. In this respect they share common ground with the women of the bourgeoisie, who, being partially excluded from economic activity, find fulfilment in stage-managing the decor of bourgeois existence, when they are not seeking refuge or refuge in aesthetics.

(D, 55)

His explanation for the resistance of artists to comprehension even by upper-class patrons (228-29) and for the split at the upper registers of the dominant class between those with relatively high cultural capital and relatively low economic capital—teachers for instance—and those with relatively higher economic capital and relatively lower cultural capital—members of the professions—follows the same pattern (283-95). In each case, the cultural becomes an intrinsic value in terms of its opposition to economic domination.

But where does the symbolic power of cultural capital come from in this situation? Originally, the ability of culture to distinguish expressed its power by distinguishing the economically privileged, who had the leisure for obtaining cultural capital. But since its distinction can no longer be cashed in for economic privilege or political power (its value now belongs to relatively dominated groups: adolescents, women, teachers), it must inhere in the pure power either of the aesthetic or of distinction itself (which comes to the same thing if, as we have seen, the aesthetic is defined by the internal distinguishing power of disinterest). If Bourdieu ascribes to a thorough relativizing of cultural and aesthetic tastes, he can no longer explain the odd effects that occur when aesthetics becomes an activity that resists economic benefit (and the very theoretical comprehensiveness of his sociological aims forces his attention to these moments). But if on the other hand, he allows even the act of distinction that aesthetics enables to become a value that cannot be cashed in, he seems to have simply produced a new version of an intrinsic aesthetics.13

Bourdieu's later definitions of symbolic capital solve this problem with regard to aesthetics by making symbolic transfer itself the grounding act of value (of which economic transfer is merely another version). Once one does not have to cash in symbolic capital to see its value, an analysis of aesthetics that analogizes its activities to the workings of economic capital becomes sufficient indication of its sociological effect. To escape economism as the ground of symbolic capitalism, Bourdieu argues the greater extension of uneconomic practices of exchange, making symbolic capital the larger category, of which economic capital is but one part. He argues that “economism is a form of ethnocentrism” (L, 112) because it treats all economics, even pre-capitalist ones, as if they were explicable in terms of capitalist economics. But such economic explanations often simply cannot comprehend how some exchanges work: “In the work reproducing established relations—feasts, ceremonies, exchange of gifts, visits or courtesies and, above all, marriages—which is no less vital to the existence of the group than the reproduction of the economic bases of its existence, the labour required to conceal the function of the exchanges is as important as the labour needed to perform this function” (L, 112). A labor that conceals the function of an exchange cannot of course be exchanged without the concealment being reified and thus undone. In such exchanges, the value can only occur if the basic economic exchange involving labor cannot occur. In order to create the value, a seemingly extraneous act of labor must occur, one that the value cannot reduce to but must depend on. Accordingly, Bourdieu can argue the priority of symbolic capital to economic capital in these terms:

In an economy which is defined by the refusal to recognize the ‘objective’ truth of ‘economic’ practices, that is, the law of ‘naked self-interest’ and egoistic calculation, even ‘economic’ capital cannot act unless it succeeds in being recognized through a conversion that can render unrecognizable the true principle of its efficacy. Symbolic capital is this denied capital, recognized as legitimate, that is, misrecognized as capital.

(L, 118)

Symbolic capital, then, is not merely a symbol for economic capital but the capital that exists when economic interests are denied or negated. This negation can occur in a pre-capitalist economy. But it can also occur in a capitalist economy when agents resist economic interests. Finally, capital per se amounts to the value that motivates any conversion, whether economic exchange or the disguise of economic exchange. One might argue that disguise is always a form of exchange, but this would be true only if exchange were always a form of disguise. From this perspective, then, capital just is symbolic.

Although this version of symbolic capital may remove any standpoint outside the misrecognized symbolic exchange from which to mount a straightforward political critique, it also removes the problem that in certain circumstances, one cannot cash in the symbolic or cultural capital of an aesthetic position to ground its value in some outside power.14 After all, what need has one to cash in a symbol if the symbolic capital creates the relations of power and value in exchange rather than merely representing them. By accepting metaphoric transfer fully at the conceptual level of his theory, then, Bourdieu resolves the problems in his sociological analysis of the practice of aesthetics.

One can see this resolution at work most clearly in his recent discussions of Flaubert and the development of the concept of a pure art. Bourdieu posits three groups of writers in what he calls “the literary field” of mid-nineteenth-century France. The first of these, “the advocates of social art,” demanded that literature fulfill a social or political function. For them, the value of art cashes in fairly easily in terms of the value of the political position it espouses. The second group, “the representatives of ‘bourgeois’ art,” wrote “in a genre that presupposed immediate communication between author and public and assured these writers not only significant material benefits … but also all the tokens of success in the bourgeois world.”15 This group presents even fewer sociological problems because their art cashes in for cash. The third group, however, seems to recreate the problems of evaluating an aesthetic that resists the forces that might give it sociological value:

The writers located outside these two opposing positions gradually invented what was called “art for art's sake.” Rather than a position ready for the taking, it was a position to make. Although it existed potentially within the space of existing positions, its occupants had to invent, against the established positions and against their occupants, everything that distinguished their position from all the others. They had to invent the social personage without precedent—the modern artist, full-time professional, dedicated to his work, indifferent to the exigencies of politics as to the injunctions of morality, and recognizing no jurisdiction other than the specific norm of art.

(F [“Flaubert's Point of View”] 551)

Bourdieu also describes the ways the occupants of this group created internal sanctions and rewards, analogous to other social sanctions and rewards, but determined by a negating resistance to them.16

The questions asked above of a similar analysis in Distinction of the role of aesthetics for marginalized groups within the dominating class do not quite evaporate in the light of the more central position given to symbolic capital, but they become local and historically specific rather than theoretical. We might still wonder why artists gave up the calculable social rewards available to bourgeois writers for the less evident rewards of prestige within asocially marginal group, or why the larger society proceeded to grant respect to that group by endowing their negations of surrounding social values with various kinds of institutional verifications of their status as a profession. But these are empirical questions about how an event occurred. In terms of what this group of artists does, their actions do not amount to exchange and creation of capital in terms of some incalculable analogy to economic capital and exchange. Rather, the activities the group engages in just constitute the value-creating activities of exchange and disguised exchange that found all capital. It may be that, in creating this socially definable group, artists must also create an object to which their immediate relation is one of disinterest, but if the purpose of that relation is to allow one to enter into a larger system of exchanges, then a full description of aesthetic activity has to comprehend various sociological interests.

Again, Bourdieu validates his sociological analysis of culture and aesthetics by accepting a certain aesthetic status for the tools of his analysis. His field reversal whereby symbolic capital, instead of being a specialized metaphorical version of economic capital, becomes the general category of which economic capital is a subset, re-enacts an almost archetypal deconstructive maneuver with the categories of literary and philosophical language.17 Above, the aesthetic status of the habitus suggested that the aesthetic sensibilities of the elite class correspond in a confirming way to the ground from which the sociological analysis is performed. Here, the affirmation of a constituting symbolism to exchange, though it shows the interest in the symbolic investments that created the aestheticized art object, does so by creating a grounding space which, while not precisely interest free, cannot be calculated in terms of any form of external interest. Again, to place art and culture sociologically, Bourdieu has first aestheticized his sociology.

I do not mean, in the above analysis of the aesthetic bases of the habitus and of symbolic capital, to suggest an aesthetic reading of Bourdieu's sociology in order to capture it in some more generalized formalism. The rupture with that formalism occurs with what I take to be Bourdieu's most completely aesthetic, theoretical maneuver: the self-reflexive turn in his theory that both changed the content of his research from anthropological case studies to studies of the mores of academics and changed the concern of his theories more relentlessly toward cultural and aesthetic topics. Before delineating Bourdieu's reflexiveness in particular, though, I need to justify my claim that the gesture is a particularly aesthetic—even Kantian—one. Contemporary philosophy and literary criticism almost takes reflexiveness for granted as a defining literary moment. But since Bourdieu stands in a relation of bracing skeptical analysis to figures like Foucault and Derrida, who centralize interpretations of a painting of reflections or a poem by Mallarmé, we cannot assume their identification of reflexiveness with art as authoritative, even if his reflexiveness reproduces just these moments of their philosophy, thus making more complex his skepticism.

But if reflexiveness constitutes the inaugurating moment of Kant's Critique of Judgment, the aesthetic theory Bourdieu so persistently attempts to undo, perhaps Bourdieu's own reflexiveness may be seen in the same aesthetic light as the habitus and symbolic exchange. At first, Kant's definition of the role of judgment as a faculty which, having been given universal laws by other faculties, sorts particulars under those laws, makes it a distinctly subordinate and instrumental power. He concludes this opening definition with a sentence that changes this subordination: “But if only the particular be given for which the universal has to be found, the judgment is merely reflective.18 This reflection is not yet really reflexiveness. It is qualified as mere because it is opposed to the determinations that the judgment that subsumes particulars under known universals exercises. It is merely the characterization of the mental act that extrapolates a universal from a particular in order to explain it.

Kant's definition of the reflexive judgment, however, makes clear both that his critique of judgment is an act of judgment and that the judgment that judges aesthetics does so by a law that is in the first instance aesthetic:

The reflective judgment, which is obliged to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal, requires on that account a principle that it cannot borrow from experience, because its function is to establish the unity of all empirical principles under higher ones, and hence to establish the possibility of their systematic subordination. Such a transcendental principal, then, the reflective judgment can only give as a law from and to itself. It cannot derive it from outside (because then it would be the determinant judgment); nor can it prescribe it to nature because reflection upon the laws of nature adjusts itself by nature, and not nature by the conditions according to which we attempt to arrive at a concept of it which is quite contingent in respect of nature.19

Unsurprisingly, the law the reflexive nature gives to itself is one that judges particulars in terms of a unity given to them neither by an a priori understanding nor by any actual knowledge of natural law, but as inherent in their appearance. But the particulars that Kant talks of might well be first the experience of beauty and then, more generally, the experience of teleology in nature—the topics of The Critique of Judgment. Neither of these have any universal laws that apply to them that could be given either by the pure reason, which cannot make any determinations about the natural world, or by the understanding, whose determinations about the natural world are never transcendental. Thus to determine their universal laws must be an act of the reflexive judgment, extrapolating universal laws from empirical particulars through the one transcendental principle given here.

Kant, of course, did not mean this reflexiveness to be a self-justifying and self-contained pleasure. The Critique of Judgment means to provide a crucial transition between the understanding's knowledge of natural law and the Reason's articulation of moral laws.20 In this sense, he provides us with the opening logic for Bourdieu's own insistence on self-reflection. Both of Bourdieu's most explicitly theoretical books, Outline of a Theory of Practice and The Logic of Practice, present themselves as reflections upon past versions of their own theories and of Bourdieu's researches. And they do so because they insist that the route from objectivism to an understanding of the logic of practice goes through a reflection upon one's own practice. The Outline [Outline of a Theory of Practice] opens with the claim that an anthropologist can only exit objectivism by first realizing how his own role as anthropologist both enables and necessitates that stance (O, 1-2). In other words, the first practice the anthropologist must understand in order to understand practice truly is his own. The later Logic of Practice generalizes this situation into a philosophical rule:

This critical reflexion on the limits of theoretical understanding is not intended to discredit theoretical knowledge in one or another of its forms and, as is often attempted, to set in its place a more or less idealized practical knowledge; but rather to give it a solid basis by freeing it from the distortions arising from the epistemological and social conditions of its production. It has nothing in common with the aim of rehabilitation, which has misled most discourse on practice; it aims simply to bring to light the theory of practice which theoretical knowledge implicitly applies.

(L, 27)

Neither merely negative, moving from reflection to skepticism, nor naively positive, moving from reflection on skepticism to a recuperated positive knowledge, Bourdieu's reflection reproduces his theory of practice by extrapolating the theory from its own practice. Thus Bourdieu insists both on reflecting on his own role as researcher and on thinking that that reflection will describe both the practice of such a role and the theory of how to elucidate such practices.

What the reflection has to say about the sociology of its own practice begins, for Bourdieu, in the consideration of the system that produces that practice, the French educational system. Quite early in his career, as part of thinking about his own role as a French observer of social practices in the one-time French colony of Algeria, Bourdieu turned his focus to the educational system that was the field of his own practice. This research led to two conclusions, one about the system, one about what might be called the habitus of the students and professors within it. First Bourdieu found that even within the French educational system, ostensibly rigorously structured along meritocratic lines, social origin consistently predicted educational success: “Social origin is doubtless the one whose influence bears most strongly on the student world, more strongly, at any rate, than sex or age, and certainly more than any other clearly perceived factor, such as religious affiliation.”21 This conclusion should not surprise anyone who has discussed the make-up of the student body in the United States educational system. Bourdieu, though, unlike many critics in the United States, while not objecting to programs that equalized access across social classes, does not think such programs will particularly change anything: “The mechanisms which ensure the elimination of working-class and lower-middle-class children would operate almost as efficiently (but more discreetly) in a situation in which a systematic policy of providing scholarships or grants made subjects from all social classes formally equal vis-à-vis education” (I [The Inheritors], 27).

What mechanisms work so surely that direct action on access to the system would be ineffectual? To answer this question, one has to turn to Bourdieu's second conclusion regarding the less empirically calculable issue of what cultural and intellectual practices produce success in the academic world. Here Bourdieu argues that the instrumentality that defines the roles of both the students and the professors, combined with the impossibility of recognizing that instrumentality and still performing the activities that enable its work, produce the particular practices in the educational field. In other words, in one obvious sense, “to be a student is to prepare oneself by study for an occupational future” (I, 56). But if students acted as if this were the case, “the professor's occupational task would then become merely an aspect of an occupational project of which he is no longer the master and whose full significance lies beyond him” (I, 58). The result is a double mystification: first students see their own principle activity as a kind of self-creation that can be enacted only by rejecting anything that might constrain that creation by suggesting that choice is not absolutely free: “The aspiration to create and choose oneself does not impose a determinate behavior, but only a symbolic use of behavior intended to signify that this behavior has been chosen” (I, 38). In addition to denying the students' own instrumentality, this mystification “enables the teachers to see themselves as masters communicating a total culture by personal gift” (I, 58). Thus students and professors each deny each other's and their own instrumentality by creating practices that distinguish themselves from the surrounding society in terms of an intrinsic concern with creation and culture.

There are three aspects of this conclusion worth noting. First, in one sense, the cultural and intellectual practices of students and professors do not, in fact, result directly from the class-distinguishing effects of the educational system. Even if the system were actually meritocratic, the role of students would still be instrumental, directed at fitting them for their future occupations, and professors would still be, in reality, auxiliary to that role. The double mystification of those roles that constitutes the academic field would still occur. Second, the content of that mystification leads directly to the conclusions of Distinction. The way in which students and professors distinguish themselves from their social roles creates a sense of culture that seconds the class-differentiating activities of the educational system as a whole. But because the content of academic intellectual mystification does not result directly from the full sociological role of education, does not simply function as an ideological mask of that role, an academic intellectual may, through reflection on his own practices, see their sociological effects even while he reproduces them. In effect, precisely the intellectual field he describes in both The Inheritors and in Distinction produces the research and the intellectual practices that led to those books, as Bourdieu well realizes.

Bourdieu's implication in the activities he places sociologically may compromise the political freedom of his analysis. One critic remarks that Distinction “would only be likely to be read by people situated in the top left corner [the dominated fraction of the dominating class, which is relatively richer in cultural capital than in economic capital]—as a lifestyle token, like the music of Boulez, of the possession of the kind of high cultural capital associated with university professors. … Because La Distinction could not possibly enable non-readers to reflect on the class disposition which ensured that they were nonreaders, it could not fail to be a book about non-readers for readers.22 But also, because both writer and any reader, coming from the habitus of the university, will enact the distinguishing practices that separate them from non-readers, regardless of their intent to see those practices skeptically, they will still reproduce them. But paradoxically, by accepting that aesthetic presumptions govern one's own practices, one may describe the sociological working of those presumptions fully precisely because the aesthetic practice differs enough from the sociological ends to enable one to see them even as one produces them. If Kant's Critique of Judgment is a judgment on judgment, it is nevertheless a critical judgment on aesthetic judgment, and if this difference does not suffice to create the transcendental ground Kant wants, it works to allow an evaluation of the aesthetics on grounds more than merely that the judgment produced it. In the same way, Bourdieu's aesthetic reflection produces a sociology of aesthetics. If we do not demand transcendental grounds for our sociology, the fact of the reflection will not automatically disable the specific sociological conclusions; indeed as we have seen, it may be necessary to those conclusions.

The situation of Bourdieu's sociology of aesthetics, then, looks something like this. Bourdieu describes a habitus—a cultural or aesthetic field—that deliberately splits itself from social influence or effect, but within which professional interests operate in a sociologically describable, way. Within that field exist art objects whose aestheticization also deliberately drains them of immediate social interest. But the immediate freedom of that object from interest creates its professional interest for those who operate within the field. His sociology describes in this way both the political role of Heidegger's style—if we do not cash it in for the empirically questionable analysis of its particular value for the petite bourgeoisie—and the role of art or art's sake for Flaubert. That the tools of analysis—the habitus and symbolic capital—are themselves aestheticized concepts, though, seems to suggest an ultimate ground for aesthetic disinterest. Accepting the reflection in the analysis that produces this sociology as aestheticized, however, recuperates the sociological force of the analysis: by analyzing the sociological roots and effects of disinterested analysis—even the analysis doing the examining—one can attach the sociology back to the analysis that examines even as one accepts the necessity of its claim to an aesthetic disinterest.

This recuperation works, however, only when coupled with the acceptance outlined above, as we can see at moments in which Bourdieu tries to separate himself radically from the analysis he deploys. Distinction, for instance, ends with an attack on Derrida's reading of Kant in The Truth in Painting, an attack whose main interest is in determining its motive. Offering a summary of Derrida's argument that is surprisingly fair within the limits of its own confessed distillation, Bourdieu finds himself constrained to admit that Derrida raises, albeit in a very different stylistic register, many of the questions raised by his own sociological reading. Bourdieu, therefore, ends up simply attacking that style:

Although it marks a sharp break with the ordinary ritual of idolatrous reading, this pure reading still concedes the essential point to the philosophical work. Asking to be treated as it treats its object, i.e., as a work of art making Kant's object its own objective, i.e., cultivated pleasure, cultivating cultivated pleasure, artificially exalting this artificial pleasure by a roue's ultimate refinement which implies a lucid view on this pleasure, it offers above all an exemplary specimen of the pleasure of art, the pleasure of the love of art, of which, like all pleasure, it is not easy to speak.

(D, 498)

Since Bourdieu admits that Derrida analyzes the role of pleasure in a way consonant with his own skeptical view of it, his difference with Derrida must be in terms of a stylistic irresponsibility he sees there that can only amount to an indulgence in an elite pleasure, an irresponsibility that his own analysis would escape. But Bourdieu marks the main feature of this indulgence as Derrida's extreme attention to the form of his own argument (D, 495-97). This critique is as astonishingly self-consuming as his own elite rejection of the Nouvel Observateur in the light of his own obvious stylistic self-consciousness, which he justifies barely ten pages after his critique of Derrida in this way:

There remains one final problem, which would no doubt merit a long discussion: that of writing. The main difficulty, especially on such a subject, is that the language used must signal a break with ordinary experience, which is no less necessary in order to appropriate adequately the knowledge produced than to produce it.

(D, 509-10)

Bourdieu thus claims that his own stylistic attention is necessary to produce a break, but Derrida's stylistic attention is culpable because, though an intellectual break, it fails to be a social break (D, 496). Speaking of his own project, he speaks in the language of awareness that he also quite consciously tries to analyze. Trying to separate himself from his academic competition, however, he targets his analysis in a way that renders his argument self-contradictory.

Finally, my argument about Bourdieu's sociology of aesthetics has, it seems to me, two implications. First its specific practices—definitions of habitus, specifications of symbolic capital and symbolic power—will not result in readings of literature or literary history that will have performed some decisive break with aesthetic evaluations, though such readings may have any number of other local values. But, second, its analysis of the sociology of academic practices, particularly in its most self-aware moments, has much to say about the cultural wars literary professors are currently fighting both with each other, and more recently with our own Nouvel Observateurs. Distinction offers a skeptical glance at culture that certainly offers support for the most skeptical readings of traditional canons and literary evaluations. But the cost of casting that glance is that its skepticism must always be based on the presumptions of the field that constructs the ability to cast it. Traditional canons and readings occupy that field in a close embrace with the analyses that attack them. Only by abandoning the desire to exit that field into a realm from which a pure political attack may be launched, and by doing so as considerably more than a matter of momentary rhetoric carrying with it no larger implications, may one coherently obtain the political implications many of us want from Bourdieu.


  1. To discuss this project, I will use most extensively Bourdieu's The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1990), a translation of Le Sens Pratique, which came out in France in 1980; hereafter cited as L. This book postdates much of Bourdieu's writing on culture and aesthetics but also returns to some of his earliest anthropological studies. To make chronological matters more complex, it is also explicitly a revision of the theories worked out in Outline of a Theory Practice, trans. Richard Nice (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1977), which revises as much as it translates the original French version, Esquisse d'une Théorie de la Pratique, which came out in France in 1972, well before much of the writing on culture and aesthetics; hereafter, O.

  2. Bourdieu's Distinction, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984) was originally published in France in 1979; hereafter, D.

  3. Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, ed. John B. Thompson (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991); hereafter, LSP. This book translates most of Ce Que Parler Veut Dire, published in France in 1982. But it adds articles published as recently as 1984 and includes articles from the original book that were first published as far back as 1975. Because Bourdieu not only revises books for translation, but fairly constantly revisits old books and articles in more recent books offering newer theoretical articulations, proposing chronological distinctions in his writing is always a fairly arbitrary task. Whether all his topics are as related to each other as he claims, he has effectively made them so in his work by his methods of revision, reinclusion and cross-referencing.

  4. I had elided Bourdieu's early and late versions of his critique here, as well as simplifying it. For a more extensive account as well as an explanation of the evolution from Outline of a Theory of Practice to The Logic of Practice, see Derek Robbins, The Work Of Pierre Bourdieu (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), chapters 5 and 9.

  5. To take a parallel from an entirely different field of criticism, Louis Renza has argued, in “The Veto of the Imagination: A Theory of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), 280, that autobiographies must be fictive, cannot even accurately assert a connection between the writing self and the self being written about, because the text written cannot communicate the most vital aspect of the events described, their pastness, their having been experienced by a past self. One can easily imagine further extensions of such a critique of a text's or description's inability to carry the experience of subjectivity within it.

  6. Toril Moi, “Appropriating Bourdieu,” New Literary History, 22 (1991): 1019.

  7. See the translator's footnotes to Derrida's discussions of this phrase in The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), 51 and 68.

  8. For the definition of beauty, see, Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner, 1951), 73. For the discussion of natural teleology, see 205-7.

  9. John Cold, “Making Distinctions: the Eye of the Beholder,” in An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Practice of Theory, ed. Richard Harker, Cheleen Mahar and Chris Wilkes (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990), 151.

  10. In a review article on Distinction for Diacritics 18 (1988): 47-68, Elizabeth Wilson centralizes that concept in her opening sentence: “In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu elaborates a model of symbolic power describing the role of culture in the reproduction of social relations in contemporary France” (47). This description of the book, while certainly not inaccurate, focuses on the social functioning of cultural capital rather than on Bourdieu's attempt to redescribe what aesthetics and taste are, and how that indicates the primary interest of the book for the literary theoretical discussion that will follow.

  11. Cheleen Mahar, Richard Harker, Chris Wilkes, “The Basic Theoretical Position,” in Harker et al. (note 9), 5.

  12. Anthony Giddens, “The Politics of Taste,” Partisan Review 53 (1986): 304.

  13. Critics who want to give Bourdieu a political power of resistance to the domination of the bourgeoisie through the unmasking of their aesthetic pretensions have particular problems with this aspect of the book. Toril Moi (note 6) quotes a particularly sniffy attack on the egregiously sniffy Nouvel Observateur as an example of Bourdieu's political critique, justifying the obvious self-contradiction of the moment, unpersuasively, by arguing that Bourdieu's lack of power with regard to the Nouvel Observateur removes the contradiction (1026, 1045). It, of course, does not if one wants to take Bourdieu's analysis of elitist aesthetic rhetoric as seriously comprehensive. Thus, in reverse, Elizabeth Wilson (note 10) concludes that Bourdieu's theories lack the ability to effect political intervention precisely because they don't offer modes of judging that are free from his critique of culture and aesthetics (58-60).

  14. The emphasis here is on the word “straightforward.” One feels an obvious political significance to Bourdieu's project. Bourdieu, however, quite pointedly resists drawing direct political implications. In an interview, his translator Richard Nice has said that “he situates himself outside conventional politics” and that “he's not very political in everyday life” (Cheleen Mahar, “Pierre Bourdieu: The Intellectual Project” in Harker et al (note 9), 53). This reticence, not just in “everyday life” (what would Bourdieu make of that category?), no doubt leads to the frustration of some of his critics discussed in calibrating the critique in Distinction.

  15. Bourdieu, “Flaubert's Point of View,” Critical Inquiry 14 (1988): 550, hereafter, F.

  16. Bourdieu offers an essentially similar position in the more abstractly posed article, “The Historical Genesis of a Pure Aesthetic,” in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (1987): 208.

  17. Given its concern with inability of philosophy to define metaphor without recourse to metaphor and its concern with the exchanges between metaphoric transfer and economic exchange, Derrida's “White Mythology,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans, Alan Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), 207-71, becomes an inescapable, if by this time somewhat stereotypical, reference.

  18. Kant, Critique (note 8), 15.

  19. Kant, 16.

  20. I have discussed the crucial role Kant's aesthetics play in his critical philosophy in slightly more detail in Aestheticism and Deconstruction (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991), 142-45.

  21. Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture, trans. Richard Nice (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), 8. This book was originally published in France in 1964; hereafter, I.

  22. Derek Robbins (note 4), 28-29.

Morag Shiach (essay date October 1993)

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SOURCE: Shiach, Morag. “‘Cultural Studies’ and the Work of Pierre Bourdieu.” French Cultural Studies 4, no. 12 (October 1993): 213-23.

[In the following essay, Shiach outlines the difficulties of placing Bourdieu's cultural theory within British cultural studies.]

Pierre Bourdieu's work has always presented something of a problem for the discipline of cultural studies in Britain, largely because it seems to operate along the fault line between textual analysis and sociological critique which has for so long disturbed the discipline's self-constitution. When Nicholas Garnham and Raymond Williams talk of Bourdieu as offering a possible ‘mediation’ between the traditions of cultural analysis represented by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and the film journal Screen, they seem to identify very precisely this ‘difficulty’, if perhaps expressing an exaggerated optimism about its possible resolution (Garnham and Williams 1980). The extent of the difficulty in assimilating Bourdieu's work is perhaps signalled by his absence from so many texts which aim to define or develop the space of ‘cultural studies’ in Britain: it is striking, for instance, that before the production of this special issue, no contributor to French Cultural Studies has drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu. The aim of this article is to indicate the lines of development in Bourdieu's work which seem to have rendered it so problematic for British cultural studies. My argument will focus on the ways in which Bourdieu has theorized the possibilities of cultural resistance and of political pedagogies as well as on the ways in which his attempt to negotiate the pressures of determinism and agency have left his work marked by images of enclosure and entrapment.


Cultural studies as a discipline exists within particular institutional sites: specifically those of secondary, further and higher education. It has, throughout its history, been defined not just in terms of the objects it studies but also in terms of a broader pedagogical and political project. Its aims of challenging cultural hierarchies, of extending the range of cultural artefacts subjected to analysis or critique, and of undermining economistic understandings of the social formation are all to some extent congruent with the outlines of Bourdieu's sociological investigations. Thus, in Choses dites, Bourdieu writes of the importance of disturbing analytic hierarchies, of his intention to

dissoudre les grandes questions en les posant à propos d'objets socialement mineurs, voire insignifiants.

(Bourdieu 1987: 30)

in a way that seems to legitimize cultural studies' insistence on the social and cultural significance of the apparently ephemeral or banal. Similarly, his research in La Distinction offers a very precise analysis of the cultural and social mechanisms which have constructed the space of the ‘aesthetic’ as one of privilege and of significant cultural capital.

What Bourdieu's work seems to undermine, however, is the desire of cultural studies to constitute itself as a site of resistance or transgression within institutions of education. Cultural studies has never been simply another discipline addressing a discrete set of objects, but has always sought to connect cultural analysis with the analysis of ideological structures and economic power. It has to that extent sought to embody the possibility of a radical pedagogy, the potential of educational institutions to empower or to avoid simple reproduction of the status quo.

Much of Bourdieu's early work is, of course, concerned with the viability of precisely such a project. In Les Héritiers (1964) Bourdieu examines the failure of educational institutions to challenge the social inequalities which marked students on their entry into these institutions. Indeed, he shows the mechanisms by which educational institutions tend to reinforce such inequalities. These mechanisms operate crucially in relation to cultural knowledges, with universities, for example, tending to discount or even despise those cultural knowledges which are derived simply from the educational curriculum and to favour those knowledges whose source is mysterious, that is to say whose source lies in the experience of a specific class formation.

The argument is continued in La Reproduction (1970) and connected even more emphatically with discourses of cultural evaluation and taste in La Distinction (1979). Over these three texts, however, Bourdieu becomes significantly less able to imagine an alternative to this practice of cultural and social reproduction. While Les Héritiers is marked by a sense of frustration at the failure of educational institutions to deliver a practice of rational pedagogy or to develop something approaching a ‘common culture’, and at least imagines ‘the possibility of rationally transmitting aristocratic culture within institutional contexts which might not be reinforcing a social hierarchy’ (Robbins 1991: 53), La Distinction sees hierarchy and the reproduction of social inequalities as precisely the business of cultural evaluation, and equates cultural evaluation or critique with a kind of symbolic violence. In La Distinction, taste is the expression of arbitrary taxonomies which are mapped onto class-specific knowledges, and cultural evaluation is necessarily caught up in a mystifying assertion of its own autonomy. Such autonomy is illusory, and imaginable only within specific cultural fields and at particular historical moments, yet intellectuals who operate within the field of cultural production or analysis are absolutely implicated in such idealist aesthetic discourses.

Bourdieu's work, then, has tended to show the way in which educational institutions collude in the reproduction of social inequalities and, far from seeing cultural analysis as a site of resistance or critique, has seen it as absolutely central to the project of social reproduction. Uncomfortably for cultural studies, it is not clear that this analysis can accommodate the desire of cultural studies to see itself as apart from such strategies of mystification and social stratification. It seems rather to offer a totalizing analysis of the function of all cultural discourses within educational institutions which can leave very little room for alternative pedagogies and grant very little power to attempts to modify the objects or methodologies of cultural analysis. We all seem to be playing the game of distinction, even as we seek to develop theoretical or methodological challenges to dominant literary modes of analysis.

Indeed, increasingly in Bourdieu's work we find that there is very little sense of possible alternatives to the cultural hierarchies which are so efficiently communicated and reproduced within educational institutions: what we are left with instead is a sense of enclosure. This is the dimension of Bourdieu's work which has led some cultural theorists to condemn him as too sweeping or too mechanical in his social and cultural classifications:

Having written with such force … against forms of essentialism and substantialism in social theory, Bourdieu falls effortlessly into both when it comes to the aesthetic.

the working class [seems] to be inevitably and inexorably entrapped within the cultural limits imposed on it.

(Frow 1987: 63 and 71)

Bourdieu is certainly aware of the problem, but cannot offer any political strategy within the realm of the cultural, which is so implicated in mechanisms of distinction. In so far as he can imagine an alternative pedagogy, it seems to be limited to the context of philosophy, where ‘l'analyse des structures mentales est un instrument de libération’ (Bourdieu 1987: 27). The rest of this article will be concerned to chart the implications of this refusal of the cultural as a space of possible transformation or critique and to consider the viability of Bourdieu's search for ‘un instrument de libération’ in his analysis of what he sees as one of the founding forms of social inequality: sexual difference.


The tension within the discipline of cultural studies with which this article began can be characterized as a tension between populism and formalism, between the search for ‘the popular’ as a site of resistance and the identification of strategies of formal textual subversion as the locus of political struggle. Neither position is without its difficulties, the first risking an over-politicization of popular culture and a consequent evacuation of considerations of form or value and the latter apparently over-formalizing the political so that questions of economic relations or institutions become invisible. Both, however, do offer a means by which ‘the social criticism that has been the traditional province of the intellectual’ can be articulated within the project of cultural studies (Wilson 1988: 55). In order to understand the difficulty that Bourdieu's work poses for the discipline of cultural studies, despite its apparent congruence, it is necessary to consider the ways in which he condemns both political modernism and populism as simply strategies of distinction within the restricted field of intellectual or cultural production.

In La Distinction, Bourdieu seeks to identify the mechanisms by which certain sorts of cultural discourses and knowledges become endowed with prestige, and thus constitute a form of cultural capital. His contention is that there is nothing inherent in aesthetic judgements or in discourses of taste that constitutes their rationale, other than their participation in a logic of scarcity: taste is something most people can't have. He points to the social and historical specificity of notions of ‘the aesthetic’ as a separate sphere and of the idea that aesthetic experience constitutes a completely separate realm of experience, a different sort of looking or of feeling. In Les Règles de l'art (1992) he seeks to identify the historical development of notions of artistic autonomy more precisely, rejecting aesthetic theories which aim to identify some transhistorical essence of the aesthetic experience:

Si ces analyses d'essence se rencontrent sur l'essentiel, c'est qu'elles ont en commun de prendre pour objet … l'expérience subjective de l'œuvre d'art qui est celle de leur auteur, c'est-à-dire celle d'un homme cultivé d'une certaine société, mais sans prendre acte de l'historicité de cette expérience et de l'objet auquel elle s'applique. C'est dire qu'elles opèrent, sans le savoir, une universalisation du cas particulier et qu'elles constituent par là même une expérience particulière, située et datée, de l'œuvre d'art en norme transhistorique de toute perception artistique.

(Bourdieu 1992: 394)

Bourdieu thus tends increasingly to deny any substantive meaning to judgements of taste or value, and to see them instead as simply the manifestation of the logic of a particular historically constituted cultural field.

For Bourdieu, the emergence of the aesthetic as a separate sphere characterized by the pure gaze, by distance from the prevailing values of industrial capitalism, by self-reflexivity, or by autonomy, is simply part of a historical modification of commercial and class relations which took place in the mid-nineteenth century. It has no absolute claim to oppositional status or to essential truth. Indeed, the very claims of the aesthetic only make sense within very particular institutional sites or within a specific field. The idea that the aesthetic offers some escape from economic relations is misrecognition: instead it represents the articulation of economic relations and their connection with strategies of symbolic distinction.

For Bourdieu, strategies of textual or formal experimentation within the realm of the aesthetic have no inherent claim to offer any form of resistance to the instrumentalism of capitalism. This conclusion clearly disturbs a critic such as Elizabeth Wilson, who invokes Adorno to support her claim that modernist texts have the capacity to produce ‘radical transformations’ within both social and psychic reality (Wilson 1988: 48). Numerous critics have expressed a similar unease about Bourdieu's apparently totalizing account of the project of modernism, which seems to offer no scope for considering the texts of modernist aesthetics as ambiguous or even as contradictory in their social and cultural significance. There is certainly a stark contrast between Bourdieu's account of modernism as absolutely enclosed within the logic of a particular field of cultural production and the argument of Walter Benjamin in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ which appears always to demonstrate the complexity and doubleness of the cultural impact of ‘mass culture’ on the space of the aesthetic. For Bourdieu, modernist texts must always strive for distance and distinction:

La ‘distanciation’ brechtienne pourrait être l'écart par lequel l'intellectuel affirme, au coeur même de l'art populaire, sa distance à l'art populaire qui rend l'art populaire intellectuellement acceptable … et, plus profondément, sa distance au peuple.

(Bourdieu 1979: 568)

Yet, for Benjamin, the complex series of cultural transformations associated with technologies of mechanical reproduction offer instead the opportunity to break down the distance associated with the art object as cult object, and to explore the resources of immediacy and proximity for the development of a politicized conception of the aesthetic: ‘The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web’ (Benjamin 1973: 235).

What seems to be impossible on Bourdieu's account is an analysis that sees the space of modernist aesthetics as ambiguous, as containing the potential both for subversion and for simple reproduction. One attempt to identify such complexity can be found in Peter Burger's distinction between modernism and ‘the avant-garde’, where modernism represents something closer to art for art's sake while the avant-garde embodies a substantial challenge to habits of perception and categories of thought and to the institution of art itself (Burger 1984). Similarly, Raymond Williams, while apparently endorsing much of Bourdieu's account of the historical specificity of modernism as a social and cultural movement, still seeks to identify more precisely what is at stake in the texts and images of particular modernist artists (Williams 1989). For both Burger and Williams culture has the capacity to manifest a critical function, whereas for Bourdieu such a critical function is only another move in the coded game of cultural and social distinction. To stress the compulsion and inevitability of such game playing, Bourdieu has developed the concept of l'illusio: ‘l'adhésion fondamentale au jeu … reconnaissance du jeu et de l'utilité du jeu, croyance dans la valeur du jeu et de son enjeu’ (Bourdieu 1992: 245). This illusio serves to commit participants to the logic of a particular field and to its practices of distinction:

chaque champ produit sa forme spécifique d'illusio, au sens d'investissement dans le jeu qui arrache les agents à l'indifférence et les incline et les dispose à opérer les distinctions pertinentes du point de vue de la logique du champ.

(Bourdieu 1992: 316)

Such a totalizing analysis of the aesthetic leaves no room for exploiting textual or cultural ambiguities as part of a politicized project of cultural analysis, but rather leaves us asking ‘whether Bourdieu's system allows anything to escape it and thus potentially to resist it?’ (Wilson 1988: 55).

The difficulty with this critique, of course, is that Bourdieu's work has already predicted it. Even to pose questions about ‘the politics of modernism’ is to participate in a self-confirming game within the intellectual field. Bourdieu is equally critical of the capacity of ‘high theory’ to deliver any sort of political critique, seeing it instead as simply another attempted monopoly of cultural capital. Theoretical accounts of the political potential of modernism are thus doubly disabled: they can never aspire to truth but only to legitimacy, which is to say to the rewards of discursive behaviour which corresponds precisely to the demands of a particular intellectual field.

If the analysis of textual subversion can offer no sure basis for a politicized cultural studies, what then can we make of the claims of populism? Is it possible to imagine ‘the popular’ as a site of resistance? For Bourdieu it would seem that it might be possible to imagine it, but it is not at all clear that it is possible to theorize or mobilize it.

Bourdieu does at times seem to ground his critique of the aesthetic in a particular reading of the popular, as a space where practical and economic interests determine cultural forms and where a realist project of representation is vindicated in terms of its accessibility. Thus, for example, in Un art moyen (1965) Bourdieu stresses the manner in which photography as one of the popular arts subordinates questions of artistic form to considerations of its socially regulated functions and meanings. Elsewhere, Bourdieu appears to valorize the practicality of popular culture, its involvement in the everyday, as opposed to the distance from economic necessity and practical imperatives which characterize the realm of the aesthetic. It is perhaps in this aspiration to identify a cultural space which is not caught up in the logic of distinction that we can understand Derek Robbins' judgement that Bourdieu operates with an unarticulated utopian vision (Robbins: 176).

However, when it comes to an attempt to identify the political or theoretical meanings of ‘the popular’, Bourdieu is extremely sceptical. He points out the fluidity of the concept of ‘the popular’ and its consequent appeal to a diverse range of social critics, arguing that it owes

ses vertus mystificatrices, dans la production savante, au fait que chacun peut, comme dans un test projectif, en manipuler inconsciemment l'extension pour l'ajuster à ses intérêts, à ses préjugés ou à ses fantasmes sociaux.

(Bourdieu 1983: 98)

It thus becomes impossible, for Bourdieu, to speak of the popular without being caught up in the realm of mythology. The aim of theorists seems to be to catch the essence of the popular, while Bourdieu stresses the need to see it as a contradictory and negotiated space. The desire to fix, and to claim, the popular is simply another manifestation of the struggle for distinction within the intellectual field. Debates about the politics of the popular only make sense within such a restricted and restricting field: ‘“le populaire” … est d'abord un des enjeux de lutte entre les intellectuels’ (Bourdieu 1987: 178). Thus, for Bourdieu, claims for a politicized reading of popular culture have no essential truth, but reflect rather the theorists' place within the field of cultural production. Here too, then, we are disabled in the search for a politicized account of the space of ‘cultural studies’.


So far, Bourdieu's analyses have served to disturb the capacity of ‘cultural studies’ to represent itself as the space of a political critique. Instead of theorizing cultural analysis as a site of resistance to social and cultural hierarchies, Bourdieu tends rather to stress the ways in which it participates in mechanisms of distinction. His analyses serve to specify the terms of our enclosure rather than to offer us any escape.

In order to see whether Bourdieu can imagine any analytic or practical strategies that might indeed offer us the ‘instrument de libération’ to which he aspires, I want to turn finally to his analysis of what he describes as ‘le paradigme (et souvent le modèle et l'enjeu) de toute domination: la domination masculine’ (Bourdieu 1990: 31). Bourdieu sees gender relations as a key embodiment of the terms in which he seeks to theorize power. Drawing on his anthropological research, Bourdieu describes Kabyle culture as rigidly divided in terms of gender, with participation in rituals, division of labour, use of space and access to artefacts all clearly marked by differential gender relations. He describes Kabyle culture as one of ‘phallonarcissism’, where patterns of behaviour, use of time and categories of representation all serve to reinforce masculine power.

Bourdieu's interest lies in the ways in which this system of oppression sustains and reproduces itself, and in particular in the centrality of the symbolic domain. His argument is that such forms of oppression gain a kind of naturalness or inevitability from the power of sedimented rituals which are expressed in the habitus of members of the culture. The habitus here carries the meaning of both a predisposition to particular modes of behaviour and perception as well as a habitual mode of thinking. The habitus is marked on and by the body, which carries the weight and the meaning of gendered power relations. As such, it can be understood neither in terms of pure coercion nor in terms of willing consent. It is rather the space in which members of a culture negotiate its rituals, practices and meanings.

Bourdieu once more stresses the enormous complexity of the system which maintains relations of inequality. In a manner strikingly, but perhaps surprisingly, reminiscent of the work of Hélène Cixous (Cixous 1975), Bourdieu demonstrates the ways in which all categories of thought are marked by the hierarchy of sexual difference:

l'opposition entre le masculin et le féminin reçoit sa nécessité objective et subjective de son insertion dans un système d'oppositions homologues, haut/bas, dessus/dessous. devant/derrière, droite/gauche.

(Bourdieu 1990: 8)

While Cixous sets out to theorize and to develop a mode of writing which might challenge the inevitability of such hierarchized oppositions, such a strategy is impossible for Bourdieu. He can imagine no challenge to this cultural and social hierarchy from within the space of the cultural. Instead, he goes on to describe the ways in which gender relations, apparently immutable, have negative effects on all members of a culture.

The image Bourdieu chooses to capture the pervasive impact of gender inequalities is once more one of enclosure:

les hommes sont aussi prisonniers, et sournoisement victimes, de la représentation dominante, pourtant si parfaitement conforme à leurs intérêts.

(Bourdieu 1990: 21)

The ways in which gender inequalities distort and disable all members of a particular cultural group are crucial for Bourdieu, and he is critical of the failure of feminist research to address this issue. He does, however, exempt Virginia Woolf from this critique, seeing To the Lighthouse as a classic study of the ways in which masculinity tends to alienate and to infantilize those who are condemned to live under its sway. Bourdieu's reading of To the Lighthouse is detailed and compelling, but once more it tends to diminish the critical potential of the cultural. Bourdieu's reading focuses almost entirely on the character of Mr Ramsay, but it does so in a way that is curiously static. He has nothing to say about the character of Lily, who surely carries most of the transformative potential of the text, at both thematic and symbolic levels. Indeed, he tends to treat the novel as a series of descriptions rather than as a text that might embody contradiction or offer a formal challenge to the categorical differences with which it begins. The same kind of partiality emerges when Bourdieu considers what is at stake in women's exclusion from power within a patriarchal culture:

Les femmes ont le privilège (tout négatif) de n'être pas dupes des jeux où se disputent les privilèges, et de n'y être pas prises, au moins directement, en première personne.

(Bourdieu 1990: 24)

In seeing this exclusion as completely negative, Bourdieu loses any chance of exploring the potential of excluded groups for resistance, a possibility that Woolf herself was to theorize in Three Guineas.

In relation to this paradigmatic system of power relations, then, Bourdieu's analysis offers little by way of resistance. The ways in which symbolic and economic structures intersect is carefully laid out. The manner in which individual participants in a culture encounter such inequalities, and tend to reproduce them, is theorized through the concept of the ‘habitus’. But no challenge to this system seems possible within the space of the cultural: writing cannot set us free. Instead, Bourdieu ends with a call to collective action:

seule une action collective visant à organiser une lutte symbolique capable de mettre en question pratiquement tous les présupposés tacites de la vision phallonarcissique du monde peut déterminer la rupture de l'accord quasi immédiat entre les structures incorporées et les structures objectivées.

(Bourdieu 1990: 30)

The call is repeated in his conclusion to Les Règles de l'art, where he speaks of the dangers of the erosion of the critical role of the intellectual. Once more, he argues that:

il est possible de tirer de la connaissance de la logique du fonctionnement des champs de production culturelle un programme réaliste pour une action collective des intellectuels.

(Bourdieu 1992: 461)

This analysis is specifically addressed to those who can imagine the cultural ‘comme instrument de liberté supposant la liberté’ (:462), a characterization that sits uneasily with the thrust of much of his own research. Clearly, Bourdieu believes that the stakes are now high, that the political power of the intellectual and the cultural power of reason are both under threat from ‘ces nouveaux maîtres à penser sans pensée’ (:470). He asks for a collective and international movement of intellectuals, aware of the historical constraints which shape their own discourses but committed to overcoming the division between autonomy and engagement and willing also to ‘travailler collectivement à la défense de leurs intérêts propres’ (:472). Yet the site for such practical and symbolic struggle remains unclear: it may be sociology, it may be philosophy, but it seems unlikely that, for Bourdieu, it could ever be ‘cultural studies’.

Literature Cited

Benjamin, Walter (1973), ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (London: Collins), 219-253.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron (1964), Les Héritiers (Paris: Minuit).

Bourdieu, Pierre, et al. (1965), Un art moyen: essais sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Paris: Minuit).

Bourdieu, Pierre (1970), La Reproduction: éléments pour une théorie du système d'enseignement (Paris: Minuit).

——— (1979), La Distinction: critique sociale du jugement (Paris: Minuit).

——— (1983), ‘Vous avez dit “populaire”?’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, No. 46, 98-105.

——— (1987), Choses dites (Paris: Minuit).

——— (1990), ‘La Domination masculine’, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, No. 84, septembre, 2-31.

——— (1992), Les Règles de l'art: genèse et structure du champ littéraire (Paris: Seuil).

Burger, Peter (1984), Theory of the Avant-Garde (Manchester: MUP).

Cixous, Hélène (1975), ‘Sorties’, in C. Clément and H. Cixous, La Jeune Née (Paris: Union Générale d'Éditions), 115-246.

Frow, John (1987), ‘Accounting for tastes: some problems in Bourdieu's sociology of culture’, Cultural Studies, i, 59-73.

Garnham, Nicholas and Raymond Williams (1980), ‘Pierre Bourdieu and the sociology of culture’, Media, Culture and Society, ii, 209-223.

Robbins, Derek (1991), The Work of Pierre Bourdieu (Milton Keynes: Open University Press).

Williams, Raymond (1989), The Politics of Modernism, edited by Tony Pinkney (London: Verso).

Wilson, Elizabeth (1988), ‘Picasso and Pâté de Foie Gras: Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture’, Diacritics, xviii, (2), 47-60.

Woolf, Virginia (1992a), To the Lighthouse (Oxford: OUP).

——— (1992b), A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas (Oxford: OUP).

Christian Ghasarian (review date January 1995)

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SOURCE: Ghasarian, Christian. Review of Sociology in Question, by Pierre Bourdieu. Anthropological Quarterly 68, no. 1 (January 1995): 67-8.

[In the following review, Ghasarian summarizes the issues explored by Bourdieu in Sociology in Question, lauding the work for explaining some significant ideas regarding social theory.]

Social scientists must know the conditions of their productions. They must keep in mind that the relationship between subject and object is socially determined. Intellectuals' responsibility toward the social world sustains Pierre Bourdieu's reflection in this book [Sociology in Question]. Through a series of lectures and interviews addressed to non-specialists, he explores the relation between sociology (as he sees it) and other disciplines. The issues developed include the sociology of culture and taste (music, sport, haute couture, art), as well as the role of language in society and social sciences. In twenty-one short chapters, at the end of each of which he gives a list of his related writing on the themes addressed, Bourdieu offers an easy introduction to some ideas and writing that have made a profound impact on general social theory.

Bourdieu sees the distinction between ethnology and sociology as a pure product of colonial history that has no logical justification. He insists on the fact that his own work would not have been possible if he had not tried to hold together some problematics traditionally regarded as ethnological or sociological. The sociology he proposes is a science critical of itself, of the other sciences, and of the power of science. The purpose of that science is to understand the laws governing the production of science. As a law that is unknown is taken for granted (as nature is), a better knowledge of the laws of the social world (through social science) can give more freedom. Bourdieu insists on the fact that if the dominant groups have an interest in the maintenance of the law, the dominated ones have an interest in the discovery of the law as such, a law that is historical and could be abolished if the conditions of its functioning were removed. He estimates that by revealing things that are hidden and sometimes repressed (like the correlation between educational achievement and social origin), sociology inevitably raises problems. According to him, if sociology should be useful for something, it is in providing a better understanding of the social world, notably of the structures of power. In his terms: “sociology would not be worth an hour of anyone's time if it were to be merely an expert knowledge for experts.” Sociology should not give “lessons” but “weapons.”

Bourdieu endeavors to show that what is called the “social” is a hidden “history.” The class sense, for instance, is hidden in people's heads, speech, and body postures. Continuously referring to the historical process to develop his analyses, Bourdieu addresses (explicitly or implicitly) the habitus that he defines as a product of all biographical and class experiences. That habitus, or distinctive capital, is a system of dispositions incorporated in bodies, the relationship to the body (the way people talk, laugh, or eat, for example) being the basis of a set of attitudes and values. The habitus appears clearly in artistic production. Indeed, the producer's production is governed by the position he/she occupies in the space of production. What makes the value of the work is not the rarity of the product but the collective belief in the value of the producer and his/her product. There is thus an unavoidable correspondence between social positions and tastes. The idea of personal opinion itself is socially determined: it is a product of history, reproduced by education. Cultural capital secures direct profits on the educational market but it also secures profits of distinction which result automatically from the fact that it is unequally distributed.

Bourdieu reminds intellectuals that they are not free of habitus. The type of social science they do depends on the position they occupy within the social world. Signs of recognition and gratifications expose them to all sorts of subtle constraints and censorship. This is why the sociology of intellectuals is a preliminary step of all social sciences. Intellectuals have the privilege of being placed in conditions that enable them to understand their specific conditions. If they do so, they can offer others the means of liberation from determinism. Intellectuals must denounce what Bourdieu in his last chapter calls the racism of intelligence; this racism is nothing else than the means through which the members of the dominant class aim to produce a justification of the social order that they dominate. Through education classification, this social discrimination is legitimized and given the sanction of science. Intellectuals must notably ask themselves what is their contribution to “IQ racism.”

The realization that science is an instrument for legitimizing power must not lead to a romantic and regressive anti-scientism. Bourdieu believes in science on the condition that the weapons of intellectual power are turned against intellectual power. According to him, the science of man will only progress if it makes explicit that the theories researchers always bring in are generally no more than the transfigured projection of their relation to the social world. To be scientifically intelligent implies to place oneself in a situation that generates real problems and real difficulties. Bourdieu's whole effort is aimed at destroying mental and verbal automatisms, among which are those of sociological language (that is not “neutral”). Like his other writings, this book shakes the theoretical field of social science at its core. It invites the reader to explore a risky but fundamentally humanistic and optimistic sociology.

Lester C. Olson (review date November 1995)

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SOURCE: Olson, Lester C. Review of Language and Symbolic Power, by Pierre Bourdieu. Quarterly Journal of Speech 81, no. 4 (November 1995): 522-23.

[In the following review, Olson characterizes Language and Symbolic Power as “one of the most intellectually stimulating books about language.”]

Because he examines the sociological aspects of language, Pierre Bourdieu, a Professor of Sociology at the Collège de France, has written a series of essays that are rich in implication for students of rhetoric, communication and media. Most the essays were published earlier in French in Ce que parler veut dire, but this volume of translated essays [Language and Symbolic Power] does contain five additional essays and omits two from the earlier volume.

Bourdieu's essays argue that language expresses and reproduces the social structure (2). He takes issue with the ideal of an autonomous symbol system, especially as articulated by linguists Saussure and Chomsky. Bourdieu argues that we cannot separate “the linguistic instrument from its social conditions of production and utilization” (33). He underscores, “The all-purpose word in the dictionary … has no social existence: in practice it is always immersed in situations, to such an extent that the core meaning which remains relatively invariant through the diversity of markets may pass unnoticed” (39). While these general claims are not news to researchers in communication and rhetoric, who have long recognized the vital role of context in the very nature of meaning, the vocabulary that Bourdieu proposes for situating language in its sociological context and the perspective that shapes his account of it represent a powerful and highly suggestive contribution to our literature.

To support his claim that the conception of an autonomous symbols system is illusory, he points to examples of performative utterances in which language brings into being that which it utters—such as formal namings, blessings, curses, orders, wishes, and legal decisions (42). He adds that legitimate language has its basis in power in the sense that one necessary condition for speech is an authorized or legitimate speaker, who derives his or her authority from an underlying institution taken in a broader sense than the English term may suggest (see 8-9). Further, he points to French words like tu and vous to illustrate the claim that social relations undergird the use of language (80). Beyond this, he describes expressions that function “as marks of neutralizing distance” (85) and affirms that “the power of words is nothing other than the delegated power of the spokesperson, and his speech” (107)—all to support his central contention that language systems are not autonomous. Therefore, we cannot adequately account for language without considering the social conditions of its production and use (61, 69, 109, 139).

To Bourdieu, the study of language should entail attention to the habitus and the field because symbols are ineluctably situated in the relationship between the habitus and field, or market (14). The habitus is a set of dispositions which incline agents to act in certain ways, reflecting and reproducing class relations because of its relationship to power (e.g. the relative ease of powerful; the hyper-correction of relatively powerless). In this account, the habitus may be transmitted through means other than language: “There is every reason to think that the factors which are most influential in the formation of the habitus are transmitted without passing through language and consciousness, but through suggestions inscribed in the most apparently insignificant aspects of the things, situations and practices of everyday life” (51). Bourdieu affirms that the factors that exercise a determining influence on the habitus include sex, generation, social position, social origin, and ethnic origin (95). The concept of habitus holds promise for those communication scholars interested in exploring how the diversity of people contributes to the diversity of communication practices.

The field, for Bourdieu, is the site of struggle between individuals and groups seeking to maintain or alter the distribution of forms of capital: “A field or market may be seen as a structured space of positions in which the positions and their interrelations are determined by the distribution of different kinds of resources or ‘capital’” (14)—symbolic as well as material. To Bourdieu, the “market” or field “plays a part in shaping not only the symbolic value but also the meaning of discourse” (38). The terms “capital” and “market” are metaphorical in that they are not strictly economic (15 and 67), perhaps illustrating a principle that Bourdieu discusses in “Censorship and the Imposition of Form.” In addition, the structure of the field censors the use of language in that the field governs both the access to participate and the form of expression (138). As a consequence, power, censorship, access, the authority to speak, tension, and symbolic violence are among the major variables within a market (99).

Within a specific field, symbolic power is enacted in social life. Participation within a field entails the “active complicity” of all participants, because to Bourdieu the exercise of power through symbolic exchange always rests on a foundation of shared belief (23). To Bourdieu, language may be understood as a compromise between an expressive interest and a censorship constituted by the structure of the field. Symbolic violence is one by-product of certain fields that legitimate some discourses, but not others, leaving the alternatives of outspokenness or silence (139). His discussion of silence, which he treats as an attribute of the dominated within a field, is a source of disappointment, because silence is far more complex than the treatment of it here suggests.

Even so, Language & Symbolic Power is rich in implications for the study of rhetoric and communication. For example, his discussion of “Authorized Language” could be drawn upon to examine the production and use of Black English in urban U.S. culture, by situating it in an asymmetrical relationship of power to “standard English” understood as the code of a dominating race. His essay on “Rites of Institution” holds great promise for communication scholars seeking to explain why so many Americans became overwrought at the prospect of President Clinton changing the initiation rituals for admitting servicemen and women into the military. It also could provide a means for explaining how the marriage ritual as practiced in the U.S. tends to exclude and marginalize some groups while providing access to a wealth of special privileges for those authorized by organized religion and by law to participate in it In brief, rites of institution “consecrate or legitimate an arbitrary boundary,” whose function is both to keep out and to keep in (118 and 122). Such rites are characterized always by both transition and exclusion (e.g. the circumcision ritual transforms a boy to man, while at the same time marking in symbolism a difference between male and female).

While Bourdieu's book represents a landmark in the study of communication, its commentary suggesting a method is sparse. He suggests analyzing utterances with reference to the constitution of the political field and the relation between this field and the broader space of social positions and processes (28). He underscores the value of attending to symbols as situated between the habitus and the field (see 37, for example). He stresses that the student of language should treat “class” as multiple, not merely economic (29), and in this respect distinguishes his approach from Marxist analysis, as discussed explicitly in “Social Space and the Genesis of ‘Classes.’” He also focuses upon the relationship between properties of discourse, properties of person speaking, and properties of institution (111).

To what extent is the perspective articulated in this book informed by French culture in ways that inherently distinguish its production and use from discourses in U.S. culture, and, as a consequence, to what extent might the perspective require revision in another cultural context? This is a question that I would encourage readers to contemplate as we consider the implications of Bourdieu's book for scholarship in rhetoric and communication in the U.S. In requesting consideration of this factor, I am questioning the assumption in cultural studies that method or perspective can be treated as transcultural. First, for example, to what extent does the relative salience of Leftist politics in France inform the perspective in ways that cannot be easily transposed upon U.S. culture, where leftist politics is weak? Second, to what extent do differences in the citizens' perceptions of relative class mobility in France and the U.S. matter as one considers both the habitus and the field? Third, given the formal role of the Académie français in legitimating the French language itself, a body which has no U.S. equivalent, to what extent do variations in official language, and relations of language, political power, and regionalism become concerns as one considers the implications of Bourdieu's work for language in U.S. culture? Surely this last question has important implications for the langue/parole distinction as well as the idea of an idiolect. Fourth, the salience of equality as a value in U.S. culture may pose serious problems for a theory which begins from the frank assumption that all relations are ineluctably characterized by differences in power and authority such that all gestures toward equality are illusory, merely acts of self-delusion or condescension. Such factors lead me to urge a skeptical attitude as we engage one of the most intellectually stimulating books about language.

David Swartz (essay date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: Swartz, David. “Bridging the Study of Culture and Religion: Pierre Bourdieu's Political Economy of Symbolic Power.” Sociology of Religion 57, no. 1 (spring 1996): 71-85.

[In the following essay, Swartz explains the main ideas behind Bourdieu's theory of culture in terms of its relationship to the sociology of religion.]

This essay examines key features of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture in light of their potential contribution to the sociology of religion. Bourdieu himself has devoted little attention to the study of religion.1 Yet, significant features of his approach to the study of culture find inspiration in the materialism of Karl Marx and particularly in Max Weber's sociology of religion.


Bourdieu proposes a sociology of symbolic power in which he addresses the important topic of relations between culture, stratification, and power. He contends that the struggle for social recognition is a fundamental dimension of all social life. In that struggle, cultural resources, processes, and institutions hold individuals and groups in competitive and self-perpetuating hierarchies of domination. He advances the bold claim that all cultural symbols and practices, ranging from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science, and philosophy—indeed to language itself—embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions. Bourdieu focuses on how these social struggles are refracted through symbolic classifications, how cultural practices place individuals and groups into competitive class and status hierarchies, how relatively autonomous fields of conflict interlock individuals and groups in struggle over valued resources, how actors struggle and pursue strategies to achieve their interests within such fields, and how in doing so actors unwittingly reproduce the social stratification order. Culture, then, is not devoid of political content but rather is an expression of it.

In his approach to culture, Bourdieu develops a political economy of symbolic practices that includes a theory of symbolic interests, a theory of cultural capital, and a theory of symbolic power. These are not tidy, well-delimited theoretical arguments but orienting themes that overlap and interpenetrate. They draw from a wide variety of intellectual influences including Marxism, structuralism, and phenomenology. But as Brubaker (1985) points out, Max Weber is the most importance influence from the classical sociological tradition on Bourdieu's work. It is impossible to probe the full complexity of these theories or to cover the full range of Bourdieu's conceptual innovations in this short essay.2 Nonetheless, it is possible to show how Bourdieu draws from Marx and from Weber's sociology of religion to develop a sociology of cultural practices.


At the core of Bourdieu's intellectual project for over thirty years stands the central question in Western social thought since Marx: the debate between cultural idealism and historical materialism. Bourdieu's sociology represents a bold attempt to find a middle road that transcends the classic idealism/materialism bipolarity by proposing a materialist yet non-reductive account of cultural life. His thinking begins with Marx but draws more substantively from Weber.3


Like Marx, Bourdieu emphasizes the primacy of conflict and class-based social inequality in modern societies. Yet, he is sharply critical of class reductionist accounts of religious and cultural life. Bourdieu is a materialist in the sense that he roots human consciousness in practical social life. He is also concerned with forms of false consciousness or, in his terms, “mis-recognition” of power relations. He accepts the Marxian idea that symbolic systems fulfill social functions of domination and reproduction of class inequality. Yet he is critical of the view of ideology that focuses largely on the social functions of symbolic goods and practices without showing how they are necessary features for the enactment of social practices.

While Bourdieu accepts the Marxist claim that religion is ideology, he resists separating out the symbolic dimension of social life as separate and derivative of the more fundamental material components of social life. In short, he rejects the Marxist infrastructure/superstructure conceptual distinction as rooted in the classic idealism/materialism dichotomy that Bourdieu believes must be transcended. Here Bourdieu parts company with the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser (1970), which was one of Bourdieu's important intellectual references in the 1960s and 1970s. Bourdieu shares Althusser's basic materialist outlook and his emphasis on the relative autonomy of religion and culture from politics and economics. Still, Bourdieu's position is not fundamentally Althusserian. Inspired by Marx's first thesis on Feuerbach, which emphasizes the underlying unity of all social life as practical activity, Bourdieu (1984a:467) rejects the idea that social existence can be segmented and hierarchically organized into distinct spheres such as the social, the cultural, and the economic. Rather than explore the various forms of articulation of the superstructure and infrastructure as Althusserians do, Bourdieu argues that the two realms are not to be separated in the first place Bourdieu seeks to write a general science of practices that combines the material and symbolic dimensions and thereby emphasizes the fundamental unity of social life. Nonetheless, Bourdieu's central concern with the problem of relations between the symbolic and material aspects of social life and between structure and agency stem in part from his early confrontations with this particular Marxist tradition.


From Marx, Bourdieu turns to Max Weber for the conceptual tools to elaborate a theory of symbolic goods and practices that would transcend both class reductionism and idealism. Bourdieu remarks that it is Max Weber “who, far from opposing Marx, as is generally thought, with a spiritualist theory of history, in fact carries the materialist mode of thought into areas which Marxist materialism effectively abandons to spiritualism” (1990b:17). Bourdieu sees Weber offering a “political economy of religion” that brings “out the full potential of the material list analysis of religion without destroying the properly symbolic character of the phenomenon” (1990a:36). One central objective of Bourdieu's sociology is to elaborate Weber's model for a political economy of religion to all of cultural and social life. Indeed, Bourdieu sees his sociology of culture to be of the same character as that of Weber who used “the economic model to extend materialist critique into the realm of religion” (1990a:107). It is to be a “generalized” or “radical” materialism, but one that avoids the class reductionism that Bourdieu (1990b:17; 1993:12) believes characterizes Marxism. Bourdieu believes he has found in this generalized materialism a way to transcend the classic idealism/materialism dichotomy in the social sciences.


Bourdieu's work represents an important elaboration of Max Weber's notion of ideal goods and interests (Gerth and Mills 1970:280). The idea of “religious interest” comes from Weber's emphasis on the “this-worldly” character of behavior motivated by religious belief. Weber writes that “the most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious or magical factors are oriented to this world” (1978:399). He goes on to stress that “religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic” (Weber 1978:400). Bourdieu argues that by insisting on the “this-worldly” character of behavior motivated by religious factors Weber provides a “way of linking the contents of mythical discourse (and even its syntax) to the religious interests of those who produce it, diffuse it, and receive it” (1990b:4). Thus, Weber provides a means for connecting religious beliefs and practices to the interests of those who produce and administer them.

Bourdieu (1987c:122), however, considers Weber's notion of “religious interest” to be “only weakly elaborated” since it limits the scope of interest to be “determined by the agents' conditions of existence.” By contrast, Bourdieu stresses that religious interests—and symbolic interests more generally—“are also determined in their form and their conditions of expression by the supply of religion and the action of the religious professionals.” Nonetheless, Weber's thinking permits one to construct the

system of religious beliefs and practices as the … transfigured expression of the strategies of different categories of specialists competing for monopoly over the administration of the goods of salvation and of the different classes interested in their services.

(Bourdieu 1991a:4)

Bourdieu extends the idea of interest to include non-material goods by arguing that all practices are fundamentally “interested” whether directed toward material or symbolic items. He extends the logic of economic calculation to “all goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation” (1977:178). Bourdieu wants to construct “a general theory of the economy of practices” that will analyze “all practices” as “aimed at maximizing material or symbolic profit” (1990b:209). The research program he proposes would unite what has traditionally been thought of as economic (i.e., interested and material) and non-economic (i.e., disinterested and symbolic) forms of action and objects. Thus, symbolic interest and material interest are viewed as two equally objective forms of interest. Actors pursue symbolic as well as material interests and exchange one for the other under specified conditions.

While extending the idea of interest from material to ideal goods, Weber nonetheless retains analytical distinctions for different types of behavior. Weber (1978:24-25,339) analytically distinguishes the following types of action: “instrumentally rational,” “value-rational,” “affectional,” and “traditional.” Weber does not consider every instrumental action as economic. To be economic, action must satisfy a need that depends upon relatively scarce resources and a limited number of actions. Such distinctions disappear altogether in Bourdieu's work. Moreover, the idea that action is interest-oriented is for Bourdieu a fundamental presupposition not a hypothesis for testing. And he does not consider whether some practices might be more self-interested than others.

Despite the economic language, Bourdieu sees his generalized materialism as quite distinct from economism since his perspective views material utilitarianism as but one form of the more generalized pursuit of interest. Thus he claims to be writing a “general science of the economy of practices” of which the “science of economic practices is but a particular case” of the more general program (Bourdieu 1977:183). He sharply distinguishes his own economy of practices from rational actor theory. The interest-orientation of practices for Bourdieu does not imply a formal or conscious calculation of costs and benefits. Rather, practices occur for the most part at a tacit, dispositional, and pre-reflective level that reflects past accumulation through early socialization of various advantages and disadvantages associated with social class background. He sharply contrasts his view of action as dispositional with the two radically opposing views that depict action as flowing either from rational calculation or from structural determination.4


The extension of Weber's idea of religious interest permits Bourdieu to develop concepts such as “religious capital” and “cultural capital” as irreducible forms of power though interchangeable with economic capital. Bourdieu conceptualizes resources as capital when they function as a “social relation of power” (1989:375) by becoming objects of struggle as valued resources. Bourdieu's concept of “religious capital” (1991a:9) is close to Weber's idea of religious “qualification.” It represents “accumulated symbolic labor” and is connected to the “constitution of a religious field” where a group of religious specialists is able to monopolize the administration of religious goods and services. Religious capital is a power resource since it implies a form of “objective dispossession” through constituting a “laity” who by definition are those without, yet want, the valued resource controlled by specialists. Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital covers a wide variety of resources, such as verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, scientific knowledge, and educational credentials. His point is to suggest that culture (in the broadest sense of the term) can become a power resource.

Bourdieu thus builds a case for the irreducible character of cultural representations as forms of power by extending the logic of self-interest to the non-material sphere where he identifies prestige, honor, knowledge, and educational credentials as forms of capital. According to Bourdieu, actors pursue investment strategies in cultural goods just as they do with economic goods. Individuals, families, and groups can accumulate cultural as well as economic items. Moreover, privilege and prestige can be transmitted intergenerationally through forms of cultural capital. Families who invest in the higher education of their children pursue a cultural form of investment in order to maintain or enhance the material conditions of their offspring. Thus Bourdieu finds it useful to think of valued non-material resources as forms of capital to the extent they can be accumulated, exchanged, and invested for profits. An important task for sociology, Bourdieu argues, is to explore the production, circulation, and consumption of the various forms of cultural and economic capital. Under what conditions and at what rates do these distinct forms of capital become mutually convertible forms of power?

Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital needs to be distinguished from Gary Becker's (1976) concept of “human capital.” Unlike human capital theorists, Bourdieu focuses on the class-based variation both in the meanings and uses of the various types of capital. Moreover, Bourdieu's theory of human action as suggested by his concept of habitus does not share the anthropological assumptions of a rational actor perspective. Bourdieu's actors pursue strategies but not as conscious maximizers of limited means to achieve desired ends. Their “choices” are tacit, practical, and dispositional, reflecting the encounter between their accumulated capital and corresponding dispositions from past socialization and the present opportunities and constraints of fields where they act.

Bourdieu's concepts of symbolic interest and capital also need to be distinguished from Ann Swidler's (1986) “tool kit” view of cultural practices. Though similar in stressing agency and the practical features of culture rather than norms and values, Bourdieu is less voluntaristic than Swidler; he stresses the group embeddedness of individual action. Moreover, Bourdieu stresses more than Swidler the power dimension of cultural resources, their capacity to constitute social hierarchies.


Bourdieu draws from Max Weber's notions of charisma and legitimacy to develop a theory of symbolic power.5 This theory stresses the active role played by taken-for-granted assumptions in the constitution and maintenance of power relations. Like Weber, Bourdieu contends that the exercise of power requires legitimation. Bourdieu argues that the logic of self-interest underlying all practices—particularly those in the cultural domain—goes “mis-recognized” as a logic of “disinterest.” “Misrecognition” is a important concept for Bourdieu; akin to the idea of “false consciousness” in the Marxist tradition, misrecognition denotes “denial” of the economic and political interests present in a set of practices. Symbolic practices, Bourdieu thus argues, deflect attention from the interested character of practices and thereby contribute to their enactment as disinterested pursuits. Activities and resources gain in symbolic power, or legitimacy, to the extent that they become separated from underlying material interests and hence go misrecognized as representing disinterested forms of activities and resources. Individuals and groups who are able to benefit from the transformation of self-interest into disinterest obtain what Bourdieu calls a “symbolic capital” (see 1972:227-243, 1977:171-83, 1990b:112-21, 1991b:163-170). Symbolic capital is “denied capital;”6 it disguises the underlying “interested” relations to which it is related, giving them legitimation. Symbolic capital is a form of power that is not perceived as power but as legitimate demands for recognition, deference, obedience, or the services of others.


For Bourdieu, the focus by Weber on religious producers provides the key for understanding how relations of interest become transformed into disinterested relations to create symbolic capital. It is the “symbolic labor” by specialists that transforms relations of power into forms of disinterested honorability (Bourdieu 1977:171). Bourdieu (1987c:122-124, 1991a:5-13) highlights as particularly insightful Weber's (1978:1177-1181) analysis of the “ethicalization” and “systematization” of religious needs of the rising urban bourgeoisie as the product of religious labor by specialists. Religious labor by specialists creates religious understandings of the particular social conditions of existence of specific groups. Symbolic labor produces symbolic power by transforming relations of interest into disinterested meanings.

Bourdieu therefore assigns an important role to symbolic producers (e.g., artists, writers, teachers, journalists, and clergy) in legitimating the social order by producing symbolic capital through symbolic labor. This of course is the role Marx assigned to ideology, but by stressing symbolic labor Bourdieu wishes to emphasize that ideology is not a given but requires active construction. Moreover, Bourdieu contends that most everyday practices would not be possible without misrecognition of their objective interests. The exchange of gifts, for example, would be transformed into a financial transaction if there were not some degree of misrecognition of their objective interests. Thus symbolic power appears as an inseparable dimension of practices. Though Bourdieu employs a language of economics, his emphasis on the necessity for symbolic power in practices distinguishes his position from a thoroughly utilitarian perspective.


If cultural, symbolic, and economic capital are distinct though mutually convertible forms of power, they nonetheless follow distinct modes of accumulation and operation. As forms of cultural production develop, they generate arenas of struggle by specialists for the monopoly over their administration. To account for this dimension of his political economy of symbolic power in modern differentiated societies, Bourdieu develops the concept of “field” (champ). Fields designate arenas where specific forms of capital are produced, invested, exchanged, and accumulated.

The concept of field emerges from the conjuncture in the late 1960s between Bourdieu's research in the sociology of art and his reading of Weber's sociology of religion (Bourdieu 1987a:33).7 The concept is inspired by Weber's discussion of the relations between priest, prophet, and sorcerer (Bourdieu 1990a:49).8 Weber identifies the specific and opposing interests of these principal types of religious leadership and the structures of the “competition which opposes them to one another” (Bourdieu 1990a:107). Bourdieu (1987c; 1992:260) proposes a structuralist reinterpretation of Weber's analysis by stressing how the interactions between the types of religious leadership are structured by their opposing interests and how these interests are in turn related to broader power structures. Bourdieu (1987c:121) considers Weber's analysis restricted to an “interactionist” perspective focused on inter-personal or inter-subjective relations among actors. A field perspective, however, introduces a broader perspective of structural conditions that shape the interactions of actors though they are not aware of them. Bourdieu (1971b, 1971a, 1985, 1992:260) first applied the concept to French artists and intellectuals as a means to call attention to the specific interests governing those cultural worlds.

Field has become a key spatial metaphor in Bourdieu's sociology of culture. Bourdieu defines a field as

a network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions. These positions are objectively defined … by their present and potential situation … in the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field.


Fields may be thought of as structured spaces that are organized around specific types of capital.9 Fields denote arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation of goods, services, knowledge, or status, and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate and monopolize different kinds of capital. For example, Bourdieu speaks of the “intellectual field” to designate that matrix of institutions, organizations, and markets in which artists and writers compete for the symbolic capital of legitimate recognition for their artistic and literary work. Field is a more inclusive concept than market; as a spatial metaphor it suggests rank and hierarchy as well as exchange relations between buyers and sellers. Indeed, Bourdieu's concept of field should not be reduced to the neo-classic idea of market. Rather, the concept suggests a force-field where the distribution of capital reflects a hierarchical set of power relations among the competing individuals, groups, and organizations. Interactions among actors within fields are shaped by their relative location in the hierarchy of positions. Bourdieu has applied this concept in studies of social class lifestyles, higher education institutions, science, culture, law, and religion.

Bourdieu (1985) uses field analysis to offer a cultural-structural interpretation of the rise of cultural markets and the modern intelligentsia. Field analysis posits a parallel process: As corps of cultural producers emerge, specialized and institutionalized cultural arenas of production, circulation, and consumption of symbolic goods also emerge with increasing autonomy from the economy and the polity. Bourdieu's basic research hypothesis in field analysis is that as cultural fields gain in autonomy from external factors, the intellectual stances assumed by the agents increasingly become a function of the positions occupied by the agents within these fields. Thus, in contrast to Marxist class analysis, Bourdieu sees fields as mediating relations between social structures and cultural life.


Bourdieu (1993:72) speaks of the “invariant laws” or “universal mechanisms” that are structural properties characteristic of all fields. First, fields are arenas of struggle for control over valued resources, or forms of capital. Field struggle centers around particular forms of capital, such as economic capital, cultural capital, scientific capital, or religious capital. Cultural capital, for example, is the key property in the intellectual field whereas economic capital is the important property in the business world. There are as many fields as there are capitals. Actors also struggle over the very definitions of what are to be considered the most valued resources in fields. This is particularly true in cultural fields where style and knowledge rapidly change. In other words, fields are arenas of struggle for legitimation: in Bourdieu's language, for the right to monopolize the exercise of “symbolic violence.”

Second, fields are structured spaces of dominant and subordinate positions based on types and amounts of capital. Field struggle pits those in subordinate positions against those in superordinate positions. The struggle for position in fields opposes those who are able to exercise some degree of monopoly power over the definition and distribution of capital against those who attempt to usurp those advantages. In general, Bourdieu sees this opposition occurring between the established agents and the new arrivals in fields. Drawing from Weber's description of the opposition between priests and prophets, Bourdieu depicts this conflict in terms of those who defend orthodoxy against those who advocate heresy. For Bourdieu (1992:289), this fundamental structure of conflict is paradigmatic not only in the religious field but in all cultural fields. The orthodox/heterodox opposition is a struggle for the

monopoly of cultural legitimacy and the right to withhold and confer this consecration in the name of fundamentally opposed principles: the personal authority called for by the creator and the institutional authority favoured by the teacher.


Bourdieu sees an analogous opposition in intellectual fields, particularly in academe, between the “curators of culture” and the “creators of culture,” between those who reproduce and transmit legitimate bodies of knowledge and those who invent new forms of knowledge. In his study of the Parisian university faculty, Bourdieu (1988) finds this fundamental opposition between teachers and researchers, between professors and independent intellectuals. In the field of religion, an analogous opposition might be found between denominational administrators and clergy, on the one hand, and sociologists of religion and theologians, on the other hand.

Crucial for Bourdieu in his field analysis is that the two opposing strategies are dialectically related; one generates the other. Orthodoxies call into existence their heterodox reversals by the logic of distinction that operates in cultural fields.10 Challengers oblige the old guard to mount a defense of its privileges; that defense, then, becomes grounds for subversion.

Third, fields impose on actors specific forms of struggle. Entry into a field requires a tacit acceptance of the rules of the game, meaning that specific forms of struggle are legitimated whereas others are excluded. Both the dominant establishment and the subordinate challengers share a tacit acceptance that the field of struggle is worth pursuing in the first place. Bourdieu refers to this deep structure of fields as the Doxa for it represents a tacit, fundamental agreement on the stakes of struggle between those advocating heterodoxy and those holding to orthodoxy.11 Challengers and incumbents share a common interest in preserving the field itself even if they are sharply divided on how it is to be controlled.12 In the sociology of religion, for example, contemporary debates occur over the trends and significance of religious life; all assume—including the proponents of secularization—that religion is worth talking about in the first place.

Fourth, fields are structured to a significant extent by their own internal mechanisms of development and thus hold some degree of autonomy from the external environment. The “relative autonomy” of the educational system, for example, as of most institutionalized religions, refers to its capacity to control the recruitment, socialization, and careers of actors, and to impose its own specific ideology. More generally, Bourdieu points to the relative autonomy of cultural fields from economic and political fields. A scholarly discipline such as the sociology of religion, for example, will reflect to some extent broader intellectual trends. But it also has its own particular history and structure that new arrivals need to appropriate in order to gain recognition as members of the field.

Field analysis, therefore, directs the researcher's attention to a level of analysis capable of revealing the integrating logic of competition between opposing viewpoints. It encourages the researcher to seek out sources of conflict in a given domain, relate that conflict to the broader areas of class and power, and identify underlying shared assumptions by opposing parties. Field analysis directs attention to the task of identifying the principal poles of opposition and their underlying shared assumptions in a particular domain.

Finally, a fundamental methodological principle flows from the posited relative autonomy of fields; namely, priority is given to the internal analysis of fields. Bourdieu argues that external influences are always “retranslated” into the internal logic of fields. External sources of influence are always mediated through the structure and dynamic of fields. The class background of the artist, for example, does not influence the work of art directly. Rather, the effects of class intersect with the patterns of field hierarchy and conflict where the artist is situated (Bourdieu 1984b:6).


Bourdieu conceptualizes the relations among relatively autonomous fields in terms of “structural and functional homologies,” which he defines as “a resemblance within a difference” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:105-106). Fields become homologous to the extent that they develop isomorphic properties such as positions of dominance and subordination, strategies of exclusion and usurpation, and mechanisms of reproduction and change. In his early work on French education, Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977:63-64, 194-200) stresses the “structural and functional” homology between French education and the medieval Catholic Church: schools, like the Church, not only transmit knowledge and skills but also reproduce themselves by monopolizing the selection and training of their own leadership. Moreover, like the Church, schools also reproduce social class relations by legitimating the unequal distribution of cultural capital.

Field analysis for Bourdieu differs from a market approach to culture. Though Bourdieu superficially resembles a growing number of social scientists who use economic imagery in their analytical language (Warner 1993:1051), he does not work within a rational choice framework. Field analysis does not analyze the economics of culture in terms of a direct effect of demand on supply or of supply on demand. For Bourdieu, cultural tastes are not simply imposed by cultural producers on unwitting consumers; nor do cultural tastes stem from cultural producers attempting to respond directly to patterns of consumer demand. Field analysis posits that the relation between supply and demand, between cultural producers and their public, and more generally, between the field of cultural production and the field of social classes, is mediated by field structures and struggles. Thus, patterns and changes in cultural production are to be analyzed in terms of the competitive struggle among cultural producers in which newcomers challenge established groups for the right to define what are to be legitimate cultural forms. Producers struggle within the field of cultural production and their cultural products reflect more their respective positions of dominance or subordination than they do the demands of consumers.

Consumers, in turn, select from these products according to their own positions of dominance or subordination within the struggle for distinction among the social classes. Consumers in subordinate positions tend to select products produced by producers in subordinate positions within the field of cultural production. Thus a relation of “structural homology” rather than one of conscious adjustment is established between the various categories of cultural producers and the various categories of consumers according to their respective positions in the separate fields of struggle. Bourdieu writes:

The logic of objective competition at the core of the field of cultural production leads each of the categories of producers to offer, without any conscious search for adjustment, products that are adjusted to the preferences of the consumers who occupy homologous positions within the field of power.



Bourdieu brings a conflict perspective to the study of religion. He stresses the power dimension in religious life and organization. No less than other arenas of cultural and social conflict, religion is a resource of power over which some individuals, groups, and organizations feel it is important to struggle. The struggle for the right to impose the legitimate definition of religion is in the final analysis a political function. “Religious power” or “religious capital,” Bourdieu writes,

depends on the material and symbolic force of the groups and classes the claimants car mobilize by offering them goods and services that satisfy their religious interests.


Moreover, the struggle for legitimation within the religious field tends to reproduce the relations of domination within the established order (1991a:31-32).

How might one employ Bourdieu's perspective to study a religious field in North America? Since fields are defined first and foremost as arenas of struggle over the definition and distribution of specific forms of capital, the first task would be to identify relevant points of conflict. Forms of religious interest and capital are involved in a great variety of contemporary issues: theological doctrine, constitutional rights, tax exemption, abortion, school prayer, and teaching and research in universities. For some, religion is important in these issues and for others religion is irrelevant. Who participates in these struggles and what kinds of symbolic as well as material interests guide them? These questions suggest different types of struggle, different levels of analysis, and different fields. They also bring into consideration a wide variety of organizations, groups, individuals, and institutions. Foundations, universities, TV and radio stations, and political action committees as well as congregations and denominations might be considered. A field perspective would suggest that issues of doctrine, organizational structure, legal status, or intellectual respectability are matters of struggle for legitimation that involve a broad array of individuals, groups, and organizations who pursue different kinds of symbolic as well as material interests.

One fruitful area for field analysis would be the religious media. If one of the main points of field analysis is to suggest that patterns of production of religious goods and services reflect more strategies of product differentiation among producers rather than the direct effects of consumer demand, then one way of testing that hypothesis would be to study an assortment of religious publications to see to what extent their editorial policies attempt to correspond to reader demand or reflect competitive referencing and differentiation with other publications.

Finally, a popular form of study that Bourdieu's field framework would not encourage would be the case study of congregations, denominations, or religious leaders. The field analytic perspective calls for situating particular entities whether denominations or congregations, within a broader framework of struggle over the significance of religion. Local characteristics, Bourdieu contends, can not be fully understood sociologically without situating them within this broader perspective.

On the other hand, Bourdieu's field concept presupposes a strong clergy/lay opposition and is perhaps less useful where such an opposition does not have that formal character. The concept of religious field does not grasp the “religious dimension” of social phenomena in other social areas such as sports or politics where it is has very little connection to the historically constituted religious traditions (Hervieu-Léger 1993).

In conclusion, the growing interest in relating the sociology of culture and the sociology of religion will find inspiration in the example set by Pierre Bourdieu. Drawing in part from Weber's sociology of religion, Bourdieu offers an original approach to the study of culture, one that can be applied to religion as well. This approach gives a strong sense of agency but within a structured frame-work of particular interests that mediate broader effects of social class. Just as students of culture are increasingly looking to Bourdieu for insights for studying the complex relation between culture and power, so also can students of religion find similar inspiration.


  1. Bourdieu (and Martin 1982) has published one empirical investigation of religion, a study of French Catholic Bishops, and written two theoretical articles in the sociology of religion (Bourdieu 1987c, 1991a). In addition, Bourdieu (1987b, 1987d) has published two public lectures devoted to the sociology of religion. The November 1982 issue of his journal, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, was devoted to various aspects of French Catholicism.

    While Bourdieu dominates the sociology of culture in France, he has had little impact on the post-World War II generation of French sociologists of religion (Dobbelaere 1987). Nonetheless, one can see growing signs of his influence on the post-sixties generation of French sociology of religion scholarship (Hervieu-Léger 1993). Bourdieu's influence in the sociology of religion has been more striking outside of France (e.g. Maduro 1982).

  2. See Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) for a good comprehensive introduction to Bourdieu's work.

  3. There are Durkheimian influences as well though they will not be explored in this paper.

  4. This is the view of action suggested by Bourdieu's concept of “habitus.”

  5. The argument is laid out in Bourdieu (1971b, 1980, 1991a, 1991b: 163-170; and Passeron 1977: 171-183).

  6. Bourdieu writes:

    Symbolic capital, a transformed and thereby disguised form of physical economic capital, produces its proper effect inasmuch … as it conceals the fact that it originates in “material” forms of capital which are also, in the last analysis, the source of its effects.


  7. In developing the concept Bourdieu (1987c) draws primarily from Chapters VI and XV of Economy and Society.

  8. It also parallels Weber's idea of “life-orders,” which inspires Gerth and Mills's (1964) conceptualization of “institutional orders.”

  9. Field means a “certain structure of the distribution of a certain kind of capital” (Bourdieu 1993:91).

  10. This symbiotic relationship between orthodox and heterodox views brings to mind Mannheim's (1955) analysis of how ideological and utopian visions of the social world, though radically opposed in their posture toward the status quo, nonetheless become locked into a pattern of complex exchange of critiques, each to an appreciable extent determining the other.

    Williams and Demerath (1991) identify a similar dynamic in their study of religion and politics. They show how logically incompatible themes of civil religion and separation of church and state can coexist and actually “enable” each other in political practice.

  11. The idea of the Doxa resonates with Durkheim's concept of the “collective consciousness.” A crucial difference is that Doxa is field-specific rather than representing a system of tacit understandings for the entire society.

  12. Like opposing players in a card game, both share a common interest in the game though both compete to win over their opponents. Bourdieu (and Wacquant 1992:98-99) sometimes draws upon the analogy of the card game to illustrate these properties of fields. At other times he stresses that knowledge of the rules themselves represents a form of cultural capital that is unequally shared among contestants.

  13. While not working within Bourdieu's framework, Demerath (1991) and Williams and Demerath (1991) have recently employed the terms “cultural power,” “cultural resources,” and “religious capital” in ways similar to Bourdieu. Speaking in the American context where religion resonates more as a form of authority in national culture than in France, Williams and Demerath (1991) are even more concerned than is Bourdieu with the effects that religion can have on political mobilization. They show how religious and moral argument can on occasions be successfully employed by religious leaders to redefine public economic issues into ethical and moral concerns.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Miami Beach, August 1993 and at the New England Religious Discussion Society, Hartford, CT, April 1995. I want to give special thanks to Rhys Williams for helpful suggestions on all the drafts of this paper and also to an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier version. Direct correspondence to David Swartz, 10 Magnolia Ave., Newton, MA 02158. E-mail: swartz@harvarda.harvard.edu.


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———. 1993. Sociology in question. London: Sage Publications.

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Sean McCann (essay date March 1997)

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SOURCE: McCann, Sean. “Reintroduction of the Specialists.” American Quarterly 49, no. 1 (March 1997): 183-92.

[In the following essay, McCann analyzes possible reasons for the neglect of Bourdieu in the United States, using The Field of Cultural Production as the basis for this assessment.]

Of the French intellectuals who have arrived on American shores to transform the humanities in the last several decades, perhaps no one has received a more partial and limiting reception than Pierre Bourdieu. Compared to peers like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and Lacan, whose ideas have attracted countless exegeses and attacks and who have inspired innumerable acolytes, Bourdieu's experience in the American academy looks, despite his great prestige, almost lonely. In the humanities it is difficult to find many scholars who define their work as Bourdieuian. (The adjective, which is ready to hand for the major poststructuralists, does not even exist for Bourdieu, and he would undoubtedly oppose its invention.)

In contrast to those figures whose every work is exhaustively and patiently examined, Bourdieu is known in the American humanities mainly for one book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, in spite of a thirty-year career that has produced over twenty books in a sociological inquiry that is both enormously diverse and remarkably coherent. (In addition to the social origins of taste, Bourdieu's topics range over the Kabyle society of Algeria, the French educational system, the artistic status of photography, the experience of museum-going, and the sociology of language, sports, intellectual life, and professional politics.) In this light, his recent book, The Field of Cultural Production, which collects essays on the dynamics of artistic creation published between 1966 and 1988, looks like a good opportunity to assess the usefulness of Bourdieu's methodology in relation to an area that is central to the concerns of American Studies.

It is not difficult to find reasons for Bourdieu's relative neglect in the United States. When one seeks to describe his work what comes to mind is not the word usually associated with recent French thought—“theory”—but the comparatively banal term methodology. In comparison to the fascinations of intricate philosophy, Bourdieu can sometimes appear unexciting and—in his frequent reliance on graphs, charts, interviews, and statistics—mundanely empirical. Another way to put this would be to point out that Bourdieu's work has lent itself to neither of the major intellectual fads in the United States that have drawn on Continental philosophy and that have defined the broad succession of academic trends in the United States over the recent decades: recondite philosophical speculation or cultural populism; put in more familiar terms, poststructuralism via Yale and cultural studies by way of Birmingham.

To understand what is particular about Bourdieu's work, it is helpful to realize that he probably would regard these two major trends in the American humanities as strictly counterpoised academic directions and as complementary failures to live up to his demanding conception of intellectual work. From the perspective of his sociology, each approach stands out as a vanguardist strategy for accruing authority within the world of intellectuals. Whatever else it was, deconstruction was a movement of vast intellectual assertion, whose every aspect announced—sometimes as rigor, sometimes as unbounded freedom—the practitioners' radical distance from the commonplace and the commonsensical. Cultural studies, by contrast, has gained its authority through a strategy of intellectual abasement. The aim now is not to stand apart from, but with, the popular. Thus, where literary critics like Paul de Man and Geoffrey Hartman underwrote their authority by associating themselves with the most consecrated works of philosophy and literature, Cultural studies intellectuals such as Andrew Ross typically concentrate on the products and fans of pop culture. Authority in this case comes not from intimacy with art or “language,” but from the attempt to serve as translators for the suppressed yearnings of “everyday life.” Where a critic like Hartman found a particular enemy in the vulgar form of the detective story, then, Ross declares that he cannot find the time for novels because he is occupied with glossy magazines. Moreover, each scholar legitimates these consciously radical positions by endowing them with important political functions. For critics like de Man and Hartman, pop culture and popular consciousness represent dangerous forms of mystification, and the intellectual's vital role is to undermine complacent habits of mind. For Ross and many champions of cultural studies, pop culture conceals transformative energies. The critic's job, therefore, is to challenge the forms of hegemony—including those implicit in elite art and culture—that repress or derail such impulses.

Though he is sometimes invoked in support of the latter project, Bourdieu is profoundly doubtful about both these intellectual directions and especially skeptical of their claims to political or social efficacy. His sociology prompts the suspicion that, exactly because they offer mirror reflections of each other, intellectual elitism and intellectual populism are primarily weapons in the struggles for status and authority that occur within the specialized terrain of the intellectual world, and he suggests that their aims and energies usually remain largely confined to this world and its participants.1The Field of Cultural Production is a book about this kind of struggle as it takes place among the creators, distributors, and critics of cultural products, and it attempts to explain why this specialized conflict should be regarded as of primary importance in determining the character of our cultural life. In another sense, the book is part of Bourdieu's continuing brief for his own conception of an intellectual mission, and it attempts to avoid the errors he perceives in elitism and populism by yoking their disparate valences to the tense balance of what he calls a “reflexive sociology.”

Bourdieu's criticisms of both high-flown theory and intellectual populism stem, then, in part from his resistance to the rhetoric of freedom or release apparent in either of these alternatives. He is, in short, no postmodernist. Indeed, in many ways he looks anachronistically like the much abused heroic modernist intellectual—in his pursuit of an absolutely encompassing and universalist account of social life, in his commitment to reason or, as he often puts it, “science,” and, above all in his career-long effort to overcome the antinomies of social understanding. As he usually describes it, Bourdieu's work has been centrally occupied with transcending the fundamental split between subjectivist and objectivist accounts of social life—between, that is, an emphasis on the individual experience of the world and the freedom of the agent, on the one hand; and an emphasis on social structure and the constrained functions of the subject, on the other. The Field of Cultural Production is devoted, though, to resolving the particular version of this opposition that is typically raised by the study of works of art and literature. It aims to overcome the dilemma between “internal” or “formal” readings of cultural products (what Bourdieu calls the “tautegorical”) and external or sociological analyses (the “allegorical”). By the same token, it offers an account of artistic activity somewhere between the “charismatic” image of “pure, disinterested creation by an isolated artist” and the opposite “reductionist vision” that makes artists into class spokesmen or capitalist tools (34). Much of the interest of this book, therefore, lies in the fact that Bourdieu believes that such a tension is meaningful when so much contemporary academic writing denies that it has any force whatsoever. (Deconstruction and cultural studies, for example, have opposed each other not least insofar as they tend to adhere tenaciously to the “tautegorical” and “allegorical” poles of the division.) The other main source of interest is the complex epistemological model Bourdieu constructs to overcome the divide.

At the center of this model is Bourdieu's account of the fields of art and literature. These “intellectual worlds are microcosms that have their own structures and their own laws,” and any attempt to understand what is produced out of them must begin with an analysis of their peculiar characteristics (181). In this sense, the model is based on a loosely Weberian vision of the historical differentiation of society—what Bourdieu refers to as “the process of autonomization” (112). The artistic and literary worlds are quasi-professional milieux in this account. They are the products of long-term historical development in which the social realms of writers, artists, and their associates grew progressively larger, more differentiated, and more capable of imagining that they were self-sufficient universes, subject only to their own standards and forms of evaluation. This trend began in Europe during the Renaissance, when cultural producers of all stripes started to detach themselves from aristocratic and ecclesiastical patronage and to vend their goods on the open market. It culminated in the nineteenth century when aestheticism and the credo “art for art's sake” registered the fulfillment of a certain dynamic. From this point onward, the most powerful artists imagine that they produce their works primarily for each other, and they achieve legitimacy insofar as they appeal most narrowly to other similarly placed artists and thereby resist more public or bourgeois forms of success. By the same token, the response to works of art that this world recognizes as legitimate becomes “the pure gaze”—the form of reception that reads an artifact without political or moral reflection and sees it “in itself and for itself, as form and not as function” (256).

In this account, the basic matter essential to understanding nearly every feature of this specialized world is the realization that the field of culture establishes its indefinite or relative autonomy by way of asserting an absolute difference from the dominant social order—what Bourdieu calls “the field of power.” In this sense, the cultural field becomes “the economic world reversed” (29). That is, its own ideology inverts at every point the values that structure the larger social hierarchy “in a generalized game of ‘loser wins’” (39). The sacral beliefs become disinterest and independence, and the principal vices the pursuit of profit, power, worldly honors, or institutionalized cultural authority. At the pinnacle of its local hierarchy are those figures who represent an uncompromising pursuit of an art that is independent, transgressive, pure, and, above all, non-bourgeois. The bottom of its social scale is occupied by those “hacks” who achieve the greatest commercial success and thereby traduce the field's commitment to independence. In other words, “[t]he literary and artistic world is so ordered that those who enter it have an interest in disinterestedness” (40). They prosper by proving their allegiance to art over commerce or power. The social position of artists (or at least those artists at the top of the hierarchy) can be generally characterized, therefore, as that of “the dominated fraction of the dominant class” (198).

In its Weberian historiography and its commitment to both respecting and interrogating artistic autonomy, Bourdieu's account is a well thought-out version of a fairly familiar theory. It shares a great deal with efforts to explain the institutions of art in the work of a broad range of thinkers—Peter Bürger, Arthur Danto, Terry Eagleton, Jürgen Habermas, to name but a diverse few.2 What is distinctive about Bourdieu's version of this story is the extent to which he carries through on the determination to explain the cultural field as a social world in addition to explaining how it is the product of social forces. For thinkers as different as Bürger, Danto, and Eagleton, it is necessary to comprehend the historical production of the belief in an independent art, but the autonomy of art remains for all of them a primarily ideological or discursive fact. Their investigations center, therefore, on the statements or cultural products that give the clearest and most advanced expression to the discourse. In this way, they tend to follow traditional histories of art or literature, and treat the recognized figures and products from the perspective of an overarching social or philosophical theory of history as opposed to a narrowly aesthetic one. For Bourdieu, though, this type of consideration, because it forgets the local struggles that mobilized artistic and ideological inventions and ignores the vast part of the field out of which they were produced, threatens to make the history of art into a “heaven of ideas.” Against these kinds of theory, then, he emphasizes that the field of culture is first one of agents or players who take part in the “game” or contest specific to the milieu. The object of this struggle is the acquisition of the power or “capital” specific to the field—artistic recognition—and the various forms of “institutional doxa” are legible, he asserts, insofar as they are implicated in this contest.

In Bourdieu's account, that is, the field of art is not only in continual tension with the field of power generally, but it is also necessarily subject to ceaseless internal struggles that play the greatest role in the way the field appears as a whole. These internal contests are mainly of two types, which together limn the basic structure of the milieu. The kind that is most familiar to us from traditional art or literary histories is that which occurs within what Bourdieu calls the “sub-field of restricted production”—what we might describe more familiarly as the elite precincts of art (185). In this realm, which occupies the dominant pole of the field as a whole, successive groups of artists struggle for the highest degrees of consecration by discovering new modes or formal qualities that push the ideals of autonomy to ever greater limits. The opposition tends, therefore, to take the form of “a permanent revolution of the ‘young’ against the ‘old,” in which the former are compelled to question all the principles and presuppositions of their genre in “a continuous process of purification” (187). For example, from the late-nineteenth century through the mid-twentieth, poetry tends to exclude ever more of the “poetical” and novels to dismiss what gets characterized as the vulgarly “novelistic.” Such qualities, of course, are left to less legitimate producers and less respected forms—that is, to the commercial hacks at the lower levels of the field's hierarchy and to the products that appeal to popular audiences.

The relation of this latter group to the dominant “sub-field of restricted production” makes up the second major area of struggle in Bourdieu's view. In these contests, “artists in the pure and commercial sub-fields are engaged in struggles [with each other] concerning the very definition of the writer and the status of art and artist” (186-87). Just as the most powerful artists have an interest in asserting the virtue of autonomy, those figures seen as “commercial” producers, “bourgeois” artists, or as the producers of vulgarly political “propaganda,” have an interest in asserting the values of popular appeal, commercial success, or social responsibility in order to advance their own recognition. Although such people necessarily tend to accept the values of the field as a whole, believing intuitively in the virtues of art, they also seek to redeem their own relatively low status by denigrating experimentation and the avant-garde. By indicting coterie self-indulgence, they assert that the qualities central to their own work represent the genuine essence of art or literature; that is, they attempt to make the values informing their work the reigning beliefs of the field. (That's why every “hack” points out that Shakespeare was a popular entertainer and why political artists claim that all art is political.) The contest comes down to one between two competing principles of legitimation or “hierarchization”: the autonomous versus the “heteronomous,” or that which recognizes the most independent types of art as the most valuable against that which sees the greatest value in the widest recognition or the greatest social usefulness.

By the very structure of the field it would be impossible for either of these principles or their adherents to win a final victory. Their relative power ceaselessly fluctuates as individual artists attempt to advance in recognition, as they seek the success of principles that would favorably affect their chances, and as broader historical developments impinge on the structure of the milieu. The field of cultural production, then, is necessarily a “battlefield over taxonomy”—an arena in constant turmoil, where not only the winners and losers, but the stakes, boundaries, and rules of the game are in constant dispute (198). At the same time, it is a contest in which every player has a more or less consciously developed sense of the state of the game and his or her place in it. Every participant could construct some map of the field that would assign each significant player a relative place in the field's contemporary hierarchy. The historical task, then, is not merely to explain the evolution of the dominant artists and works of art, but to reconstruct the entire unstated schema of the field at its significant moments—to set out, in other words, the terms of dispute and the way they were seen by contestants by virtue of their relative positions in the field.

What makes this task significant according to Bourdieu is also what finally allows him to claim that he has overcome the antinomy between the “external” and “internal” perspectives on cultural products, and what thus amounts to the key argument of the book. Bourdieu contends that there is a homology between the “position” of the various figures in the field and what he calls their “position-takings”—their works of art, manifestoes, political statements, and the like. In other words, he claims that a direct, measurable relation exists between an artist or writer's position relative to other contestants in the field and his or her aesthetic or intellectual inventions. In fact, the latter should be understood as the strategies the artist or intellectual pursues toward success in the game. Thus, in order to understand any significant aesthetic innovation of recent history, we need to do more than just measure it against its broad historical background. Such a “short-circuit effect” would elide the most significant social forces acting on its production. Wider political or historical developments act on works of art, Bourdieu claims, mainly via the “refraction” of the whole hierarchy of the art world: “economic crises, technical transformations or political revolutions … can only have an effect through resulting transformations in the structure of the field” as a whole (182). An adequate sociology of culture for any given moment, therefore, needs to comprehend altogether a host of variables, the key ones of which include: the relation between the field of culture and the dominant social structure; the status of the field itself (the relative positions of its various major players and the relative authority of its principles of hierarchization); and the meaning that works of art and aesthetic beliefs had for the participants of this field and the way, consciously or unconsciously, such “position-takings” served them as strategies for advancement.

Could this be a useful methodology in American studies research? The Field of Cultural Production offers two major examples for the acuity of Bourdieu's approach: considerations of Flaubert and Manet, and their relations to their worlds. The examples are particularly well-chosen for Bourdieu because each of the artists worked at a key moment in the “autonomization” of his field, and each was a major figure in the dynamic formal evolution of his genre. Bourdieu's historical investigations offer ample evidence of the connection between these processes. Moreover, they discover rich social and aesthetic conflicts that give the two figures' strategies revealing and concrete significance. One might wonder, though, whether different figures from different environments would prove as succesful. Against that possibility, consider but one ready example. The richest decade of literary production in the twentieth-century United States—the 1920s—was, of course, more than the day of the lost generation. It was also the moment for the founding of Time, Readers' Digest, the New Yorker and the Book-of-the-Month-Club; the era of New Humanism; and the period when Floyd Dell was writing his Apologia for the Intelligentsia and Ernest Boyd was composing his attack on the “Aesthete: Model 1924.” From the perspective of Bourdieu's model, the decade's fierce conflicts suggest another key moment in the “autonomization” of a literary field, and it looks perfectly suited to the kinds of analysis suggested by the book. Likewise, the sharp alteration of the field in the following decade—the vast shifts in artists' status, and the sudden accession of previously reviled literary forms and subjects throughout the literary world—looks like a clear example of Bourdieu's principle of refraction. As almost any literary memoir of the period makes clear, the Depression did not just act on an individual writer's consciences or political beliefs, it drastically shifted the very principles of what art should do and thus of who was a significant, that is, powerful, artist.

To take a more farfetched example, consider commercial music. Surely the tense and productive relations among rock, pop, punk, underground, alternative, and others, that have powered a great deal of vital creative activity since the 1960s, resembles Bourdieu's “battlefield of taxonomy.” Certainly the range of conflicts and experiments in the genre take on fresh meaning when we recognize that they represent struggles for artistic legitimacy in a world where that quality is always in doubt. The disparity of these examples suggests, I think, the ways in which Bourdieu's methodology might provide an invaluable heuristic device for investigating artistic strategies and for researching cultural arenas of all sorts. That value comes not least in the fact that his method demands both a relentless series of contextualizations and the effort to take skeptically and seriously the beliefs that artists have about their work. Its great usefulness is that it can give fresh definition to the social meanings of those beliefs without requiring that we rescue them as political allegories or dismiss them as lies.

Because of the nature of this project it is always open to the charge that it overemphasizes one side or another of this task: that it overestimates the structuring force of the field and underestimates the independence and authority of individual artists; or that it overestimates aesthetic delusions and underestimates the real determining force of history or the relations of production, say. Bourdieu might respond, I believe, by claiming that the validity of these charges is always an empirical question, to be asked and answered about particular moments. But, as the example of poststructuralism and cultural studies might also suggest, his sociology warns us to recognize that we, too, are players in the field, and it asks us to be skeptical about the way our own intellectual battles and beliefs are caught up in our struggles for recognition and legitimacy. It is a valuable warning to have.


  1. Bourdieu's criticism of the elitist underpinnings of poststructuralist philosophy is well-known and is most polemically stated in the criticism of Derrida in Pierre Bourdieu, “Postscript: Towards a ‘Vulgar’ Critique of ‘Pure Critiques,’” in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 494-98. This justly renowned essay probably played some role in the decline of deconstruction's fortunes in the United States. But, Bourdieu's complementary suspicion of cultural populism is far more rarely noted. See, for example, Pierre Bourdieu, “Did You Say ‘Popular’?” in Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 90-102 and Pierre Bourdieu, “The Uses of the ‘People,’” in In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology, trans. Matthew Adamson (Stanford, Calif., 1990), 150-55.

  2. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis, Minn., 1984); for Arthur Danto, see, for example, Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective (New York, 1992); Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Cambridge, Mass., 1990). Jürgen Habermas's account of art as an autonomous sphere of action in critical relation to modernity is apparent throughout his work and probably gets its most elaborate formulation in Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 1 (Boston, 1984); for a very brief statement, see Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, trans. Frederick G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1987), 45-50. For examples of comparable approaches, see César Graña, Bohemia Versus Bourgeois: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1964); Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, Ind., 1986); Renato Poggioli, The Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Gerald Fitzgerald (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); for a fine recent survey of the problem as it has been conceived by a wide range of thinkers, see Anne Bowler, “Methodological Dilemmas in the Sociology of Art,” in The Sociology of Culture: Emerging Theoretical Perspectives, ed. Diana Crane (Oxford, 1994).

Philippe Marlière (essay date 17 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Marlière, Philippe. “Blessed and Cursed by the Box.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4933 (17 October 1997): 16.

[In the following essay, Marlière outlines Bourdieu's thoughts on the media as presented in Sur la télévision.]

Pierre Bourdieu's “theory of practice” has combined an impressive range of empirical topics and theoretical reflections, through the publication of a vast series of research projects from the late 1950s onwards. Among his numerous objects of study, the French sociologist has dealt with kinship, education, philosophy, economics, language, literature, museums, photography, political representation, law, religion, science and poverty. Bourdieu's evident eclecticism must not be confused with a kind of academic dilettantism, however. On the contrary, the heterogeneity of his fieldwork has always been sustained by a homogeneous theoretical corpus. Moreover, Bourdieu's somewhat dry style sometimes proves to be daunting to the neophyte who is not equipped with the minimal background needed fully to penetrate his discourse. Since his first theoretical publications, Bourdieu has insisted that sociology's first task is to observe society scientifically, and to break away from everyday wisdom or the “sociology of immediateness” to be heard at dinner-party conversations, in the media or in the political class. This epistemological stance has led him to publish a series of highly specialized works which are not reader-friendly for a non-specialist audience.

As a French intellectual increasingly involved in the socio-political debates of his time, Bourdieu has noticeably taken this problem into account over the past fifteen years. A few attempts to make his thought more accessible have been published (Sociology in Question, In Other Words, 1990; and An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 1992) and his two most recent books have clearly been directed towards a wider readership than the sociology milieu. In 1993, La Misère du monde, a weighty publication devoted to the study of the different forms of poverty and social suffering in France, became a bestseller in French social science. Bourdieu's most recent publication, Sur la Télévision, has already provoked debate. This thin book is the transcript of two lectures on the media which Bourdieu presented recently at the Collège de France. Ironically, in view of his stance, the two conferences were filmed by the French channel Paris Première and televised in May 1996. The general tone is openly polemical, even if the author stresses that the book should not be taken as an attack on journalists and television, but as a debate engaging with all those who wish to see television not as an instrument of “symbolic oppression” but as a tool of “direct democracy”. His theory is that the media “jeopardize political life and democracy”. Bourdieu's main argument is that the “journalistic field” is more and more subject to the domination and interests of the market. Driven by the profit motive, the media have been “contaminating” in turn other sectors of cultural production, primarily the “intellectual field”. Obsessed with ratings, the television industry has replaced difficult programmes, such as politics or “intellectual encounters”, with entertainment which is supposedly acceptable to all, such as sports and soap operas.

Bourdieu insists on the general incompetence and cynicism of television journalists, and is dismayed by the absolutist role played by ratings and their undemocratic use by channel managers. He points out that they are wrongly identified with popular consensus and consequently with the accountability of the institution, and is annoyed to see polls being equated with universal suffrage. The hegemony of television over the traditional media, the press, is quite recent, and has had negative consequences for the field of academic research and intellectual production. He attacks “complacent” intellectuals and the new class of French thinkers and writers who assiduously court the medium. These “collaborators” use television as a way of bypassing the traditional channels and processes of intellectual legitimization, and try to appropriate the intellectual legitimacy they have failed to obtain or do not have the patience to seek in the academic arena. In other words, Bourdieu argues that the academic imprimatur once exclusively awarded through the old mechanisms such as publication and teaching performance has now been supplemented by television appearances. He believes that this move to the market endangers the autonomy of science that is vital for academic research. The latter would be threatened by the former inasmuch as “peer acknowledgement” would, in some cases, be replaced by “media acknowledgement”. Bourdieu shows that even areas considered the best preserved from the media, such as the judiciary or scientific subjects like mathematics or physics; are also affected by the “media fast-thinking” effect.

An Anglo-American readership will probably object that Bourdieu's rather apocalyptic depiction of the relationship between academe and television above all epitomizes a Franco-French debate. For it seems that even the most media-friendly intellectuals in America and Britain are often called on television to deliver clinical and highly specialized expositions of matters which fall directly into their field of competence. By contrast, in most cases, French intellectuals are happy to pronounce in debates far beyond their immediate academic concerns. This became apparent during the long-lasting strikes of 1995 in the public sector and, more recently, in the fight against the Debré law on immigration. Here Sur la Télévision merely puts forward situations of symbolic struggle between intellectuals in a particular national context. Furthermore, Bourdieu seems at certain times to over-emphasize the impact of the “media blessing”. As a consequence, he seems to fear that the soundbites of what he calls the “intellectuals of parody”—Bernard-Herni Lévy, Philippe Sollers and their like—may serve to undermine the authority of proper academic research. Bourdieu gives the impression that television appearances are going to have, in the long run, the same educational impact as his lectures at the Collège de France. His concern here is probably a little exaggerated as, fortunately, it is doubtful that the French academic world has sunk to such a level. Bourdieu's analysis is more valuable where it indirectly highlights the fragility of knowledge in the social sciences; the uncertainty of disciplinary boundaries or the scarcity of symbolic rewards in an academic field can lead some scholars to abandon in an instant years of scientific autonomy painfully acquired in the anonymity of an academic institution. Bourdieu offers a stimulating insight into the meanderings of the legitimization processes of scientific research. It remains to be seen whether the “corrupting appeal” of television is necessarily an entirely negative thing for intellectuals.

William Paulson (essay date December 1997)

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SOURCE: Paulson, William. “The Market of Printed Goods: On Bourdieu's Rules.” Modern Language Quarterly 58, no. 4 (December 1997): 399-415.

[In the following essay, Paulson proposes that although Bourdieu has remained constant in his opposition to social, cultural, and economic oppression, he presents a modified version of this argument in The Rules of Art.]

In December 1995, during the second month of the largest wave of strikes and social protest France had seen since May 1968, Pierre Bourdieu was one of the leading intellectual figures to lend his support to the movement. Le Monde described his remarks as the high point of a string of speeches by the organizers of a published “Intellectuals' Appeal in Support of the Strikers.”1 According to Bourdieu and his fellow intellectuals, the strikes were a “movement that has nothing of a defense of private interests, still less of privileges, but is, in fact, a defense of the most universal gains of the Republic”—the elements of social equality guaranteed by the state and the public sector against the encroachments of a European, indeed a worldwide, market economy.2 For Bourdieu, the conflict between the strikers and the government was one of principle versus expediency, in which the intellectuals' duty was to defend a universal value, social equality, against the managerial calculations of the Juppé government.

It was no surprise to find Bourdieu at the head of the intellectuals' intervention, for during his entire career he has been preoccupied with the social and cultural bases of exclusion from the power and status conferred by economic and symbolic capital, and his recent book The Rules of Art concludes with an uncompromising plea to intellectuals, “one of the last critical countervailing powers capable of opposing the forces of economic and political order,” to mobilize in defense of their own autonomy, increasingly threatened by the strengthening forces of the market.3 Bourdieu can speak and write as an authoritative defender of intellectual autonomy because his long-standing and extensive work in the sociology of culture has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of how the autonomy and internal dynamics of certain fields of cultural production, and indeed the distinctively aesthetic disposition itself, are not ontologically given (as some philosophical approaches to aesthetics would have it) but socially and historically produced. The explanatory power of his approach lies in its systematic character: he not only describes how social and economic dynamics give rise to and structure the cultural practices that define the artistic and intellectual elite but also situates this elite and its practices in relation to the economically dominant class, to middle-brow and popular taste, and to the institutions through which culture is recognized, preserved, and inculcated, from literary prizes to museums to schools.

According to Bourdieu, the artistic, literary, or intellectual field has won for itself a high degree of autonomy in the making of judgments, the conferring of legitimacy, and the recognition of symbolic capital. The most serious artists have since seen fellow artists as their only true public, so that artistic legitimacy, in the modern world, can be granted only by other artists, or by comparable creators such as poets or composers, or at most by critics who have the symbolic status of artists and intellectuals. This characterization has remained more or less constant over a quarter century of Bourdieu's publications, but his account of its genesis has changed considerably. A long article from 1971, “Le Marché aux biens symboliques,” and The Rules of Art, first published in France in 1992, represent two types of sociohistorical explanation, one oriented toward broad and relatively long-term shifts in the economics, technology, and social organization of production, the other attuned to the specific social and ideological conflicts of a single place, Paris, during the mid-nineteenth century, in particular to the exemplary stances and utterances of a small group of that moment's major figures.

The second account is in many respects a refinement of the first, a thoroughly analyzed case study of how the underlying determinants of change are played out and mediated through specific cultural practices. However, the two kinds of sociohistorical account belong to very different stories about the origins and destinies of artistic autonomy. These narratives diverge in their continuation and possible endings and therefore in their implications for our own era, in which the material conditions of aesthetic and intellectual production, especially in the literary field, are changing rapidly and raising questions about the viability of long-standing institutions and the practices of mature print culture. In this context Bourdieu's earlier, more structural account of aesthetic autonomy turns out to be more historically specific and pertinent than his later, seemingly much more historicized version. The shift of emphasis in Bourdieu's explanations of autonomy's emergence and flourishing, while it undergirds his recent defense of the autonomous intellectual, can also be read as a turn away from a historical and theoretical perspective of greater explanatory power.

Grounded in the transition to a market economy of symbolic production, a shift more obvious and probably more thoroughgoing in print than in other media, Bourdieu's 1971 account describes the autonomous sphere of cultural production as an outgrowth of large-scale technological, economic, and social transformations. He thus offers his reader a basis for understanding why the autonomy of cultural production may not survive in anything like the same form following the different but comparably important transformations under way in the late twentieth century. In contrast, The Rules of Art emphasizes acts of ideological opposition to a particularly crass and obnoxious bourgeois order, that of mid-nineteenth-century France, and thereby suggests that the autonomy then wrested from hostile conditions will retain its pertinence and moral force as long as crass and obnoxious bourgeois ordering of the world is around—which is likely to be a long time, as Flaubert implied when he wrote that Voltaire's infâme, far from having been crushed, kept growing bigger and fatter. As a result, Bourdieu's normative and polemical postscript to The Rules of Art, in which he defends autonomy as a prerequisite to the authority and position of intellectuals, fits far better into a narrative based on his second version of autonomy's genesis than into one based on the first. The postscript presupposes that autonomy is a heroic, quasi-irreversible conquest, whose existence defines a “before and after” in history and which constitutes a modern legacy to be treasured and defended. However, the comparative explanatory weakness of that second version raises questions about the robustness of the rules of art and intellectual life that Bourdieu would derive from it. If technological and economic transformations can structure and restructure cultural fields to the extent suggested by “Le Marché aux biens symboliques” (and by the inner logic of much of Bourdieu's work), then the Bourdieu of The Rules of Art—and of December 1995—may have pinned his hopes and his calls to action on a noble anachronism: the state of the intellectual field during the era of print culture.

The contrast between the main title of The Rules of Art and its subtitle, Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, along with the book's emphasis on Flaubert, points to an important character of Bourdieu's work: its claim to describe the rules “of art” is largely, though not exclusively, based on an investigation of the literary field. Bourdieu explores and elaborates his theses most seriously, especially in their historical origins, with respect to the literary, although The Rules of Art also includes considerable analysis of the twentieth-century art market.

In fact, “Le Marché aux biens symboliques” relies even more on the specificity of letters than The Rules of Art, whose subtitle is justified more by the importance of Baudelaire and Flaubert in comparison with Courbet and Manet than by the analysis of the specificity of literary practice in the era of mature print culture. In “Le Marché” [“Le Marché aux biens symboliques”] Bourdieu argues that both artistic autonomy and the “field of restricted production” where it exercises its dominion depend on a sharp division between producers and consumers of symbolic goods or, more precisely, between a small group of technically specialized and self-aware producers and a larger group of consumers who, viewed from the first group, are an anonymous collective governed by alien market forces. In the economy of printed texts, for example, the reproduced work of each producer must be marketed to a large number of consumers, most of whom will not respond to it directly as a patron or court audience would have done and whose facelessness and numerical mass make them quite different from the purchasers of paintings, even in a commercialized art market. A largely anonymous market frees symbolic producers from the direct control of sponsoring institutions or individuals, but it subjects them to the impersonal, foreign pull of the market itself. A field of production structured by the requirement of its own autonomy arises in reaction both to the kind of freedom accorded by the market and to the kind of constraint it simultaneously imposes.

Bourdieu does not restrict his arguments to any one artistic or cultural field, but the literary furnishes, implicitly or explicitly, his most compelling illustrations. Freeing intellectual and artistic life from the control of court and church, he writes, “is correlated with the constant growth of a public of potential consumers, of increasing social diversity” (Rules [The Rules of Art], 112); such growth is more characteristic of the emergence of mature print culture than of changes in the market for the plastic arts, though of course it, too, is far from static. Bourdieu's account of the genesis of autonomy makes plain the decisive position of print: “Th[e] movement towards artistic autonomy accelerated abruptly with the Industrial Revolution and the Romantic reaction. The development of a veritable cultural industry and, in particular, the relationship between the daily press and literature, encouraging the mass production of works produced by quasi-industrial methods—such as the serialized story (or, in other fields, melodrama and vaudeville)—coincides with the extension of the public, resulting from the expansion of primary education, which turned new classes (including women) into consumers of culture.”4 The conjunction of mass literacy and fully reproducible text made print the most advanced medium of marketed and marketable culture and thus made literature a leading early instance of an autonomous aesthetic field whose construction was both opposed to and facilitated by that impersonal and heteronomous cultural market.

In emphasizing the social role of the print culture industries and in locating it in the industrial revolution and in the emergence of romanticism, Bourdieu offers an account compatible with other historical analyses of how the market in printed goods became the dominant force structuring the literary field. As Walter J. Ong and Alvin Kernan note, the “literary” in the romantic and postromantic sense is itself highly dependent on a particular technology and its social organization. “Literature” is a formation of “high print culture,” so that Bourdieu's field analysis is applicable to the modes of exchange regulating symbolic goods under the fully developed literary institutions of print culture.

The dynamics of print as a medium and as a commodity put a premium on innovation and originality quite unknown in what Ong calls “rhetorical culture,” an older form of literary culture that, while largely realized in writing and even print, was still grounded in oratory, oral narration, conversation, and face-to-face exchange. In a culture with vast storehouses of printed knowledge, there is no need for the formulaic repetition of narrative and oratory as an aid to memory or an ordering strategy, and there is little justification for printing a new book that repeats a previous one. Ong contends that the very accumulation of knowledge through print enabled imaginative literature to venture outside the formulaic regularities of neoclassicism and begin exploring the formerly dangerous pleasures of experimentation, difficulty, and difference, pleasures that would come to be hallmarks of self-consciously literary writing in the distinctively literary sphere.5 In a slightly different but parallel argument, Kernan reads Samuel Johnson's career as exemplifying the emergence of the modern print author, who as a professional producer of copy and as an individual capable of achieving originality through self-expression stood in sharp contrast to the socially shared conventions of the oral and rhetorical cultures that preceded the mature age of print: “There were no writers like Johnson before him, and none like him even afterward, but in the romantic system of literature that gradually developed after him, the authorial personality had to be, and continued in fact to be, like Johnson, in the respect of being strange and interesting enough to impart to writers and writing a psychological dignity and meaning they could no longer derive from a place and function in the social world of palace, great house, and cathedral.”6 In describing the rise of the professional author and the exploratory potentialities of print, Kernan and Ong offer similar accounts of the large-scale shift in cultural inscription and institutions that accompanied a developed market in printed goods.

The social and aesthetic dynamics of the same shift are described in Bourdieu's analysis of the widening division between the autonomy of cultural producers and the heteronomy of nonproducing consumers. The institutions of print culture have seemed well-nigh universal in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as if they were a definitive advance over production in the salon culture, patronage culture, or rhetorical culture of the ancien régime. The rapid emergence of new media in the late twentieth century, however, makes many such institutions seem mortal, if not moribund. Retrospectively, they appear to have depended on a particular set of technologies and on the path-dependent history of economic, social, and cultural enactions of technological possibilities.

The material and economic conditions of symbolic production in many spheres, especially the Internet and the World Wide Web, are simply becoming less and less compatible with those under which the literary author produces for the market of printed books. Attempts to achieve aesthetic legitimacy by hewing to a print-based model, as the mid-twentieth-century cinema has admittedly done with success in promoting the auteur concept, look increasingly strained or at least seem to blunt some of the most radical and exciting initiatives of the new media in which they are applied. (The adaptation of “copyright” law to media that make both copying and alteration fast, cheap, and decentered occasions much tension between sociolegal institutions, based on print, and those in the vanguard of digital communications.) However, to label the social institutions of symbolic production under print culture Bad and their replacements under electronic culture Good, as their proponents tend to do, misses the point. Too much thinking on these issues is either unremittingly progressivist or declinist, the two modes being foolish mirror images of each other. What matters is that a greater-than-usual rate of technological change puts into play conditions of symbolic production that admit social and conceptual innovation but inevitably extinguish familiar and worthwhile practices.

The technological and social closure of the age of high print culture today brings with it a sense of the limits of Bourdieu's analyses and, more important, his “rules.” It is by no means certain that the new communications environment and conditions of intellectual production will give rise to formations as impressive as those of print culture, but it hardly seems possible anymore to base a theory and defense of intellectual autonomy on the institutions and practices of print, at least not without recognizing that such a theory and defense are a calculated exercise in the strategic maintenance of residual formations. In “Le Marché” Bourdieu himself advances the idea that technological and economic mutations have considerably changed the social organization of symbolic production and even that such change is welcome as a real-world corollary of the sociologist's demystification of idealisms characteristic of the earlier, more individualized, print-based formation (Field [The Field of Cultural Production] 130-1). The narrative of “Le Marché,” in other words, is one of unending historical change.

The Rules of Art, on the other hand, offers a detailed, historically and even individually specific account of the emergence of an autonomous field of artistic production in mid-nineteenth-century French, especially in the words and deeds of Baudelaire and Flaubert. Presumably Bourdieu wanted to complement and refine the highly schematic, “theoretical” analyses of “Le Marché” by demonstrating through a case study that his general analysis would stand up to fine-grained observation in a particular place and time. He had been publishing insightful essays on L'Education sentimentale and on Flaubert's aesthetic and social position since 1975, and in The Rules of Art his magisterial analyses of Flaubert are finally situated explicitly in the context of his sociology of cultural production. In locating the “moment of autonomy” around 1850 rather than extending it more broadly to the industrial revolution and romanticism (or even to the quattrocento), Bourdieu does not simply revise himself or admit that he was wrong earlier; rather, he concentrates on a specific, advanced phase of autonomization when the claims of distinctiveness for the artistic field became more radical and manifestly oppositional.

However, the more precise placement of the temporal locus of his argument has consequences for the narrative Bourdieu offers in The Rules of Art. In “The Conquest of Autonomy: The Critical Phase in the Emergence of the Field,” the book's key chapter, “conquest” implies a more voluntarist, individually activist story than the structural dynamics emphasized in “Le Marché.” Bourdieu presents aesthetic and intellectual autonomy less as a general consequence of the fundamental economic and technological changes fostered by the French and industrial revolutions and more as a specifically modern conquest achieved by individuals whose views, choices, and actions, although possible only in the context of a complex and overdetermined social field, are nonetheless distinctive, even “heroic” (113). In mid-nineteenth-century France “the principles of autonomy … still reside[d] to a large extent in agents' dispositions and actions” (113); indeed, a section of Bourdieu's first chapter is devoted to “Baudelaire the founder” (60-8).

Bourdieu's description of the “structural subordination” (48) of cultural producers treats both the market in symbolic goods and artists' and writers' social relations with members of the economically and politically dominant class. He emphasizes the presumably sordid complicity of economic and state power under the Second Empire and the lack of cultivation among the midcentury financiers and industrialists whom artists and writers encountered in salons and other bourgeois and/or state-sponsored venues: “To understand the experience that writers and artists may have had of the new forms of domination they found themselves subjected to in the second half of the nineteenth century, and the horror the figure of the ‘bourgeois’ sometimes inspired in them, we need to have some idea of the impact of the emergence of businessmen and industrialists of colossal fortunes. … they were self-made men, uncultured parvenus ready to make both the power of money and a vision of the world profoundly hostile to intellectual things triumph within the whole society” (48). Bourdieu makes no absolute claims for the uniqueness or newness of the confrontation, evident in differing forms and degrees during the eighteenth and the first part of the nineteenth centuries; instead, he argues that the objectionable features of bourgeois society became more intense, more overt, and less avoidable around 1850.

Acknowledging that the impecunious, relatively independent, and proletaroid scribbler appeared in the previous century and in other settings, Bourdieu evokes the rising population of literary and artistic bohemia at midcentury and implicitly situates the narrative almost exclusively within his national culture. Recognizing that the actions and pronouncements of Flaubert and his contemporaries can be read as part of a longue durée transformation, Bourdieu nevertheless stresses willed acts of opposition to state and market control over the cultural sphere during this “critical phase” (47).

Moreover, by emphasizing the signal contributions of Baudelaire and Flaubert, contextualized and socially constrained as they are, Bourdieu defends himself against the charge of reductionism. “Far from annihilating the creator by the reconstruction of social determinations that exert pressure on him,” sociological analysis “allows us to describe and to understand the specific labor that the writer had to accomplish, both against these determinations and thanks to them, in order to produce himself as creator” (104). This is a powerful insight into the social conditions of literary originality, and surely one of the many merits of The Rules of Art is to cast the achievements of the most distinctive midcentury writers in a new light. It is less clear, however, that it constitutes an argument for the historical uniqueness of their contributions or the irreversibility of the transformation they helped accomplish.

In historicizing autonomy so as to emphasize the opposition of great writers to a grubby elite of money and a compromised milieu of letters, then, Bourdieu idealizes its conquest and elevates it to a characteristically modern event, splitting the history of the social status of art into pre- and post-1850 periods. Now autonomy can be treated, with some help from the implicit assumption of historical progress, as an acquisition won by the great oppositional figures of the nineteenth century and inherited by the artists, writers, and intellectuals of today. Bourdieu explicitly links the beginning of his account of autonomy's “conquest” to the call to arms with which he will conclude the book: “Returning to the ‘heroic times’ of the struggle for independence, when the virtues of revolt and resistance had to assert themselves clearly in the face of a repression exercised in all its brutality (especially during the trials), also means rediscovering the forgotten—or repudiated—principles of intellectual freedom” (48). The existence of an autonomous field of cultural production, in which producers create for and recognize the judgments of fellow producers only, is equated with the more general value of intellectual freedom.

It is therefore entirely logical that Bourdieu's account of a distinctive intellectual and artistic field, with its chronological, geographic, and even individual specificity, should be accompanied in The Rules of Art by strong claims for the general, indeed the universal, value of artistic, literary, and scholarly autonomy. If this autonomy is the heroic acquisition of Baudelaire and Flaubert, then it is a step forward in a genealogy of progress and a patrimony that their heirs—present-day artists, writers, and other intellectuals—must preserve. In the book's postscript Bourdieu describes the position of the intellectual in terms that suggest propriety and obligation: “Cultural producers will not regain the place that is theirs in the social world unless … they agree to work collectively for their own interests” (348; translation modified). Bourdieu forthrightly states his belief in the universality and undiminished pertinence of intellectual autonomy; if it is in danger, it is from backsliders or simply from the pressure of hegemonic capitalism, against which the authority of intellectual autonomy is constructed and must always combat.

If, by contrast, autonomy were described not as the prize of heroic conquest but as the product of a nineteenth-century conjunction of economic and technological forces now drifting apart in the late twentieth century—the intensification of economic processes having eroded the margins available to the aesthetic countereconomy, while very different technological configurations offer novel possibilities but close off some long-familiar ones—then it would belong to another story altogether. If autonomy in the field of cultural production depends on particular historical, economic, and technological configurations, then it may not be universal at all; its history may begin with its emergence but end, just as logically, with its dissolution or disaggregation. We should not be surprised at living through the beginning of the end of it, nor should we expect it to remain as convincing or attractive a model as it once was. We should not expect, however, the imminent or probable end of the autonomous artistic and intellectual fields characteristic of high print culture to mean the end of intellectual freedom, which would presumably continue to exist and struggle in new forms and guises.

In The Rules of Art, especially in its concluding call to the defense of intellectual autonomy, Bourdieu seems to adopt a static view of positions in the intellectual field, reifying the arrangements of print culture and all but denying the possibility of further change. Only if technological and economic change were not (or were no longer) seen as a crucial factor (as it is described in “Le Marché” as having been) could Bourdieu write that “history carries an important lesson: we are in a game in which all the moves made today, wherever, have already been made” (342). In his references to communications media there is no strong sense of their specificity, and in his relatively rare cross-cultural asides he addresses roughly comparable technoeconomic societies (such as France and Germany), thus concentrating on the wealthiest stratum of nations and all but removing technology and economics as determinative factors. He also makes assumptions about the economic risk of symbolic production that are much more characteristic of literature than of, for example, film (142-3), with emergent electronic forms such as computer hypermedia likely to fall somewhere in between the two in practical terms.

Given the language of purity and disinheritance that Bourdieu uses in defense of intellectual autonomy (344, 348), it is worth noting that in “Le Marché” he acknowledges that the opposition he erects between the restricted and large-scale modes of production is an idealized projection: “One should beware of seeing anything more than a limiting parameter construction [le produit d'une construction par passage à la limite] in the opposition between the two modes of production of symbolic goods, which can only be defined in terms of their relations with each other. Within a single universe one always finds the entire range of intermediaries between works produced with reference to the restricted market on the one hand, and works determined by an intuitive [or scientifically informed] representation of the expectations of the widest possible public on the other” (Field, 127). But if the poles of the opposition are projected limits, extrapolated from a continuum of positions, none of which is purely of one kind or the other, then it may be useful to shift the emphasis from the endpoints to the middle. In other words, one might do for the autonomy-heteronomy polarity what Bruno Latour does for the nature-culture polarity when he argues that nature and culture as pure entities are projections made from an actual continuum of natures-cultures by those who believe themselves modern because they can distinguish nature from culture.7 The notions of purely autonomous or even heteronomous production would thus be seen as characteristic fictions of modernity, and the question of the intellectual's exemplary integrity or menaced subjection would be replaced by a more multiple and nuanced look at the concrete play of constraint and maneuver in the spaces where artistic and intellectual work is carried out.

In fact, much of Bourdieu's empirical work on the sociology of aesthetics explores and maps this middle. He charts actual aesthetic preferences and art gallery practices, for example, between the idealized poles of the highbrow and the popular, and describes the positioning of writers and painters according to the extent to which their actions and pronouncements indicate that they produce for their peers or for the nonartistic public. But in The Rules of Art, particularly in its postscript, he claims to base rules for the hygiene of intellectual life on the opposition derived by pushing countervailing tendencies in the artistic and intellectual practices of the print culture era to their limits.

It is, of course, common to derive normative statements in this way, and Bourdieu's projections have in their favor the considerable evidence that actors in the field have believed in them—for example, poets whose work is purchased and read by nonpoets have not hesitated to say that they write only for fellow poets. Creative and scholarly autonomy, although an ideal, is by no means a figment of the sociologist's imagination; people attempt—always imperfectly, to be sure—to live up to it. In upholding autonomy as a rule for the preservation of intellectual integrity, Bourdieu rightly hopes to denounce the selling out of intellectual authority in mass-media appeals to anti-intellectualism by the likes of the “journalist philosopher [who] expressly attacked Baudelaire, … went on to make a television history of intellectuals … [and] singled out from this immense adventure only the parts he could grasp—cowardice, baseness, treachery, small-mindedness” (339).

There are, however, substantive reasons to question Bourdieu's passage from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from his historical and empirical analyses of “the rules of art” in the era of high print culture to his call to make them the rules of intellectual conduct now and for the future. In the first place, his insistence that aesthetic or scholarly autonomy is the true foundation of intellectual authority as it emerged and became canonized in the late nineteenth century appears to account for only part of that history. For Bourdieu, the defining moment of this authority is Zola's “J'accuse,” in which “the intellectual is constituted as such by intervening in the political field in the name of autonomy and of the specific values of a field of cultural production which has attained a high degree of independence with respect to various powers” (129). The intellectual arrives at “universal principles” by generalizing the “specific principles” of freedom and autonomy in a special field of cultural production; Zola's intervention in the Dreyfus affair asserts “against all reasons of state the irreducibility of the values of truth and justice” (130, 129).

Zola's great commercial success as a novelist, however, tainted him in the eyes of those most devoted to the autonomy of the literary field; as Bourdieu himself points out, he had to work at maintaining his literary respectability, first by identifying himself with the stance of the scientist in his theory of the roman expérimental and second by intervening in the world of politics as an intellectual. Bourdieu describes Zola's stand in the Dreyfus affair as a virtuous circle in which the novelist shored up his literary authority by acting as a disinterested intellectual while deriving intellectual authority from his standing as a disinterested man of letters. Aside from undermining the assertion that Zola brought to his intervention as an intellectual an entirely autonomous, literary kind of authority, Bourdieu's account leaves out factors equally important to the success of “J'accuse.” Zola made a political impact in part for the same reason that he succeeded as a novelist; namely, he had mastered the dominant medium of mass communication in his era, print. Moreover, the huge sales of his novels helped him win recognition for his intervention as an intellectual. (To test the plausibility of these “impure” factors, imagine the impact of a “J'accuse” written by Manet, Mallarmé, or Cézanne.)

If the print-era intellectual succeeded in no small measure by effectively using print as a medium of mass communication, then the corresponding model of intellectual authority may lose much of its pertinence in a world of postprint communications. The relation between economic power and the mastery of symbolic systems is vastly different today, in a largely “knowledge-based” economy where advertising and the media themselves generate enormous wealth, than in the nineteenth century, with its stolid, uncultivated captains of industry. The relation between economic and symbolic capital involves as much complicity as opposition and is harder than ever to untangle.

As a result, Bourdieu's call for an instance of intellectual authority and critique that would stand outside the circuits of economically driven communication and media seduction seems to belong to a bygone era. Many contemporary media theorists argue that the critical distance and tendency toward autonomy that characterized the intellectual operations of print culture are simply unsustainable in an environment dominated by television and electronic networks, where hierarchization and the word have given way to infinite and transitory juxtaposition and images. The eccentricity of residual institutions, such as academic literary culture, that can remain aloof from the great bazaar of sonorous and luminous symbols makes them not so much authoritative as irrelevant. As Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen write in their eye-popping antibook Imagologies: “Enlightenment no longer automatically sells. Neither does critical thought. To sell your product, you must get down to business and take advertising and marketing seriously. The discourses of scholarly achievement not only define the wrong agenda but have no promotional strategy.”8 Of course, Bourdieu might reply that he is trying to counter this point of view by rallying his readers to the defense of traditional intellectual legitimacy. But if the technologically and economically driven mediasphere in which most public discourse now exists has rendered critical thought unmarketable, then Taylor and Saarinen's vision is past being deplored: its obvious dangers and drawbacks must be lived with and negotiated in new ways. “The denial of cultural autonomy does not necessarily mean the impossibility of critique. In the absence of any Archimedean point from which to view and criticize society, it is necessary to develop strategies of criticism that deploy available modes of production and reproduction” (“Pedagogies,” 6). The autonomous field of cultural production, no longer a privileged fulcrum from which to apply the lever of criticism, is increasingly perceived as one “special interest” among many in a society where countless institutional spaces claim some measure of autonomy, in spite of their tight and complicated interconnectedness.

There are many vital issues, moreover, for which social critique that can be grounded on the authority of an autonomous field of cultural production may simply not be pertinent or adequate. The material, economic, and communicative complexity of the contemporary world works against its separation into a material or bourgeois plane where instrumental reason reigns supremely, if perversely, and a plane of ethical reason and universal values to which the first is held accountable. The canonical form of intervention by the legitimate scholar, artist, or intellectual presupposes the separability of these kinds of reason and the efficacy of economic and state power in their own sphere; the intellectual acts as though state power and economic power needed only to be corrected on matters of freedom, human rights, equality—in general, on criteria of adherence or nonadherence to Enlightenment principles. Yet many contemporary problems, whose neglect or inadequate solution is a major cause of injustice, exclusion, and regimentation, are traceable to the failure of instrumental approaches on their own terms, the failure of technocracy to realize even its own limited and dubious goals. To resolve or even face honestly the nature-culture problems evoked by Latour, such as the AIDS pandemic and the hole in the ozone layer, or simply such economic problems as the financing of retirement and health care in societies subjected to global market competition, demands impure but functional alliances of instrumental and ethical reason. Deplorable as some may find this prospect, it is hard to see how the intellectual authority conferred by a sphere of cultural production that holds itself aloof from the messiness of the economic world can form the basis for relevant intervention in that world.

The “Intellectuals' Appeal” of December 1995 was issued at a moment when France's season of strikes was about to end, partly because of concessions made by the Juppé government (largely in the area of railroad retirements) and partly because of the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays, when the personal inconvenience brought by the strikes would have undermined the widespread public support they had enjoyed. It was therefore impossible to assess the effect of the declarations by Bourdieu and the others. They offered no insights, however, into how the goal of maintaining public service and social equality was to be realized within the economic constraints associated with the Maastricht treaty's conditions for European unification or, alternatively, how France was to remove itself from these constraints. The uncertain efficacy of an “Intellectuals' Appeal” in the face of conservative economic expediency seems emblematic of the grave difficulty of using the intellectual means of the past century and a half to confront the practical problems—bound up with very real injustices—of the rapidly changing societies of the present and the foreseeable future.


  1. Sylvia Zappi, “Pierre Bourdieu choisit la grève contre la ‘barbarie,’” Le Monde, 14 December 1995, 1.

  2. “Appel des intellectuels en soutien aux grévistes” (advertisement), Le Monde, 15 December 1995, 12.

  3. Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 339.

  4. Bourdieu, “The Market of Symbolic Goods,” in The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature, ed. Randal Johnson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 113. This is a much-abridged translation of the original article, which appeared in L'Année sociologique 22 (1971): 49-126.

  5. Ong, “Romantic Difference and the Poetics of Technology,” in Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971), 276-9.

  6. Kernan, Samuel Johnson and the Impact of Print (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989), 21.

  7. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  8. Taylor and Saarinen, Imagologies: Media Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1994), “Ending the Academy,” 9; see also “Interstanding,” 6-7. (Imagologies is paginated only within sections.)

James Collins (essay date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: Collins, James. “Language, Subjectivity, and Social Dynamics in the Writings of Pierre Bourdieu.” American Literary History 10, no. 4 (winter 1998): 725-32.

[In the following essay, Collins describes Bourdieu's ideas regarding the role of literature in society.]

Pierre Bourdieu's arguments about forms of capital have provided the foundations for an important series of analyses of social reproduction that rightly emphasize the prominence of educational systems in modern social dynamics. There is value in finding out how social-symbolic “capitals,” variously defined, operate within and across different national systems of social stratification. As Bourdieu has remarked, the concept of capital(s) is one way of capturing history in social analysis. While critics have accurately characterized Bourdieu as more a theorist of reproduction than of transformation, the analyses of cultural, linguistic, social, and economic capitals he offers in Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power (1994), Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (1977), and Homo Academicus (1989) ground his influential accounts of social and educational reproduction and provide evidence for lesser-known arguments about institutional crisis.1

A general question running through much of Bourdieu's work is how to understand academic, artistic, and broadly cultural authority as tied both to economic calculation and to other egoistic maximizing strategies in social formations such as ours, where the cultural, artistic, and academic are institutionally separated from the purely economic and in which disinterestedness (“value-free research,” “art for art's sake,” etc.) is a strategy of advancement. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) has been influential because it presents a nuanced account of class relations in modern societies by relating the mental to the material and the spiritual to the carnal. The scandal and pleasure of this text are that it laboriously connects the taste for literature, art, or music to one's experience of food, housing, and bodily discipline. What keeps this argument from being reductive is the theory of autonomous fields—domains of sport, literature, politics—in which embodied history, a habitus, structures the common sense of agents collective and individual, as they judge music or feel judged by their ignorance, as they offer political opinions or exclude themselves with “no opinion.”

For Bourdieu, fields are quasi-autonomous arenas of social life, which actors need certain prerequisites to enter and which establish a set of possibilities. Fields are ways of differentiating modern life. Although he has conducted analyses of diverse fields—art, sport, religion, science, politics—Bourdieu's most sustained proposals of field dynamics concern literature and painting. In The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature (1993), Bourdieu is primarily concerned with literature, and, as in Distinction, his goals are to ferret out the material substrate of an overcognized practice, to connect disinterestedness and detachment to interest and necessity. Although the goal is hardly novel, I think that Bourdieu is onto something important in desacralizing artistic and literary production and consumption.

In an essay occasioned by the Salman Rushdie affair, entitled “Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses” (1993), Talal Asad argues for a rethinking of assumptions about representation, literature, and social analysis. Pointing out the disproportionate response to the threat to eminent author Salman Rushdie and his literary best-seller Satanic Verses (1988) compared to elite responses to barrings and burnings of other cultural products (e.g., rock and roll records) and other forms of violent cultural intolerance (e.g., assaults on racial or religious minorities), Asad asks why literature should be viewed as a special zone of free or disinterested representation. The answer, he suggests, lies neither in literature's fictional nature nor in its representational techniques, but rather in its cultural-historical status and aura. The Rushdie affair, he argues, provoked such a dramatic response from Western intellectual elites because for them literature has replaced religion as the source of edification. It was “the familiar post-Enlightenment conception of Literature as the legitimate source of spirituality” (250) that informed the lively defense of Rushdie and the quick dismissal of religious “intolerance.” Put crudely, the expression of Islamic religious pain and outrage threatened our idols.

But how did literature become our idol? How have literature and other forms of creative art acquired the aura of spiritual value while being separated from religious institutions and explicitly thematized as secular? For Bourdieu, the aura of elite literature derives from its seeming disinterest in the world, its studied playfulness in the face of the demands of the market or conventional linguistic usage. In other words, the aura of spirituality derives from a sleight of hand, an apparent aesthetic repudiation of the world of necessity. Ever the resolute sociologizer, in The Field of Cultural Production Bourdieu analyzes the social conditions of the production and reception of literature—as an edifying writing “based on a particular form of belief” (35) in a world disenchanted of traditional religious belief. One such condition, a familiar feature of modernity, may initially seem paradoxical: the differentiation of institutional realms, that is, the separation of art from religion, religion from the economy, and so forth. If artistic production is separated from religious practice, whence the whiff of otherwordly “higher truths”? The answer lies in how we reconnect the separated realms.

Bourdieu carries over from anthropology a firm insistence that religious practice is connected with economic process, albeit along complex pathways. In his analysis, autonomous cultural fields, such as the literary or philosophical-academic, are entangled with fields of power and economics. As Craig Calhoun has noted, Bourdieu's analyses of fields are an effort to grapple with complex societies in which there is no unifying center or principle, in which social action on a large scale (system) is “decoupled” from particular ways of living and believing (lifeworld). But in such Habermasian understandings of modernity, “system” is never fully severed from “lifeworld”: artistic value is linked to market coin, although the linkage is mediated by field dynamics that include reversals and refractions as well as reflections.

Bourdieu's accounts of fields result from his analytic effort to connect the differentiated: to understand literary production as occurring in a cultural field that is inversely related to economic markets; to relate an author's contradictory structural position in society to his ideal of undetermined creativity; to trace the genesis of a “pure gaze” in the class divisions of society. Thus in his analysis of Gustave Flaubert in The Field of Cultural Production, Bourdieu emphasizes the ambivalent social position of the nineteenth-century French avant-garde. An artistic movement positioned betwixt “social art” and “bourgeois art,” the avant-garde typically had family origins in a professional-provincial class torn between intellectual ambitions and monetary drive. The dynamics of field and capital interacted with an artistic habitus ceaselessly seeking a free, truly literary, and undetermined language, a representation for representation's sake. What makes Bourdieu's approach significant for cultural studies is that his analysis of fields reveals complex mediations—historical and multidimensional—that connect artistic practice to its social ground.

Contrasting his approach in The Field of Cultural Production with Jean-Paul Sartre's prior studies of Flaubert, Bourdieu insists on giving analytic primacy to accounts of the genesis of positions, not persons. Bourdieu wants to analyze not the socio-psychological emergence of a particular writer (a goal he attributes to Sartre), but rather “how the position or ‘post’—that of a writer of a certain type—becomes constituted” (162). This emphasis on what he has elsewhere (Homo Academicus) called “epistemic” rather than “empirical” individuals is of a piece with the structuralist and poststructuralist efforts to grapple with the lacuna left by postwar Marxism: the question of the subject.

Bourdieu's contributions to this question are found in the study of the habitus, famously called “a system of structured, structuring dispositions” (The Logic of Practice 52). Through the concept of a habitus, Bourdieu understands agents as socially inculcated, as significantly constrained in their ways and means, yet as actors who are not automata in a self-perpetuating machine. Calhoun argues that the habitus can usefully be viewed as a tradition—an inheritance informing present and future perception and action—that is schematic, selective, and improvisational. Seen from this perspective, the habitus/tradition equation offers a fruitful alternative to the polarities of “authentic” and “invented” tradition with which many anthropologists and historians struggle (see Hobsbawm and Ranger; Clifford and Marcus). Simply put, habitus/tradition is innovative.

It is also under one's skin, as “embodied history” and “embodied social structure.” Referring to habitus as “one's total social baggage” (198), Vera Zolberg sees the habitus concept as pointing to how status and position are not simply attained but become incorporated in one's being, as a selective, conditioned orientation, a style of living. In the case of Bourdieu's analysis of Flaubert, the habitus concept is part of an effort to characterize a stable aesthetic disposition that is related to a privileged, striving class position; shared with others so situated and similarly aspiring; preconscious, given, taken for granted; and yet famously innovative.

“Embodied social structure,” “embodied history,” “a virtue made of necessity,” habitus is a social legacy that lives on in agents' frameworks of perception and action. In his proprosals about the habitus, Bourdieu describes the innermost connections of the apparent duality “agency/structure.” Characterized as a “generator of practices adjusted to the regularities inherent in a condition … continuously transform[ing] necessities into strategies, constraints into preferences” (Distinction 175), this structuring structure operates in a practical world requiring improvisation and therefore never totalized. Bourdieu's arguments about the habitus first appeared in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) and were revised and expanded in The Logic of Practice. In the model of society these books develop, an intermediate level of a habitus operating in given situations mediates the global level of objective structures and the local level of agents' strategies.

In the Kabyle material analyzed in The Logic of Practice, the habitus derives from and reproduces deeply gendered schemes of outside/inside, upward/downward, upright/bending, dry/wet; it naturalizes senses of honor, deportment, dress, domestic architecture, and agricultural scheduling. In later works such as Distinction, which concerns field-differentiated urban France, schemes of class (refined/vulgar, distinguished/common, individualistic/solidaristic) take priority over those of gender in worlds of food, sport, culture, and politics. In both the Algerian and French cases, Bourdieu presents a model of social subjectivity in which agents' choices are situated and habituated in relation to global structures of class or gendered divisions of labor, but the schemata of action and perception generate “a refreshingly large repertory of strategies that are at times contradictory and lead to a rather precarious reproduction but also, quite often, to change” (Kontopoulos 226).

Constrained yet improvisational, shaped in history yet an underdetermined adaptation to changing circumstances that allows for open history, Bourdieu's habitus concept is a substantial contribution to the “structuration” or “practice” theory more commonly associated with Anthony Giddens (Central Problems in Social Theory [1979]), as Kyriakos Kontopoulos has recently argued in some detail.2 In Communicative Practice (1993), William Hanks has used Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field in analyses of embodied spatial and temporal orientation that show the complex hybridity of a range of genres in social life. Hanks draws upon Bourdieu in discussions concerning the relevance of gender in face-to-face interaction and the indeterminacy of political positions in colonial Mayan historical documents. Although it is clear, in retrospect, that the habitus concept emerged from a matrix of gender—the Kabyle sexual order was “read into” the social and natural order (Bourdieu, Logic 66-79, 211-23)—only recently have scholars begun exploring its potential in feminist research (Krais and Reay; but see also Comaroff). In an analysis of how gender boundaries are negotiated in changing US worksites, Cynthia Epstein sketches the limits of practical, day-to-day rationality, limits emerging in this case from agents' cultural understandings of the binary masculine/feminine as a symbolic couplet framing workplace behavior and evaluation. For Epstein, the habitus concept properly emphasizes the dichotomous thinking that is powerfully at play “in the definitions of women as ‘other’ … and in their self-definitions” (237). Through such dichotomous definitions of “self” and “other,” through classifying and judging processes as much in the gut as in the head, human subjectivity is joined with the social order.

Bourdieu's oeuvre has, of course, its difficulties and limitations. Many anglophone readers decry Bourdieu's style, yet with Bourdieu, as with other prolific intellectuals, it is initially hard to see the forest for the trees. Because one or two articles in isolation can be deceptive, as can commentary (like this essay), I recommend reading widely enough to develop an overall sense of his work. Volumes of interviews, such as An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (1992), can offer a sense of Bourdieu's ethical and political (as well as intellectual) motivations, as is also the case for Roland Barthes (The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980 [1985]), Michel Foucault (Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews [1977]), and Jürgen Habermas (Autonomy and Solidarity: Interviews with Jürgen Habermas [1986]). While Bourdieu shares Barthes's skepticism about the adequacy of everyday language, his assumption of the ideological nature of much common sense, and his keen intuitive grasp of the politics of culture, Bourdieu insists on a sociological, non-discursive grounding to semiotic analysis of cultural phenomena. While he overlaps with Foucault in his use of structuralist, relational analyses of discursive-symbolic formations, and in his appreciation of the totalizing national ambitions of the “new class,” he differs in his concepts of power and subjectivity. While he shares with Habermas a realist epistemology, in contrast to much of what we understand as poststructuralist and postmodern thought, and a concern with reflexive critique, in contrast to mainstream social science practice, he is more pessimistic about the possibility of rational procedures in social life or social analysis.

Though I have emphasized the strengths and potential of Bourdieu's overall research program, the critical arguments directed at the capital concept are important to keep in mind. Anyone adapting a cultural capital framework to analyze contemporary American society needs to recognize that there are significant controversies about how holistic cultural or class systems are; that American social researchers tend to be more concrete in their approach to class and cultural dynamics (see Erickson for an example); and that the charge of gender and ethnoracial blindness has been leveled at Bourdieu's class-centered theory of capital(s) (Hall). Bonnie Erickson's argument that the unity of cultural capital hierarchies cannot be presumed is, I believe, correct and important, as is her call for more attention to social networks in the activation of strategic knowledge. This latter point is also made in Annette Lareau's Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in School (1989), which deals with an entirely different research site and problem.

The study of fields, while essential to the argument about social dynamics in modern capitalist social formations, has been unevenly developed. Are fields only the major institutional sectors of society (religion, economy, education, politics), or can they be quite specific (say, particular metropolitan industries, as Erickson argues), or are they more theory-and-analysis bound constructions (such as “the field of science,” “the field of art,” “the field of sport”)? I strongly suspect that the last is Bourdieu's preference.


  1. For a more detailed understanding of the capital concept, see Bourdieu's work as well as the critical appraisals discussed at the end of this essay. See also John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993), for a substantive and innovative application of the concept of cultural capital, used to historicize and reformulate the debate about the literary canon.

  2. In a brilliant and demanding work, Kontopoulos has placed Bourdieu in a tradition of “heterarchical thinking in social thought,” a tradition that accepts neither the hierarchical theories of, say, classical Marxism, structuralism, or Darwinism, in which collectivity always precedes any account of individuals; nor compositionist theories of, say, symbolic interactionism or rational choice theory, in which rational individuals in microinteraction are the building blocks of any larger collectivity. Heterarchical thinking tries to reformulate local and global processes and outcomes in new ways that emphasize entanglement and semi-independence rather than one-way causality. Bourdieu's discussions of field and habitus contribute significantly to this effort. Kontopoulos draws upon a wide range of classical and current work on social action and social structure, as well as contemporary research in mathematics, cognitive science, and philosophy of science, in presenting a rich account of the “phenomenology of structures.” This phenomenology could be profitably consulted by anyone interested in connecting textualist analyses of cultural forms to serious models and analyses of social complexity.

Works Cited

Asad, Talal. “Ethnography, Literature, and Politics: Some Readings and Uses of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Calhoun, Craig. “Habitus, Field, and Capital: The Question of Historical Specificity.” Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone 61-88.

Calhoun, Craig, Edward LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, eds. Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Clifford, James, and George Marcus. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Comaroff, Jean. Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Epstein, Cynthia. “Tinkerbells and Pinups: The Construction and Reconstruction of Gender Boundaries at Work.” Lamont and Fournier 232-56.

Erickson, Bonnie. “Culture, Class, and Connections.” American Journal of Sociology 102 (1996): 217-51.

Hall, John. “The Capital(s) of Cultures: A Nonholistic Approach to Status Situations, Class, Gender, and Ethnicity.” Lamont and Fournier 257-85.

Hanks, William. Communicative Practice. Boulder: Westview, 1993.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terrence Ranger. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

Kontopoulos, Kyriakos. The Logics of Structure. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Krais, Beatte. “Gender and Symbolic Violence: Female Oppression in the Light of Pierre Bourdieu's Theory of Social Practice.” Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone 156-77.

Lamont, Michele, and Marcel Fournier, eds. Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Reay, Diane. “Feminist Theory, Habitus, and Social Class: Disrupting Notions of Classlessness.” Women's Studies International Forum 20 (1997): 225-33.

Zolberg, Vera. “Barrier or Leveler? The Case of the Art Museum.” Lamont and Fournier 187-209.

Allen Dunn (essay date spring 1998)

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SOURCE: Dunn, Allen. “Who Needs a Sociology of the Aesthetic? Freedom and Value in Pierre Bourdieu's Rules of Art.Boundary 2 25, no. 1 (spring 1998): 87-110.

[In the following essay, Dunn investigates a contradiction in Bourdieu's theory about the role of art in society.]

Sociology and art do not make good bedfellows. That's the fault of art and artists, who are allergic to everything that offends the idea they have of themselves: the universe of art is a universe of belief, belief in gifts, in the uniqueness of the uncreated creator, and the intrusion of the sociologist, who seeks to understand, explain, account for what he finds, is a source of scandal.

—Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question

Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of art is a rough affair. Through the conceptual violence of what he terms a “double rupture” (RA [The Rules of Art], 77), he has attempted to show that both the producers and the consumers of art are driven by an unremitting struggle for social distinction, a struggle he finds all the more scandalous because it is masked by doctrines of aesthetic disinterest. The intensity of Bourdieu's attack on aesthetic theory and the enormous body of work that this attack has generated over his long and distinguished career have led some critics to suppose that Bourdieu intends nothing less than the destruction of the aesthetic itself, for it is difficult to imagine just what might be left of art when the work of sociological demystification is done. Yet, Bourdieu has denied that he rejects the aesthetic. In his most recent book, The Rules of Art, he claims that his science of the aesthetic will actually provide a substitute for the more conventional aesthetic pleasures that it destroys. He argues that “scientific analysis of the social conditions of the production and reception of a work of art, far from reducing it or destroying it, in fact intensifies the literary experience” (RA, xix). Rather than admiring the work of art as a manifestation of freedom and creativity, the consumer who is informed by this science of sociology will learn to take pleasure in discovering the “generative principle” that “makes the work of art necessary” (RA, xix). Bourdieu's science entails a twofold revision of conventional aesthetics. First, it challenges conventional notions of aesthetic agency on the grounds that such notions mystify artistic production by crediting artists with the powers of creativity or genius. Bourdieu insists that artists themselves are created by the social conditions in which they live and that the ideology of creativity serves only to mask the forces of social determination. Second, Bourdieu attacks the assumption that aesthetic values identify any real or substantial qualities in works of art themselves. He claims that such values are the purely arbitrary means by which hierarchies are established within the aesthetic field. Like changes in the lengths of women's skirts or in the width of lapels on men's jackets, differences in aesthetic value serve only to confer social distinctions; they have no positive content in and of themselves. Thus, Bourdieu's revisionary program calls for the systematic inversion of the Kantian aesthetic that he so adamantly opposes. It will teach us to take pleasure in art that is radically self-interested rather than disinterested, that reveals the forces of social determination rather than freedom, and that, above all, is mistaken in its value claims and unaware of the conditions of its own production.

The contrast between the positions of Kant and Bourdieu could hardly be more stark, just as the choice between them could hardly be less inviting. We would have to suspect Bourdieu of either cynicism or sadism if he were simply insisting that art offers us the choice of either remaining deluded ourselves or learning to take pleasure in exposing the delusions of others. Certainly, one cannot blame sociology for revealing the unpleasant truth, but one should question the claim that such truth is a proper source of aesthetic enjoyment. Bourdieu's project escapes cynicism precisely to the extent that it assumes that sociology has a more noble purpose than allowing certain informed individuals to enjoy their knowledge of the various ways in which others are trapped by forces beyond their control and understanding. This more noble purpose, as Bourdieu himself often avers, is to increase, however modestly, human freedom.

If increasing the realm of human freedom is one of the goals of Bourdieu's sociology, freedom itself also provides the norm by which he judges the justice of social practice. Thus, he sees the necessity imposed by various forms of social determination as a manifest evil. In an interview, he admits: “I personally suffer when I see somebody trapped by necessity, whether it be the necessity of the poor or that of the rich” (IRS [An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology], 200). Yet, if the spectacle of determinism is so painful in everyday social interactions, why should it be less painful in the field of art, and why is art unable to represent in its products or to implement in its practice the freedom that sociology cultivates? In response to the latter question, Bourdieu insists that because art depends on the unconscious mystification of both agency and value, the producers and consumers of art will always be constrained by a social necessity that is beyond their understanding and control. However, I will argue that the very possibility of the freedom that is affirmed in the normative framework of Bourdieu's sociology calls into question his pessimistic assessment of aesthetic agency and value. At the very least, such freedom raises the possibility that an aesthetics of the future, whether scientific or not, might be more than a meditation on a world of constraints and illusions.

In challenging Bourdieu's assumption that art is necessarily barred from exemplifying the freedom to which it aspires, I will also be arguing against his more fundamental assumption that freedom and culture are necessarily antithetical and that freedom usually entails resisting cultural practices rather than participating in them or transforming them. On the one hand, Bourdieu insists that all forms of culture are shaped by social practices that few individuals understand and that none control. He assumes that overriding self-interest will motivate the participants in these various social practices to compete for various types of goods as these are defined by the practices themselves. The model clearly limits, if not eliminates, human freedom and makes further restrictions on the types of values that it is reasonable to take seriously. In most of his analyses of human behavior, for instance, Bourdieu seems systematically to rule out the possibility of altruism as a credible description of human motives. On the other hand, however, Bourdieu reserves the right to be outraged by this self-interested behavior. In his impatience with the vanity of art producers and art consumers, for example, he implies that if these individuals would just reflect more objectively on their baser motives, they could conduct their lives with more decency. This halfhearted Hobbesianism has the double disadvantage of making it seem like an unbearable moral compromise to accept the highly determined and self-interested nature of human conduct but, conversely, of also making it seem like a ridiculously utopian delusion to imagine that human behavior is or could be significantly different.

If Bourdieu's sociology of the aesthetic is scandalous, it is not because it reveals that the producers and consumers of art are self-interested and, beyond that, class interested, nor is it because sociology proves that they are constrained and even shaped by social and historical forces beyond their control. All of these assumptions are acknowledged to varying degrees by most contemporary theories of the aesthetic. Rather, if there is a scandal to be found in Bourdieu's sociology of art, it is in the implication that we can attain freedom only by assuming the position of spectators who witness the spectacle of human misery without being able to intervene, without being able to translate sociological knowledge into social practice. This would certainly disable aesthetic theory, but it would also diminish sociology itself.


The sources of the gap that Bourdieu discovers between the reflective freedom of the sociologist and the iron cage of culture are evident in his account of human agency. This account is contained in his theory of the dialectical relationship between habitus and field. According to Bourdieu, each agent is a habitus, a set of inclinations or dispositions that are acquired when the individual internalizes the logic of the various sets of social practices or fields into which he or she is socialized:

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.

(LOP [The Logic of Practice] 53)

Because the habitus is created by the internalization of external social structures, it tends to reproduce those objective structures in its actions; by participating in the fields in which it was socialized, it gives objective form to the mental structures that were originally internalized as features of the objective world. As the internalization of the external world, the habitus contains “a system of cognitive and motivating structures” (LOP, 53) that both creates the desire to attain certain goals or goods and provides the cognitive means for doing so.

The forms of motivation and cognition that the habitus internalizes are largely unconscious, however, and this is due to the distinctive logic of the fields themselves. Fields are, above all, sites of struggle: “The structure of the field is a state of the power relations among the agents or institutions engaged in the struggle, or, to put it another way, a state of the distribution of the specific capital which has been accumulated in the course of previous struggles and which orients subsequent strategies” (SIQ [Sociology in Question], 73). Bourdieu claims that fields are universal, that “there are general laws of fields,” and that “we know that in every field we shall find a struggle” (SIQ, 72). In some fields, such as the capitalist economy, this struggle for goods is overt and obvious to all participants, but in cultural fields such as aesthetics, where social prestige or cultural capital is at stake, the struggle is likely to be invisible. To participate in such invisible struggles, the habitus must internalize unconscious motives and strategies. Furthermore, these unconscious motives and strategies must often be at odds with conscious goals. The artist, for instance, may unconsciously struggle to improve his or her position in the aesthetic field but may consciously believe that he or she is motivated by aesthetic goals internal to his or her work, that is, by the desire to excel according to aesthetic standards.

Thus, to participate in the game that structures a particular cultural field, the habitus must believe in the values (what Bourdieu calls the illusio) endorsed in that field. The habitus must accept these values as natural, as a reflection of the way things are, although, Bourdieu assures us, in reality, most such values will be no more than social artifacts that serve to generate cultural distinctions. The desire that motivates the habitus is, for Bourdieu, as artificial as the goals for which it strives; it is a learned response. Insofar as every particular goal that a habitus embraces is a reflection of a more general struggle to improve its place in a field, however, one could say that a generalized desire (whether conscious or unconscious) for a better position is the habitus's most durable disposition.1

In light of Bourdieu's insistence that the structure of both motivation and cognition is the product of social conditioning, it is not surprising that he must frequently defend himself against the charge that he is a determinist. As he himself observes, because he believes that “dispositions themselves are socially determined,” he might be classified as a “hyperdeterminist” (IRS, 136). Yet, he continues to insist that within the constraints that fields impose, an agent may enjoy a limited and somewhat paradoxical freedom. He describes this “conditional freedom” as “rather like that of the magnetic needle which Leibniz imagined actually enjoyed turning northwards” (OTP [Outline of a Theory of Practice], 76-77). The habitus is like the compass needle because although it may move freely, the goods that it seeks are determined by the field in which it is situated. As Bourdieu phrases it, “the dispositions durably inculcated by objective conditions … engender aspirations” as well as strategies (OTP, 77). Thus, the habitus will take its goals and general orientation from the field in which it finds itself, but despite the “relative closure of the system of dispositions that constitute habitus,” its behavior will not be completely predictable and the field itself is “never completely predetermined” (IRS, 133, 199).

The freedom that the habitus enjoys in following its predetermined inclinations, the freedom of the compass needle, is not identical with the freedom that Bourdieu attributes to the sociologist, however. As I have said, Bourdieu usually characterizes the freedom that sociological analysis makes possible in negative terms: “The true freedom that sociology offers is to give us a small chance of knowing what game we play and of minimizing the ways in which we are manipulated by the forces of the field in which we evolve” (IRS, 198). In an even more succinct summary of this negative freedom, he notes that “in every relationship of the type ‘if X, then Y,’” sociology provides “the freedom that consists in choosing to accept or refuse the ‘if’” (SIQ, 25). Bourdieu assumes that sociology will not facilitate the satisfaction of the desires that are invoked by a particular field but, rather, will encourage resistance to the kinds of manipulation that desire makes possible, and this is precisely the kind of resistance that he recommends in the face of aesthetic temptation. Such resistance is possible only when an agent confronts, and to some extent rejects, the effects of the unconscious conditioning that shape the habitus. He observes that “determinisms operate to their full only by the help of unconsciousness” and that “failing an analysis of such subtle determinations that work themselves out through dispositions, one becomes accessory to the unconsciousness of the action of dispositions, which is itself the accomplice of determinism” (IRS, 136-37).

The difference, then, between the freedom that is deployed by the sociologist and the freedom that is available to the unreflective participant in a particular cultural field is the difference between an ethical freedom, on the one hand, and a purely instrumental freedom, on the other. The sociologist's freedom is sui generis, a freedom that is not linked to the ability to accomplish any particular goal; it is, rather, the freedom to preserve autonomy by resisting manipulation. Instrumental freedom, on the other hand, is realized in an agent's ability to follow the compass needle of desire. If instrumental freedom involves giving in to social conditioning, then ethical freedom is attained through a process of reflection.

Yet, it is not clear how and to what degree Bourdieu's theory allows him to differentiate the sociologist's ethical freedom from the instrumental freedom of the unwitting participant in a particular cultural field. If all human motives are produced by struggles within fields, then it is not apparent which field produced this desire for autonomy, this desire not to be manipulated by fields. Why, in other words, does the sociologist want to avoid manipulation rather than to manipulate others and thus to dominate the field? Is reflection on the true nature of the struggle within the field enough to bring about a spontaneous disavowal of self-interested motives? If it is not, then the sociologist will be more likely to use his or her knowledge to attempt to win than to avoid manipulation.

In light of these questions, it seems that Bourdieu may be making unrealistic assumptions about the ethical consequences of sociological demystification. In fields where the dynamic of domination is fairly well exposed, people are not necessarily less likely to resist manipulation. This is true in the field of fashion, for instance, where people who know perfectly well how the fashion system works continue to attempt to distinguish themselves according to its rules. This means that the choice of whether to attempt to dominate a field or merely to resist manipulation is not simply determined by how well one understands the subconscious logic of the game in question. The freedom an agent wins by acquiring such understanding has value only as a means to possible goods; even the strategy of resisting manipulation has value only insofar as it facilitates other possible projects. If the sociologist's freedom has any content at all, it will entail choices about how to live in the world, and it seems inevitable that such choices will involve cultural commitment as well as resistance.

Of course, if the needs and desires of the habitus are really no more than the products of social conditioning, then it will be difficult to generalize about why freedom is important at all or about why, in some instances, it may be better to resist the power that is at stake in a field rather than to appropriate it. Needs that reflect only the historical contingencies of the fields from which they derive do not provide much of a moral mandate. Yet, Bourdieu does imply the existence of a self with needs that somehow exceed the social conditioning that creates the habitus. This is the self that feels the constraints that the field imposes even when it is dominating the field; this is, for instance, the rich person mentioned by Bourdieu, who, his or her wealth notwithstanding, is trapped by necessity. This plenipotentiary self evaluates fields from a position that does not seem to be located in any particular field. Such a self is invoked in the following passage, where Bourdieu speaks as if some sort of existential need were the prerequisite and not the product of social engagement:

Could rites of institution, whichever they may be, exercise their power … if they were not capable of giving at least the appearance of a meaning, a purpose, to those beings without a purpose who constitute humanity, of giving them the feeling of having a role or, quite simply, some importance, and thus tearing them from the clutches of insignificance? The veritable miracle produced by acts of institution lies undoubtedly in the fact that they manage to make consecrated individuals believe that their existence is justified, that their existence serves some purpose.

(LASP [Language and Symbolic Power] 126)

Bourdieu goes on to argue that it is this existential need for meaning that lures agents into social struggles where, because of the “differential and distinctive nature of symbolic power,” a “distinguished class” of individuals is granted the privilege of “Being” while the rest are condemned to “Nothingness” (LASP, 126). This Sartrean parable encapsulates Bourdieu's predicament of culture: Individuals need social recognition to have any kind of identity at all, yet they can purchase such recognition only by surrendering to the structures of symbolic power that will imprison them. If Bourdieu were to offer any way out of this double bind, it seems it would be to counsel his readers to embrace the Nothingness of reflection over the Being of social recognition. As I will argue, this is the thrust of his warning against aesthetic narcissism.


Bourdieu describes aesthetic value as a form of fetishism. As fetishes, he claims, artistic acts and objects are endowed with mysterious powers by the producers and consumers who participate in aesthetic games of collective misrecognition. This illusion is supported by a form of narcissism, by a reciprocal vanity that links producers and consumers in an economy of admiration. By fetishizing the artist's product as a form of creative mastery, the consumer can share in its value, both by identifying with the artist and by making distinguished choices in selecting the objects that he or she, the consumer, consumes. Bourdieu claims that it is the narcissism of producer and consumer that accounts for the resistance that his theory of the aesthetic provokes: “Why, in short, such resistance to analysis,” he asks, “if not because it inflicts upon ‘creators,’ and upon those who seek to identify with them by a ‘creative’ reading, the last and perhaps the worst of those wounds inflicted, according to Freud, upon narcissism, after those going under the names of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud himself?” (RA, xvii). Similarly, the hermeneutic scholar who “affirms his intelligence and grandeur by his empathic insight into great authors” is, according to Bourdieu, motivated by nothing more than “hermeneutic narcissism” (RA, 303).

This account of the habitus of cultural producers and consumers is not surprising, given Bourdieu's account of the general nature of habitus and field. The vehemence of Bourdieu's diagnosis is somewhat surprising, however, precisely because the aesthetic habitus fits so well with Bourdieu's general account of agency. There is no field that is not organized by the struggle of various habitus for cultural or economic capital, so the self-interest of the aesthetic habitus is certainly not unusual. Characterizing the aesthetic habitus as narcissistic seems, thus, at best redundant and at worst misleading—misleading, that is, to the extent that it implies that the “narcissism” of the habitus is a kind of pathology to be corrected. If sociology inflicts the last and worst of a series of wounds on the structure of the habitus, then we might be encouraged to hope for its eventual extinction.

Bourdieu indicates that such hopes might be premature, however, by the way in which he describes the structure of the sociologist's own habitus. According to Bourdieu, sociological science, like art, sublimates self-interest into more socially acceptable forms, and this allows science to advance by channeling the selfish motives of scientists. In a properly constituted scientific field, he theorizes, it will be impossible for the scientist to sate his or her hunger for distinction without producing good science. “We must work,” Bourdieu claims, “to constitute a Scientific City in which the most unavowable intentions have to sublimate themselves into scientific expression” (IRS, 178). This means that “the most mediocre participant is compelled to behave in accordance with the norms of scientificity” and the “libido dominandi” of personal vanity is “forcibly transmuted into libido sciendi” (IRS, 178).

Bourdieu's willingness to endorse a scientific meritocracy that uses each individual's need for personal distinction to motivate objective science indicates that he feels that vanity itself and the distinction that it produces may be productive if harnessed for the right ends. One can do good science while motivated only by selfish motives, although it is not clear whether the good social scientist who is motivated by the desire to dominate his or her field will be outraged by the struggle for dominance that he or she finds in other fields. Given the fact that he sees a potential social utility in self-interest, it seems that Bourdieu's attack on the narcissism of the aesthetic is not so much an attack on narcissistic self-interest per se as it is an attack on self-interest deployed for the wrong ends. He may be arguing that if social distinctions are to be granted, they should be the real distinctions that science has to offer and not the illusory distinctions of art.

Given this ambiguity, there are at least three possible ways in which one might understand Bourdieu's position on the habitus's quest for distinction. First, one might read his work as a call for a selfless society, a society in which all struggles for distinction are suppressed and the freedom of a reflexive Nothingness is affirmed over the more illusive satisfactions of social recognition. In support of this utopian reading of Bourdieu, one might note that Bourdieu assumes that sociological self-consciousness will generally dampen the habitus's desire to dominate fields. Sociology, thus, might provide a model for the habitus's project of self-overcoming. In a society of sociologically sensitive individuals, individuals might simply get over their need to be recognized. Although, as I have just argued, Bourdieu's own rhetoric sometimes raises this utopian hope, he is explicit in rejecting such a utopian scenario and the so-called radical sociology it implies. He insists that fields are a universal feature of human society and that the freedom they allow is necessarily limited, much more limited than he had once hoped and assumed (see, for example, IRS, 196-200). As a result of these necessary limitations, he tends to speak more of the freedom that sociological reflection can grant individuals than of its liberating effects on social groups. It seems, however, that several American critics who have been influenced by Bourdieu's work are much more optimistic than he is about the possibility of eliminating subjectivity's distorting effects.2

A second way of understanding Bourdieu's perspective on the agency of the habitus is to assume that he views the struggle for distinction as an inevitable, and perhaps even necessary, evil, but as an evil that can sometimes be turned into a partial good as is, in fact, the case in the production of good science. According to this view, the struggle for distinction is harmful because it produces the symbolic violence that is found in social hierarchies; everyone would be better off if it were possible for agents to stop struggling for distinction, but since this is not possible, or possible only to a very limited extent, we can occasionally put the mechanism of struggle to good use. In putting the struggle to good use, we establish limited meritocracies in cases where the good to be derived from the struggle for distinction outweighs the harm done by the inequalities that struggle produces. This, I think, is the best way of making sense of Bourdieu's call for a Scientific City.

Yet a third way of interpreting Bourdieu's attitude toward agency is suggested by his existential account of the way in which agents are lured into social fields with the promise of identity. According to this account, the need for identity and recognition is a “natural” and perhaps even innocent human disposition. Being recognized is, thus, in and of itself a kind of good, but the hierarchy that the struggle for recognition produces is harmful since it perpetuates a symbolic violence. This means that although the struggle for distinction produces oppressive hierarchies, it also produces two types of goods: It can generate objective goods, such as scientific research, and it can help satisfy the habitus's potentially legitimate need for recognition.

According to the second and third interpretations of Bourdieu's position on agency, we can evaluate the habitus's struggle for recognition only by weighing possible good against possible harm, and this implies local rather than categorical judgments; it implies the kind of choice between competing goods with which Bourdieu is uncomfortable. The fact that struggles for distinctions tend to perpetuate class hierarchies is a reason to discourage struggles within fields but not always the only criteria for judging if they are worthwhile. From what I can tell, the second interpretation comes closest to Bourdieu's attitude toward agency, although I think that the third position is most defensible. Categorically dismissing the need for recognition as an evil that at best can be made provisionally useful seems unrealistic given Bourdieu's own assumptions about the habitus and, to that extent, unnecessarily harsh. (Of course, were it not for Bourdieu's skepticism about such things, we might imagine a form of recognition that employed strategies of cooperation to offset the effects of competition.)

To embrace position three, however, would be to accept the possibility that there might be legitimate reasons to value human performance above and beyond its objective utility. From this perspective, it would not matter if aesthetic performance is evaluated by arbitrary rules, since arbitrary rules can measure various objectifiable potentials and talents in human performance. Bourdieu's own persistent use of the game metaphor to describe fields of struggle implies that a revelation of the arbitrary nature of rules that govern aesthetic performance will not necessarily destroy the value that people find in aesthetic virtuosity. The rules of most sporting contests are widely recognized as arbitrary, for example, but that does not impair the spectator's enjoyment or make the qualities revealed in athletic performance seem less objective. The value of an athletic contest cannot be reduced to the intrinsic value of the activity involved. I may be impressed with the courage and determination of a track star without necessarily assuming that running is intrinsically good. Similarly, I may admire the virtuosity of a singer while recognizing the arbitrary nature of the twelve-tone system in which he or she performs. Furthermore, an audience's awareness of all of the social forces that have shaped, constrained, and made possible this kind of virtuosity does not dispel the impression of mastery. Despite our awareness that the virtuoso is a creator who has been created, the performance in some way exceeds the sum of all those social determinations.

This kind of admiration of artistic mastery is precisely what Bourdieu finds most problematic in the aesthetic, however, since it leads the consumer of art to impute a kind of ineffable good to the producer of art in order to share narcissistically in the artist's power. As I have already mentioned, Bourdieu believes that “what is called ‘creation’ is the encounter between a socially constituted habitus and a particular position that is already instituted or possible in the division of the labour of cultural production” (SIQ, 141). “The principle of the effectiveness of acts of consecration [of art] resides in the field,” and hence, Bourdieu claims, “nothing would be more futile than to search for the origin of ‘creative’ power … anywhere else than in this space of play” (RA, 169). To break the spell that the illusion of artistic mastery casts over the aesthetic field, the sociologist must “substitute the often rather melancholic joys of the necessitating vision for the perverse pleasures (always ambivalent and often alternating) of celebration and denigration” (RA, 272-73). Rather than admiring or disapproving of a particular cultural performance, the sociologist is content to contemplate the social forces that made it necessary.

If the consumer of art still needs some criterion of value, Bourdieu concedes that it might be found in the notion of work itself. In The Rules of Art, he observes of Gustave Flaubert:

Maybe there is here, for those who want it, a rather indisputable criterion of value for all artistic production and, more generally, for intellectual production: to wit, the investment in a work which is measurable by the cost in effort, in sacrifices of all kinds and, definitively, in time, and which goes hand in hand with the consequent independence from the forces and constraints exercised outside the field, or, worse, within it, such as the seductions of fashion or the pressures of ethical or logical conformism.

(RA, 85)

Work, unlike creativity or artistic mastery, implies a purely objective measure of value, a measurable quantum of effort, time, and sacrifice. It implies the fulfillment of a pregiven task rather than the creation of something from nothing, and this makes it a much more democratic measure of human effort than creativity: Anyone can work, but only artists can create. If this standard still distinguishes those who do not work from those who do, this is likely to be a less invidious distinction than those imposed by criteria of creativity and originality.

Yet, buried in Bourdieu's praise of Flaubert's work is the claim that the true value of work will be measured in its ability to resist social pressures both within and without the field of endeavor. This independence from social constraints is certainly not guaranteed by the mere expenditure of effort itself. In fact, it would seem to necessitate some kind of originality. One does not spontaneously resist the pressures of ethical or logical conformism. In his discussion of Flaubert, Bourdieu leaves no doubt that he finds the work of Flaubert superior to the work of many other novelists, not because of the quantity of work it represents but because of the superior quality of the work itself as measured by its provisional autonomy within the aesthetic field. Bourdieu would probably claim that he makes this distinction on other than aesthetic criteria, but whether or not this is true, he certainly violates his own strictures against praising or blaming the artist.

Of course, the scientific meritocracy that Bourdieu advocates is predicated on an economy of praise and blame, as are the ethical and political norms of his own sociology. His proscription of the “perversity” of praising and blaming artists is itself a kind of performative contradiction, since it sets up an invidious comparison between those stoic consumers of art who resist evaluation and those narcissists who yield to the temptation to like and dislike works. Indeed, Bourdieu might admit all of this but claim that praising and blaming in science and in morality are based on legitimate distinctions while in aesthetics they are not. This, then, raises the question that is central to Bourdieu's argument: What prevents aesthetic distinctions from being reformed to reflect the legitimate distinctions found in other fields? What prevents art from demystifying and knowing itself?


To turn from Bourdieu's theoretical treatments of the sociology of the aesthetic to his application of his theory in his analysis of Flaubert's life and work is to face a dizzying array of apparent contradictions. Despite his announced break with the illusio of art and the values that this illusio entails, Bourdieu's analysis leaves the literary canon in place and even seems to endorse its rigorous distinctions between major and minor writers. It does this not just by acknowledging the historical fact that some authors have exercised a much greater influence on the literary field than others but also by its apparent endorsement of the justice of the judgments that have created this differential of artistic influence. Despite his attack on the ideology of creation, for instance, Bourdieu does not hesitate to rhapsodize about the heroic inventiveness that propelled Flaubert into literary prominence, and because of this reverence for the author, there is little in Bourdieu's reading of Flaubert that is likely to scandalize the conventional literary historian. Furthermore, despite his attack on the way in which literary critics attempt to validate their work with claims of originality, he insists that he is revealing a structure that “has eluded the most attentive interpreters” (RA, 3). Whether these apparent contradictions are apparent rather than real depends on whether Bourdieu's sociology allows him to revalue the familiar distinctions that he finds in conventional aesthetics.

Bourdieu's approach here is a conspicuous departure from the tone—if not from the central ideas—found in Distinction, where he calls for a vulgar criticism, a barbarian assault on the fetishism of art: “It is barbarism to ask what culture is for; to allow the hypothesis that culture might be devoid of intrinsic interest, and that interest in culture is not a natural property—but a simple social artifact, a particular form of fetishism; to raise the question of the interest of activities which are called disinterested because they offer no intrinsic interest” (D [Distinction], 250). The assumptions behind this attack are fairly straightforward: Aesthetic values lack any objective reality since they are “devoid of intrinsic interest,” but they function as markers of social distinction that allow members of a dominant class to consolidate their power and sense of superiority. Therefore, we should disregard the content of arguments for various schemes of aesthetic value and focus on the effects these arguments have in perpetuating systems of domination. It is important to note that this argument assumes rather than demonstrates the emptiness of aesthetic judgments. As Anthony Giddens points out, it is possible that aesthetic principles could be both objective and even universal and the basis for a system of social domination.3 For instance, aesthetic goods might resemble certain material goods by virtue of the fact that they acquire their power to confer distinction from their power to confer other benefits as well. In any event, it is not clear what standard Bourdieu would have us use to test the substance of aesthetic value claims. His apparent suggestion that if aesthetic qualities do exist, they will be immediately perceptible as “intrinsic” properties of an object seems disingenuous. There are numerous ways in which aesthetic judgments might depend on social conventions without losing their claim to objectivity, as I have argued. In an article critical of Bourdieu, Peter Bürger notes that the trust that makes possible collective participation in modern banking systems creates currency with real but not intrinsic value.4 Bürger also notes that Bourdieu's arguments in Distinction overlook the ways in which specific aesthetic values evolve in response to a specific history and to other aesthetic values. According to Bürger, such a pattern of evolution explains the way in which aesthetic judgments can change without necessarily being arbitrary.

Bourdieu's work since Distinction has implemented at least some of Bürger's suggestions, since it has increasingly focused on the sociohistorical forces that Bourdieu thinks shape aesthetic values both from within and without the aesthetic field, and he has placed special emphasis on the way in which exchanges between artists in that field create an internal economy of recognition that grants the field a relative autonomy. Yet, Bourdieu's increasing stress on the autonomy of the aesthetic field has not led him to take the content of aesthetic claims any more seriously. Typically, he describes the relationship between different notions of aesthetic value as the relationship between forces within a force field, so that arguments for cubism, for instance, might be seen as a force vector deployed against the force of impressionism. While at first this might seem like a handy metaphor for describing the rise and fall of various aesthetic programs, it soon becomes clear that it is simultaneously a way of insisting that aesthetic arguments operate primarily at a noncognitive level.

In The Rules of Art, Bourdieu maps the force field of Flaubert's world using the three-part formula that he has developed for all forms of cultural analysis: “First, one must analyse the position of the literary (etc.) field within the field of power. … Second, one must analyse the internal structure of the literary (etc.) field. … And finally, the analysis involves the genesis of the habitus of [its] occupants” (RA, 214). Bourdieu begins, then, with an analysis of Flaubert's habitus as he finds that habitus objectified in The Sentimental Education. The source of Flaubert's greatness, Bourdieu argues, is his ability to reflect critically on the social conditions that have shaped him. At the heart of Flaubert's habitus, Bourdieu discovers the same radical ambivalence that characterizes Frederic, the protagonist of The Sentimental Education. According to Bourdieu, Frederic is “determined to indetermination” (RA, 4). He is “a potential bourgeois and a provisional intellectual” who is “at the centre of a field of forces owing its structure to the opposition between the pole of economic or political power and the pole of intellectual or artistic prestige,” and because these competing forces cancel one another out, he is left in a “zone of social weightlessness” wherein he is unable to commit himself to a particular course of action (RA, 12). By refusing commitment and clinging to a kind of adolescent freedom, Frederic fails to realize any of his possibilities, achieving neither artistic greatness nor middle-class stability.

This is the same pattern that Bourdieu finds in Flaubert's life and in his artistic practice. Flaubert, he argues, tries “to keep himself in that indeterminate position, that neutral place where one can soar above groups and their conflicts” (RA, 26). Yet, by objectifying the failure of Frederic's passive indeterminacy, Flaubert manages to identify himself with “the active indeterminacy of the ‘creator’ he is labouring to create” (RA, 26). This active indeterminacy allows Flaubert to realize in fiction the freedom that Frederic has sought in reality. “There, at least,” Bourdieu quotes Flaubert as remarking, “everything is freedom, in this world of fictions” (RA, 26). In this way, the dispositions Flaubert shares with Frederic are “simultaneously surpassed and conserved” (RA, 27). Bourdieu seems uncertain, however, about what ethical status he should assign to the artist's quest for autonomy. He suggests that the freedom the writer wins by embracing either the active or the passive form of disinterested spectatorship may be nothing more than the artist's protection against his or her own perceived failure; that is, it may be the artist's rejection of a bourgeois world that has already rejected him or her. Yet, if Bourdieu were to extend this logic, he would have to argue that there is ethical significance only in the struggles of those who desire freedom for pure motives, and this is certainly incompatible with his notions of the habitus.

The double negation that allows Flaubert to attain a provisional autonomy by situating himself in a neutral zone between competing social forces is also the means by which he achieves artistic success. In his study of Frederic, Bourdieu claims, Flaubert “delivers the generative formula which is the basis of his own novelistic creation: the double refusal of opposed positions in different social spaces and of the corresponding taking of positions which is at the foundation of an objectifying distance with respect to the social world” (RA, 28-29). As it is applied to the literary world of his time, Bourdieu argues, Flaubert's double refusal consists in a rejection of both realism, with its call for social reform, and romanticism, with its bourgeois escapism. In support of this claim, Bourdieu quotes Flaubert's indignant rejection of the notion that he is either a realist or a romantic: “Everyone thinks I am in love with reality whereas actually I detest it. … But I equally despise the false brand of idealism which is such a hollow mockery in the present age” (RA, 92). This double refusal of opposed positions within the literary field provides the foundation for what Bourdieu calls a “pure aesthetic” (RA, 105); by writing well about vulgar or mediocre subjects, Flaubert combines the style of romantic prose with the subject matter of realism and thereby asserts that it is the artist's gaze (or the artist's stylistic attention) that confers value on whatever subject matter the artist might select as the material for his or her work.

For Bourdieu, however, Flaubert's gaze generates more than aesthetic value. He credits Flaubert with a successful form of “objectification of the self” and of “socioanalysis,” and attributes Flaubert's literary success to his ability to master the techniques of the sociologist (RA, 25). Because Flaubert has been “extraordinarily successful” in the “objectification of [his] social experiences and the determinations weighing on them, including those attaching to the writer's contradictory position in the field of power,” the ruptures that he is able to produce in that field are “totally analogous with those accomplished by science” (RA, 103). It is Flaubert's special insight, Bourdieu observes, to link literary illusion to the “pathology of the primordial belief in the reality of social games” (RA, 334). Flaubert's sociological insights are, Bourdieu claims, the source of his literary value, since these insights allow him to objectify and to negate all of his competitors in the literary field: “What makes for the radical originality of Flaubert, and what confers on his work its incomparable value, is that it makes contact, at least negatively, with the totality of the literary universe in which it is inscribed” (RA, 98). In making this negative contact, Bourdieu contends, Flaubert “smashes a whole series of obligatory associations,” such as “the ones that tie the so-called ‘realist’ novel to the ‘literary rabble’ or to ‘democracy’ … or the ‘realism’ of the subject to humanist morality” (RA, 102).

Bourdieu makes no secret of the fact that he can appreciate Flaubert's work because he thinks it provides such a dramatic application of the principles of his own reflexive sociology. Despite promising his readers that he would teach them to take pleasure in tracing the social necessity that shapes both the life of the artist and the aesthetic field in which the artist works, Bourdieu's account of Flaubert celebrates not necessity but the limited autonomy that Flaubert is able to achieve by objectifying himself and his social situation. In the end, that is, it is the freedom that Flaubert achieves that Bourdieu finds most remarkable, and Bourdieu's elaborate analysis of the forces that determine Flaubert's life is dedicated to explaining how this triumph was possible. Bourdieu delights in the way in which Flaubert maps the relationships between his characters with sociological exactitude, and he clearly approves of the way in which Flaubert discovers a tough-minded self-interest behind the noble sentiments that his friends and his characters profess. Most of all, however, Bourdieu admires the way in which Flaubert can turn these tools of analysis on himself and use them as a discipline to resist the vanities of the social world. It is this discipline that allows Flaubert to find solace in an intellectual work ethic, an ethic that shields him from the “seductions of fashion” and gives him independence from the “pressures of ethical or logical conformism” without completely mystifying his own agency (RA, 85).

His warnings about the narcissism of interpretation notwithstanding, Bourdieu's interpretation of Flaubert seems to be animated by his conviction that in Flaubert he has found a kindred spirit, and this undoubtedly contributes to its insightfulness. Yet, this sociological reading is misleading insofar as it implies that literature (or any author) succeeds only to the extent that it mimics sociology's objectification of the social world and, more importantly, that the objectification of that world necessarily implies the negation and refutation of its values. In describing Flaubert's triumph over the literary field of his time, Bourdieu consistently confuses the process of objectification with the process of refutation, and this confusion, I think, constitutes one of the chief weaknesses of Bourdieu's method. Objectification of the struggles in which various ideas are deployed and of the social forces shaping those struggles does not constitute a refutation of the ideas themselves. A realist novel's denunciation of social inequality, for example, is no more invalidated by the fact that it is being used as a strategy for advancement within the aesthetic field than Bourdieu's condemnation of symbolic violence is invalidated by the fact that it is part of his strategy for advancement. Thus, by objectifying the aesthetic field, Flaubert and Bourdieu may show us the way in which various notions of what constitutes aesthetic value have been deployed in various internal political struggles, but this objectification of social circumstances can only arouse our suspicions about the validity of these notions; it cannot demonstrate that they are empty.

Bourdieu presents Flaubert's objectification of the social world as both a categorical rejection of the “pathology of the primordial belief in the reality of social games” and as refutation of specific positions within the social matrix of his time. That is, on the one hand, he credits Flaubert with seeing and implicitly criticizing the weaknesses of specific types of value claims, observing that Flaubert's work exposes both the “false Pharisaic humanism of the vendors of illusions” (RA, 112) and the complacency and complicity of realism that, if it “questions the existence of an objective hierarchy of subjects, it is only to invert it, out of a concern to rehabilitate or to take revenge … not to abolish it” (RA, 105). On the other hand, Bourdieu admits that Flaubert does not simply reject specific moral and political positions he happens to find flawed; he rejects moral and political values in their totality. Flaubert seems to be contemptuous of all those who take moral and political stands, implying that all such stands will be equally empty and hypocritical, and therefore inappropriate as guides for art. Bourdieu acknowledges, in fact, that Flaubert's aestheticism implies a kind of moral neutralism that “taken to its limits … is not far from an ethical nihilism” (RA, 110).

Such neutralism and hence nihilism are inevitable, however, for anyone who refuses to situate himself or herself in a framework of values. Thus, the project of objectifying and negating the “pathology” of all social belief is not only not synonymous with the project of criticizing specific forms of belief but is in many ways incompatible with it. To criticize false or hypocritically held values, one must take at least some other values seriously, and this is what the sociologist's categorical suspension of belief in the interests of social analysis makes it impossible to do. The sociologist's epoché or suspension of questions of belief may be justified as a strategic measure that allows us to focus on the role beliefs play in particular types of social struggle, but this means that epoché must be rigorously distinguished from social critique. Critique is distinguished from criticism precisely by the fact that those who engage in critique acknowledge their positions within a social matrix. Of course, Flaubert's negation of the social world is not as complete as Bourdieu would like, and part of the power of his work derives from his ability to combine a skeptical distance with more intimate and sympathetic views of humanity. For example, Bourdieu praises Flaubert's use of free indirect discourse as a technique for distancing and objectifying his characters, and this is part of its power. Flaubert also uses this technique to achieve a closer proximity to his characters, however, and it is the combination of distance and proximity that makes the technique so dramatically effective.

Because art contains this indelible sympathy for social illusions, Bourdieu argues that it will always be in need of a sociological supplement. He insists that no art form, Flaubert's included, can completely break the spell of the cultural illusio. “The charm of the literary work,” he observes, “lies largely in the way it speaks of the most serious things without insisting, unlike science according to Searle, on being taken completely seriously” (RA, 33). Because it does not insist on being taken seriously, Bourdieu insists, literature requires the help of sociology: Only “a sociological reading breaks the spell” (RA, 32) of the aesthetic. Sociology does this “by interrupting the complicity that unites author and reader in the same relation of denegation of the reality expressed by the text” (RA, 32). This denegation of reality is nothing other than the cultural illusio itself, which, try as it might, the literary text can never completely destroy. Although Flaubert's novelistic form creates ruptures within the social life world that are “totally analogous with those accomplished by science,” Bourdieu insists that because they are “not willed as such,” these ruptures are limited by the very “social unconscious” that they reveal (RA, 103), that is, because the fictional structures that “ground the belief in the ordinary experience of the world” are present in literature but “not marked out as such, as in scientific analysis: they inhabit a story, where they are realized and dissimulated at the same time” (RA, 335). Literature is condemned to invoke the illusion of belief even as it exposes the fictionality of that illusion.

Interestingly enough, Bourdieu insists that even art that openly proclaims its own fictionality and exposes the game from which it derives is still complicit in the process of aesthetic mystification. In the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, for instance, Bourdieu finds the admission that art is only a game based on a collective insistence on imputing value to an aesthetic essence that does not exist. Although he admits that Mallarmé's “reflexive critique … wrecks the poetic sacral and the self-mystifying myth,” Bourdieu finds it inadequate because Mallarmé insists on taking pleasure in literary illusion, even after acknowledging that it is illusory (RA, 275). Mallarmé insists on revering the collective illusion that produces, the “authorless trickery which puts the fragile fetish outside the grasp of critical lucidity” (RA, 276). Mallarmé's strategy is deplorable, Bourdieu argues, because it reserves the truth for a few initiates and perpetuates “the values to which the great humanist trickeries render at least the homage of their hypocrisy” (RA, 277). As Jonathan Loesberg points out, Bourdieu makes a similar argument, in Distinction, against Jacques Derrida, whom he credits with realizing that the aesthetic field is based on a system of empty but proliferating differences but whom he faults for taking a certain pleasure in this proliferation of differences and for lacking a proper seriousness about the phenomena he describes.5

These criticisms of Mallarmé and Derrida make it clear that Bourdieu assumes that the ultimate difference between aesthetics and sociology is not the knowledge to which they have access but the differing attitudes they take toward that knowledge. The sociologist can maintain the proper distance on the social world only by cultivating the seriousness that comes with moral disapproval. In his analysis of Mallarmé, Bourdieu argues that properly acknowledging “the mechanisms constitutive of those social games which are the most surrounded with prestige and mystery … comes down to denouncing them” (RA, 277). Anything less than a denunciation keeps open the possibility that the observer might be tempted to affirm the structures of culture and thus lose the moral seriousness that is synonymous with their complete rejection.

At this point, it becomes obvious that the epoché that has ostensibly served Bourdieu as a tool for sociological investigation has hardened into a moral absolute. As a moral axiom, the epoché measures value solely in terms of the abstract autonomy made possible by the resistance to belief, and it enforces a programmatic insensitivity to all other value claims. The norms of freedom and equality that are constantly invoked in Bourdieu's work are, as I have argued, reduced to insubstantial abstractions by the programmatic refusal of any form of social illusio. In similar fashion, the axiomatic application of the sociological epoché reduces the aesthetic to a drama of failed objectification and the attendant loss of moral seriousness. Within Bourdieu's sociological system, a more robust form of either ethical or aesthetic value would be possible only if the system itself allowed us to take other kinds of goods and more complex kinds of human agency seriously.

Ironically, in insisting that the observer of culture can lay claim to ethical and political seriousness only if he or she renounces the structures of culture in their entirety, Bourdieu resembles Theodor Adorno, despite their different assessments of the efficacy of art as an instrument of social resistance. That is, Bourdieu's analysis of aesthetics supports Adorno's assumption that any attempt to find pleasure or affirmation within the structure of modern culture can only prolong the existence of the cultural structures that must be completely destroyed if any genuine human happiness is to be possible. With Adorno, however, the necessity of a rigorous negativity is still connected to a possible happiness, to the possibility that the structure of society could be changed enough to make possible the kinds of pleasures that are now unavailable.

The resemblance between Bourdieu and Adorno is ironic because Bourdieu explicitly rejects the kind of utopianism that he feels Adorno's radical sociology represents. In place of Adorno's absolute and therefore idealistic opposition to culture, Bourdieu advocates a “reasoned utopianism, … a rational and politically conscious use of the limits of freedom afforded by a true knowledge of social laws,” a political program that is content to work within the limitations of culture as it presently exists (IRS, 197). It seems improbable, however, that anyone could implement such a reasoned utopianism from the distance dictated by the sociological epoché. Any kind of practical political program is likely to depend on a more robust notion of value than Bourdieu's aesthetic theory would allow, and such a livelier notion of human goods would implicitly extend the limited scope that he allows works of art. By contrast, the more the stoic and melancholy spectatorship of Bourdieu's sociology is embraced merely as an end in itself, divorced from any possible pleasure or satisfaction save the security of its distance from the illusions of the social world, the less authority it has to claim a political or moral mandate for its labors.

Not surprisingly, most American literary critics who profess allegiance to Bourdieu's work supplement his sociology with their own normative framework. Most often, they derive this framework from Marxism or one of the other traditions of radical sociology that Bourdieu rejects. These critics tend to share Adorno's pessimism about the kinds of satisfactions that contemporary culture makes available, but they affirm both the possibility and the necessity of radical social transformation, and this affirmation provides the concrete details of the political program that Bourdieu seems to lack. John Guillory concludes Cultural Capital, for instance, with a Marxist “thought experiment,” in which he imagines a world wherein aesthetic judgment remains a meaningful part of human existence but is somehow rendered powerless to confer social distinction.6 This is appealing, although it is difficult to suppress the suspicion that value judgments without consequences would not be value judgments at all. In lieu of such a utopian solution, however, we are, if we are lucky, left with the responsibility of estimating partial goods and weighing potential harms. Bourdieu's objectification of various arenas of social struggle may help us better understand which goods are at stake, but it does little to facilitate our choices, however limited those choices may be.


  1. Several of Bourdieu's critics have described his theories as a form of economism. Bourdieu has vigorously denied this claim on several occasions, but it is not always clear what Bourdieu and his critics think is at stake in this label. Bourdieu typically attempts to refute the claim that his theory implies an economistic framework by pointing out that (1) the motives that he attributes to agents are only partially conscious motives and therefore cannot generate purely rational strategies, and (2) that the goods for which his agents struggle are imaginary goods with values that cannot be rationally computed and assigned economic value. It is true that this makes it inappropriate to describe the habitus as a rational strategist who maximizes goods according to a single standard of value. Insofar as the habitus will necessarily strive to maximize its economic and cultural capital in whatever field it finds itself engaged, and insofar as this is part of the habitus's overall strategy to maintain or improve its overall social standing, however, the habitus is a kind of maximizer or, perhaps more accurately, a kind of satisficer. Bourdieu thus may be justified in claiming that his theory is not compatible with some of the narrower rational choice models of motivation, but this fact does not address what I take to be an important aspect of his critics' arguments: Insofar as the habitus is a kind of satisficer (albeit an unconscious one) involved in a zero-sum game, there is no possibility that it will engage in genuinely cooperative behavior. Thus, Bourdieu's theory seems to be as pessimistic about the possibility of altruism as are the most rigid forms of economism. For an example of the charge of economism, see Axel Honneth, “The Fragmented World of Symbolic Forms: Reflections on Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture,” in The Fragmented World of the Social: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, ed. Charles W. Wright (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 184-201.

  2. See, for instance, David Simpson, The Academic Postmodern and the Rule of Literature: A Report on Half-Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). Simpson argues that the contemporary social sciences have been disabled by their dependence on literary models of subjectivity. He sees the process of objectifying and overcoming such subjectivity as the first step toward reclaiming valid social knowledge. It is not clear just how far he thinks we can or should go in subduing subjectivity.

  3. Anthony Giddens, “The Politics of Taste,” Partisan Review 53, no. 2 (1986): 300-305. Giddens reviews Pierre Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.

  4. Peter Bürger, “The Problem of Aesthetic Value,” in Literary Theory Today, ed. Peter Collier and Helga Geyer-Ryan (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990), 23-34.

  5. See Jonathan Loesberg, “Bourdieu and the Sociology of Aesthetics,” ELH 60, no. 4 (winter 1993): 1033-56. Loesberg makes this observation about Bourdieu's treatment of Derrida in the course of a larger argument, in which he claims that to the extent that cultural capital remains antithetical to economic privilege, Bourdieu is compelled to reinstate a form of intrinsic aesthetic value. That is, he argues that if Bourdieu “allows even the act of distinction that aesthetics enables to become a value that cannot be cashed in, he seems to have simply produced a new version of an intrinsic aesthetics” (1045).

  6. John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

In this essay, I discuss the following works by Bourdieu: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984) (hereafter cited as D); Language and Symbolic Power, ed. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge, Mass.: Polity Press, 1991) (hereafter cited as LASP); The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990) (hereafter cited as LOP); Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977) (hereafter cited as OTP); The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995) (hereafter cited as RA); Sociology in Question, trans. Richard Nice (London: Sage, 1993) (hereafter cited as SIQ); (with Loïc J. D. Wacquant) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) (hereafter cited as IRS).

I would like to thank Mary Papke for her invaluable help in revising and editing this essay. Thanks also to the Critical Theory Reading Group at the University of Tennessee for providing intellectual companionship during this project; our weekly discussions have provided a forum in which I could test my ideas against their always thoughtful criticism.

Lois McNay (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: McNay, Lois. “Gender, Habitus and the Field: Pierre Bourdieu and the Limits of Reflexivity.” Theory, Culture & Society 16, no. 1 (1999): 95-117.

[In the following essay, McNay focuses on the work of Bourdieu and Michel Foucault to examine notions of reflexive identity, characterizing Bourdieu's position as more dynamic and developed.]

This article argues that the failure of certain theories of reflexive identity transformation to consider more fully issues connected to gender identity leads to an overemphasis on the expressive possibilities thrown up by processes of detraditionalization. A more sustained examination of questions related to gender, embodiment and sexuality reveals aspects of identity that render it less amenable to emancipatory processes of refashioning. This is not to say that identity is immutable but, by ignoring certain deeply embedded aspects, some theories of reflexive change reproduce the ‘disembodied and disembedded’ subject of masculinist thought.

The issues of disembodiment and disembeddedness are explored through a study of the work of Pierre Bourdieu on ‘habitus’ and the ‘field’ and this is contrasted briefly with Michel Foucault's work on the body and the self. Foucault's work is a central source for both theories of reflexive identity and feminist work on gender, I argue, however, that in two key respects, Bourdieu's work on the incorporation of the social into the body is more developed. First, Bourdieu's notion of habitus yields a more dynamic theory of embodiment than Foucault's work which fails to think the materiality of the body and thus vacillates between determinism and voluntarism. A dynamic and non-dichotomous notion of embodiment is central to a feminist understanding of gender identity as a durable but not immutable norm. Second, Bourdieu's notion of the ‘field’ provides a more differentiated analysis of the social context in which the reflexive transformation of identity unfolds. Such a differentiated analysis is foreclosed in theories that construe reflexivity as primarily a result of processes of ‘aesthetic dedifferentiation’. A weakness of Bourdieu's work on the gendered habitus is that he fails to fully integrate it with his work on the concept of the field. However, by drawing out these implications, I show how the field permits the conceptualization of differentiation within the construction of gender identity. This in turn offers a way of thinking of possible transformations within gender identity as uneven and non-synchronous phenomena.


Michel Foucault's work on the construction and regulation of the subject has had an enormous impact on recent theories of identity. Two areas upon which his thought has had a significant influence are feminist theories of gender and also certain theories of reflexivity that emphasize the potential, thrown up by changes in late capitalism, for the transformation of social identities (e.g. Butler, 1990, 1993; Featherstone, 1992: 269; Giddens, 1992: 18-37). It is the extent to which Foucault draws attention to the constructed, socially contingent and hence mutable elements of identity that makes his work a central source for such recent thought. Foucault's work on discipline shows how the body is not a natural entity but is socially produced through regimes of knowledge and power (dispositif). His later work shifts focus from ‘technologies of domination’ to ‘technologies of the self’ and claims that identity is not simply imposed from above but is also actively determined by individuals through the deployment of ‘practices’ of the self. When this process of self-stylization becomes conscious, then the potential for a reflexive or ethical form of self-fashioning—an ‘aesthetics of existence’—emerges (Foucault, 1985). Self-stylization is an example of what Foucault calls the practice of liberty.

Despite its impact upon subsequent thought on the issue of subjectification, there are certain difficulties in Foucault's thinking of the nature of embodied identity which stem from his failure to integrate fully the insights from his work on biopower with his subsequent thought on practices of the self. This results in an unresolved vacillation between determinism, on the one hand, and voluntarism, on the other. From ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ through to the first volume of The History of Sexuality, it is the docile body which is inexorably worked upon by differing disciplinary regimes. The idea of discipline replaces dichotomized understandings of corporeal repression and liberation—evident in Marcuse's work for example—with a more complex notion of networks of control that are simultaneously constitutive of pleasure. The very means through which individuals are controlled also provide the foundation for autonomous action. In other words, resistance emerges from within the social and not from some extra-social or unconscious source. This insight into the capacity of dominatory relations to fold back upon themselves creating spaces of autonomy is undercut by Foucault's failure to think through the materiality of the body. There is a tendency to conceive of the body as essentially a passive, blank surface upon which power relations are inscribed. As a result, a form of uni-directional determinism emerges which leads to an understanding of the acquisition of gender identity as a relatively straightforward and one-sided process of inculcation and normalization (McNay, 1994: 100-4).

The tendency to hyperdeterminism that marks Foucault's work on discipline arises in part because the process of corporeal construction is considered in isolation from a notion of agency. Subjectivity tends to be regarded as an effect or ‘present correlative’ of regimes of disciplinary control over the body (Foucault, 1977: 29). This lack of a more substantive theory of agency undermines the idea of resistance because there is no active subject through which it may be realized. Foucault's work on practices of the self corrects this imbalance by showing how the process of subjectification involves not only bodily subjection but also a relatively autonomous form of self-construction (Foucault, 1982). However, although the concept of the ‘docile body’ is replaced with the more productive notion of the ‘reflexive’ subject, the materiality of the body remains unthought in so far as it is conceived as the non-problematic backdrop to practices of the self. The impression is given that identity, particularly sexual identity, is fully amenable to a process of self-stylization. This failure to consider fully the recalcitrance of embodied existence to self-fashioning manifests itself, for example, in the emphasis on aesthetics of the self as a form of ascesis or self-mastery which fails to consider the exclusionary implications of such a masculine model of self-control for female subjects (McNay, 1992). More generally, the ways in which the preconscious and unknowable elements of incorporated experience—suggested in Kristeva's notion of abjection or Grosz's notion of volatility—might block an ethics of the self are not taken into account (see Grosz, 1994a: 193-4; Kristeva, 1980).

This neglect to distinguish more adequately between aspects of subjectivity that are relatively amenable to self-fashioning and those that are more ineluctable arises partly from Foucault's rejection of the psycho-analytic concept of repression and associated notions of the unconscious, drives and desires. Foucault's reformulation of power as emerging within productive social relations rather than as a repressive, psychic energy undoubtedly has much force but it leaves him, in a sense, with a flattened out view of the subject where the question of how it is possible to refashion more deeply inscribed elements of the self—such as sexual desire—is not adequately addressed. In so far as it underestimates the embodied aspects of existence Foucault's final work bears traces of an abstract voluntarism which reformulates rather than breaks from a philosophy of consciousness.

This unresolved tension in Foucault's work between determinist and voluntarist tendencies is reproduced in varying ways in the work of those influenced by his thought. Giddens's work on reflexivity and the transformation of intimacy, for example, is characterized by a relative lack of concern for the issue of embodiment (Turner, 1991: 11). While he is careful to temper his discussion of the transformatory potential of reflexive self-management with an emphasis on a reactive ontological anxiety, Giddens's consideration of identity emphasizes existential aspects rather than corporeal foundations. His discussion of sexuality in The Transformation of Intimacy is construed largely in terms of the ‘sequestration of experience’ and its implications of affectual and moral anomie. While Giddens is rightly critical of Foucault's reduction of the issue of sexuality to the notion of biopower, he also does not examine the deeply entrenched bodily basis of sexual identity. The failure to fully consider sexuality as embedded in inculcated, bodily predisposition underestimates the relatively involuntary, pre-reflexive and entrenched elements in identity. Without having to resort to biologistic notions of maternal instinct, the inscription of the mothering role upon the female body is fundamental in the inculcation of emotional and physical predispositions that maintain gender inequality around child-rearing. It is not clear how such forms of identity, which are overdetermined both physically and emotionally, can be that easily dislodged (Soper, 1990: 60). It is in the light of such concerns that Giddens's claim that ‘revolutionary processes are already under way in the infrastructure of personal life’ seem to require much qualification (Giddens, 1992: 182). In sum, there is a tendency in certain theories of identity transformation to construe identity as a process of symbolic identification without considering its mediation in embodied practice (e.g. Featherstone, 1992). From this shortcoming, a tendency to voluntarism can arise which manifests itself in an overemphasis on the emancipatory expressive possibilities thrown up in late capitalism.


The concept of embodiment is central to feminist thought, because it mediates the antinomic moments of determinism and voluntarism through the positing of a mutual inherence or univocity of mind and body in place of a Cartesian dualism. As the point of overlap between the physical, the symbolic and the sociological, the body is a dynamic, mutable frontier. The body is the threshold through which the subject's lived experience of the world is incorporated and realized and, as such, is neither pure object nor pure subject. It is neither pure object since it is the place of one's engagement with the world. Nor is it pure subject in that there is always a material residue that resists incorporation into dominant symbolic schema. In Elizabeth Grosz's words (1994a), the body is a ‘transitional entity’. A lack of corporeal finality arises from a mutual inherence between psychical interior and corporeal exterior where each is constitutive but not reducible to the other. Such a lack of finality suggests, for example, that the ascription of feminine corporeal identity is never straightforward or complete. A similar idea is expressed in Judith Butler's concept of performativity (1990, 1993). As a constantly reiterated cultural norm gender is deeply inscribed upon our bodies. At the same time, the cultural necessity for a performative reiteration points to a constitutive instability in gendered identity. It is this instability that can be prised open to create a space for the construction of marginal or ‘abject’ sexualities.

The idea of a dynamic and non-dichotomous inherence between the body and subjectivity is important for feminist theory because it allows a recognition of the central but not invariant role played by sexuality in women's incorporated experience of the world. A fluid relation to gendered identity is implied where gender is understood as an entrenched but not unsurpassable boundary. Embodiment expresses a moment of indeterminacy whereby the embodied subject is constituted through dominant norms but is not reducible to them. There are, however, certain difficulties in the thinking through of a dynamic notion of embodiment. Butler, for example, attempts to formulate the open-ended nature of the formation of gender identity through emphasis on the fragility of dominant norms. This insight is undercut by the drift in her work towards reducing the process of subjectification to one of subjection. This engenders a dualistic logic of inclusion—exclusion, domination—resistance which, ultimately, replicates the hyperstatization of the dominant and the fetishization of the marginal that haunts much of Foucault's work (McNay, 1994: 80-2).

In the light of the difficulties that hamper the conceptualization of embodied existence, Pierre Bourdieu's work on habitus and le sens pratique has important implications for feminist theories of gender identity. In a fashion similar to Foucault, Bourdieu claims that large-scale social inequalities are established not at the level of direct institutional discrimination but through the subtle inculcation of power relations upon the bodies and dispositions of individuals. This process of corporeal inculcation is an instance of what Bourdieu calls symbolic violence or a form of domination which is ‘exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (1992: 167). The incorporation of the social into the corporeal is captured by Bourdieu in the notion of habitus, a system of durable, transposable dispositions that mediates an individual's actions and the external conditions of production (1990a: 53). An institution can only be efficacious if it is objectified in bodies in the form of durable dispositions that recognize and comply with the specific demands of a given institutional area of activity, ‘the habitus is what enables the institution to attain full realization’ (1990a: 57).

In the article ‘La Domination masculine’ (1990b), Bourdieu looks at what he considers to be the paradigm of symbolic domination, namely gender inequality (1992: 170). Drawing on his research into the North African society of Kabyle, Bourdieu shows how masculine domination assumes a natural, self-evident status through its inscription in the objective structure of the social world which is then incorporated and reproduced in the habitus of individuals. The key to the naturalization of the masculine—feminine opposition is its insertion in a series of analogous oppositions—a ‘mythico-ritual’ system—which occludes the arbitrary nature of the sexual division by lending it a ‘semantic’ thickness or an overdetermination of connotations and correspondences. These binaries are lived and reinvoked in the everyday life of the Kabyle and are particularly evident in the structuring of the social space which confines women, by and large, to circumscribed domestic, pastoral and market locations as opposed to the masculine sites of the public sphere.

The inscription of a system of sexualized oppositions upon social space is paralleled in the ‘somatization’ of these relations within the bodies of individuals. Hierarchical gender relations are embedded in bodily hexis, that is to say arbitrary power relations are inculcated upon the body in the naturalized form of gender identity. The living through of bodily hexis leads to doxic forms of perception which permit the ‘re-engenderization’ of all perceived social differences, that is their interpretation in a sexualized dualism. Thus women become implicated within a circular logic where the cultural arbitrary is imposed upon the body in a naturalized form whose cognitive effects (doxa) result in the further naturalization of arbitrary social differences. Women in Kabyle society realize in their conduct the negative identity that has been socially imposed upon them and in doing so naturalize this identity (1990b: 10). Although Kabyle is a peasant culture, Bourdieu claims it exemplifies the ways in which sexual hierarchies are maintained in modern industrial society. This claim will be examined in subsequent sections.


At first sight, the idea of embodiment expressed in the notion of habitus appears not to be a dynamic, open-ended process but rather one of inexorable physical control not dissimilar to the Foucauldian notion of discipline. Indeed, the charge of determinism is a common criticism of Bourdieu's work (e.g. Alexander, 1994: 136; Garnham and Williams, 1980: 222). These criticisms fail to recognize, however, the force of Bourdieu's insistence that habitus is not to be conceived as a principle of determination but as a generative structure. Within certain objective limits (the field), it engenders a potentially infinite number of patterns of behaviour, thought and expression that are both ‘relatively unpredictable’ but also ‘limited in their diversity’. Thus, habitus gives practice a relative autonomy with respect to the external determinations of the immediate present but at the same time ensures that it is objectively adapted to its outcomes (1990a: 55).

The generative nature of the habitus is explained by what Bourdieu calls a ‘double and obscure’ relation between individual habitus and the social circumstances or ‘field’ from which it emerges. On one side, there is a relation of conditioning where the objective conditions of a given field structure the habitus. On the other, there is a relation of ‘cognitive construction’ whereby habitus is constitutive of the field in that it endows the latter with meaning, with ‘sense and value’, in which it is worth investing one's energy (1992: 127). In so far as meaningful social action is what Crespi (1989) calls a ‘borderline concept’—that is, it is neither fully determined nor fully willed—the habitus is a generative rather than determining structure which establishes an active and creative relation—‘ars inveniendi’ (1992: 122)—between the subject and the world.

Habitus is realized in ‘le sens pratique’ (feel for the game) a pre-reflexive level of practical mastery (1990a: 52). It is a mode of knowledge that does not necessarily contain knowledge of its own principles (‘docta ignoratia’) and is constitutive of reasonable but not rational behaviour: ‘It is because agents never know completely what they are doing that what they do has more sense than they know’ (1990a: 69). The example that Bourdieu frequently uses to explain the concept is of the tennis player whose strokes assume a spontaneous and relatively unpredictable form in a match although they are consciously and mechanically practised. ‘Le sens pratique’ is a form of knowledge that is learnt by the body but cannot be explicitly articulated.

To explain gender identity in terms of this notion of ‘practical belief’ is to suggest that it amounts to something more than the internalization of an external set of representations by a subject. The acquisition of gender identity does not pass through consciousness, it is not memorized but enacted at a pre-reflexive level. At the same time, bodily dispositions are not simply mechanically learned but lived as a form of ‘practical mimesis’: ‘the body believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief’ (1990a: 73). In his critique of the concept of ideology, Foucault also draws attention to the way in which disciplinary power does not pass through consciousness (Foucault, 1980: 186). However, by not providing a more active notion of the acting subject, the idea of discipline is in danger of becoming a technical principle of bodily constraint. While psychoanalysis provides a more nuanced account of the ambivalences that surround the acquisition of gender identity, Bourdieu is critical of the way in which its archetypal psycho-sexual categories cannot account for the myriad of other social power relations—‘the countless acts of diffuse inculcation through which the body and the world tend to be set in order’—that overlay and run counter to sexual division (1990a: 78). By stressing that habitus and ‘le sens pratique’ are essentially lived categories, theoretical space is opened for explaining the elements of variability and potential creativity immanent to even the most routine reproduction of gender identity.


Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and ‘le sens pratique’ establish major differences with Foucault's work on the body. First, in contrast with the atemporality of the Foucauldian tabula rasa, the concept of habitus introduces a temporal dimension to an understanding of the body. An understanding of embodiment as inseparable from social practice leads Bourdieu to speak of social agents rather than subjects (1992: 137). Praxis, or the living through of the embodied potentialities of the habitus, is a temporal activity. Time is understood in radically historicist terms as engendered through social being. Practice is the result of a habitus that is itself the incorporation of temporal structures or the regularities and tendencies of the world into the body. Embodied practice is necessarily temporal in that it both expresses and anticipates these tendencies and regularities. Practice, therefore, generates time: ‘time is engendered in the actualization of the act’ (1992: 138). By conceiving of habitus as a temporal structure, the body is imputed a dynamism and mutability.

A notion of temporality is missing in many accounts of gender, where it tends to be construed as a relatively atemporal system of dominant norms. Butler draws attention to the constitutive instability of dominant norms, however, as we have seen, this does not lead to a less monolithic concept of normative gender identity. This problem is related partly to her failure to think of time as ‘protention’ as well as ‘retention’. Butler briefly acknowledges the presence of a potentially disruptive temporality at the heart of the most regulatory norms, but her notion of performativity relies predominantly on a version of the Freudian idea of repetition compulsion which is essentially a reactive and, according to some commentators, an atemporal concept (see Smith, 1996). This emphasis on the retrospective dimensions of time—the performative as ‘a repetition, a sedimentation, a congealment of the past’ (Butler, 1993: 244)—leads to an overemphasis on the internal uniformity of gender norms. Reiteration becomes a static rather than temporal act where the reproduction of the sex-gender system involves a ceaseless reinscription of the same. This notion of time as a succession of self-identical and discrete acts renders the dominant hermetic and self-sustaining and means that disruption can only come from outside. This provokes the dualisms of subjection—resistance, exclusion—inclusion that limit Butler's work. Following Husserl, Bourdieu invokes a more praxeological notion of temporality as protention—time as involving a ‘practical reference to the future’—and thereby opens up the act of reproduction to indeterminacy and the potential for change (1992: 129). For example, the idea of a detraditionalization of gender norms cannot be accounted for in Butler's static model of domination because it does not allow a notion of decomposition from within. A more active notion of praxis is required where social being is regarded not just as repetition, but as a creative anticipation of future uncertainty on the part of social actors. In sum, Bourdieu's work reminds us that it is essential that the ‘sex-gender system’ be conceived of as temporal and open-ended if change to dominant norms is to be conceived in terms other than total rupture.

While the praxeological notion of time embedded in the concept of habitus highlights the uncertainties inherent in even the most routine act of reproduction, it also underscores the entrenched nature of normative social identity. The idea of a corporeal, pre-reflexive foundation to agency establishes a second area of difference with Foucault's work in that it provides a corrective to the voluntarist emphasis that hampers the idea of practices of the self. Habitus suggests a layer of embodied experience that is not immediately amenable to self-fashioning. On a pre-reflexive level, the actor is predisposed or oriented to behave in a certain way because of the ‘active presence’ of the whole past embedded in the durable structures of the habitus. By gesturing towards potentially unrecuperable elements of embodied experience, Bourdieu shares with psychoanalysis a stress on the priority of originary experiences which lead to a relative closure of systems of disposition that constitute habitus (1992: 134). A difficulty for a feminist appropriation of psychoanalytic theory is that this closure tends to be immutable in so far as the symbolic realm is understood in psychic rather than socio-historical terms, hence the problematic construal of femininity as an invariable negativity. In Bourdieu's model, although the habitus accords a disproportionate weight to primary social experiences, the resulting closure is never absolute because the habitus is an historical structure that is only ever realized in reference to specific situations. Thus while an agent might be predisposed to act in certain ways, the potentiality for innovation or creative action is never foreclosed: ‘[habitus] is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures’ (Bourdieu, 1992: 133; my italics).

The pre-reflexive mode of habitus provides a more differentiated or layered account of the entrenched dimensions of embodied experiences that might escape processes of reflexive self-monitoring. Thus, detraditionalizing forces may have thrown certain aspects of gender relations—the gender division of labour, marriage—up for renegotiation. At the same time, however, men and women have deep-seated, often unconscious investments in conventional images of masculinity and femininity which cannot easily be reshaped and throw into doubt ideas of the transformation of intimacy. The destabilizing of conventional gender relations on one level, may further entrench conventional patterns of behaviour on other levels. For example, women's entry into the workforce has not freed women demonstrably from the burden of emotional responsibilities. Rather, it has made the process of female individualization more complex in that the notion of ‘living one's own life’ is in a conflictual relation with the conventional expectation of ‘being there for others’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995: 22). In a similar vein, work on the sociology of emotions suggests that despite modernizing forces, gender differences in emotional behaviour are deeply entrenched (Duncombe and Marsden, 1993).

The uneven nature of the transformation of gender relations illustrates Bourdieu's claim that the habitus continues to work long after the objective conditions of its emergence have been dislodged (1990b: 13). A weakness of alternative theories of reflexive transformation is that the emphasis on strategic and conscious processes of self-monitoring overlook certain more enduring, reactive aspects of identity. Other theories of reflexive transformation place much weight on ‘biographically significant life choices’ while ignoring the ‘unconsidered and automatic, habitual routine of conduct’ (Campbell, 1996: 163). As Bourdieu points out, ‘determinisms operate to their full only by the help of unconsciousness’ (1992: 136). While gender identity is not an immutable or essential horizon, there are many pre-reflexive aspects of masculine and feminine behaviour—sexual desire, maternal feelings—that call into question the process of identity transformation highlighted by some theories of reflexivity. This is a result of the deeply entrenched nature of gender identity and also of the way in which gender as a primary symbolic distinction is used to play out other social tensions. As Bourdieu shows in Distinction, anxieties about class status and belonging are sublimated into and played out through the categories of masculinity and femininity thereby entrenching them further (1979: 382).

The third set of differences between Bourdieu's notion of habitus and the Foucauldian concept of the body centre around an understanding of agency in terms of a dialectic of freedom and constraint which emerges from a temporalized concept of the body. The somatization of power relations involves the imposition of limits upon the body which simultaneously constitute the condition of possibility of agency. Agency is an act of temporalization where the subject transcends the present through actions that have an inherently anticipatory structure. The practical activity of the agent transcends the immediacy of the present through the ‘mobilization of the past and practical anticipation of the future inscribed in the present in a state of objective potentiality’ (1992: 138). The intertwinement of corporeal being and agency implied in the concept of habitus transcends the opposition between freedom and constraint characteristic, for example, of liberal conceptions of the subject. Foucault (1982: 221) also argues against an understanding of the subject in terms of an antinomy of freedom and constraint, however, the vacillation of his thought between determinism and voluntarism prevents him from developing this insight. The formation of subjectivity within a symbolic system involves subjection to dominant power relations, but also involves the institution of meaning. The instantiation of a subject within dominatory power relations does not negate but rather implies agency:

I do not see how relations of domination … could possibly operate without implying, activating resistance. The dominated, in any social universe, can always exert a certain force, inasmuch as belonging to a field means by definition that one is capable of producing effects in it.

(Bourdieu, 1992: 80; original emphasis)

In this way the relation between symbolic structure and subject is shifted from an antinomy of domination—resistance and to a more differentiated concept of ‘regulated liberties’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 102).

The idea of ‘regulated liberties’ has important implications for a feminist understanding of the relation between women and dominant representations of femininity. It provides a way of obviating simplified theories of oppression and provides a framework in which to understand some of the ‘hybrid’ forms that women's autonomy has recently taken. The notion of hybridity—taken from postcolonial theory—suggests a form of change not as opposition or externality but as dislocation arising from the reinscription of the tools and symbols of the dominant into the space of the colonized (Bhabha, 1994: 109). Such a notion is useful for an understanding of what are perceived to be significant assertions of women's autonomy in the last 20 years which rest on an ambivalent relation with conventional notions and images of femininity. For example, the tentative renegotiation of heterosexual relations beyond the institution of marriage. Or, for example, the claims made in studies of ‘girl culture’ that highly feminized cultural icons, notably Madonna, provide teenage girls with a set of symbolic tools with which to subvert patriarchal definitions of femininity (Kaplan, 1993). Or, the appropriation by ‘lipstick’ lesbians of the signifiers of conventional femininity to throw into question stereotyped representations of non-heterosexuals. Such changes cannot be understood through binaries of domination and resistance but rather involve more complex processes of investment and negotiation. They are illustrative of how the feminine subject is synchronically produced as the object of regulatory norms by phallocentric symbolic systems and formed as a subject or agent who may resist these norms. In this view, gender identity is not a mechanistically determining structure but an open system of dispositions—regulated liberties—that are ‘durable but not eternal’ (Bourdieu, 1992: 133).


Bourdieu's notion of habitus permits the thinking of the synchronous nature of constraint and freedom expressed in the hybrid form that women's social experience has assumed. At the same time, however, it guards against a conflation of the potentiality for autonomous action with a celebration of its subversive political significance. The fact that individuals do not straightforwardly reproduce the social system is not a guarantee of the inherently resistant nature of their actions. Bourdieu is critical of the tendency to ‘spontaneist populism’ that haunts certain forms of cultural studies (e.g. Fiske, 1989). He claims that practices often hailed as ‘resistant’ may have an impact only on the relatively superficial ‘effective’ relations of a field rather than its deeper structural relations (1992: 113). While avoiding this celebratory subjectivism in an explicit form, certain theories of identity transformation often reproduce it indirectly through a fetishization of the indeterminacy of social structures. An indeterminacy which forms the ontological grounds for the emergence of change becomes elided with the emancipatory or political per se. Resistance becomes an inevitable consequence of instability rather than a potentiality whose realization is contingent upon a certain configuration of power relations (McNay, 1996). This elision is evident in Butler's work, for example, which moves too quickly from outlining the constitutive instability of symbolic systems to claiming a political status for certain ‘excentric’ sexual practices (Hennessy, 1992). This is not to deny the threat that homosexuality poses to heterosexuality but it does throw into question some of the wider political claims made about individualized sexual practices. It constitutes what Grosz calls, ‘a refusal to link sexual pleasure with the struggle for freedom, a refusal to validate sexuality in terms of a greater cause or a higher purpose’ (Grosz, 1994b: 153).

Scott Lash's work also rests on short-circuited movement from the ontological to the political. He argues that ‘gender bending’ in adverts problematizes reality and the normative through the deliberate ambiguity in gender and sexual preference that is built into such images. The effect of this symbolic problematization is an opening up of social identities to produce a ‘more ambivalent and less fixed positioning of subjectivity’ (1990: 198). The problem with such an argument is that it elides a process of symbolic destabilization with processes of social and political transformation. A consideration of gender shows that while there may have been a loosening of dominant images of femininity, the transformatory impact of these images upon embodied feminine identity and upon the collective subordination of women in society is far from certain (e.g. Walby, 1992). By eliding symbolic detraditionalization with social detraditionalization, some theories of reflexive transformation overestimate the significance of the expressive possibilities available to men and women in late capitalist society.

In pointing towards the rootedness of gender divisions in social forms, the concepts of habitus and ‘le sens pratique’ serve as a corrective to sociologically naive claims about the transformation of social and sexual identities. Bourdieu does not deny the possibility of reflexive self-awareness nor the attendant potential for politically motivated change. This possibility for change is immanent to the temporal and indeterminate nature of social praxis. It also arises from the increasingly differentiated nature of modern society into distinct fields of action. The field is defined as a network or configuration of objective relations between positions (1993: 72-7). The configuration receives its form from the relation between each position and the distribution of a certain type of capital. Capital—economic, social, cultural and symbolic—denotes the different goods, resources and values around which power relations in a particular field crystallize. Any field is marked by a tension or conflict between the interests of different groups who struggle to gain control over a field's capital. In the final instance, all fields are determined by the demands of the capitalist system of accumulation, however, each field is autonomous in that it has a specific internal logic which establishes non-synchronous, uneven relations with other fields and which renders it irreducible to any overarching dynamic. The proliferation of differentiated fields of action leads to a ‘lengthening of circuits of legitimation’ which has both positive and negative effects. In an argument similar to Foucault's critique of monarchical concepts of power, Bourdieu claims that when power is no longer incarnated in persons or specific institutions but becomes coextensive with a complex set of relations between different fields, social control becomes more insidious and hence more effective. At the same time, this increase in the efficacy of symbolic domination is counterbalanced by an increase in ‘the potential for subversive misappropriation’ arising from movement and conflict between fields of action (1989: 554-7).

Although Bourdieu acknowledges the destabilizing and potentially subversive effects that might arise from movement across fields, he fails to consider what this might imply for an understanding of modern gender identity. To put this in other terms, he fails to bring the conceptual implications of the idea of the field, most notably that of societal differentiation, to bear on the idea of habitus. While habitus draws attention to the entrenched nature of gender identity, it is important to consider the extent to which its effects may be attenuated by the movement of individuals across fields. If the differentiation of society leads to what Luhmann (1986) calls an ‘a priori displacement’ of individuals, the lack of fit between gendered habitus and field may be intensified. Such a consideration is imperative in the light of the increased entry of women into traditionally non-feminine spheres of action and in the light of the putative opening up of alternative definitions of masculinity that some theorists have identified (e.g. Segal, 1990). In his studies of specific fields of action, Bourdieu alludes to possible dimensions of such changes. For example, in La Noblesse d'état (1989) he mentions the correlation between women's increased entry into higher education and declining levels of fertility but the broader implications for gender identity are not considered. More strikingly, in his only sustained consideration of gender identity, the concept of the field is not discussed (1989: 390-2). The origin of this oversight in Bourdieu's work lies in his extrapolation of the ‘basic mythic structures’ of sexuality from an analysis of Kabyle society. Despite the attenuation of a pure dualism of gender relations in a differentiated society, Bourdieu claims that these archaic mental structures still survive in contemporary practices and dispositions (1990b: 4). Contemporary masculinity is construed as the enactment of the libido dominandi, an unfaltering assertion of virility which pits men against each other in agonistic games of self-assertion. Masculine privilege is a trap in as much as: ‘the dominant is dominated by his domination’ (1992: 173). The principle of isotimie—equality in honour—that governs these games of masculine competition excludes the feminine entirely. This exclusion from the realm of masculine privilege accords women a certain critical insight—the ‘lucidity of the excluded’—into masculinity. However, their subordinate position means that women remain complicit with these games and thus, participate by proxy (par procuration) in their own subordination and serve as ‘flattering mirrors’ to the games of men (1990b: 26).

This lack of a sustained consideration of gendered habitus in relation to the field results in an overemphasis on the alignment that the habitus establishes between subjective dispositions and the objective structure of the field with regard to gender identity. Although he is undoubtedly right to stress the ingrained nature of gender norms, he significantly underestimates the ambiguities and dissonances that exist in the way that men and women occupy masculine and feminine positions. The acknowledgement of the possibility of disjunction between subjective dispositions and objective structures in cases such as the movement from peasant to urban culture, is not carried into the work on gender where there is an invariable alignment between the masculine and feminine dispositions and the need for social reproduction. This alignment is regarded as so stable that it leads Bourdieu to claim that the phallonarcissistic view of the world can only be dislodged through complete rejection of the gendered habitus. There is no recognition that apparent complicity can conceal potential dislocation or alienation on the part of individuals. It is precisely such dislocation that Janet Radway's (1987) study of women readers of romance fiction reveals. Reading the Romance shows that what might appear as a passive act of identification with highly conventional images of masculinity and femininity is in fact underlain by a more active attempt by women to work through the disappointments and tensions arising from their attempts to negotiate the competing feminine roles of mother, wife and worker. Radway's study presents a far more complex picture of contemporary gender relations than Bourdieu's notion of masculine domination and female complicity.

In a similar fashion, recent work on masculinities has revealed that with regard to ‘dominant’ forms of subjectivity, the habitus cannot be said to always ensure unproblematic alignment between the demands of the field and subjective dispositions. Kaja Silverman (1992), for example, has argued that the dominant conception of masculinity is an idealized fiction and is, therefore, a position that cannot be filled within the social realm. Just as, according to Lacan, the notion of the feminine is unfillable because of its negative relation to the symbolic, so the masculine, as the epicentre of meaning in a phallocentric system, is also illusory. As the moment of absolute presence in the symbolic, masculine identity rests on an impossible adequation of the biological penis with the phallus. Using a similar idea of masculinity as an imaginary and hence unfillable place, Marjorie Garber (1992) argues that attempts to occupy the position of the masculine must result, in their inevitable failure, in a degree of feminization. Developing Lacan's assertion that virile display in the human being has a feminine aspect, Garber claims that the real male cannot be embodied at all, that embodiment itself is a form of feminization. In a study of male icons (Valentino, Elvis, etc.), Garber shows how fetishized images of masculinity bear within them the traces of the feminized man-transvestite and thus point towards their own constitutive instability and displacement.

The instability of the categories of masculinity and femininity should not be construed as a crisis within contemporary identity formations. Nonetheless, Bourdieu does not seem to recognize that masculine and feminine identities are not unified configurations but a series of uneasily sutured, potentially conflictual subject positions. In short, by failing to draw out the implications of the notion of the field for an understanding of gender identity, Bourdieu has no conception of multiple subjectivity (Moore, 1994: 80). His account of the somatization of gender relations therefore tends to suggest that the symbolic formations of masculinity and femininity are unproblematically mapped on to the social realm where men unambiguously occupy the dominant position and women the subordinate one. This invariant logic of male domination and female subordination oversimplifies the complexities of gender identity in late capitalist society and hypostatizes the social realm. In the remaining sections, I will consider what the implications of Bourdieu's concept of the field might be for an understanding of gender identity.


The concept of the field has important implications for understanding how reflexive awareness might arise with regard to gender identity. For certain theorists of identity transformation, the possibility of reflexive self-awareness arises from the aestheticization of society, or a process of aesthetic dedifferentiation, in which symbolic images are both intensified and destabilized. The problem with such theories is that the priority accorded to the notion of aesthetics forecloses an analysis of the specificity of the power relations in which a reflexive management of the self is ineluctably embedded. This aesthetic dedifferentiation leads in turn to an implicit reinstalling of a disembodied, disembedded self who moves freely across the social realm. Bourdieu's work provides an interesting contrast to this because it links the emergence of reflexivity to a process of social differentiation and, in particular, to the tensions and conflicts constitutive of a particular field of social action. The embodied potentialities of the habitus are only ever realized in the context of a specific field and, therefore, rather than being a generalized capacity, reflexivity is an irregular manifestation dependent on a particular configuration of power relations. Such a notion makes it possible to conceptualize any changes within gender identity as uneven and discontinuous.

It is in the work of thinkers such as Scott Lash (1990), Mike Featherstone (1992) and Michel Maffesoli (1988) that the idea of identity transformation is conceived of primarily as an aesthetic process. The notion of aesthetic reflexivity is partly taken from Foucault's notion of an aesthetics of existence as a form of ethical labour on the self that challenges what are held to be the self-evident, natural elements of identity. It is also derived from Baudrillard's (1983) argument that late capitalist society is increasingly dominated by a referentless symbolic logic that leads to a dedifferentiation of the distinct spheres of activity and thought characteristic of the era of high modernity. For Baudrillard, these associated notions of aestheticization, hyperreality and social implosion result in a nihilistic vision of an apolitical, indifferent mass society. Lash and Featherstone give these ideas a positive inflection by combining them with Foucault's work on the self and thereby emphasizing the expressive possibilities generated by the tendencies towards dedifferentiation. Lash claims, for example, that tendencies towards aestheticization lead to a dedifferentiation of the socio-cultural sphere instituting a postmodern regime of ‘figural signification’. The intrusion of a figural aesthetics into the lifeworld problematizes life by drawing attention to its constructed nature. This has destabilizing and potentially emancipatory effects upon traditional systems of representation and, in particular, upon hegemonic constructions of collective and individual identity.

A problem with such arguments about the expressive possibilities generated by processes of aesthetic dedifferentiation is that they are based primarily on a logic of cathexis and identification which is not able to sustain a notion of reflexivity. The transformation of identity is predicated on a moment of instantiation or identity between subject and symbolic structure. Postmodern figural sensibility operates not through meaning as does the discursive sensibility of modernity but through direct impact. It is a visual rather than a literary sensibility that is non-rational, non-hierarchical and operates through direct instantiation or the unmediated investment of the spectator's desire in the cultural object (Lash, 1990: 175). Michel Maffesoli's (1988) arguments for the emergence of a mass ‘ethic of aesthetics’ presume a similar logic of identification embedded in postmodern patterns of consumption.

Such a logic of cathectic identification cannot support the idea of reflexivity because cathexis is a dynamic force or psychic energy which exists prior to any critical horizon (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973: 62-5). A critical understanding of the process of identity formation cannot arise, therefore, from the direct instantiation of the subject with symbolic structures (cf. Ricoeur, 1981). Moreover, a notion of direct identification is an impossibility in so far as it assumes an absolute submission on the part of the subject ‘who would passively incorporate all the determinations of the object’ (Laclau, 1994: 14). Furthermore, the notion of cathexis used to characterize the ways in which individuals identify with symbolic objects does not adequately distinguish between the different modalities this relation may assume. Luhmann, for example, distinguishes between cognitive and normative modes of identification; the former being disposed towards learning whereas the latter is not (Luhmann, 1995: 320-1). Reflexive self-knowledge would straddle the two modalities in so far as it is not possible to establish an absolute separation between them. However, reflexivity in the sense of a self-conscious shaping of identity would presumably involve a greater degree of cognitive expectation and the notion of direct instantiation fails to signal this.

Reflexivity can emerge therefore only from distanciation provoked by the conflict and tension of social forces operating within and across specific fields. It is not an evenly generalized capacity of subjects living in a detraditionalized era but arises unevenly from their embeddedness within differing sets of power relations. This suggests that any shifts in gender norms cannot be attributed to a non-specific process of social aestheticization. If there can be said to have been any attenuation of conventional notions of masculinity and femininity in the last 30 years or so, it needs to be thought of as a much more piecemeal, discontinuous affair arising from the negotiation of discrepancies by individuals in their movement within and across fields of social action. Thus, women entering the workforce after child-rearing may experience difficulties because their expectations and predispositions constituted largely through the exigencies of the domestic field sit uneasily with the objective requirements of the workplace. At the same time, this dissonance may lead to a greater awareness—what Bourdieu calls the ‘lucidity of the excluded’—of the shortcomings of a patriarchally defined system of employment. In other words, reflexive awareness is predicated on a distanciation of the subject with constitutive structures. The questioning of conventional notions of femininity does not arise from exposure to and identification with a greater array of alternative images of femininity but from tensions inherent in the concrete negotiation of increasingly conflictual female roles. Such a process is suggested in Teresa de Lauretis's work on gendered identity as both the effect of representation and that which remains beyond representation—that is the cross-cutting and conflictual practices of self-representation (De Lauretis, 1987). Furthermore, the equation of reflexive self-awareness with post-conventional modes of behaviour needs to be scrutinized (Thompson, 1996). For example, Faye Ginsburg's work on women anti-abortionists in the USA shows how the adoption of traditional modes of feminine behaviour is often accompanied by high levels of critical self-awareness (Ginsburg, 1989). In sum, if the notion of reflexivity is to have any relevance for feminism, therefore, it must be qualified with a differentiated analysis of attendant social relations and leads to a more qualified account of reflexivity as a capacity of the agent that is unevenly realized.


Feminists have long insisted on a consideration of the embeddedness of the subject within specific power relations in order to correct the tacitly masculinist tendencies of objective thought. By construing the subject in ‘concrete’ terms attention is drawn to a microphysical layer of power and constraint that is obscured in more abstract understandings of the subject (e.g. Benhabib, 1992). In feminist political and social theory, this strategy has been used to unpack ‘patriarchal’ dualisms such as the public—private distinction which by being implicitly gendered naturalize a circumscribed notion of female agency confined to the domestic sphere.

Despite the force of such critiques, a problem with the insistence on embeddedness is that they often perpetuate rather than undo dualistic analyses of gender identity. Anna Yeatman (1984), for example, argues that in their recovery of domestic life, many feminists accept implicitly the logic that renders the distinction between the domestic—public as an opposition between the social and the extra-social rather than as a differentiation between two forms of sociality. A consequent assumption emerges that public sociality is the paradigm of social life and the residual status of the domestic is assured. From a Habermasian perspective, Jodi Dean (1996) argues that the public—private distinction perpetuates an analogous dualism of universality—particularity which hampers conceptions of justice. If particularity is always associated with the private, feminine realm, justice remains a transcendental and tacitly masculine ideal that has little connection to embodied, intersubjective relations. Thus, in order to conceive of justice as a dimension of validity that pertains to all intersubjective relations, it is necessary to jettison the public—private distinction and to reconceptualize civil society as a series of interconnecting discursive domains.

To overcome such dichotomies, it is necessary to develop an understanding of the internal differentiation within gender identity. The social realization of masculine and feminine identities can no longer be mapped on to a straightforward division between the public and private not least because the relationship between the two realms has become more complex in late modernity (e.g. Offe, 1987). The result of introducing such a notion of differentiation into an understanding of the social construction of gender identities, is that masculinity and femininity would be seen as imbricated in complex ways rather than as opposed and separate categories. Bourdieu's notion of the field provides a way of thinking through this differentiation within gender identity. His insistence on the autonomous logic of each field suggests that gender relations are not reproduced in an invariant way: ‘there are as many ways of realizing femininity as there are classes and class fractions’ (1979: 107-8). At the same time, his understanding of gender relations as a fundamental form of symbolic domination guards against a completely fragmented view of the way in which gender identity is constituted. As Laclau and Mouffe (1985) point out, such a fragmentation can lead to an ‘essentialism of the elements’ in which it is impossible to ascertain how subjects even begin to function as autonomous individuals. Although the categories of masculinity and femininity are internally differentiated, on the whole, men and women do not experience themselves as consciously choosing between discrete and often conflictual identities (Spelman, 1990: 15). If large-scale inequalities between men and women are to be explained then, it is also important not to lose sight of the persistence of certain symbolic norms within the diversity of masculine and feminine behaviours.

In the remaining space I will briefly outline how the concept of the field might be used within feminist theory to break down the category of the private into more discrete arenas of action. One distinction that might be made is between the fields of domestic and intimate relations. There is a tendency in some thought not only to elide the private with the domestic, but also to celebrate the latter as a haven for the reproduction of non-instrumental social relations. This is a flaw for example, in Dorothy Smith's (1987) work which, despite recognizing the extent to which the domestic is traversed by other power relations, proceeds to hermetically seal it off in order to sustain a cohesive notion of a feminine standpoint. It is also a problem in the work of Habermas who, by placing familial relations within the communicative sphere of the lifeworld, underestimates the extent to which they are crossed by an instrumental rationality that is regarded as pertaining to systems only (Fraser, 1987). By breaking down social action into distinct spheres of activity each governed by its own logic the concept of the field circumvents the conflation of the private with the domestic. The domestic might be viewed as a field governed by a logic of familial reproduction and characterized by struggles over child-care, domestic labour, division of resources, etc. While intimate relations—particularly parent—child relations—are predominantly reproduced within the domestic sphere, it is no longer the exclusive site of the reproduction of these relations. Intimate relations, understood as centred around struggles over emotional capital, can be viewed as an increasingly unbounded field. The separation of the domestic from the intimate enables us to place claims such as those that Giddens makes about the transformation of gender relations in the context of an examination of shifts in the domestic division of labour and the extent to which these putative shifts have been translated into the fields of employment, politics, etc. For example, Sylvia Walby's (1990) argument that private patriarchy has given way to public patriarchy throws into question some of the more utopian claims about the transformation of intimate gender relations.

Conversely, the separation of the domestic from the intimate permits a consideration of possible changes in gender relations emerging from what is seen to be the new centrality of intimacy to conventionally more impersonal fields of social action. Luhmann (1986) argues, for example, that the demand for intensive forms of relations traditionally confined to the female domestic arena have spilled over into other areas of social life (also Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). The effects of this new centrality of the intimate are contested. On the one hand, it is associated with a regression of the public sphere and a fetishization of the self (Foucault, 1978; Sennett, 1976). On the other hand, it could be seen as potentially emancipatory in that it is no longer exclusively women who are burdened with the responsibility for the emotional. As Francesca Cancian suggests, it may be liberating for women to enter into certain types of instrumental relation more usually associated with men (Cancian, 1989).

In sum, as a relational concept the field yields an understanding of society as a differentiated and open structure and provides a framework in which to conceptualize the uneven and non-systematic ways in which subordination and autonomy are realized in women's lives. By construing intimate and domestic relations as overlapping but distinct fields of behaviour, their interconnection and relations with other fields of sociality can be thought not as implacable opposition but in terms of multiple disjunction, overlap and conflict. This yields a differentiated account of gender identity and provides a way of exploring claims about the increasingly reflexive nature of gender identity in the context of specific power relations.


Bourdieu's work provides a corrective to certain theories of reflexive transformation which overestimate the extent to which individuals living in post-traditional order are able to reshape identity. This overemphasis on the mutable nature of identity is partly the result of a tendency to understand gender identity as a form of symbolic identification rather than as a deeply entrenched form of embodied existence. Furthermore, certain theories of reflexivity tacitly presuppose a disembedded agent and, as a result, do not consider the obstacles that confront the transposition of the feminine habitus into different fields of action. Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and the field offers a theory of embodiment in the context of differentiated power relations that may be of use for feminist social theory.


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Hernan Vera (review date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Vera, Hernan. Review of On Television, by Pierre Bourdieu. Contemporary Sociology 28, no. 2 (March 1999): 196-97.

[In the following review, Vera provides a brief overview of Bourdieu's On Television.]

Pierre Bourdieu is the only major contemporary theorist who has proposed a general sociology of culture. The production process, the cultural text, and the audience—in the context of social institutions, culture, and social change—can be understood better as a whole process using the ideas on the economy of symbolic practices he has developed throughout his career. This small book [On Television] is a good example of the empirical use of his method as he turns it on the field of journalism.

The term field, part of Bourdieu's technical vocabulary, refers to “a structured social space, a field of forces, a force field” (p. 40). Like other fields, journalism “is based on a set of shared assumptions and beliefs, which reach beyond differences of position and opinion” (p. 47). These assumptions and beliefs operate within a mental grid that determines what journalists select from social reality and symbolic productions. They retain what catches their attention, what interests them, thus censoring what reaches the population. “Since they are not always very educated, they marvel at things that aren't very marvelous and don't marvel at things that are in fact extraordinary” (p. 43). The importance of the journalistic field in society derives from “their de facto monopoly on the large-scale informational instruments of production and diffusion of information” (p. 46).

On Television is a good translation of two lectures that Bourdieu delivered in 1995 using the public communication facilities of the College de France. In these facilities, he faced no time limit, he chose the topic to be discussed, and had none of the technical, vocabulary, or decency constraints of a commercial TV show. He thus bypassed the typical circumstances under which intellectuals appear on TV. He had “control over the instruments of production” (p. 13). Thus, he was able to show, by contrast, what the conditions are under which people appear on regular TV. But this choice of outlet also demonstrated that it is feasible for the producers of culture to regain control over the conditions under which they appear in the media, an idea Bourdieu has been advancing for some time. In a 1993 interview published in the print press (Bourdieu and Dutheil), for example, he said that “It is time that the producers of culture endeavor to struggle collectively to reappropriate the control of the means and ends of their activity.” Thus, he has harsh words for those intellectuals who “collaborate” (evoking those who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II) with the media by submitting to their censure, language games, and other conditions.

The core of the lectures of On Television is a warning on how the journalistic field, especially television journalism, “poses a serious danger for all the various areas of cultural production—for art, for literature, for philosophy and for law. … I think that television poses no less a threat to political life and to democracy itself” (p. 10). Television, according to Bourdieu, is a great instrument of domination, a tool that exercises symbolic violence even through the appearance of a formal equity—communicated, for example, through the shape of the sets used to stage conversations and debates among pundits and intellectuals.

Crucially, the journalistic field imposes its very particular vision (ruled by the fear of boring and the anxiety to be amusing at all costs) on political events, simplifying them to the point of demagoguery. “The search for exclusivity, which elsewhere leads to originality and singularity, here yields uniformity and banality” (p. 20). “Journalism shows us a world full of ethnic wars, racist hatred, violence an crime—a world full of incomprehensible and unsettling dangers from which we must withdraw for our own protection” (p. 8).

This work is packed solid with insightful observations, mostly on French TV, but many also on American TV and many applicable to the medium anywhere. This is not the attack on television and journalists that the passionate—and still unabated—reaction to the 1996 French version of these lectures might suggest. What Bourdieu has given us here “is simultaneously a balance sheet based on a number of studies and a program for further research” (p. 50). Social scientists and journalists will find much of value, and much to take issue with, in this book. This is, in fact, a good example of what a theoretically guided sociological vision can contribute to contemporary affairs.


Bourdieu, Pierre and Florence Dutheil. 1993. “Supplement le Monde, Carrefour des Literatures Europeens de Strasbourg. L'intellectuel dans la cite.” Paris: Le Monde, 5 November.

Richard Shusterman (essay date 3 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Shusterman, Richard. “France's Philosophe Impolitique.Nation (3 May 1999): 25-8.

[In the following essay, Shusterman reviews Bourdieu's theories and writings in the context of other French theorists.]

Recent French philosophy has been most passionately loved and hated for its militant radicalism. Figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault defined it through an intoxicating blend of subversive theory and progressive praxis that deployed academic erudition to wage war and wield influence in arenas of social struggle far grander than those of campus politics. As Diderot and Rousseau had done two centuries earlier (inspiring the French Revolution), so Sartre and Foucault made philosophy seem not just daringly chic but socially momentous. Through stirring acts of philosophically inspired protest, widely reported by the media, they gave the lay public a concrete (if distortedly one-sided) idea of how exciting and politically potent the work of progressive philosophy can be. But the more Sartre and Foucault became familiar icons for radical causes and inspirational gurus for the lumpen ranks of oppositional culture, the more suspicious they became to philosophers honed on ideals of analytic rigor and academic purism. Even if one shared the same left-wing causes, one's politics (as we learned at Oxford) should be kept separate from one's philosophical work, which could only be corrupted by the vulgarizing effects of media attention.

Many, therefore, hoped the subversive wave of militant French theory had finally (even shamefully) consumed itself when Foucault, after shifting his focus to aesthetic self-fashioning and the celebration of consensual S/M, died of AIDS in 1984. Pierre Bourdieu has proved them wrong. Even from the most reluctant quarters, there is growing recognition that Paris has a new “master thinker” worthy of the militant mantle of Sartre and Foucault. While Jacques Derrida, François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze always seemed far too slippery and cryptic to have real political impact, Bourdieu has shown that he can mobilize trade unions and social movements, not just graduate seminars. His views on society command particular authority through his distinctive specialist expertise. Having supplemented his philosophical education by retooling himself as a social scientist (initially to explore the culture and political struggles of Algeria), Bourdieu now speaks as the chairman of sociology at the prestigious Collège de France, where Foucault also taught.

Bourdieu's wide-ranging corpus spans the fields of philosophy, sociology, anthropology, aesthetics, linguistics and political theory. Densely written and replete with complex graphs and statistical tables, his major works make demanding reading for even seasoned academics. Refusing to compromise scientific substance for slickness of style, Bourdieu is equally reluctant to risk the claim to objectivity by combining his research with political polemic—at least in academic texts. Politics, for this Frenchman, requires other kinds of papers and audiences, those rarely imported by our university or commercial presses. But thanks to the publication of Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market (deftly coupled with the paperback issue of last year's On Television). American readers can now be properly introduced to the political Bourdieu; they can even get an inkling of some of his major theoretical ideas (like “field,” “habitus” and “reflexivity”) without toiling through weighty tomes of academic writing. They can see, for example, how the “field” of journalism, as “a structured social space” constituted by power relations and the values these relations establish, implicitly instills these values into all ambitious members of the field, thus defining the basic perceptual habits that determine what journalists see as newsworthy. This habitual way of seeing (and not seeing) results in a form of collective, unconscious censorship that, in turn, poses a higher-level burden on intellectuals who want their research to be socially productive. They need to think not only of the knowledge they provide but further, more reflexively, of the means to anticipate, avoid and counteract its mediatic muzzling or distortion.

Acts of Resistance is a collection of short, hard-hitting texts culled essentially from Bourdieu's past five years of activism against government policies that damaged social welfare and encouraged racism under the pretext of protecting the French economy from the pressures of globalization. Ranging from polemical Op-Ed pieces and interviews to speeches at rallies for striking workers and the unemployed, these texts mount a ferocious attack on what Bourdieu's original French subtitle calls “the invasion of neoliberalism,” a political program that stresses free-market economics as the necessary means for achieving progressive social aims and protecting individual freedom. How much this ideology pervades the current US politics of Clintonism and the centrist “third way” can be gauged by noting the central neoliberal myths Bourdieu targets for critique: that economics defines the most essential reality; that the free-market system is both objective necessity and the democratic expression of individual choice; that competition promotes real diversity of products (instead of uniformity through pressured copying); that globalization and market trends are irresistible impersonal forces rather than products of willful political agendas; that any resistance to the prevailing Western model of scientific rationalism must be irrationalist fundamentalism; that neoliberal thought is a hiply progressive revolution rather than a slickly repackaged restoration of old robber-baron thought, replete with the social Darwinist “ideology of competence” that defines those unable to raise themselves above poverty as inherently inferior and undeserving.

On Television (which began as two televised lectures) mounts a scathing critique of the main vehicle through which these myths are disseminated. Dominating other journalistic media through its greater power and market share, television imposes its distorted, profit-hungry vision of the world by stealthily secreting consensus through a relentless, distracting “dripfeed” of selective news and views that only serve to reinforce received opinion. In “manufacturing consent” (as Chomsky aptly puts it), our TV-dominated media induce what Bourdieu calls “permanent amnesia.” Do we remember that only twelve years ago it was a commonplace that democracy and free-market capitalism were essentially in conflict? So obviously in conflict that even a market fanatic like Gordon Gekko (villain of the movie Wall Street) could insist: “You're not naïve enough to think we're living in a democracy; it's the free market!” By now, through ever-increasing media attention, the market has become such a familiar symbol of everyday American life as to be equated with democracy. To resist this equation by reminding us of its devastating social consequences is the not uncommon strategy Bourdieu deploys.

Protesting French government slashes of social services, he decried the media's collaboration in making public compliance seem the only sanity. By earning the counterattacks of political leaders and media stars, Bourdieu became a surprise celebrity, though a very reluctant one, for the celebrity “media intellectual” is perhaps the most detested bête noire in Bourdieu's bestiary of the enemies of progress. To reach the media public by voicing the clichéd ideas and soundbites it is ready to understand, such “negative” intellectuals not only betray the cognitive rigor of their disciplines; they add a counterfeit seal of expert authority to the conventional terms and issues of public debate, which have been self-servingly defined by neo-liberalism's ruling ideology and its political, financial and media moguls.

But how, except through the media, can expert critics reach the public to challenge this manufactured consensus that ravages social welfare and even threatens the integrity of intellectual and artistic culture by reducing all values ultimately to the economics of profitability and market share? Bourdieu offers both direction and example. The reign of neoliberalism, he argues, rests as much on its symbolic control of our minds as on its economic success, which itself, of course, depends on psychologies of market confidence. Insufficiently attentive to this “symbolic dimension,” progressives lag woefully behind conservatives in wielding “the power of theory” by using media muscle to instill their views among the general public. To thwart the “authority effect” of neoliberalism's media-endorsed ideology and to fight its multi-national networks, Bourdieu prescribes new “intellectual and cultural weapons.” We “need to invent new forms of communication” among researchers, activists and their appropriate publics to create “a structure for collective research, interdisciplinary and international,” that can “communicate the most advanced findings of research” in digestible modes to aid “the work of contestation.”

It is easy to profess this pious “ideal of the collective intellectual” making “common cause with others” to resist the entrenched dogmas of domination. But Bourdieu translates this seemingly quixotic preaching into effective practice. Having issued his critique of mainstream TV through the television facilities of the Collège de France, he then used the bestseller profits of On Television to finance an independent book series, Liber Raisons d'Agir. Initiated with Acts of Resistance, it seeks to implement his program of bringing collaborative expert research to bear on urgent civic issues through texts whose style and price are accessible to a wide reading public. Refusing the traditional choice between ivory-tower purity and pamphlet popularization, Bourdieu has also launched a parallel series of academic books (titled Liber) in the hope that this combined program will raise the cognitive standards of public debate while bolstering the vitality of autonomous research—a remarkably ambitious publishing enterprise to support a forceful attack on neoliberal ideology. But what is the philosophy behind it all?

In large part, we find the classic role of philosophical critique, subversively exposing dogma by a deeper probing of reality. “What I defend above all,” Bourdieu avows in explicit defense of Marx, Nietzsche, Sartre and Foucault, “is the possibility and necessity of the critical intellectual, who is firstly critical of the intellectual doxa secreted by the doxosophers.” This Platonic pejorative for those “technicians of opinion who think themselves wise” suggests the profoundly Socratic dimension of Bourdieu's project. As Socrates struggled against an Athenian orthodoxy reinforced by the mesmerizing power of Greek art, so Bourdieu must battle established neo-liberal ideology together with the enthralling media powers that serve it. His ideal of the critical, collective intellectual seeking truth through common dialogue with all kinds of people strives to recall “the Socratic mission in all of its glory,” as he disputes entrenched dogma by revealing deeper realities.

One pivotal dogma is that economics defines the most decisive human truth and should therefore be the ultimate perspective in governing society. Bourdieu's refutation claims the primacy of the social, because it alone provides the conditions for “the functioning of the economic order.” Enthralled by respect for mathematical science, we forget that economistic equations are abstractions that ignore vital realities, erecting “the accountant's view of the world” as the final truth and “supreme form of human achievement.” But human flourishing cannot be measured in dollar terms of productivity and profitability. We need, says Bourdieu, an “economy of happiness” where “social cohesion is as important a goal as stable exchange rates,” and the individualist logic of competition and growth is tempered with social aims of equity and security.

This evokes a second key dogma that Bourdieu's Socratic sociology endeavors to dislodge: the robust reality of the independent individual (in contrast to the presumably abstract or “fictional” nature of social groups). “Under the banner of individual freedom,” neoliberalism pursues “a programme of methodical destruction” against “all the collective structures capable of obstructing the logic of the pure market”—atomizing union workers, citizens of the nation-state and even family members through the competition for profit. Deplorable poverty and anxiety are demonstrable byproducts of this individualistic race for riches. Job insecurity increasingly plagues our most economically advanced countries, while the conditions of real individual freedom are being eroded. For individuals are always the products of social structures (which form one's language and ideas, but also one's habits, tastes and desires). By destroying the social fabric of solidarity that ultimately supports the individual's security and self-confidence, neo-liberalism is actually weakening individual freedom. Likewise, by erecting market values as the universal criterion of worth, it corrodes the autonomy of intellectual, artistic and other associative fields that can display alternative facts and values through the “rational pursuit of collectively defined and approved ends,” “in particular of truth.”

In such earnest invocations of truth, autonomy and consensual rationality, Bourdieu sounds very different from his admired progenitors Nietzsche and Foucault. For they were keen to put these notions (and their own thought) sharply into question in the exemplary Socratic tradition of reflexive self-critique (the wisdom of knowing that one does not know). Is there a troubling tension between the “critical” and the “collective” intellectual? On the critical side, Bourdieu tells us, “thought, by definition, is subversive,” a “taking apart” of accepted ideas. But how, on the other hand, can collective projects of scientific and artistic culture be advanced without relying on some accepted ideas to structure inquiry? And how can we effectively criticize the distortions of television without invoking some solid sense of truth beyond suspicion? Bourdieu's solemnly unconditional appeals to scientific knowledge in these popular books need to be seen in the context of his more subversive scholarly analyses of the autonomous fields of intellectual and artistic culture, which reveal competitive power struggles, unholy alliances and mendacious practices that seem not so very different from what he deplores in the media.

But we cannot be effectively subversive of everything at once. Perhaps our complex, imperfect world demands the double standard implied in Bourdieu's dual publishing project. Though the critical ideal demands that scientific truth itself be put in question, such subversions are more effective in the ivory tower than in the public sphere of political struggle. Scientific truth seems a notion too politically potent to be abandoned to the enemy or to doubt. For Bourdieu it is one of the few terms of resistance we still have that can match the pervasive symbolic power of profit, the spellbinding motto of the market that threatens to enthrall us all.

Pierre Bourdieu and Günter Grass (interview date 3 July 2000)

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SOURCE: Bourdieu, Pierre, and Günter Grass. “A Literature from Below: Günter Grass and Pierre Bourdieu.” Nation (3 July 2000): 25-8.

[In the following interview, originally published in French and German, Grass and Bourdieu discuss the role of intellectuals in society, centering on topics such as sociology, literature, economics, and world politics.]

The role of the public intellectual—and the moral onus, assuming that one exists—seems ever to thread the Scylla of celebrity and the Charybdis of marginality. In a conversation printed in part simultaneously in the French daily Le Monde and German weekly Die Zeit, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Nobel laureate Günter Grass discussed the role of intellectuals in society, stylistic practices in sociology and literature, neoliberal economics, the emerging world order and other topics. The following is adapted from a translation from the French by Deborah Treisman. Bourdieu is a professor of philosophy at the Collège de France, was founder in 1975 of the journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, and is author of, among other works: The State Nobility (1996), The Rules of Art (1996), On Television (1998), The Weight of the World (1999) and Pascalian Meditations (2000). Grass, a native of Danzig (now Gdansk), defines himself as a “citizen writer” and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999. Among his works are The Tin Drum (1959), From the Diary of a Snail (1972), The Rat (1987), Dog Years (1989), The Flounder (1989) and My Century (1999).

[Bourdieu]: You have spoken somewhere of “the European or German tradition”—which is also, by the way, a French tradition—of “opening your big mouth.” I am delighted that you received the Nobel Prize, and I am also delighted that you haven't been transformed by receiving the Nobel, that you are as inclined as you ever were to “open your big mouth.” I am hoping that we can open our big mouths together.

[Grass]: It is relatively rare for a sociologist and a writer to meet in a German setting. In my country, it is more common for philosophers to gather in one corner of the room, the sociologists in another corner and the writers, all giving each other the cold shoulder, in the back. A communication of the kind we are undertaking now is the exception to the rule. When I think of your book The Weight of the World or of my last book, My Century, I see that our works have something in common: We are trying to retell History, as seen from below. We do not talk over society's head; we do not speak as conquerors of History; rather, in keeping with the nature of our profession, we are notoriously on the side of the losers, of those who are marginalized or excluded from society. In The Weight of the World, you and your collaborators were able to put your individuality aside and to base your work on pure understanding, without claiming always to know better: The result was a snapshot of social conditions and the state of French society that could easily be superimposed on other countries. I am tempted, writer that I am, to mine your stories for raw material. For example, the study of the young woman who came from the country to Paris in order to sort mail at night. The description of her job makes one understand the social problems without harping on them in an ostentatious manner. I was very pleased by that. I wish that there were such a book about the social conditions in every country.

The only question that struck me comes, perhaps, from the sociological domain: There is no humor in this genre of writing. It lacks the comedy of failure, which plays such an important role in my stories, the absurdity inherent in certain confrontations.

You have written magnificently about a certain number of the experiences we evoke. But the person who hears these stories directly from the one who experienced them is often wiped out by them or overwhelmed, and it isn't always possible to maintain one's distance from them. We felt, for example, that we had to exclude a certain number of narratives from the book because they were too poignant or too pathetic, too painful.

When I speak of “comedy,” I don't mean to imply that tragedy and comedy are mutually exclusive, that the boundaries between the two don't fluctuate.

Absolutely. … That's true. … In fact, what we aim to do is to make our readers see that raw absurdity, without any special effects. One of our rules was that there would be no turning of the stories into “literature.” This may seem shocking to you, but there is a temptation, when one is dealing with dramas like these, to write well. The rule here was to be as brutally pragmatic as possible, to allow these stories to retain their extraordinary, and almost unbearable, violence. There were two reasons for this: scientific reasons and, also, I think, literary ones, because we chose not to be literary precisely in order to be literary in another sense. There are also political reasons. We felt that the violence being perpetrated at the moment by the neoliberal politics established in Europe and Latin America and in many other countries—that the violence of the system is so vast one cannot explain it through purely conceptual analysis. Our critical resources are no match for the effects of this political system.

We are both, the sociologist and the writer, children of the European Enlightenment, of a tradition that has now been thrown into question everywhere—or, at least, in France and Germany—as if the European movement toward Aufklärung, toward Enlightenment, had failed. Many of its early aspects—we need only think of Montaigne—have been lost over the course of the centuries. Humor is one of them. Voltaire's Candide and Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, for example, are books in which the social conditions described are equally horrifying. Yet, even in pain and in failure, the human capacity for comedy and, therefore, victory, comes through.

Yes, but our sense of having lost the tradition of the Enlightenment is tied to the complete reversal of our vision of the world that has been imposed by the neoliberal vision that dominates today. I think (and here, in Germany, I can make this comparison), I think that the current neoliberal revolution is a conservative revolution—in the sense that one spoke of a conservative revolution in Germany in the thirties—and a conservative revolution is a very strange thing: It's a revolution that restores the past and yet presents itself as progressive, a revolution that transforms regression into progress—to the extent that those who oppose this regression seem themselves to be regressing. Those who oppose terror come to seem like terrorists. It's something that we have both experienced: We voluntarily classify ourselves as archaic—in French, we are called ringards (old-timers), arriérés (outdated).


Dinosaurs—exactly. That is the great strength of conservative revolutions, or “progressive” restorations. Even what you're saying, I believe, illustrates the idea. We are told: You're not funny. But the era is really not funny! Honestly, there is nothing to laugh about.

I have never claimed that we were living in an amusing era. But the infernal laughter triggered by literary means is also a form of protest against our social conditions. What is peddled today as neo-liberalism is a return to the methods of the Manchester liberalism of the nineteenth century. In the seventies, in most of Europe, there was a relatively successful effort to civilize capitalism. If you believe in the principle that both socialism and capitalism are the charmingly spoiled children of the Enlightenment, then you also have to admit that they have had a certain way of keeping each other in check. Even capitalism has been subject to certain responsibilities. In Germany, we call this the social economy of the market, and there was a general consensus, which included the conservative party, that the conditions of the Weimar Republic should never be reproduced. This consensus broke down in the early eighties. Since the Communist hierarchies fell apart, capitalism has come to believe that it can do anything, that it has escaped all control. Its polar opposite has defaulted. The rare remaining responsible capitalists who call for prudence do so because they realize that they have lost their sense of direction, that the neoliberal system is now repeating the errors of Communism by creating its own dogma, its own certificate of infallibility.

Yes, but the strength of this neoliberalism is that it has been applied, at least in Europe, by people who call themselves Socialists. Whether it's [Gerhard] Schröder or [Tony] Blair or [Lionel] Jospin, these are people who invoke socialism in order to further neoliberalism.

It is a capitulation to economics.

At the same time, it has become extremely difficult to create a critical position to the left of the Social Democratic governments. In France, there was the great strike of 1995 that mobilized a large portion of the population—laborers, office workers, etc., and also intellectuals. Then there were a whole series of protests. There was the unemployed workers' demonstration, the European march to protest unemployment, the illegal immigrants' protest and so on. There was a kind of continuous agitation that obliged the Social Democrats in power to pretend, at least, to be participating in some sort of socialist discourse. But in practice this critical movement is still very weak, for the most part because it is limited to a national level. One of the most important questions, it seems to me, in the political arena, is to know how, on an international scale, to create a position that is to the left of the Social Democratic governments and that is capable of having a real influence on them. But I think that any attempt to create a European social movement at the moment would be very unlikely to succeed; and the question I ask myself is the following: What can we, as intellectuals, do to contribute to that movement, which is indispensable, because, despite what neoliberalism holds to be the case, all social victories have been won through battle? If we want to create a “social Europe,” as they say, we must create a European social movement. And I think—it is my impression—that intellectuals bear a great deal of the responsibility for the creation of such a movement, because the nature of political domination is not only economic but also intellectual; it lies also on the side of belief. And that is why, I believe, we must “open our big mouths” and try to restore our utopia; because one of the defining qualities of these neoliberal governments is that they do away with utopias.

The Socialist and Social Democratic parties also believed somewhat in that idea, when they claimed that the downfall of Communism would also wipe socialism off the globe, and they lost confidence in the European workers' movement that had existed, mind you, much longer than Communism had. If one abandons one's own traditions, one abandons oneself. In Germany, there have only been a few timid attempts to organize the unemployed. For years, I have been trying to tell the unions: You cannot content yourselves with supervising only the workers who have jobs—and who, as soon as they lose them, fall into a bottomless abyss. You must found a union for the unemployed citizens of Europe. We complain that the construction of Europe is taking place on a purely economic level, but the unions themselves have made no effort to find a form of organization and action that goes beyond the national framework and has an impact across borders. We must create a counterweight to this worldwide neoliberalism. But, to tell the truth, most intellectuals today swallow everything, and it gives them nothing but ulcers. Which is why I doubt that we can count exclusively on intellectuals. In France, it seems to me, one speaks always, without hesitation, of “the intellectuals,” but my experiences in Germany have shown me that it's a mistake to believe that all intellectuals are on the left. You can find proof to the contrary throughout the history of the twentieth century, the Nazi era included: A man like Goebbels was an intellectual. For me, being an intellectual is not a proof of quality. Your book The Weight of the World shows how those who come from the working world, who are union members, often have more experience in the social domain than intellectuals do. Those people are now unemployed or retired and no one seems to need them anymore. Their potential is lying fallow.

Let me go back for one second to the book The Weight of the World. It is an attempt to attribute a much more modest and, I believe, more useful function than one usually does to the efforts of the intellectual: the function of “public writer.” The public writer—and I've witnessed this in the countries of North Africa—is someone who knows how to write and who lends his talent to others so that they can express the things they know, on one level, far better than the person who writes them down. Sociologists are in a position that is unique. They are not like other intellectuals; they are primarily—though not always—people who know how to listen, how to decipher what they hear and how to transcribe and transmit it.

But that means that we must also call on the intellectuals who situate themselves in the proximity of neoliberalism. There are those among them who are starting to ask themselves whether this circulation of money around the globe, which eludes all control, whether this form of madness that follows in the wake of capitalism might not be about to collide with some kind of opposition. Mergers, for example, without purpose or reason, that cause the “redundancy” of 2,000, 5,000, 10,000 people. All that counts for stock-market valuations is the maximization of profit.

Yes, unfortunately, it is not simply a matter of opposing and thwarting the dominant discourse that claims to represent a unanimity of voices. In order to fight it effectively, we must insure that the criticisms reach the public. We are constantly invaded and assaulted by the dominant discourse. A vast majority of journalists are often unconsciously complicit in the process, and it is incredibly difficult to break down that illusion of unanimity. First, because, in the case of France, it is difficult for anyone who is not very established and very well-known to get access to the public. When I said, at the beginning of this conversation, that I hoped you were going to “open your big mouth,” it was because I think that established public figures are the only ones, in a sense, who can break the circle. But, unfortunately, they are often established precisely because they are unquestioning and soft-spoken and because we want to keep them that way, and there are very few who make use of the symbolic capital their position gives them to speak out, to speak frankly and to make sure that the voices of those who cannot speak for themselves are heard. In My Century, you evoke a series of historical events and a certain number of them touched me very much—I am thinking of the story of the little boy who goes to the Liebknecht demonstration and pees on his father's back. I don't know if it is based on a personal memory, but in any case it shows a very original way of learning about socialism. I also very much liked what you said about Jünger and Remarque: you say, between the lines, many things about the role of intellectuals and their complicity in tragic events—even in those they appear to criticize. I also liked what you said about Heidegger. That's one more thing we have in common. I have done a whole analysis of Heidegger's rhetoric, which has had a terrible effect in France almost to the present day.

What is important for me in that story about Liebknecht is that you have, on one hand, Liebknecht, the agitator of youth—a progressive movement in the name of socialism is just beginning—and, on the other hand, the father who, in his enthusiasm, doesn't realize that his son, who is sitting on his shoulders, wants to get down. When the little boy pees on his father's neck, his father gives him a fierce spanking. This type of authoritarian behavior later causes the boy to enlist voluntarily when troops are being mobilized for the First World War—in other words, to do exactly the opposite of what Liebknecht was hoping to inspire young people to do. In My Century, I describe a professor who reflects, during a Wednesday seminar, on his reactions in 1966, '67 and '68. At the time, his point of departure was a philosophy of high ideas. And he has come back to it in the end. In between, he had several spurts of radicalism, and he was one of those who publicly tore Adorno to pieces from the podium. It is a very typical biography of the era. In the sixties, I was caught up in events. The student protests were necessary and they set more things in motion than the spokespeople of the pseudo-revolution of '68 wanted to admit. That is to say, the revolution didn't take place, it had no basis, but society did change. In From the Diary of a Snail, I describe how the students yelled when I told them: Progress is a snail. Very few wanted to believe it. We are both now at an age where we can, I agree, be sure to continue to open our big mouths, for as long as we retain our health; but our time is limited. I don't know what it's like in France—I don't think it's any better—but I believe that the younger generation of German literature has proven to have little inclination or interest in perpetuating the traditions of the Enlightenment, the tradition of opening your big mouth and interfering. If there is no renewal of that, no changing of the guard, then this aspect of the good European tradition will also be lost.

Paul Reitter (essay date 23-30 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Reitter, Paul. “Gender Unbender.” Nation (23-30 July 2001): 39-42.

[In the following essay, Reitter comments on Bourdieu's Masculine Domination and examines the reasons behind his immense popularity with the French media.]

Pierre Bourdieu's newsworthiness has become news. The profile of him in the New York Times deals more with how bright his star is than with its substance, and quite a bit of the attention Bourdieu receives from the French press has to do with the attention he receives from the French press. What set this cycle into motion? In France, where academics play a much larger role in public life than they do here, academic visibility is neither rare nor strange. So why did Bourdieu's particular brand of it become a media spectacle?

There are a number of reasons, some of which are obvious—for example, volume. Bourdieu gives televised addresses on the ills of television. He speaks about charged political issues, such as labor and immigration laws, at large demonstrations. He writes incendiary Op-Ed essays in major newspapers. Of course, in order to be taken seriously as a scholar while you do much more than your colleagues in the public arena, much more volubly, you must also maintain enormous intellectual credibility. Bourdieu does. He is professor of sociology at the Collège de France, the apex of French academe, as well as director of studies at the prestigious École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. And Bourdieu very clearly worked his way to the top. In roughly forty years he has produced approximately thirty books, many of which are regarded by sociologists as major accomplishments. Indeed, the International Sociological Association put his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984) on its list of the ten most important works of sociology written in the twentieth century.

The book examines how aesthetic taste builds and reinforces social hierarchies. It is a typical theme for Bourdieu, who seeks in all his research to lay bare hidden mechanisms of power. When he writes bestselling essays in an activist key, Bourdieu can claim to be drawing directly on his expertise. In this regard, as is often pointed out, he stands in close proximity to another post-war maître penseur, Sartre.

Bourdieu belongs to a different generation, of course, but not necessarily his own. In the early 1960s—before Foucault and Derrida—Bourdieu reoriented structuralism, which was then fashionable among French social scientists, and created a kind of poststructuralist theory. Bourdieu still uses structuralist code-cracking techniques; he sees culture as a series of “fields,” each of which is organized according to its own deep grammar. But he dismisses the structuralist principle that you can explain the internal logic of a social system—language, for example—without reference to external factors. Throughout his career, Bourdieu's goal has been to trace shifts in the most autonomous fields, such as the evolution of aesthetic taste and the intensifying opacity of academic discourse, back to the struggle for social or “symbolic” power.

This mode of cultural analysis is quite unlike the other great French poststructuralisms, even the one to which it is most similar, Foucault's. Bourdieu may be interested in something he calls symbolic power; Foucault may have written a history of the prison. Yet the operations of power are much more concrete for Bourdieu than they are for Foucault, who often seems primarily concerned with highly abstract “discursive regimes” that have us by the seat of our subjecthood. And so Bourdieu sees more possibility for getting his hands on, and altering, the power structure: “We must work to universalize the conditions of access to the universal.” You will not find a sentence like that in Foucault's writings.

At the same time, Bourdieu hardly exudes optimism. His worldview is dark, but not quite in the way critics generally make it out to be. What they tend to find most striking is the ubiquity of competition—how, for him, the grubby struggle to get ahead, to accumulate “symbolic capital,” pervades all areas of culture, even the most refined. Yet something else weighs more heavily on Bourdieu: the unconscious complicity of the oppressed. Bourdieu's world is Kafkaesque rather than Brechtian. For hidden, complicated reasons, those who are “dominated” cede authority to an “established order” that is manifestly absurd. This, Bourdieu claims, is the great “paradox of doxa.” Its prime example is masculine domination.

Bourdieu, accordingly, takes up the topic of gender inequality in most of his studies on symbolic power. In fact, his earliest research—on familial organization in North Africa's Kabyle society—figures prominently in his new book, as do ideas worked out in The Logic of Practice (1990). But Masculine Domination is neither a rehashing of old material nor a collection of thematically cohesive essays. Rather, it is itself an essay, the form of which may have been influenced by Virginia Woolf, whom Bourdieu repeatedly invokes as the guiding spirit of his project. For although he states that his deepest affinities are with To the Lighthouse, and not with Woolf's “endlessly quoted” feminist essays, Masculine Domination bears similarities to them in structure (its pointed argument is sustained over about 100 pages and divided into three sections), if not in style.

Following Woolf, Bourdieu wants to “suspend … ‘the hypnotic power of domination.’” With him, as with her, this means challenging readers to take a new approach to the problem, which in turn means exposing the inadequacy of existing approaches. Bourdieu believes that we produce gender identity. It is a function of our worldview, not a simple anatomical fact around which we form our worldview. For this reason he attacks “differentialist” feminists. By celebrating certain patterns of behavior as natural female strengths, they bolster the false consciousness on which masculine domination relies: the fallacy that what we consider to be male and female characteristics are essential properties. Bourdieu's attitude toward the most dynamic alternative to this feminism, constructivist gender theory, is more complex. He agrees with its main premise: that gender identity is a linguistic construct, right down to its most intimate parts. But he questions its practical value and argues that while constructivism probes forcefully, it does not probe far enough. It is insufficiently radical.

Here Bourdieu's position is refreshingly counterintuitive. For constructivist gender theory, which has been influential in France and the United States since the late 1980s and is itself refreshingly counterintuitive, appears to be nothing if not radical. Indeed, Monique Wittig, a well-known French constructivist, avers that she has no vagina. This claim may sound strange. But its basis is a rational response to a series of reasonable questions: What is the real significance of the term “vagina”? What is its referent? And what is its social function? The point is that “vagina” is not a neutral, innocent label that we give to a self-evidently discrete body part. Rather, as for Bourdieu, it is a concept that imposes an artificial order on the body and regulates our perception of it. When such concepts feel natural to us, when we see what they refer to as organic objects, we are confusing linguistic objects, objects we construct by “inscribing” names and borders onto the world, with diffuse physical reality.

Most of us accept as organically given a vast matrix of constructs, starting with our own bodies. According to critics like Wittig and Bourdieu, this leaves us blind to a very important fact: Power interests always guide our articulation of the world. Concepts not only designate objects, they carry meanings, meanings that generally will be advantageous to some of us. For example, the word “vagina” does not simply refer to a female anatomical feature. In our culture it connotes the defining feature of the female body, the locus of gender identity. And classifying people according to their reproductive organs reflects and institutionalizes a heterosexual bias.

One implication of all this is that when we use everyday language we reinforce meanings and structures of perception that support our gender norms, even where our utterances contain annihilating invectives against our gender norms. Since these meanings and structures depend on reinforcement from the very people who suffer under them, refusing to acknowledge words like “vagina,” or playing with them subversively, counts, at least for some constructivists, as resistance. So does constructing identities that openly challenge “normal,” heterosexual assumptions about the stability of gender and the natural function of certain body parts.

Bourdieu thinks otherwise. In his preface he declines, rather peremptorily, even to consider the idea that “parodic performances” of identity might loosen masculine domination. He calls instead for “political mobilization, which would open for women the possibility of a collective action of resistance.” And in the body of his book Bourdieu writes, “Symbolic power cannot be exercised without the contribution of those who undergo it and who only undergo it because they construct it as such. But instead of stopping at this statement (as constructivism in its idealist, ethnomethodological or other forms does) one has also to take note of and explain the social construction of the cognitive structures which organize acts of construction of the world and its powers.” In order to deconstruct patriarchy, it is not enough to speak in abstract terms about how gender identity is constructed. You need to know, in some detail, how gender identity has been constructed historically.

This is not exactly a novel proposition. Much research has been done over the past two decades on the historical construction of gender identity. In fact, Bourdieu draws freely on this research in his own book. What such works—he cites the second volume of Foucault's History of Sexuality as an example—have not done is grab the problem of masculine domination by its roots. They may go back to the ancient Greeks, as is the case with Foucault, but they discuss only famous interpretations of gender constructs (for instance, Plato's), not the ur-constructs that continue to undergird “masculine sociodicy.” For Bourdieu it is crucial to penetrate to this level. If we do not, we will go on thinking in circles, laying down a Faustian injunction that is oppressive to both men and women: Become what you already are. Or, as Bourdieu puts it, “The particular strength of the masculine sociodicy comes from the fact that it combines and condenses two operations: it legitimates a relationship of domination by embedding it in a biological nature that is itself a naturalized social construction.” Gender identity starts as a social construction, only to become biological. Because “it is brought about and culminates in profound and durable transformations of bodies (and minds),” masculine domination is its own justification. A relationship of domination produces the very biological differences that, when treated as ahistorical and organic, legitimize that relationship.

The way to break out of such “circular causality” is to “reconstruct the history of the labour of dehistoricization.” And the way to do this is, again, to begin at the beginning, at the very beginning: with an archetype. In Kabyle society in North Africa there exists, according to Bourdieu, “a paradigmatic form of the ‘phallonarcissistic’ vision and the androcentric cosmology which are common to all Mediterranean societies.” We can see, in Kabyle society, the foundation of Western patriarchal ideology being poured. By bringing to light similarities between it and us, Bourdieu hopes to show us that our most basic premises about gender rest upon an originary, arbitrary social construction and, therefore, cannot be timeless or natural.

Bourdieu analyzes Kabyle society for a second reason. He often asserts that symbolic power works only when the dominated come to see the world from the perspective of the dominant. The process through which this happens, “symbolic violence,” is “gentle,” “invisible” and “unconscious.” It creates cognitive structures so deep and so durable that superficial enlightenment as to the constructedness of gender norms does not suffice to dismantle their coercive power. For as we all know, people who know better behave in accordance with pejorative gender norms, “despite themselves,” all the time. More is necessary to break the hypnotic spell of masculine domination: the shock of seeing yourself, or a “paradigmatic” version of yourself, under hypnosis, and eerily unaware of it. Bourdieu thinks that by confronting us with gender relations in Kabyle society he will present us with our own “cultural unconscious,” making visible the invisible workings of symbolic violence.

And so he takes us on a “detour through an exotic tradition” in his attempt to develop a forcefully historicizing, psychologically plausible and, therefore, practically effective gender theory. This plan is very compelling. Unfortunately, the detour turns out to be little more than a bleak frontage road. For Bourdieu simply points out a series of damning parallels between modern and Kabyle gender discrimination. He does not go into the latter in detail; the invisible process of symbolic violence never becomes visible—a visible target for critical analysis. Thus his argument does not quite reach its goal. Yet this small book contains many original insights and therefore great promise. Indeed, if Bourdieu decides to write a more comprehensive study of masculine domination, a study on the scale of The Logic of Practice or Distinction, he will produce a theoretical breakthrough in an important field. And that, of course, would be big news.

Anne Mesny (essay date winter 2002)

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SOURCE: Mesny, Anne. “A View on Bourdieu's Legacy: Sens pratique v. Hysteresis.Canadian Journal of Sociology 27, no. 1 (winter 2002): 59-67.

[In the following essay, Mesny explores the controversy surrounding Bourdieu's intellectual status in France.]


Bourdieu's last publications1 before his recent death in January have been the object of considerable attention and controversy (Alexander, 2000; Callon, 1999; Critique, 1995; Grignon, 1996; Grumberg & Schweisguth, 1996; Hamel, 1997 & 1998, Magazine Littéraire, 1998; Lahire, 1999; Martucelli, 1999; Mayer, 1995; Mongin & Roman, 1998; Pinto, 1998; Sciences Humaines, 2000; Verdès-Leroux, 1998). The controversy has not always been about Bourdieu's sociological work as such. Rather, it has been about the conciliation between, on one hand, the content of his sociology and, on the other hand, his numerous interventions in the French public and political debate in the past ten years,2 and Bourdieu's explicit ambition to embrace the standpoint of the French “intellectuel.3

The object of this note is not to nourish the French controversy about Bourdieu as an intellectuel, albeit some of the arguments developed below might shed a new light on the controversy itself. Rather, it aims at highlighting and exploring what, at first sight, seems to be an important shift in the epistemological orientation of Bourdieu's work or, more precisely, a tension between two distinct positions that he has simultaneously taken about the construction of sociological knowledge and its usefulness for lay people. Bourdieu has certainly been one of the most convincing advocates of the break between sociology and common sense (Bourdieu, Chamboderon & Passeron, 1991). For him the hallmark of ordinary knowledgeability is a sens pratique (Bourdieu, 1980) that is markedly different from sociologists' scholastic posture. While constantly re-affirming the break between sociological knowledge and common sense, Bourdieu's last publications exhibit empirical and methodological characteristics which put into question the overarching dichotomy between lay people's sens pratique and sociologists' scholastic posture.


Common sense and social science, for Bourdieu, refer to two radically different kinds of knowledgeability, or modes of relating to the world, namely the practical and the theoretical modes respectively. Lay people's sens pratique involves an immediate competence in making sense of the world, but a competence which is, as it were, oblivious to itself (1980: 37), insofar as it does not contain the knowledge of the practices it generates (1980: 175). The practical mode of relating to the social world is a relation of “placid ignorance” [docte ignorance] (1980: 37). Sens pratique is based on the correspondence between the objective structures of society and the internalised structures of the habitus, which implies that “the ‘choices’ of the habitus are accomplished without consciousness of constraint” (Bourdieu 1991: 51).

In contrast, social scientists' theoretical or scholastic mode involves a distance vis-à-vis the immediate intelligibility of the world (Bourdieu, Chamboderon & Passeron, 1991). Theoretical knowledge “owes a number of its most essential properties to the fact that the conditions under which it is produced are not that of practice” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 70). The sociologist must adopt a theoretical or scholastic posture when studying social processes, this posture being fundamentally different from the logic of the agents actually involved in these processes (Ibid.: 69). The sociologist's posture is a disposition to regard his or her experience and practice as an object about which one talks and thinks (Bourdieu, 1997: 74).

In his Méditations Pascaliennes (1997), Bourdieu reaffirms that the scholastic disposition is, in his view, the exclusive posture of those who have access to academic and scientific fields. Although the scholastic posture is a “universal anthropological possibility” (Ibid.: 27), which means that scholars and scientists do not in principle have the monopoly of the scholastic posture, the conditions for its development can mainly be found, for Bourdieu, in scientific and intellectual fields. Bourdieu also makes it clear that habitus is “one principle of production of practices among others” (Bourdieu, 1990: 108). Yet he asserts that it is only in exceptional circumstances that habitus “may be superseded […] by other principles, such as rational and conscious computation” (Ibid.). Lay people's knowledgeability, thus, corresponds almost always to the non-reflexive sens pratique.

Bourdieu has never abandoned the notion of sens pratique that he developed in his early work in order to characterise ordinary knowledgeability. Neither has he put into question the fundamental break he sees between lay people's and social scientists' knowledgeabilities. For him, treating lay people as if they were able to embrace the scholastic, theoretical or reflexive mode of relating to the world is a case of “scholastic fallacy or illusion” (2000: 19, 256). The latter is a form of ethnocentrism (1997: 65) that “induces to think that agents involved in action, in practice, in life, think, know and see as someone who has the leisure to think thinks, knows and sees, as the scientists whose mode of thought presupposes leisure both in its genesis and its functioning, or at least distance and freedom from the urgency of practice, the practical bracketing of the necessities of practice” (Bourdieu, 1990: 112).

The break between common sense and sociological knowledge accounts for the pessimism that Bourdieu used to express as to the potential usefulness of sociology for lay people. In his view, the people whose interest would be to appropriate sociological knowledge do not possess the resources to do so: “those who have an interest in unveiling the mechanisms of domination […] hardly ever read sociology and, in any case, they can't afford it” (1990: 50). In contrast, those who do possess these instruments have no interest in using sociological knowledge, and sometimes have a strong interest in ignoring it, since using it might imply unveiling mechanisms of domination, the effectiveness of which is conditional on their hidden and unacknowledged character (Ibid.: 50). Until recently, thus, Bourdieu advocated a detachment of sociologists from public debate and pressing social issues.


The relationship between sociological knowledge and lay people can be addressed at two different levels. There is, first, the level of sociological inquiry: sociologists study lay people, and this study sometimes involves a direct interaction between the researchers and the people under study. At this first level, sociologists can be concerned with the way the people under study might benefit from their interaction with the sociologist, and might appropriate the sociological knowledge produced about their own lives and practices. Second, the relationship between sociology and lay people can also be addressed at the more general level of the appropriation by lay people of sociological knowledge, outside the context of sociological inquiry and of a direct interaction with sociologists.

In the last years of his career, Bourdieu has addressed both levels of the relationship between sociology and lay people, in a way that does not seem easy to reconcile with his position presented above about sens pratique and the scholastic fallacy. La Misère du Monde (1993) is considered by many as a turning-point in Bourdieu's work4 (Hamel, 1997, 1998; Mayer 1995; Verdès-Leroux, 1998) regarding his conception of sociologists' role and commitment in society and about the conduct of sociological inquiry.5 At the level of sociological inquiry, the turning-point in Bourdieu's position lies in the notions of “accompanied self-analysis” (Bourdieu, 1991: 3) and of “participatory objectification” [objectivation participante] (1993: 8) for characterizing the relationship between sociologists and the people under study. During interviews with lay people, the sociologist can lead the interviewees to become reflexive about their own lives, and to reach a certain level of self-knowledge, a form of reflexivity which usually is the exclusive privilege of those situated in the scholastic fields (1997: 75). Thus sociological inquiry, under specific circumstances, can be a truly exceptional form of communication (1993: 914). It can be an occasion, for lay people, to put into question, and to reflect upon, their own lives and conditions, and to reach a level of consciousness of the social determinants that bear upon their lives6 (1991: 3).

At the second level, La Misère du Monde is, like many of Bourdieu's last publications, but unlike most of his earlier work, aimed at an audience of both sociologists and lay people, and “presented in such a way that anyone can understand it” (Hamel, 1991: 11). Bourdieu describes his work in La Misère du Monde as a case toward the “democratization of the hermeneutic posture” (1993: 923). He intended to give to non-specialists the sociological instruments which would enable them to decode the interviewees's narratives presented and analysed in the nine hundreds pages of the book.

That lay people could use, and benefit from, sociological knowledge, is a concern that Bourdieu has stated very explicitly after the publication of La Misère du Monde, for example in Contre-Feux (1998a), by expressing the wish that sociology be useful for social movements, instead of being misinterpreted and misused by journalists or hostile interpreters (1998a: 64-5). Sociologists need to “invent new forms of expression, which would enable to communicate to militants the most advanced results of sociological research” (Ibid.: 65), La Misère du Monde illustrates one of these possible forms of expression, aimed at communicating the sociological perspective to lay people. It implied the retranscription verbatim of about sixty interviews conducted by Bourdieu and his colleagues. The retranscription of the interviews permits “the delivery of a more accessible equivalent of complex and abstract conceptual analyses […]. [They are] capable of touching and moving, of appealing to sensibility, without pandering to sensationalism, [and] can bring about conversions of thought and view that are often the prior condition to understanding” (1993: 922).

In the past ten years, Bourdieu has multiplied direct interventions in the French public debate, about topics such as the construction of Europe, immigration, the education system, television, gender, and so on. He acknowledged his change of position regarding his engagement in the political sphere.7 In Contre-feux 2 (2001), he argues that “those who have the chance to devote themselves to the study of the social world cannot stay neutral, indifferent, and away from the struggles whose stakes are the future of this world”8 (2001: 7). Bourdieu insists on the figure of the intellectuel and wishes that the social scientists intervene directly in the political sphere, in order to take scientific knowledge outside of the scientific field (2001: 9-10).


In sum, two major epistemological positions are developed in Bourdieu's last publications. On one hand, Bourdieu has re-affirmed and developed his early position about the fundamental rupture between social science and ordinary knowledgeability: the latter consists in a non-reflexive sens pratique which is radically different from social scientists' scholastic posture. Supposing that lay people could adopt a theoretical, reflexive posture amounts to committing the scholastic fallacy. On the other hand, Bourdieu has also argued that lay people, under specific conditions,9 can adopt a theoretical posture through a process of self-analysis accompanied by the sociologist and that, more generally, lay people, again given specific circumstances,10 are increasingly able to appropriate sociological knowledge thanks to its massive diffusion throughout society.11

There are allusions, in Bourdieu's last publications, to the idea that the conditions for the production and lay people's sens pratique are changing. Bourdieu has never pushed this argument, however, to a point at which it would put into question his conception of ordinary knowledgeability and his key concept of sens pratique. Yet it is precisely to the re-examination of the notion of sens pratique, that is, of the conception of lay people's knowledgeability, that we would like to point in this brief discussion of Bourdieu's legacy. The germs of such a re-examination can be found in Bourdieu's work itself, as well as in the work of several commentators and critiques.

Bourdieu acknowledged that the coincidence between structure and habitus is increasingly disrupted—a phenomenon that he calls hystérésis12 (Bourdieu, 2000: 263)—and that the conditions for achieving the “placid ignorance” characteristic of sens pratique are disturbed. In the concluding pages of his Méditations Pascaliennes, he notices that, in contemporary society, the perfect coincidence between structure and habitus is increasingly lost, and briefly alludes to the large-scale social processes involved in this transformation, such as the generalisation of access to education (1997: 276).

Bourdieu also notes the importance of education for developing a reflexive mode of relating to the world: schooling implies the opportunity to gain the permanent disposition to be reflexive and to put some distance with the “real” (Bourdieu, 1997: 29). Since schooling concerns the majority of the population in our society, we should then conclude that reflexivity and the capacity to adopt a scholastic posture extend far beyond the scholastic fields. Drawing upon the difference, as Bourdieu himself does, between an “oral, non-literature culture, and a literate, scholarly culture” (1990: 103), it could indeed be argued that contemporary society, at least in developed countries, is increasingly characterised by a scholarly culture.

Although the general orientation of Bourdieu's work is precisely to stress the determining character of social conditions and structures, which literally shape the way people—sociologists and ‘lay people’ alike—think and act, lay people's sens pratique is treated by Bourdieu as a universal and immutable form of ordinary knowledgeability, which does not appear to vary according to social conditions. Although Bourdieu acknowledges that a form of reflection and reflexivity can result from moments of hysteresis, he maintains that this form of reflection remains oriented toward practice and cannot be compared with the theoretical or scholastic posture of social scientists (1997: 191-2). In agreement with Martucelli (1999), we can then conclude that there is a conflict, in Bourdieu's recent work, between the theoretical statement about the practical correspondence between positions and dispositions and, much more often than such a conception would let us to expect, the empirical finding about the disagreement between positions and agents (Martucelli, 1999: 112). A way to resolve this conflict lies, in our view, in the re-examination of ordinary knowledgeability which, in contemporary society, seems to fit less and less with Bourdieu's notion of sens pratique (Mesny, 1998). Without falling into the trap of scholastic illusion, it is indeed possible to argue that lay people routinely develop theoretical and reflexive postures in the course of their day-to-day lives which extend far beyond the realm of sens pratique.


  1. In particular La Misère du Monde (1993), Sur la télévision (1996), Méditations pascaliennes (1997), Contre-feux (1998), La domination masculine (1998), Les structures sociales de l'economie (2000), Contre-feux 2 (2001).

  2. In 1995, Bourdieu publicly supported the workers on strike fighting against the new plan of Alain Juppé, in 1996, in an article published in Liberation, he criticised the new president of the Bundesbank, in 1996 and 1997, he supported the Algerian intellectuals through various articles and petitions, and he made numerous public interventions about the university and the French education system: in 1998, he offered his support to the unemployed and made a public communication entitled. ‘The movement of the unemployed a social miracle’, the same year he published an article in which he strongly criticizes the French government.

  3. In the recent Contre-feux 2 (2001), Bourdieu reaffirms this ambition to be an intellectuel, and argues that the intellectuals have to play yet again an important role in the social and political arenas, given the new forms of domination at stake in contemporary society (2001: 33-35).

  4. First published in 1993, various extracts from La Misère du Monde had been published beforehand in Bourdieu's journal Actes de la recherche en science sociale (1991). Besides, Bourdieu has commented the work done in La Misère du Monde in various other publications, for example in his Méditations pascaliennes (1997) and in Contre-Feux (1998a).

  5. Since his first edition in 1993 and the paperback re-edition, La Misère du Monde has become a best-seller in France—compared to the usual sales of a sociological book—and has been described as “the most varied collection of biographical excerpts gathered by a single team of researchers to date, a rich synchronic slicing of French society” (Simeoni & Diani 1995: 27).

  6. The notion of “participatory objectification,” however, masks the fact that the interviewee's and the sociologist's contributions remain markedly different in the perspective developed in La Misère du Monde. It is the sociologist, and only the sociologist, who has the role of uncovering the objective structures which are only implicitly “contained' in the interviewee's discourse, and of which the interviewee is not aware” (Ibid.: 918-9). In the concrete situation of sociological inquiry, any form of spontaneous reflexivity on the part of the people under study is dismissed as a case of “resistance to objectification” (1993: 912-3). There is, for Bourdieu, a very general, if not universal, fear of objectification (Ibid.: 909), which refers to the apprehension of having “one's subjective reasons reduced to objective causes, and the choices that one thinks one has made freely reduced to the effect of objective determinism” (Ibid.: 907). Lay people, especially when put in the context of a formal interview with an expert such as a sociologist, tend to resist the latter's attempt to objectify their lives. This resistance often takes the form of a semblance of reflexivity and of objectification; that is, the interviewee tries to be reflexive about his or her own life and to objectify it, but this attempt, according to Bourdieu, is generally fallacious and superficial.

  7. This has sometimes meant denouncing particular political viewpoints, politicians, or policies. In Contre-feux (1998) and Contre-feux 2 (2001), he makes various points against neoliberalism which, in his view, carries a fallacious discourse consisting in reifying social or economic laws, instead of stressing the ways these laws could be changed or could cease to be accurate (1998: 61-2).

  8. My translation.

  9. These specific conditions refer, on one hand, to the social familiarity between the interviewer and the interviewee (the interviewers in La Misère du monde were invited to choose their interviewees among friends and acquaintances or, rather, the interviewers were chosen and given subsequent training, according to their social proximity with the people whom Bourdieu wanted to study) as a condition for a “non-violent communication” (1993: 907) and, on the other hand, to the competence of the interviewer, who must have a thorough knowledge of the interviewee's conditions, and who must be used to dealing with the social effects of the research situation and of the interaction with lay agents (1993: 919). Only with this prior knowledge can the interviewer assist the interviewee in his or her attempt to conduct a self-analysis and can control the interviewee's “resistance to objectification” (1993: 912).

  10. Which have to do with the modes of diffusion of sociological knowledge and with the actual involvement of sociologists in the public sphere.

  11. There is an explicit allusion in La Misère du Monde to the large-scale appropriation of sociological knowledge by lay people, which concerns sociological knowledge about schooling and education, and the way in which virtually everyone has appropriated the idea that failure at school cannot be explained only by reference to individual and innate aptitudes: “One cannot but assume that the diffusion of major social science findings about education, particularly findings about the social determinants of success and failure at school, must have contributed to transform children's and parents' perceptions of the education system, whose effects they already know in practice” (1993: 598). In this case, the appropriation of sociological knowledge means that lay people increasingly tend to include social factors in their explanations of children's successes or failures at school, such as insufficient resources allocated to the education system, the way teachers are trained, or the logic of the whole education system and the need to reform it (1993: 598). What Bourdieu and Champagne note here about school can, in our view, be extended to many other social issues.

  12. It is in such a situation that the sociologist can demonstrate the constructed and constraining character of what generally appears as given and natural. It is precisely by studying a situation in which the correspondence between people's habitus and their social conditions had been broken, that Bourdieu (1979) first developed his argument about the practical mode of relating to the world; in his early study of proletarian and sub-proletarian Algerian people in the 1960s, Bourdieu noted the permanent discrepancy between, on one hand, these people's habitus and, more precisely, their economic dispositions, which were adapted to a pre-capitalist world and, on the other hand, the capitalist economic world in which they now have to act (1979: vii). Bourdieu wanted to study the problem of the genesis of new economic dispositions (in particular, the genesis of a particular temporal consciousness) adapted to the developing capitalist economy, which had been, to a large extent, abruptly imported and imposed on Algerian people. The discrepancy between habitus and structure indicated, in this case, that the economic structures changed more rapidly than the people's economic dispositions (Bourdieu, 1979: 4-5).


Alexander, Jeffrey C.:

2000. La réduction, Critique de Bourdieu. Paris: CERF.

Bourdieu, Pierre:

1979. Algerie 1960. The Disenchantment of the World; The Sense of Honour; The Kabyle House or the World Reversed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: Paris: Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (Orig. edn: 1963).

1980. Le sens pratique. Paris: Minuit.

1990. In Other Words: Essays Toward a Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.

1991. “Introduction à la socioanalyse.” Actes de la Recherche en Science Sociale 90: 3-5.

1993. La Misère du monde. Paris: Seuil.

1996. Sur la télévision. Paris: Liber.

1997. Méditations pascaliennes. Paris: Seuil.

1998a. Contre-feux. Paris: Liber.

1998b. La domination masculine. Paris: Seuil.

2000. Les structures sociales de l'économie. Paris: Seuil.

2001. Contre-feux 2. Pour un mouvement social européen. Paris: Éditions Raisons d'Agir.

Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loïc:

1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Chamboredon, Jean-Claude, and Passeron, Jean-Claude:

1991. The Craft of Sociology. Epistemological Preliminaries. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter (orig. edn.: 1968).

Callon, Michel:

1999. “Ni intellectuel engagé, in intellectuel dégagé: la double stratégie de l'attachement et du détachement.” Sociologie du travail 41(1): 65-78.


1995. “Pierre Bourdieu.” n° 579-580. pp. 547-703.

Grignon, Claude:

1996. “Le savant et le lettré Ou l'examen d'une desillusion.” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 34 (103): 81-98.

Grumberg, Gérard and Schweisguth, Etienne:

1996. “Bourdieu et la misère: une approche reductionniste.” Revue française de science politique 46 (1).

Hamel, Jacques:

1997. “Sociology, Common Sense, and Qualitative Methodology. The Position of Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 22(1): 95-112.

1998. “The Positions of Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Touraine Respecting Qualitative Methods.” British Journal of Sociology 49(1): 1-19.

Lahire, Bernard (ed.):

1999. Le travail sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu Dettes et critiques. Paris: La Découverte.

Magazine Littéraire:

1998. “Dossier: Bourdieu, l'intellectuel dominant?” n° 369: 17-70.

Martucelli, Danilo:

1999. Sociologies de la modernité, L'itinéraire du XX° siécle Paris: Gallimard.

Mayer, Nonna:

1995. “L'entretien selon Pierre Bourdieu Analyse critique de La misère du monde, Revue française de sociologie” 36 (2): 355-70.

Mesny, Anne:

1998. “The Appropriation of Social Science Knowledge by Lay People.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cambridge (UK), unpublished.

Mongin, Olivier and Roman, Joel:

1998. “Le populisme version Bourdieu ou la tentation du mépris Esprit” n° 244: 158-75.

Pinto, Louis:

1998. “Pierre Bourdieu et la théorie du monde social.” Paris: Albin Michel.

Sciences Humaines:

2000. “Le monde selon Bourdieu (dossier special)” n° 105, pp. 23-37.

Simeoni, Daniel and Marco, Diani:

1995. “The Sociostylistics of Life Histories: Taking Jenny at Her Word(s)” Current Sociology. 43 (2/3): 27-39.

Verdès-Leroux, Jeanine:

1998. “Le savant et la politique. Essaî sur le terrorisme sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu.” Paris: Grasset.

Richard Shusterman (essay date 8 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Shusterman, Richard. “Pierre Bourdieu: Reason and Passion.” Chronicle of Higher Education 48, no. 22 (8 February 2002): B13.

[In the following essay, Shusterman details his professional relationship with Bourdieu, noting that despite their differences, they regarded each other with respect.]

French philosophy is famous for radical theory in the service of progressive social causes. If Diderot, Rousseau, and Voltaire propelled this tradition in the 18th century (inspiring the French Revolution), Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault defined it in recent times by wielding their erudition and symbolic power to wage war in arenas of social struggle far beyond the campus gates. They drew mass publics, not just media citations. After the death of Foucault, in 1984, Pierre Bourdieu became the last great exemplar of this tradition. While postmodern philosophers like Jacques Derrida, François Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze were too slippery and cryptic to have real political impact, Bourdieu could mobilize trade unions and social movements, not just graduate seminars and conference audiences.

A professionally trained philosopher who rose from humble origins in rural France and retrained himself to become the chairman of sociology at the Collège de France, Bourdieu could speak with scientific authority on pressing social issues, deploying an army of researchers to compile and analyze the relevant data while condemning the tendency of intellectuals to draw conclusions about the world from armchair media consumption and their own “solitary thought.” A theorist of language's symbolic violence, Bourdieu also skillfully used it to attack his targets with biting satire or vicious invective; he blasted “media intellectuals” for clichéd “fast thought” so empty of content as to be “not even false.” His diatribe against television for commercially motivated distortion of the news and for its dumbing-down effects on print journalism made Bourdieu a best-selling author, but also a notoriously controversial public figure.

Recognizing the social power of the press, he struggled for a more enlightened, international journalism, initiating a cultural supplement, Liber, that for two years was simultaneously published in five major European papers, and a publishing house, Raisons d'Agir, devoted to accessibly written but scientifically informed pamphlets on compelling issues of politics, society, and culture. An outspoken critic of leftist complacency (if not complicity) in attempts to reduce workers' social benefits in the name of greater economic flexibility, Bourdieu became a vehement critic of neoliberal globalization, an intellectual ally of the activist farmer José Bové in the campaign against the McDonaldization of the world economy and culture. When Bourdieu died of cancer, on January 23 at 11 p.m. Paris time, it was clearly an event of international importance. President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin were quick to praise a stellar career of theory and praxis that brought glory to France.

Bourdieu's death at age 71 is a great loss not only for the political causes and oppressed social publics he championed, but also for the many intellectual disciplines he enriched—philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, political theory, economics, educational theory, feminism, literary theory, art criticism, and communications theory among them—and for the academics who have been inspired by his life of thought and action. I count myself among those, and count myself fortunate to have known him personally, even if our relationship was often uneasy. I was never his student or colleague. Too critical to be a true disciple, I was also too young and too far from being his equal to even think of being his friend. He was, in a sense, my benefactor: He introduced me to French intellectual life by inviting me to work in his center at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Because he published a French translation of my Pragmatist Aesthetics in his distinguished series with Minuit and because I later published a few texts on his philosophical and political importance, people have at times identified me with his circle. The morning after his death brought a flurry of e-mail from French and American colleagues, some requesting commentary for citation. I was not at all prepared to think of Bourdieu in the past tense. Instinctively, I scrolled to my, most recent e-mail correspondence with him, but I wanted harder copy to face the hardness of his irreversible passage to the virtual realm of memory. So I riffled through the books he gave me to find those in which he had scribbled a personal dedication that was more than formulaic.

Those books reminded me of encounters in which he had displayed the striking contrasts of his fascinating personality. A man of reason and passion, of personal soul-searching objectified into impersonal social analysis, Bourdieu enjoyed his power as star intellectual but despised the forms of aristocratic elegance that came with his illustrious station. He could be incredibly open and approachable—engaging you in animated conversation in a corridor, grasping you gently by the arm as he revealed some intimate thought—but he could also play the haughtily inaccessible corporate intellectual, shielded by protective secretaries and answering machines that took no messages but merely directed you to other numbers of other machines.

Admired for his adventurous openness and seductive charm (he had an irresistible smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that made you feel you were his closest confidant and co-conspirator), Bourdieu was also despised by many who found him narrowly sectarian, brutally intolerant of rival views, and merciless in attacking those who dared oppose him. Though feared as an almighty power-monger, he sadly confessed to me, on several occasions, how impotent he was in finding university jobs for his students.

I came to Bourdieu's work in the late 1980s not as a fan of French theory but as an Oxford-trained analytic philosopher of art and language who was looking for something I felt missing in my philosophic heroes Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin (who were also heroes of Bourdieu). Those Oxbridge philosophers argued that linguistic meaning depends not on the reference of words but on the social context and background of practices in which the words are uttered. But neither provided a systematic account of how those social contexts and practices should be analyzed.

Bourdieu's attempt to theorize the social space that shapes our linguistic and cultural practices (and to do so through richly empirical research) intrigued me as a possibly necessary next step of analysis. So I contacted him, and after a brief but enthusiastic correspondence (in which I was encouraged to share not only my philosophical texts but the political manifestoes of the radical Israeli peace movement I belonged to), he warmly invited me to spend some time at his center in Paris. This gesture of outreach to an unknown scholar from foreign parts exemplified Bourdieu's impulsive generosity, openness, and adventurous curiosity.

Before I had the chance to come to Paris, however, he also invited me to be among a handful of speakers at a conference in his honor in Berlin. It was my first real-life encounter with Bourdieu; it proved all too dramatic. Anglo-American philosophical etiquette prescribes homage to an admired senior colleague by constructive critique of his work. So, knowing no better, I diplomatically challenged Bourdieu's rejection of popular art, which he finds too closely linked with lower-class interests to have aesthetic legitimacy. But I did so by endorsing Bourdieu's general social approach to aesthetic value, and then appealing to the different social space of American culture and its increasing influence on European taste.

I expected some disagreement, but not the wrathful explosion in which he reviled my paper as an imbecilic misinterpretation. He shunned me the rest of the conference and continued to ignore me when I showed up at his center in Paris. Shortly before my return to America, I sent Bourdieu a formal note thanking him for my stay at his center and attaching a copy of the book manuscript I was writing, in which a longer version of my offending paper played a significant role. To my surprise, he invited me to his office and apologized for misunderstanding me in Berlin. Not having known of my new interests in pragmatism and popular culture, he had presumed that my Berlin intervention was just a slick exercise to make him look like a conservative old fogey, a political posture that may have been more odious to him than being wrong.

Though he never agreed with my criticisms, he thought my vision of pragmatist aesthetics was important enough to publish in his book series, even if my aesthetic defense of popular art still angered him as a form of “radical chic” that wins theoretical victories for the art of dominated cultures while leaving their social domination in place. If he seemed ready to concede the point that aesthetic activism and social activism could work together, he always insisted on the priority of the latter, and with good reason.

When he later published La misère du monde, his magnificent study of social suffering in contemporary France, Bourdieu inscribed my copy of the book with the devastating barb “a different way of treating popular culture”—evidently a far more robust, scientific, and politically influential way than mine could ever be. I treasure his critical combativeness and frankness, now more than ever.

Katha Pollitt (essay date 18 February 2002)

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SOURCE: Pollitt, Katha. “Pierre Bourdieu, 1930-2002.” Nation (18 February 2002): 10.

[In the following essay, Pollitt provides an assessment of Bourdieu's professional career, calling his work “the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era.”]

The death on January 23 of the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu came as the American chattering classes were busy checking the math in Richard Posner's Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline—an unintentional parody of sociology in which Posner presents a top-100 list ranking writers and professors according to the number of times they turned up on television or Internet searches. Bourdieu, whose heaviest passages crackled with sardonic wit, would have had a wonderful time exploring this farcical project, which takes for granted that Henry Kissinger (No. 1), Sidney Blumenthal (No.7) and Ann Coulter (No. 74) are in the Rolodex because they are leading the life of the mind—why not include Dr. Ruth or, as one wag suggested, Osama bin Laden? In tacitly conceding the fungibility of celebrity even while decrying it, Posner confirms Bourdieu's gloomy predictions about the direction modernity is swiftly taking us: away from scholarship and high culture as sources of social prestige and toward journalism and entertainment.

Bourdieu himself argued that scholars and writers could and should bring their specialized knowledge to bear responsibly and seriously on social and political issues, something he suspected couldn't be done on a talk show. His involvement during the 1990s in campaigns for railway workers, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed, and most recently against neoliberalism and globalization, was the natural outgrowth of a lifetime of research into economic, social and cultural class domination among peoples as disparate as Algerian peasants and French professors, and as expressed in everything from amateur photography to posture. It's hard to think of a comparable figure on the American left. Noam Chomsky's academic work has no connection with his political activities, and it's been decades since his byline appeared in The New York Review of Books or the New York Times. One friend found himself reaching all the way back to C. Wright Mills.

Bourdieu, who loved intellectual combat, called himself “to the left of the left”—that is, to the left of the ossified French left-wing parties and also to the left of the academic postmodernists a k a antifoundationalists, about whose indifference to empirical work he was scathing. Reading him could be a disturbing experience, because the explanatory sweep of his key concept of habitus—the formation and expression of self around an internalized and usually accurate sense of social destiny—tends to make ameliorative projects seem rather silly. Sociology, he wrote, “discovers necessity, social constraints, where we would like to see choice and free will. The habitus is that unchosen principle of so many choices that drives our humanists to such despair.” Take, for example, his attack on the notion that making high culture readily available—in free museums and local performances—is all that is necessary to bring it to the masses. (In today's America, this fond hope marks you as a raving Bolshevik, but in France it was the pet conviction of de Gaulle's minister of culture, André Malraux.) In fact, as Bourdieu painstakingly demonstrated in Distinction, his monumental study of the way class shapes cultural preferences or “taste,” there is nothing automatic or natural about the ability to “appreciate”—curious word—a Rothko or even a Van Gogh: You have to know a lot about painting, you have to feel comfortable in museums and you have to have what Bourdieu saw as the educated bourgeois orientation, which rests on leisure, money and unselfconscious social privilege and expresses itself as the enjoyment of the speculative, the distanced, the nonuseful. Typically, though, Bourdieu used this discouraging insight to call for more, not less, effort to make culture genuinely accessible to all: Schools could help give working-class kids the cultural capital—another key Bourdieusian concept—that middle-class kids get from their families. One could extend that insight to the American context and argue that depriving working-class kids of the “frills”—art, music, trips—in the name of “the basics” is not just stingy or philistine, it's a way of maintaining class privilege.

Although Bourdieu has been criticized as too deterministic—a few years ago The New Yorker characterized his views, absurdly, as leading “inexorably to Leninism”—he retained, in the face of a great deal of contrary evidence, including much gathered by himself, a faith in people's capacities for transformation. He spent much of his life studying the part played by the French education system in reifying class and gender divisions and in selecting and shaping the academic, technocratic and political elite—the “state nobility”—that runs France, but he believed in education; he railed against the popularization and vulgarization of difficult ideas, but he believed in popular movements and took part in several. In one of his last books, Masculine Domination, he comes close to arguing that male chauvinism is a cultural universal that structures all society and all thought; he is that rare man who chastises feminists for not going far enough—but the book closes with a paean to love.

Bourdieu's twenty-five books and countless articles represent probably the most brilliant and fruitful renovation and application of Marxian concepts in our era. Nonetheless, he is less influential on the American academic left than the (to my mind, not to mention his!) obscurantist and, at bottom, conservative French deconstructionists and antifoundationalists. Perhaps it is not irrelevant that Bourdieu made academia and intellectuals a major subject of withering critique: You can't read him and believe, for example, that professors (or “public intellectuals,” or writers, or artists) stand outside the class system in some sort of unmediated relation to society and truth. The ground most difficult to see is always the patch one is standing on, and the position of the intellectuals, the class that thinks it is free-floating, is the most mystified of all. It was not the least of Bourdieu's achievements that he offered his colleagues the means of self-awareness, and it's not surprising either that many decline the offer. His odd and original metaphor of the task of sociology holds both a message and a warning: “Enlightenment is on the side of those who turn their spotlight on our blinkers.”

Deborah Reed-Danahay (essay date spring 2002)

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SOURCE: Reed-Danahay, Deborah. “Remembering Pierre Bourdieu: 1930-2002.” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (spring 2002): 375-80.

[In the following essay, Reed-Danahay presents an overview of Bourdieu's works.]

Pierre Bourdieu died in Paris of cancer on January 23, 2002. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Marie-Claire, and their three children Jerome, Emmanuel, and Laurent. Bourdieu was a prolific writer and significant post-war intellectual whose influence on contemporary thought in the social sciences and humanities has been immense. His key concepts of habitus, field, and symbolic capital continue to shape research and theory in many disciplines. The author of over 25 books, his Outline of a Theory of Practice is the best known of his works among American anthropologists.1

Given the wide breadth of his writings, and the uneven timing of translations of his work, knowledge of Bourdieu's many contributions is scattered in the United States according to disciplinary interests, and there are relatively few scholars who are familiar with the total oeuvre. His social activism and political position in France are also not well known among his readers outside of France. During the 1990s, Bourdieu became firmly established, along with Derrida and Foucault, as a major French intellectual presence in American academia. He was at this time, already, one of the leading intellectuals in France, widely known and controversial among the public as well as among scholars. His outspoken criticism of the social class structure provoked a range of critics in France.

For English-speaking audiences, Bourdieu's work has been the subject of several book-length treatments2 and edited collections.3 A two and one-half hour documentary film on Bourdieu, “Sociology is a Combat Sport” (with the title based on a quote from Bourdieu), was widely shown in France in 2001. Bourdieu felt that much of his work was misunderstood by readers, and he tried to clarify the meaning of his work through several published interviews and essays (In Other Words [1990]; An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology [1992]).

Bourdieu was born to a rural family in the region of Béarn, in southwestern France, near the Pyrenées. His family had peasant roots and spoke the regional dialect of Gasgogne as well as French. His father, who never finished high school, was a postal worker. Bourdieu's modest origins made him particularly sensitive to issues of power and prestige in France, shaping his research interests, social activism, and defense of the underprivileged. He was a “scholarship boy” who attended lycée in the regional city of Pau and then went on to lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, before eventually entering the Ecole Normale Supérieure (one of the elite institutions of higher learning in France.) There he studied with Louis Althusser and received a degree in philosophy. He started his teaching career in 1955 in a high school in Moulins. From there, he took teaching positions in Algiers (1958-60), Paris, and then in the industrial northern French city of Lille.

Bourdieu became Director of Studies at EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in Paris in 1964, where he edited the journal Actes de la Recherches en Sciences Sociales and founded the Center for the Sociology of Education and Culture. In his early years at EHESS, he worked with Raymond Aron. He was elected to the prestigious Chair of Sociology at College de France in 1981. His inaugural lecture at the College de France (reprinted in In Other Words as “A Lecture on the Lecture”) is now famous for its self-reflexive commentary on the giving of such lectures. Bourdieu gave his last lecture there on March 28, 2001, as he prepared to retire after 20 years. In 1993, Bourdieu received the highest honor from CNRS (the French National Scientific Research Center), the “Medaille d'Or” (Gold Medal).

Bourdieu studied philosophy, anthropology and sociology. He came of age in a French academic climate dominated by Sartre and Lévi-Strauss, amid the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence from French colonial rule. Influences on Bourdieu's work include, in addition to those thinkers already cited, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Mauss, Elias, and Goffman. His early work is characterized by a split between ethnographic peasant studies in Algeria and southwestern France on the one hand, and statistical sociological studies of education and social class in urban France on the other. Because of his interest in the situation in Algeria, he took a university post early in his career at the University of Algiers, and undertook ethnographic research while there. This work resulted in Sociologie de l'Algérie (1958), Travail et Travailleurs en Algérie (1963), and several essays, including the classic essays published in English as “The Attitude of the Algerian Peasant Toward Time” (1964), “The Sentiment of Honour in Kabyle Society” (1965) and “The Berber House” (1973). At around the same time, Bourdieu conducted ethnographic research on marriage strategies in his natal region of Béarn in southwestern France. Although Bourdieu never published a book on his rural French research, he wrote several articles, including “Célibat et Condition Paysanne” (1962) and “Marriage Strategies as Strategies of Social Reproduction” (1976). Bourdieu's work engaged with structuralism from the outset, analyzing structure while also arguing for a more nuanced version of it that could better capture the role of individual social actors.

Bourdieu first gained wide notoriety not for his ethnological work, but as a sociological critic of the French educational system. Soon after his return to France from Algeria, Bourdieu began a series of statistical studies of education and social class reproduction. This resulted in two volumes co-authored with Jean-Claude Passeron: Les Héritiers, Les Etudiants et la Culture (1964) and La Réproduction: Eléments pour Une Théorie du Système d'Enseignement (1970). The work was published just before and after the May 1968 student/worker uprisings in Paris, during which time the entire social fabric of France was being questioned. These books demonstrated that success in education depends upon symbolic or cultural capital—a complex of values, linguistic skills, and worldviews that is unevenly distributed among the population. Exclusion from the system results not only from judgments and exams in the school, but also through internalized (largely unconscious) attitudes among students that support the system of exclusion. Bourdieu made extensive use of the concepts of habitus and symbolic violence in this research, themes that characterized much of his later work on a variety of topics.

Along with Reproduction (1977), Bourdieu's best known books are Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Distinction (1984), and The Logic of Practice (1990). These three books synthesize Bourdieu's sociological and ethnographic research and formulate his theoretical approach. His notion of practice seeks to reconcile structuralist and methodological individualist approaches. It draws from concepts of social actors' “common sense” to understand how noticeable patterns emerge from human behavior. As he has written, he wanted to move from the study of “rules to strategies.” Nevertheless, Bourdieu retained a limited view of the possibilities for human agency, and focused on the constraints of the habitus and of systems of symbolic domination. Bourdieu made use of these concepts in his writings in the fields of art, literature, and language, among others.

In two recent books, Masculine Domination (2001) and The Weight of the World (1999), Bourdieu addressed social problems of sexism and poverty in his own society through trenchant critiques relying upon the concept of symbolic domination. He also wrote books attacking television (1999) and neoliberalism (1999). Bourdieu was increasingly in the French public eye in the years immediately preceding his death as an outspoken critic of globalization. Bourdieu supported the controversial peasant-hero José Bové, who led French farmers to attack a McDonalds restaurant. He also supported Algerian causes at home in France and in North Africa.

Bourdieu was not comfortable with labels of his work, and avoided easy characterizations in large part by leaving such a huge legacy of work that crosses disciplinary boundaries. He also avoided facile political labels, often alienating members of left-wing groups in France with which he, for the most part, identified. Bourdieu offered criticisms of the centers of power in France, including his own academic colleagues, with the publication of Homo Academicus (1988). His contributions to the study of power in modern society have moved social theory in new directions, helping shape arguments about social agency and structure. His premature death came as he continued up until the end to offer a critical voice in human affairs. Despite his powerful position in French academic circles and the extraordinary influence of his work throughout the world, Bourdieu's demeanor in person could be surprisingly understated and modest. Those who were privileged enough to get to know Pierre Bourdieu attest to his warmth and gentle sense of humor.


  1. The most extensive bibliography of Bourdieu's work and critical analyses of it can be found at the website HyperBourdieu.

  2. Examples include Robbins 1991; Jenkins 1991; Lane 2000; Swartz 1997.

  3. Examples include Brown and Szeman 2000; Harker et al 1990; Calhoun et al 1993; Grenfell and James 1998; Shusterman 1999.

Works by or About Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1958. Sociologie de l'Algérie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. [English translation: 1962. The Algerians. Transl. A. C. M. Ross. Boston: Beacon Press.]

1962. “Célibat et Condition Paysanne,” Etudes Rurales. 5-6.32-136.

1963. Travail et Travailleurs en Algérie. Paris and the Hague: Mouton.

1964. “The Attitude of the Algerian Peasant Toward Time.” In J. Pitt-Rivers (ed.) Mediterranean Countrymen. Pp. 55-72. Transl. G. E. Williams. Paris and the Hague: Mouton.

1965. “The Sentiment of Honor in Kabyle Society.” In J. G. Peristiany (ed.) Honour and Shame: The Values of Mediterranean Society. Pp. 191-241. Transl. P. Sherrard. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

1972. Esquisse d'Une Theorie de la Pratique. Geneva; Droz [English translation: 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Transl. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.]

1973. “The Berber House.” In Mary Douglas (ed.) Rules and Meanings: The Anthropology of Everyday Knowledge. Pp. 98-110 Harmondsworth: Penguin.

1976. “Marriage Strategies as Strategies of Social Reproduction.” In R. Foster and O. Ranum (eds.) Family and Society: Selections from the Annales. Transl. E. Forster. Pp. 117-4. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.

1979. La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement. Paris: Editions de Minuit. [English translation: 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Transl. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.]

1980. Le Sens Pratique. Paris: Editions de Minuit. [English translation: 1990. The Logic of Practice. Transl. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.]

1984. Homo Academicus. Paris: Editions de Minuit. [English translation: 1988. Homo Academicus. Transl. P. Collier. Cambridge: Polity Press.]

1990. In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Transl. Matthew Adamson. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

1996. Sur la Télevision. Paris: Liber Editions. [English translation: 1999. On Television and Journalism. Transl. P. Ferguson. London: Pluto Press.]

1998. La Domination Masculine. Paris: Editions du Seuil. [English translation: 2001. Masculine Domination. Transl. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.]

1998. Contre-feux: Propos pour Servir à la Resistance Contre l'Invasion Neo-Libérale. Paris: Editions Liber. [English translation: 1999. Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Transl. Richard Nice. New York: New Press.]

Bourdieu, Pierre and Alain Accardo (eds.) 1993. La Misère du Monde. Paris: Editions du Seuil. [English Translation: 1999. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Societies. Transl. P. Ferguson. Stanford: Stanford University Press.]

Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1964. Les Héritiers, les Etudiants, et la Culture. Paris: Editions de Minuit. [English translation: 1979. The Inheritors: French Students and their Relation to Culture. Transl. Richard Nice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.]

Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1970. La Réproduction. Eléments Pour Une Théorie du Système d'Enseignement. Paris: Editions du Minuit. [English translation: 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Transl. Richard Nice. London and Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.]

Bourdieu, Pierre and Loic Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brown, Nicholas and Imre Szeman (eds.). 2000. Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture. Rowman and Littlefield, Pubs.

Calhoun, Craig, Edward LiPuma and Moishe Postone (eds.). 1993. Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fowler, Bridget. 1997. Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations. NY: Sage.

Grenfell, Michael and David James (eds.). 1998. Bourdieu and Education: Acts of Practical Theory. London: Taylor and Francis.

Harker, Richard, Cheleen Mahar and Chris Wilkes (eds.). 1990. Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: The Practice of Theory. Palgrave.

Jenkins, Richard. 1992. Pierre Bourdieu. London and New York: Routledge.

Lane, Jeremy F. 2000. Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto Press.

Robbins, Derek. 1991. The Work of Pierre Bourdieu. Boulder and San Francisco: Westview Press.

Shusterman, Richard (ed.). 1999. Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Swartz, David. 1997. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roy Boyne (essay date June 2002)

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SOURCE: Boyne, Roy. “Bourdieu: From Class to Culture, In Memoriam; Pierre Bourdieu 1930-2002.” Theory, Culture & Society 19, no. 3 (June 2002): 117-28.

[In the following essay, Boyne compares Bourdieu's Distinction with The Weight of the World, tracing the differences in thought and empirical data that led to changes in Bourdieu's theory of sociology and art in later years.]

I will try to establish two things: first the continuing use but outdated nature of the model of working-class culture found in Distinction; second, the relationship between that model and the work which is reported in The Weight of the World.1 I hope it need not be said that critique is the most serious form of high regard.


The empirical work upon which Distinction was based is now more than 20 years old. Characterizations of the working class in terms of their unreflexive ‘choice of the necessary’, and of the cultured upper class as unreflexive in their beliefs in the timeless and asocial qualities of truth, beauty and progress, of which they are guardians, however, remain with us. They are no longer to be found so clearly in Bourdieu's later work. He called upon intellectuals (despite their cosmopolitan privileges underlined in the hidden contrapuntalism of The Weight of the World) to take a stand against the false unanimity of dominant discourse, to swap the illusio of autonomous aesthetics for the (much-to-be-preferred, and self-admittedly normative) illusio of Realpolitik and the preservation of the values and achievements of the cultural and scientific fields (Bourdieu, 1992: 348, 1998: 7-8). It is also the case that he developed confidence in the possibility of reflexive awareness, not only for intellectuals but also for the seriously disadvantaged. Speaking of the sociological enlightenment of those formerly characterized in terms of their necessitarianism, he later said, ‘you may be upset by what you are, but you have instruments to understand and to accept it and that is the main problem of life’ (cited in Swain, 2000). Just as it was 20 years ago when Bourdieu, in practice, accepted the condition of the working class but launched a critique of the illusio of the aristocracy of culture, so it was at the beginning of the 21st century with his calling for intellectuals to act together while nevertheless sometimes preaching a form of acceptance for the dispossessed. This is far from the only remnant of necessitarianism that we find when we look to reactions across the wider culture.

My first example taken from outside of Bourdieu's corpus pertains to critical reaction to the British film Billy Elliot. Eleven-year-old Billy's father and brother are both striking miners in 1984 Easington, in northeast England. Billy attends a boxing club in the community hall. This takes place at the same time as the ballet class for the young girls of this Durham coastal pit village. Billy has no talent for boxing, and presented within the film as a much less pre-determined figure than he would have been in Bourdieu's 1979 version of working-class necessitarianism, he creates an appetite and discovers a talent for ballet. Necessitarianism is, however, given a strong presence within the film through the characters of the father and the brother, who both try to call Billy to order, just exactly as Bourdieu describes the sanctions imposed on their own within the working class.2 Thus Billy's brother's version of the demand for the refusal of ‘fancy nonsense’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 379) is to provoke and insult him: ‘Ballet, you twat!’ Both father and brother are eventually persuaded of the depth of Billy's desire, but although times are changing, as evidenced by Billy's ballet and the small leap made by his best mate who makes a pass at him, which Billy handles with a supportive refusal, neither father nor brother can shift that much: enough to support Billy but within the limits of their traditional loyalties. When Billy's father tests that, he is pulled back as he so clearly wanted to be.

Billy's resistance to the culture of the necessary is located at the end of a long line of exemplary exceptions: talent and determination can transcend origins and circumstances. There are good reasons to object to the portrayal of such exceptions as if they were the rule. Barbara Ellen, writing in The Observer (2000), put it like this:

The main charge against Billy Elliot has been one of sentimentality, but it is guilty of far worse than that. Daldry, and the screenwriter, Lee Hall, both come from working-class stock, but that doesn't give them the right to tell it how it isn't. There is no nobility in poverty, nothing remotely photogenic about life at the very bottom, very rarely a fast track out. Yet here Billy is, tap dancing and pirouetting out of the ghetto, and into the welcoming arms of the middle classes. The message is: if you're talented, if you work hard, you can escape, within 111 minutes. And this message is supposed to appeal to whom exactly—the working classes? Don't be silly.

Like Bourdieu's 1979 picture of necessity, Ellen's reaction to the film confirms the closed horizons of the working class in contrast to open possibilities elsewhere.

What keeps these horizons lowered? Bruno Latour, in a newspaper commentary on Bourdieu, had no doubt about the answer to that question:

It is not enough for someone to speak of the dominated to belong to the left. Everything depends on the way in which they understand and express the operation of power. Bourdieu's sociology begins with moments of consummate description, but then subjugates the multiplicity of expressions and situations to a small number of obsessively repeated notions which describe the invisible forces which manipulate the actors behind their backs.

(Latour, 1998)

We can add to these intimations that there are both internal and external forces (calls to order and invisible forces) reproducing the culture of necessity, that rumours of the death of the working class (due to labour-force changes resulting from globalization and technological advance, due also to changes in the nature of trans-social seduction into consumption, and additionally linked to class-transcendent identity issues related to age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion and, perhaps in a minor key, a multitude of consumption-activities from salsa to sailing3 where skills and enthusiasms not economic structures are the foundation of reference groups) may be hard to substantiate. Roger Bromley (2000: 52) tells us about a 1998 ICM survey of UK class affiliation, which indicates that there might be a higher proportion of people now thinking themselves working class (55٪) than may have been the case 50 years ago. Abercrombie and Warde (2000: 148) point to a poll reported in The Guardian in the same year which declared that 68 per cent of respondents thought that Britain was ‘class-ridden’, and Beverley Skeggs's (1997: 161) study of class and gender is crystal clear that ‘[c]lass was completely central’ to the lives of the women with whom she worked. These are, of course, just a few of the examples that could have been selected. Although I think it is probably fair to say that, in the 1990s, class has lost its status as senior member of the pantheon of social divisions, so that it does not really surprise to read something like the following: ‘The rigid adherence to forms of ethnic and cultural essentialism tends to obscure cross-cutting social divisions such as class …’ (Ratcliffe, 2000: 180). It is not so long ago that we were talking about the cross-cutting divisions within class society.

While class remains salient, expressions of class cultures are much more marked by reflexive attitudes—rueful, ironic, envious, reflectively proud—than was the case in the picture painted by Bourdieu in 1979. Skeggs's subjects ‘were never able to feel comfortable with themselves’ (1997: 162); the music lovers discussed by Hennion and Maisonneuve (2000) make it clear that they know that their taste can be understood sociologically, even to the point where they can hardly admit (although they know of it) to the experience of unconditioned pleasure. Additionally, it is increasingly clear that other structural contexts, such as ethnicity, gender, age, medical status, are now routinely and reflexively incorporated into conceptions of self-identity. This was certainly shown to be the case in the report from the Runnymede Trust—a two-year enquiry into ethnicity in Britain by 23 ‘commissioners’ drawn widely from the very best UK theorists, researchers, activists, administrators, and community workers, chaired by Bhikhu Parekh—which makes it clear that ‘people have the capacity to manoeuvre between distinct areas of life and to be “cross-cultural navigators”’, and that structural contexts, while powerfully conditioning, are rarely unrecognized and hardly if ever totally determinant (Parekh, 2000).

It is now necessary to sound a note of caution. It may be broadly right that invitations to self-reflection almost invariably now give rise to reflexively aware attitudes to the force of social structural conditions. What, however, are we to conclude about those actions which are less deliberative? As Weber schematized, there are forms of social behaviour which are not thought through beforehand, reflexively or otherwise. Is this the point at which cultural necessitarianism is reinforced rather than weakened, the point at which the model of Distinction remains the key to understanding? What is the relation between necessitarianism, emotion and habit? I cannot possibly provide a full answer to that question here, but I do wish to indicate its importance by pointing to the apparent lack of concern for issues pertaining to reflexive awareness in debates about domestic violence. The Metropolitan Police conference, ‘Enough is Enough’, at the end of October 2000, was linked with the project of taking a ‘national snapshot’ of domestic violence (and one might see both Distinction and The Weight of the World also, in one aspect at least, as sharing something of this status as snapshot). Preliminary indications are that the mise-en-scène is not much structured by reflexive awareness (at least at the point of action). One case coming out of this project has been reported as follows:

Jane is 27 years old. She has a three-year-old son and she is afraid. ‘I bet they're looking up, laughing at me. He said he wanted me dead, and he's getting closer.’ … Her possessions and those of her son have been destroyed by a fire which started four hours earlier. They were out when the blaze began. They will never live here again. Below a group of youths are milling in the street. In the dim light it is difficult to pick out faces, but Jane suspects her ex-boyfriend is among them. She pulls up her sleeve and shows a scar from a knife wound … ‘We had a row at a friend's house. I threw my mobile at him. He lost it. He's a nutter.’ … Newham's community safety unit … are not surprised when Jane says she is reluctant to give a statement.

(Hopkins, 2000)

Sociological exploration of reflexive consciousness at the point of action is hard to come by. Unedited cctv footage of street violence rarely reveals self-consciousness in action; while covert recordings of football hooligan reflection on skirmishes to come indicate disdain for or prohibition of analytical reflection. Methodological, cultural and ethical barriers to research on violence at the point of violence, or passion at the point of passion, mean that dramatists, lyricists, screenwriters, novelists and poets have the field pretty much to themselves. If this is so, it is a prime reason for holding the humanities and the social scientists squeezed together, rather than, as with Bourdieu and the sociological tradition in general, levering them further apart (Boyne, 2000).


Class appears to be less unrecognizedly determinant of social action now than was the case just a quarter of a century ago. It has even been overtaken in the ranks of social-structural influences by ethnicity, economic geography, gender and—quite possibly—genetic inheritance. Post hoc self-reflection typically recognizes the power of such influences. However, there is a limit to the advance of reflective/reflexive consciousness as the consciousness-mode of the moment. Much behaviour is not rational but emotional or habitual, and it seems quite possible that the necessitarianism discussed in Distinction may be harder to dismiss as outmoded in these cognitively impoverished contexts. This may be the case even if we do not accept the continuing fidelity to necessitarianism that we still regularly find reproduced by cultural intermediaries of one sort or another. Against that background, how do we understand the relationship between Distinction and The Weight of the World? The first shift to consider is that from inclusion to exclusion.

A point from which to begin is Loïc Wacquant's distinction between the urban deterioration found in the housing projects of the USA and the decaying suburbs around the major French cities. Listing the conditions of ‘joblessness, housing degradation, violence, isolation and immigration’ which, from the 1980s on, were represented within a ‘fantastical’ transatlantic discourse of ‘ghettoization’, Wacquant suggests that the ‘decomposition of the French working class’ has been exacerbated by a stigmatizing symbolic domination which has to be endured ‘on top of socioeconomic exclusion’ (Wacquant, 1999: 130-1). It is immediately tempting at this point to turn to the class inclusionism of Distinction, where, despite the symbolic domination to which the working classes are permanently subjected, we can find that they have ‘everything which belongs to the art of living, a wisdom taught by necessity, suffering and humiliation and deposited in an inherited language, dense even in its stereotypes, a sense of revelry and festivity, of self expression and practical solidarity with others …’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 394). Is this the fundamental contrast? In the 1970s, those subject to symbolic and economic domination were described in terms of their own defence mechanisms of social inclusion, whereas in the 1990s defensive structures of class solidarity are less evident, revealing a picture of unadorned exclusion. Would this not be the vicious side of the end of ideology, where those, now reflexively aware, experiencing symbolic and economic domination have no compensating illusions at all? Is this what Bourdieu meant by misère du monde?

To show that this is indeed one of the key contrasts between these two works is not so straightforward. Bourdieu is a structural sociologist. The ‘atoms’ of his social world are agents acting within fields. When he is dealing with housing projects, however, he finds generic displacement, ‘people who have nothing in common’ forced ‘to live together, either in mutual ignorance and incomprehension or else in latent or open conflict’ (Bourdieu, 1999: 3). For Bourdieu these places are, and he italicizes this statement, ‘difficult to describe and think about.’ No single point of view can capture what is happening there. What is needed are ‘multiple perspectives that correspond to the multiplicity of co-existing, and sometimes directly competing, points of view’. This multiple perspectivism can be assessed by comparing the interviews reproduced in The Weight of the World, which Bourdieu carried out. He did an ‘interview with a project head in the north of France’. The project manager used to work against the bureaucratic grain and had some success in dealing with difficult cases because of her intricate network of connections within the community. The effort of struggling to subvert and negotiate constricting procedures was tiring and often thankless. When she moved to a different area, she was less able to intervene in specific cases, but still had an understanding of the local social structures and regional bureaucratic conditions. Her view of the shifts from the 1970s through to the 1990s was clear:

You have these huge HLM [public housing] projects in which you've got retirees who've spent a life … you know a normal life. They have acquired this apartment, they've furnished it, they've spent their whole life working. With the 1977 reforms in financing, some of them could have acquired a little property, but some were too old and they said, ‘no, it's not for us, our apartment is fine, let's keep it.’ So the idea of buying their own little house, I don't think it even entered their minds, and they were very satisfied with their apartment, and their neighbourhood, with their environment, with their life and all. And then the economic crisis: things change and you get another type of population which is there because it has no choice. So we are in another period, the people who come to these apartments, it's not because they've found a job, it's because they can't find another apartment. The ones who come to make demands, who come to demonstrate, are the retirees, people used to defending themselves, saying what they have to say, talking because they have rights, and so they continue to talk.

(Bourdieu, 1999: 197)

For Pascale, the project head, the long-term inhabitants of the projects are not excluded, but they do recognize the dangers of exclusion and will fight and talk. What about the more recent arrivals? Monsieur Leblond, described as a member of a working-class family, has a house with a garage and three bedrooms, and a 14-year-old daughter at the local lycée, which he describes as having ‘80 percent foreigners in the total school strength … Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Portuguese …’ (Bourdieu, 1999: 17). Lots of them, Leblond says, are unemployed, especially the younger ones. He knows that they have often not been helped very much by the state, and also that many of them have different cultural backgrounds. He suggests that some of the problems can be traced to individual families, and that it is not so much a matter of inherent ethnic characteristics, even though these differences can give rise to minor irritations. He has lived, worked, played and brought up children in an erratically supported multi-ethnic neighbourhood and has a matter-of-fact approach to the difficulties of doing this, which concludes with a somewhat whimsical wish that young people in particular were more adaptable and prepared to compromise. That wish, however, finds absolutely no echo in the discourse of François and Ali. What is strongly echoed is Leblond's matter-of-factness, and the practical repudiation of basic racial difference. What François and Ali report is an up-close-and-personal life in their environment and nothing else. There is barely a trace of reflexive awareness of the field in which they are agents, and this is because this field does not exist and hence their powers as agents do not exist. Bourdieu does not put it like this, at least in part because his whole self-construction as a sociologist refuses the idea that there could be any such phenomenon as genuine social exclusion. Such a thing would be a contradiction in terms. Reluctant to rehabilitate the notion of anomie (for normless subjects cannot exist within his framework of social understanding), his response is emotional, his concept that of shared suffering:

I did not have to force myself to share in the feeling, inscribed in every word, every sentence, and more especially in the tone of their voices, their facial expressions or body language, of the obviousness of this form of collective bad luck that attaches itself like a fate, to all those that have been put together in those sites of social relegation, where the personal suffering of each is augmented by all the suffering that comes from co-existing and living with so many suffering people together—and, perhaps more importantly, of the destiny effect of belonging to a stigmatised group.

(1999: 64)

For Francis, a counter-cultural street-level drug counsellor, what Bourdieu (quite rightly and compellingly) sees as suffering, he sees as thoroughly rooted in exclusion:

They had been rejected, at school, they were in remedial class, they were already excluded! They were already excluded at school, so when they left school, they had a mindset of exclusion. And since they didn't have the wherewithal to get a job, well then, they were excluded …

(1999: 210)

Bourdieu's own examination of social conditions in the housing projects, from the points of view of administrators, savvy street-workers, traditional working-class members and both French and immigrant youth, presents a complex picture of socially accomplished local understandings which, however, no longer connect to any macro-culture other than that from which the processes of exclusion can be seen to have emanated. Bourdieu does not much use the term social exclusion, but compared to the cultures of the dominated which he examined in Distinction, the absence of necessitarianism is explained not by reflexivity but by the lack of a countervailing culture to impose and legitimate what is necessary. For those interviewed in The Weight of the World, the experience of exclusion is often unmediated. In this context, the sociological task must first be to reveal the condition, which Bourdieu has done. What comes next?


Four years after The Weight of the World, Bourdieu published Pascalian Meditations. In this later work, he looked back on his study of social suffering and saw it first (Bourdieu's own word—première) as of methodological significance, as an attempt to avoid the imposition by the researchers of their epistemic categories and assumptions, therefore allowing access to the field of social scientific knowledge for those normally excluded (Bourdieu, 1997: 74). This delicate recognition of exclusion as a problem of method is followed by a reminder that the intellectual's dream of a universal viewpoint valid for all is just part of the scholastic illusio. This double move, methodologically aggressive yet politically self-effacing, provides Bourdieu with a strong response to those who might object to his departure from the territories of the excluded. He has allowed them to speak, and at the level of the field can do no more thereafter than underline the strengths of good social science. What does it mean to remain at this level of description, to comment upon what is described only by polishing the methodology and closing off avenues of criticism from those who might not agree with his approach, or who might think there is further to go? He does not explain that many of those interviewed lack powers of agency4 because they are largely located within unformed or fractured or multiply chaotic fields. He cannot advocate resistance because there is insufficient field sedimentation to make it worthwhile embarking upon specific countervailing strategies. This minimum level of analysis is absent from The Weight of the World because apparently there is nothing to be done, except to allow the condition to be described by those suffering it, and sometimes to help them through sympathetic social explanation to come to terms with the condition. This is now the imposition of necessitarianism from outside. It parallels the aesthetic of the upper classes described in Distinction: just as truth, beauty and honour are socially unconditioned, so is the suffering of the socially excluded.

Pierre Bourdieu came out of the sociological tradition of Weber and Durkheim. This is the tradition of the reliable and rigorous witness, but it is also the tradition of the theorist and diagnostician. In The Weight of the World the meta-reflections of the latter are carefully diverted away from the interview subjects. The consequence of this is a vacuum that will be filled, perhaps, in part, by work and thought on some of the following questions. Does The Weight of the World aestheticize the projects and their inhabitants? Does an undertheorized multi-perspectival sociological ventriloquism lead to a potential mannerist deformation in representations of social existence? How, within Bourdieu's approach of reflexive multi-perspectivism, is the reinforcing of stigmatism to be avoided? What are the gradations between bearing witness and voyeurism in these contexts? Can a variety of under-formed social milieux be identified, contrasted, classified? These questions are difficult, but as a place to begin, and to begin to conclude, we can examine the first of them.

There is, as Jon Cook (2000) reminds us, a well-established tradition, beginning with Brueghel and also the English pastoral, of the aesthetic appreciation of the poorer circumstances of others. If Bourdieu's The Weight of the World is description without explicit diagnosis or recommended treatment, is the appropriate prototype within this lineage? Jean-François Millet's The Gleaners, for example: three women working in the field, is it shown by the painter just like it was? Millet worked within the contemporary conventions of artistic composition just as Bourdieu is very clearly self-located within the context of professional social science. As Mirbeau pointed out (cited in Shiff, 1998: 201), Millet focused on the people rather than the ground on which they stood, and the same might be thought true of Bourdieu's strategy in The Weight of the World. However, Millet was a romantic who framed his subjects against a glowing world, and it is probably the case that Bourdieu cannot be said to do that. Perhaps a more up-to-date model is Richard Billingham; his work is certainly less auratic than Millet's. He took photographs of his parents and brother in their Birmingham council flat over a period of seven years. Some of them were shown as part of the Sensation exhibition in 1997. The most measured critical response to them was that they were ‘part of an international movement in photography towards kitchen-sinkish verité’ (Adams, 1997: 39). However, a different and indirect response is worth noting. Under a part headline, ‘disease that just won't go away’, an article by Paul Barker (2000) in The Independent on Sunday, which opens with the question, ‘Is Britain obsessed by class?’, is wrapped around a 10-inch by 7-inch colour reproduction of ‘Ray and Elizabeth’. They are Billingham's parents, and he has photographed them, prematurely aged and overweight, separated by the family dog and cat, all on the brown velvet settee, part-covered by a pastel flowered quilt, eating a definitively unappetizing TV dinner. Whether intentionally or not, Billingham's parents are framed as an intractable social problem. He did not mean for that to happen. In fact there is no intentional theoretical framing by Billingham at all, but there is an aesthetic which is even tinged with a little of Millet's sentimentality. He says of ‘Ray and Elizabeth’, ‘it looks like any hack photographer could have come in and taken this photograph—it doesn't show you anything about the relationship I have with them. I wish I'd never put it in the book, but it's so well known now I just have to live with it’ (cited in Barber, 2000).

For Bourdieu's work around the Projects, there is not a single perspective. These situations are, he thinks, hard to deal with. They are fluid and varied, in ways that are really quite different—at least as far as he was concerned—from the fluidity of being always ahead of the game that marked the progressive faction of the petite bourgeoisie as he saw them in the 1970s. He was therefore reluctant to theorize these new spaces. He showed them to us, but allowed them to declare for themselves what they are. He did not want to fix the meanings of these spaces in advance, since he knew that they are places of kaleidoscopic experience, and so he did not always clearly say that these are places of exclusion, but that is what they declare themselves to be. In truth, he did not need to be specific that these are spaces of social exclusion, because it already followed from his social theorizing. Thus he did say exclusion to the extent that these exteriorized social spaces are not centred, they are difficult, without central principles. They are places of exclusion because they require multiple perspectives, because they are not yet, and perhaps never will be, governed by the clear quasi-regulations of a relatively clear field. So did Bourdieu aestheticize the inhabitants of these non-spaces? The answer is double: to the extent that they are defined outside of regular social space their impact is romanticized (like Millet's figures, and as—at the limit—is the case with Billingham's photographs); to the extent that they must speak for themselves within the social order, they are heard as a ‘disease that just won't go away’. Neither position is tenable. The Projects and their inhabitants are very clearly inside the social. They do not constitute an unformed Other, but an immensely complex sociological phenomenon which must be theorized, and the two opening steps need to be the recognition of individuals without agency within the social world, and the contrast between the countervailing cultural defences of the working class, described in Distinction, and the stark absence of anything analogous in The Weight of the World.


  1. This is an extension of arguments found in Subject, Society and Culture (Boyne, 2000: ch. 1). I am grateful to Manchester University Sociology Department, and to the delegates to the conference ‘Bourdieu in the 21st Century’, organized by Derek Robbins, for their responses to the original presentations. The text that follows does not repeat the arguments to be found in the book, which I did briefly go through in the two lectures. Hence, although there may be references to sociological imperialism vis-à-vis its denial of even a residue of unconditioned subjectivity, and to the regrettable gap this opens and widens between social science and the humanities, the arguments for characterizing Bourdieu as quintessentially sociological in this respect will not be found here. There may also be reference to the core antinomy within Bourdieu's thought, two versions of which are (1) the effective modelling of a flexibly transposable habitus on the condition of the petite bourgeoisie at the same time as demanding principled political resistance as the model for action by cultural intermediaries, and (2) refusal of the human subject as any kind of prime mover, but making that same subject an agent of fields which are implicitly and sometimes explicitly constructed as Machiavellian collectivities. Again, the argument for the inevitability of these contradictions, and for their celebration in the context of a less voracious sociology, but for their cautionary diagnosis in regard to Bourdieu's work, which in the tradition of the sociology of everything and everything sociological is the very best that we have, will not be found here.

  2. Another example can be drawn from the BBC television series The Sins. In episode 1 (24 Oct. 2000), ‘Pride’, Len Green, the main protagonist played by Peter Postlethwaite, says, ‘That's what I hate about the working class. Once, just once, try to better yourself, and what do you get?’ Len Green, unlike Bourdieu's subjects in 1979, but now in common with his examples in The Weight of the World, is aware of the processes. Calls to order within working-class milieux have now assumed the status of cliché. It would make an interesting research project to see to what extent they now emerge out of the cultural intermediary fraction of the petite bourgeoisie to a greater extent than they do out of the working class itself, as is pretty much the case with Barbara Ellen's newspaper commentary on the film (which made no mention of the fact that Sir Kenneth MacMillan was the son of a miner, or that Philip Mosley, one of the Royal Ballet's best dancers, is the youngest of his generation from a Barnsley family with a strong mining tradition [Wainwright, 2000]).

  3. An updated reference list of the petit bourgeois activities listed in Distinction as running from Aikido to Zen might include personal trainers, loft-living, espresso machines, Giorgio Armani, Jake and Dinos Chapman and (but only if you live in Germany) golf.

  4. When Angus Stewart (2000: 8) referred to ‘agency as a critical aspect of social inclusion’ (bold in original), he said nothing about those contexts in which no agency is possible. This, one might think, is hardly surprising, since surely such contexts hardly exist. Will we not at least find potential for agency wherever we look? If we could have got Bourdieu to answer this question directly, the answer would probably have been a qualified negative. It is a source of great loss both that we will never know for sure and that we will not have the chance to see whatever answer it was transcended by his further work.


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Howie Chodos and Bruce Curtis (essay date November 2002)

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SOURCE: Chodos, Howie, and Bruce Curtis. “Pierre Bourdieu's Masculine Domination: A Critique.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 39, no. 4 (November 2002): 397-412.

[In the following essay, Chodos and Curtis purport that Bourdieu's concepts in Masculine Domination are limited in their application.]

In a marked break with an earlier pessimism about the political potential of academic sociology (Mesney, 2002), Pierre Bourdieu extended his systematic program of social research to an increasingly public involvement with political questions in the decade before his death on 23 January, 2002. He organized and edited a multi-authored volume on the suffering provoked by capitalist globalization. He offered acerbic critiques of Anthony Giddens and the Blairite “third way” in the editorial pages of Le Monde. He denounced American cultural and economic imperialism for imposing its categories on social situations in which they do not apply, thereby distorting social scientific work. He engaged with groups of community activists in many parts of France in an effort to subvert the relations of symbolic violence and domination inherent to the current social order and he took to task those among his fellow intellectuals who engaged in what he denounced as “radical chic” (Bourdieu, 2001b; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999). As a recent feature-length film by Pierre Carles has shown, Bourdieu attempted to mobilize the formidable analytic and conceptual repertoire he had developed over several decades to make sociology into an effective instrument of political critique: in Bourdieu's own words, into a martial art. Such a sociology would embrace its enemy—domination—mastering its characteristic idioms, its strategies and tactics, its feints and gestures, and turn the strength of domination against itself (Carles, 2001).

This essay focusses on Bourdieu's recent attempt to come to terms with something he called “masculine domination” or “male domination.” This phenomenon had been a long-standing concern in Bourdieu's work. Masculine domination was announced as a matter for future research in The Logic of Practice (1990). Bourdieu addressed it more directly in an article-length piece before producing a short monograph that appeared, with considerable commercial success, in France in 1998 (Bourdieu, 1998). There were solid grounds for a preoccupation with this phenomenon for, as Bourdieu's collaborator and student Loïc Wacquant put it,

gender domination constitutes the paradigm of all domination and is perhaps its most persistent form. It is at once the most arbitrary and the most misrecognized dimension of domination because it operates essentially via the deep, yet immediate, agreement of embodied schemata of a vision of the world with the existing structures of that world.

(Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 134, n)

The recent translation of Bourdieu's monograph, Masculine Domination (Bourdieu, 2001a), makes the arguments accessible to an English-language audience. The translation faces a considerable challenge, however, because it makes such foundational claims for masculine domination, and because it is aimed at an audience whose experience of feminist theory and practice is rather different than that of its original French readership.

It has to be said from the outset that Masculine Domination is a disappointing work. At a time when the way forward for many social movements is far from clear, serious reflection on the grounds on which masculinized power and privilege are reproduced, and on the means of eliminating them, might be furthered by analysing them as “masculine domination.” Unfortunately, Bourdieu never seems able to connect the broad ambitions of his theoretical plan to anything more than extremely general recommendations for action. While he places “masculine domination” on the analytic and political agenda, he fails to point to any weaknesses in the structures of domination that might encourage political strategies capable of subverting it.

We believe that this weakness stems from a failure on Bourdieu's part to make the best possible use of his own conceptual repertoire and, thus, that there is much to be gained from a critical encounter with his analysis. It is significant that a man who was perhaps the world's leading sociologist should devote an entire book to the topic of masculine domination. Bourdieu is boldly unapologetic for his address of the question, rejecting the monopoly claimed by those who would insist that only the dominated may speak of domination (2001a: 115, n). In this way, he breaks with gender essentialism and refuses a compartmentalization of work on the subject. And Bourdieu's intervention is timely. It takes place in a climate of morosity among many third-wave feminists. Feminists of this generation can look back on thirty years of struggle in perhaps the most successful social movement of the twentieth century, and yet see persistent features of patriarchal social relations combined with an apparent waning of interest in feminist issues on the part of a younger generation (for instance, Segal, 1999). We point to the weaknesses of Bourdieu's work before suggesting ways it may be salvaged.

Bourdieu's book presents three immediate difficulties. The most obvious and the most significant of these is that he never really tells us what he means by masculine domination. A second difficulty stems from Bourdieu's attempts to draw lessons for contemporary contestatory practice from the model of social relations provided by his well-known ethnographic work among the Kabyle peasantry of Algeria. Third, he invokes empirical descriptions of the condition and experience of “women” which frequently seem dated and of limited validity. This difficulty is compounded by an engagement with what seems often to be a rather passé body of English-language feminist theory. Arguments which might appear novel in French translation frequently seem tired when translated back into North American feminist debate, where contexts have changed.

The absence of a direct engagement with questions of definition makes it difficult to locate the heart of Bourdieu's argument. For a sociology that seeks to know its enemy in order to defeat it, a failure even to identify clearly that enemy is a startling weakness. What is “masculine domination”? Is it paradigmatic as a sexed variation of more general forms of domination on which its existence depends? Is it the originary form of domination, as the passage quoted above from Wacquant might suggest? Is it a specific form of domination in its own right? Without definitional clarity, the points of attack remain hidden.

It is true that there are hints and half-definitions of masculine domination throughout the book, and a well-known list of the consequences of contemporary gender regimes is compiled. We are told that the issue is “the asymmetry between the sexes” and “a society organized through and through according to the androcentric principle” (Bourdieu, 2001a: 3). “Androcentric reason, itself grounded in the division of the social statuses assigned to men and women,” we are told, imposes principles of division between the sexes (2001a: 15). The phallus is a powerful signifier because of the “androcentric worldview” (2001a: 23) and women's use of their bodies “remains very obviously subordinated to the male point of view” (2001a: 29). Empirical studies in feminist sociology are invoked to suggest that women learn to disdain their bodies, to accept that the tasks they accomplish are denigrated, to put up with the double day of labour while working in feminized jobs for less than equal pay. We hear less about men, even though “male privilege is a trap” (2001a: 50) from which men would do well to escape. We do learn that men take joy in violence, live their sexual relations as relations of conquest, and ultimately are deeply afraid of the feminine in themselves (2001a: 50-52). Yet hints and lists are of little help in explaining either the causes for, or the means of combating, something we might call “masculine domination,” and the large categories “men” and “women” are essentializing, even if Bourdieu cautions that they are analytic instruments and not empirical entities. While they may help to present the problem to be grappled with, they obscure potential solutions.

Nonetheless, a strength of this book is that Bourdieu has posed the central question with respect to asymmetrical relations of gendered power and privilege with some clarity. He remarks that “it is indeed astonishing to observe the extraordinary autonomy of sexual structures relative to economic structures, of modes of reproduction relative to modes of production.” And he asks,

How do we take account of this apparent perenniality, which moreover plays a considerable part in giving the appearances of a natural essence to a historical construction, without running the risk of ratifying it by inscribing it in the eternity of a nature?

(2001a: 81-82)

By way of answer, Bourdieu seeks to provide us with the means both to understand the quasi-universality of masculine domination and to grasp the underlying social conditions that sustain it across time and place. To do this he urges us to employ “a truly relational approach to the relation of domination between men and women as it establishes itself in the whole set of social spaces and subspaces” (2001a: 102, emphasis in the original).

One dimension of this argument is to take the organization and reproduction of social relations in Kabylia as a kind of laboratory experiment through which to reveal “the androcentric unconscious that is capable of objectifying the categories of that unconscious” (2001a: 5). The unconscious is a historical product for Bourdieu, as are social structures. He claims that there is a “‘phallonarcissistic’ vision and androcentric cosmology” common to all Mediterranean societies, which survives in a partial and exploded form “in our own cognitive structures and social structures.” Kabylia is paradigmatic for a “Mediterranean tradition” and Bourdieu claims that “the whole European cultural domain undoubtedly shares in that tradition” (2001a: 6). Given the significance of this claim, one might anticipate that Bourdieu would provide a genealogy of the social and psychic structures that sustain the patterns of relations to which he objects. He does not do so. There is no account offered of the origins of a “Mediterranean tradition,” nor of its diffusion, nor is there any attempt to analyse the extent to which such a tradition might have been modified or contested in areas of the world influenced by it.

Instead, Bourdieu gives another rendition of Kabylia as a functioning society, in this case as one in which differences between and differential evaluations of the sexes are inscribed in bodies and things, in the topography of the household and the market, in linguistic expressions and in aesthetic sensibility. Thus we see the system of homologous oppositions into which female/male are inserted at work in the division of the house into the lower, dark, wet, women's side and the higher, light, dry, men's side (2001a: 10). We see these oppositions inscribed in bodies through such things as carriage (women, small, bent, eyes on the ground; men, drawn-up, erect, eyes looking into the eyes of other men), speech (for women, hesitant, tentative, timid; for men, clear, declarative, unambiguous), and so on. Bourdieu gives us a strong sense of the incessant labour required to naturalize these artificial distinctions. He shows us how these institutions are reproduced through the work of instituting: boys, for instance, leave the sphere of women/house and enter the world of men/market through a rite which involves the first haircut.

Yet how does Bourdieu suggest that the analysis of the situation in Kabylia can inform our understanding of the contemporary European (and North American) world? Clearly, he wants to argue that contemporary European societies share in a common tradition with Kabylia as far as an “androcentric vision” is concerned. Unfortunately, he never gives us a systematic and historical account of the nature of this social order, and one is left with the feeling that he has proceeded in a manner directly antithetical to his desire to provide us with an historical account of the persistence of masculine domination. He does not locate the various practices he describes in the total context of the Kabyle social order, and in consequence we are unable to draw lessons for our own contemporary situation.

Practically, Bourdieu elides the need for analysis by engaging in a search for examples of an “androcentric principle” at work in contemporary European social relations and conditions. The feminist literature of the 1970s and 1980s is raided for (often dated) examples of the economic, cultural, sexual, and political subordination of women in the capitalist west. Bourdieu notes that there are sharp differences in taste between the sexes and, in the paid labour force, women predominate in the caring occupations. Men manage female office staff and work performed by men is better paid than that of women. Women's public personae are those of helpmeet and hostess, like the media personality who introduces authoritative speakers but never speaks authoritatively. The Kabyle principle that constrains women to remain invisible is obvious in the fact that women in Europe do not acquire occupational titles congruent with the importance of the work they do (2001a: 61). Other pairs in the set of homologous binaries that organize masculine domination in Kabylia also continue: Bourdieu points to the glass industry, where men do the hot work around the furnace, while women do the cold work of inspection (2001a: 61, n).

The binaries inscribed in social space remain inscribed in categories of perception, and masculine domination constitutes women as the objects of a masculine gaze. Bourdieu cites evidence to claim that women see parts of their bodies as “too big” while men see theirs as “too small.” Women exist in a state of insecurity around their bodies because these are always the objects of the gaze of domination and this creates a state of dependence on others that is generalized. The operation of domination works through the creation of dispositions. Thus, while “masculine domination has lost part of its immediate self-evidence, some of the mechanisms which underlie this domination continue to function” in contemporary Europe (2001a: 56).

At his strongest, most insightful, and most controversial, Bourdieu probes the complicity of women in the practices that sustain masculine domination. He criticizes the general tendency on the part of those interested in challenging domination to idealize the condition of the dominated in the name of solidarity “and to pass over in silence the very effects of domination.” To avoid this tendency, he claims, one “has to take the risk of seeming to justify the established order by bringing to light the properties through which the dominated … as domination has made them, may contribute to their own domination” (2001a: 114). For part of this analysis, Bourdieu offers an insightful re-reading of the relations between the Ramsays in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. He is concerned not simply to show the ways in which Mr. Ramsay enunciates the law of the father, but more especially with Mrs. Ramsay's insights into and complicity with his capacity to do so. She is shown to be aware of the game of power that Mr. Ramsay plays, to see the fragilities in his ability to play it and yet to underwrite them. She is not herself disposed to play the game of power and the weapons she has at her disposal are those of the weak—weak weapons.

But one cannot help feeling that many of the specific forms of masculine domination that Bourdieu describes are no longer quite as universal as he suggests. For example, he writes that,

The world of work is full of little isolated occupational milieus (a hospital staff, the office of a ministry, etc.) functioning as quasi-families in which the staff manager, almost always a man, exercises a paternalistic authority, based on emotional envelopment or seduction.

(2001a: 58)

Once again, there are no doubt many workplaces where the dynamics he describes predominate, but the apparent progress of feminist struggle seems to be discounted. The evidence presented points to the persistence of masculine domination, but tells us very little about how it has been and continues to be challenged. The more dramatic accomplishments of third-wave feminism are nowhere obvious.

Of course, the further evolution of the forms of social interaction that allow masculine domination to be reproduced helps place the central question referred to above in even sharper relief. Despite the progress women continue to make, there remains something we might call masculine domination that manages nonetheless to assert itself and to succeed in ensuring that the commanding heights of social, political and economic power generally remain in the hands of men. Bourdieu's hypothesis would seem to be that masculine domination has become so profoundly anchored in our daily lives that its reproduction cannot be easily prevented, even when people are committed to opposing it. Attempts to overthrow masculine domination reproduce asymmetrical relations in new forms.

We approached Bourdieu's Masculine Domination with an enthusiastic interest in his elaboration of a “constructivist structuralism” (Bourdieu, 1994; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). This approach promises to take us beyond the structure-agency and subject-object binaries which have operated as sociological set pieces for several decades now, by attending to a “logic of practice.” Bourdieu seeks to overcome the subject-object divide by insisting that social structures are lived and actively reproduced by individuals and groups who embody structural principles as predisposing dispositions, or “habitus.” Social practice in the broadest sense is approached through a game analogy. Individuals and groups are equipped through socialization and by their location in relation to scarce resources—economic, political, cultural—with a set of objective and subjective possibilities for strategic participation in social contests, which take place in more or less clearly bounded fields.

While Bourdieu is fond of the soccer analogy initially employed by Merleau-Ponty, we might think instead of the person plagued with gimpy knees playing defence in ice hockey (on the relation with Merleau-Ponty, see Crossley, 2001). Given the rules of the game, and a set of embodied capacities (including the capacity to “read the play”) a person so equipped will tend to adopt the tactical repertoire known as “staying at home.” “Staying at home” will exist as an objective possibility in the structure of the game itself, and as a subjective preference on the part of players positioned to take advantage of it. Yet games are fluid and changing. One of the stakes in any game is the rules of play; one of the strategies always present is that of changing the rules in the interest of some set of players—and, conversely, of insisting on the maintenance of rules that presently favour the dominant players or teams.

Strategies and resources are also to be understood in terms of their historic unfolding. In any ongoing game we can point to the “state of play” as a condition that leads to a differential valuation of strategies and resources. The gimpy-kneed defenceman is more likely to attempt to rush the puck faced with a losing score in the dying minutes of the game, or at the beginning of the game when the contest is still open, than in the middle of a close contest. The specific mix of resources that any player can command will also be subject to differential valuation, according to that player's own trajectory in relation to the game: accumulated experience as opposed to raw talent, for example. Or, in the academic game, we might think of the middle-aged, middle-ranked, mediocre sociology professor hoping to inherit the mantle of functionalist sociology's earlier dominance by not making any waves (“conservation strategies”), as opposed to the ambitious, younger, post-structuralist theorist claiming it is time for sociology's demise (“subversion strategies”) (Bourdieu, 1975; 2001b: 124-25). Bourdieu's game analogy thus suggests the existence of a logic of practice immanent to any field of social relations in which the shifting balance of strategies (related to a distribution of resources that is itself an object of struggle and hence more or less fluid) intersects with the established rules of the game to propel changes in both rules and strategies.

And yet there are two fairly clear analytic tensions in Bourdieu's approach as an analysis of social change: latent functionalism and latent subjectivism. The risk is that one might use this schema to argue that structural forces equip agents with the dispositions necessary to reproduce structures. If the principles—the habitus—underlying structures are inscribed in agents in ways which predispose agents to follow strategies appropriate to their structural location, then why would we assume agents would do anything other than embrace their destiny? Conversely, if agents adopt innovative strategies in a given field of struggle, one might be tempted to interpret these as anchored in a human creativity which is at the least not carefully analysed through a concept of “predisposing dispositions.” Either tendency would trap us once again in an agency-structure binary or dialectic and would leave the prospects for struggle against domination unclear.

Bourdieu has repeatedly denounced the appeal to either tendency as a basic misunderstanding of his work. On the one hand, there may be dissonance between habitus and structural location: the Algerian peasants faced with French capitalist initiatives in the 1960s were not equipped with the kinds of capital required of proletarians. Liberation struggles, presumably, could be read as attempts to change the rules of the game of power in a situation, like the colonial one, in which the conditions of play have changed dramatically. Again, Bourdieu argues the capacity to act in a consciously deliberative fashion may be one of the capacities incorporated in habitus that emerges in times of crisis.

Times of crisis, in which the routine adjustment of subjective and objective structures is brutally disrupted, constitute a class of circumstances when indeed “rational choice” may take over, at least among those agents who are in a position to be rational.

(1990: 130-31)

As Mesney (2002) shows, Bourdieu recently pointed to the growing dissonance between habitus and social structures, which he called “hysteresis,” propelled in part by increased access to education, as one ground on which academic sociology might aspire to political relevance. And Bourdieu also objected repeatedly that charges of functionalism neglect the fact that his approach focusses on social practice. Even the most mundane, routinely iterated social practices have to be performed in an ongoing manner if they are to exist. Repeated iterations are not slavish replications, because strategic situations change and because agents are themselves changed through the weight of their past engagements in fields.

These objections seem to us to be sound in principle, but they seem not to be adopted in Masculine Domination, which offers no analysis of practical transformation, either in traditional Kabylia or in contemporary Europe. For all his insistence on the transformative nature of practice, Bourdieu also maintains that “in a situation of equilibrium, the space of positions tends to command the space of position-takings” (1990: 105; his emphasis). In the face of stable social arrangements, in other words, social agents will tend to embrace their destiny.

Lois McNay points out that it is precisely the concept of “field” that is underdeveloped in this part of Bourdieu's work (McNay, 1999). A more useful way of proceeding would have been to take up the three sources of transformation identified analytically and to employ them in analyzing contemporary practices of “masculine domination” in the field of gender/power relations. One of these sources stems from the dissonance between habitus and social structures occasioned by changes in the latter. A second source seems to come from particular qualities of habitus itself—its characteristic, at least for certain agents at certain moments, of engagement in deliberation and critical self-reflection. Finally, a third source is located in the messy actualities of practice. Yet none of these possibilities is taken up in Masculine Domination. Instead Bourdieu writes:

The constancy of habitus … is thus one of the most important factors in the relative constancy of the structure of the sexual division of labour: because these principles are, in their essentials, transmitted from body to body, below the level of consciousness and discourse, to a large extent they are beyond the grip of conscious control and therefore not amenable to transformations or corrections (as is shown by the frequently observed discrepancies between declarations and practices—for example, those men most favourable to equality between the sexes make no greater contribution to housework than others); moreover, being objectively orchestrated, they confirm and reinforce one another.

(2001a: 95)

In the case of masculine domination, at least, habitus does not seem to be vulnerable to the potential gap between structure and practical performance that would lead to its transformation; there is no hysteresis here. Against Bourdieu's frequently repeated insistence of the labile character of habitus in general, its gendered dimensions seem fixed.

While his choice of a static set of social practices as a model for masculine domination prevents Bourdieu from engaging in analysis of its possible subversion, Masculine Domination does, nonetheless, suggest two political strategies. It is true that one strategy is mentioned but not engaged, while the other is foreclosed whenever it is invoked, but they are worth considering briefly. The first strategy would be to identify the work of dehistoricization that sustains masculine domination and to confront it directly. Bourdieu enjoins us to shift our focus from recent visible changes in the condition of women in Western Europe and North America towards the “always ignored … question of the endlessly recommenced historical labour which is necessary in order to wrench masculine domination from history and from the historical mechanisms and actions which are responsible for its apparent dehistoricization” (2001a: 82-84).

We think this is indeed a possible line of attack. Demonstrating the constructed nature of existing relations—as the sex/gender distinction did, for instance—is a productive approach. However, Bourdieu's insistence on the durability of masculine domination does not allow him to engage with this strategy. The visible changes we see, Bourdieu argues, in no way constitute attacks on masculine domination since the binary oppositions that sustain it are simply reproduced in new guises. Women gain access to higher education, but the gender division remains in subject choices and professional qualifications. Women enter the labour force, but in ghettoized jobs. Women gain a greater control over biological reproduction, but heterosexual marriage is still the basis for the transmission of patrimony. “The changes visible in conditions in fact conceal permanent features in the relative positions” (2001a: 90). The resources in the game of domination change, but the structure of the gaps between men and women remains constant.

This apparently all-encompassing nature of masculine domination forces one to wonder exactly how it could ever be overcome. In fact, there is a debilitating circularity to Bourdieu's argument. Social processes that are so profoundly anchored that they are “below the level of consciousness and discourse” cannot be overcome simply through acts of collective will. One has to get at the underlying conditions and causes that allow these practices and institutions to reproduce themselves. His proclaimed strategy is thus, logically, to identify the social conditions that have historically sustained masculine domination throughout the ages. But, in order for these social conditions to have an explanatory significance, and thereby help point the way forward towards their own transcendence, they must in some sense be independent of the effects that they generate. They must possess some kind of internal dynamic that is understandable and alterable through human ingenuity, so that their “progressive withering,” a term Bourdieu himself employs to conclude the book, can come about. This final passage reveals the circularity to which he falls victim:

Only political action that really takes account of all the effects of domination that are exerted through the objective complicity between the structures embodied in both women and men and the structures of the major institutions through which not only the masculine order but the whole social order is enacted and reproduced … will be able, no doubt in the long term and with the aid of the contradictions inherent in the various mechanisms or institutions concerned, to contribute to the progressive withering away of masculine domination.

(2001a: 117)

Both the sources of masculine domination and its effects are located in the same all-encompassing set of social practices and institutions. The only way to undermine them that Bourdieu identifies is through the (unspecified) “contradictions inherent in the various mechanisms or institutions concerned.” This observation does not offer much to go on, especially since, on his account, such contradictions have merely managed to reproduce domination.

The second strategy for confronting masculine domination which Bourdieu seems implicitly to advocate would have us focus on those areas in which novel social practices attack directly, or produce consequences that undermine indirectly, the binary divisions of domination. Bourdieu himself identifies the practice of sport as a way in which the constitution of women's bodies as objects of the masculine gaze may be subverted. As he put it, the “intensive practice of a sport leads to a profound transformation of the subjective and objective experience of the body … it becomes a body for oneself” (2001a: 67). Yet Bourdieu immediately closes off this venue of transformation with a silly and outdated argument that women who practice sport are seen by men as potentially unfeminine or lesbian: the masculine gaze reasserts itself.

We do not wish to suggest that the increasing participation of women in amateur sport and the increasing visibility and popularity of such sports as women's hockey, tennis, and soccer simply undermine the cultural dominance of a masculinized gaze. The field of cultural representations of sexed bodies is far too contentious to offer any simple summary statement. Yet there seems no good reason to rule out the possibility that the practice of competitive and amateur sport may have transformative potential in relation to patterns of gendered domination. Unless masculine domination is invulnerable, there are no grounds for arguing, as Bourdieu does, that all alternative practices will be immediately recuperated by it. Surely the same is true for practices across a variety of fields. Moreover, precisely because masculine domination is diffuse, according to Bourdieu, we should expect that radical shifts in the rules in place in diverse fields of practice may change its nature. For instance, the nature of the economic field in Québec changed dramatically after 1964 when women ceased to be legally dependent persons in relation to the capacity to contract. Or again, the nature of the field of sexual practice changed dramatically after the mid-1960s when oral contraceptives became widely available in Canada and the United States (see Watkins, 1998).

Thus, the one-sidedness of his account leads Bourdieu to dismiss important contemporary trends in practice. He contradicts his affirmed intention of re-historicizing that which has been naturalized. He notes, for example, that “from earliest childhood, children are the object of very different collective expectations depending on their sex and that, in the scholastic situation, boys receive a privileged treatment (it has been shown that teachers devote more time to them, that they are more often asked questions, less often interrupted, and take a greater part in general discussions)” (2001a: 56, n). There is now, however, a body of evidence that suggests that, in some countries at least, girls are doing better overall than boys in school, despite still lagging behind in science and math. We also see, in countries such as Canada, women outnumbering men in university enrolment. While it remains true, as Bourdieu notes, that the upper levels of professional and academic life are dominated by men, it is an open question as to whether the increasing numbers of women working their way through the system will begin to dislodge at least some of those men who occupy the pinnacles of power.

Despite his repeated references to the invulnerability of binaries, Bourdieu neglects some that are of central importance to the discussion of masculine domination. We would argue that masculine domination manifests itself at two distinct levels, the social and the intersubjective. While there are links between them, they are nonetheless not only analytically, but also existentially, distinct. It is (at least theoretically) possible for men not to dominate women directly in their personal relations, yet to benefit from the social structure of masculine domination. To see why this is so, we need to look much more generally at how social structures operate: to move beyond the large categories of “men” and “women” in a stable relation of domination towards the analysis of practice in the field of gender/power relations.

Social structures attach differential costs to different courses of action by generating a differentiated set of enablements and constraints. Some people derive a degree of benefit (measured as wealth, power, privilege, status, etc.) that is denied to others, who are restricted to a more narrow range of options and who therefore have fewer opportunities to develop fully their individual capacities. But while they constrain our activity, social structures almost never dictate a single course of action and, just as importantly, they must be viewed as an enabling as well as a constraining environment for human activity.

By organizing and ordering human activity, social structures contribute to an increase in human powers. They also regulate the distribution of the benefits and burdens associated with the growth in capacities generated by improvements to social organization. From an evolutionary perspective, then, there are two possible “rational” reasons for the reproduction of any given set of human arrangements, including those that go under the heading of masculine domination—they can be retained because they allow a community to do certain things they would not otherwise be capable of doing, and they can survive because a dominant sub-group within the community derives a disproportionate benefit from them, and is able to impose its will on the rest of the community.

We can thus view social structures as modes of regulating the distribution of emergent capacities and of the benefits derived from their use. Each structural arrangement has its own independent dynamic that contributes to favouring certain kinds of activity and inhibiting others. All things being equal, an increase in the extent of human capabilities will constitute a valid reason for the retention of the form of social relations that enabled the new powers to arise, even if the benefit derived from those powers is an unequal one.

To illustrate, at the risk of oversimplifying somewhat, we can think of the overarching example of hereditary rule. Clearly, hereditary rule in all its various incarnations is an institutionalized form of social relations that has played a decisive role in human history. One can legitimately ask why this occurred, across such an enormous range of cultures, geographical locations and time periods. The answer that is suggested by the approach to the nature of social structures we have just outlined is that hereditary rule can constitute a rational form of transmitting acquired social knowledge under circumstances where there are limited resources available for the training of people to assume positions of power and responsibility. Concentrating the expensive training of leaders on a small number of people designated by birth can thus make good sense. It allows for the ways of doing things that have previously sustained a given social formation to continue to be utilized and then passed on to succeeding generations.

But this does not mean that hereditary rule as a form of social organization always remains rational, or that it is not also accompanied by enormous inequalities, perpetrating tremendous suffering on those not lucky enough to be born into the right families. In fact, the inequality that is inherent in any system of hereditary rule is one element that accounts for its (historically grounded) rationality. It allows for a concentration of resources that would not otherwise be possible and that is one of the conditions for the expansion of human capacities. However, societies that rely on hereditary rule for the transmission of social power would also seem to be especially prone to the confusion of the private interest of the ruling group with the public good. The ruling groups in these societies can, and do, act to sustain forms of social organization that are no longer justifiable on the kinds of rational grounds that may help explain the historical ubiquity of hereditary rule. Moreover, the progressive replacement of systems based on hereditary rule that has actually occurred over the past two centuries suggests the kind of dynamic that will be necessary to the elimination of masculine domination. Before returning to this issue, however, it is first necessary to discuss briefly the relationship between oppression and privilege.

Depending on how the differentiated distribution of advantages and disadvantages sustained by a given set of social arrangements affects different people, we can speak of them either being oppressed or benefiting from privilege. On this understanding, one is oppressed to the extent that one encounters the presence of socially reproduced obstacles to, or the absence of socially sustained opportunities for, the exercise of one's capacities. And one is privileged to the extent that one encounters fewer obstacles to, or benefits from more opportunities for, the exercise of one's capacities. Privilege and oppression describe situations in which some people have a relatively advantaged situation in comparison with others. They do not constitute absolute criteria. Oppression diminishes (though seldom entirely eradicates) the capacity for agency, while privilege enlarges the scope of one's agency. Privilege entails being able to do things others cannot and it accrues to members of a group regardless of the nature of their personal interaction with the oppressed group.

To take a simple example, a man would benefit from male privilege by going for a late-night stroll that a woman would avoid. While it is true that he derives a benefit from access to resources that are (at least in part) denied to women, his benefit is not a function of their exclusion. It is simply that men can do something more easily and with fewer constraints than can women. Were women as easily able to go for late-night walks as men, this would in no way diminish any given man's enjoyment of his own walk, nor infringe on his access to the resources he needs. If our streets were entirely crime-free and women were never harassed, there would be no male privilege involved in going for a late night stroll. Similarly, if everyone had the same opportunity to get the best university education possible, then it would be a matter of individual choice as to who took advantage of it and who not, rather than a matter of privilege for some. If gay and lesbian couples were treated the same as heterosexual ones there would be no privilege involved in a man kissing a woman in public. In all these cases there is not anything wrong with the “privileged” acts themselves but, because others cannot do them, despite wanting to (or never having been given the opportunity of asking themselves the question of whether or not they would like to try), there is privilege involved.

Oppression, the flip side of privilege, entails the imposition of restrictions on people's ability to utilize their capacities. Not every such restriction is necessarily the result of oppression but every instance of oppression involves some limiting of capacities. To be social, as opposed to personal, a particular form of oppression must affect a significant number of people who share some common set of experiences. This does not mean that everyone experiencing a given oppression will necessarily be restricted in the exercise of its capacities in exactly the same way or to the same extent. The existence of the oppression is defined by the social conditions that impose barriers to the exercise of certain capacities by specific categories of people. But it does not define how people respond to these restrictions, nor how each particular restriction compounds others. Many oppressions also enable, in that they group people together and provide them with opportunities that may otherwise have been absent, as illustrated by the often used example in classical Marxism of how the conditions of capitalism create the conditions for working class solidarity.

The dynamic of oppression and privilege involves the differential and unequal distribution of constraints and enablements resulting in some categories of people suffering under an excess of the former while others benefit from a surplus of the latter. This differential distribution produces privilege for some and oppression for others. It is precisely in this differential distribution that the causality of social structures resides. Oppression and privilege are thus the product of the same set of social arrangements, but there is a potential gap between the overall social impact and the individual circumstances of particular people. This means that some members of a social group that in general suffers the effects of oppression can nonetheless enjoy many kinds of privilege (think top women executives or leading Black athletes and entertainers), while many who benefit from some degree of privilege along one social axis can experience serious oppression along others.

This way of understanding the relationship between oppression and privilege helps to illuminate aspects of the nature of this dynamic that are often misconstrued. For example, it allows for an appreciation of how individuals who are members of a privileged group can benefit from privilege without being consciously aware of it, or without even necessarily being directly implicated in the oppression of those who are disadvantaged by the same set of social relations from which the privileged derive their advantage. While this will not be true of all the individuals whose interaction reproduces or transforms the social relations in question, since some will have to be actively involved in the perpetration of injustice, it nonetheless illustrates one of the ways in which social structures exert a causal influence that is independent of actual interaction between people.

It is only once we have located this gap between social structures and individual practices that it becomes possible to imagine a way forward, and to escape the circularity to which Bourdieu succumbed. But more is needed, as well. It is here that an evolutionary understanding of the ubiquity of masculine domination is important, by allowing us to recognize that the social usefulness of masculine domination has come to an end. The absence of a “rational” reason for retaining masculine domination opens the door to an immanent critique of contemporary social arrangements. Bourdieu is no doubt right that the elimination of masculine domination will be a protracted and multidimensional process. All those who are committed to seeing its ultimate eradication must both do the work of rehistoricization and attend to the myriad possibilities for transformation across evolving social fields.


We read Bourdieu's book in a reading group that included Alan Craig, Alan Hunt, John Manwaring, Chris Powell, William Walters, and Melanie White. Our thanks to them and to the anonymous reviewers for the CRSA. This manuscript was first submitted in April 2002 and accepted in August 2002.


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