Locating Bourdieu

Locating Bourdieu

June 23, 2005

Pierre Bourdieu had a way of getting under one's skin. I don't mean his overtly polemical works -- the writings against globalization and neoliberalism that appeared toward the end of his life, for example. He was at his most incisive and needling in works that were much less easy for the general public to read. Bourdieu's sociological research kept mapping out the way power, prestige, and exclusion work in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture.

He was especially sharp (some thought brutal) in analyzing the French academic world. At the same time, he did very well in that system; very well indeed. He was critical of the way some scholars used expertise in one field to leverage themselves into positions of influence having no connection with their training or particular field of confidence. It could make him sound like a scold. At the same time, it often felt like Bourdieu might be criticizing his own temptation to become an oracle.

In the course of my own untutored reading of Bourdieu over the years, there came a moment when the complexity of his arguments and the aggressiveness of his insights suddenly felt like manifestations of a personality that was angry on the surface, and terribly disappointed somewhere underneath. His tone registered an acute (even an excruciating) ambivalence toward intellectual life in general and the educational system in particular. 

Stray references in his work revealed glimpses of Bourdieu as a "scholarship boy" from a family that was both rural and lower-middle class. You learned that he had trained to be a philosopher in the best school in the country. Yet there was also the element of refusal in even his most theoretical work -- an almost indignant rejection of the role of Master Thinker (played to perfection in his youth by Jean-Paul Sartre) in the name of empirical sociological research.

There is now a fairly enormous secondary literature on Bourdieu in English. Of the half-dozen or so books on him that I've read in the past few years, one has made an especially strong impression, Deborah Reed-Danahay's recent study Locating Bourdieu (Indiana University Press, 2005). Without reducing his work to memoir, she nonetheless fleshes out the autobiographical overtones of Bourdieu's major concepts and research projects. (My only complaint about the book is that it wasn't published 10 years ago: Although it is a monograph on his work rather than an introductory survey, it would also be a very good place for the new reader of Bourdieu to start.)

Reed-Danahay is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington. She recently answered a series of questions by e-mail.

Q: Bourdieu published sociological analyses of the Algerian peasantry, the French academic system, the work of Martin Heidegger, and patterns of attendance at art galleries -- to give only a very incomplete list. Yet his work seems much more focused and coherent than a catalog of topics would suggest. Can you to sum up the gist of his work, or rather how it all holds together?

A: Yes, I agree that, at first glance, Bourdieu's work seems to cover a seemingly disparate series of studies. When I read Bourdieu's work on education in France after first being exposed to his Algerian peasant studies in my graduate work in anthropology, I wondered if this was the same person. But when the entire corpus is taken together, and when one carefully reads Bourdieu's many texts that returned to themes brought up earlier in his work, one can see several underlying themes and recurring intellectual questions. 

One way to get a handle on his work is to realize that Bourdieu was interested in explaining social stratification, and the hierarchy of social values, in contemporary capitalist societies. He wanted to study systems of domination in a way that held some room for social agency but without a notion of complete individual freedom. Bourdieu often evoked Althusser as an example of a theorist who had too mechanical a view of internalized domination, while Sartre represented the opposite extreme of a philosopher who posited free will.  

Bourdieu believed that we are all constrained by our internalized dispositions (our habitus), deriving from the milieu in which we are socialized, which influence our world view, values, expectations for the future, and tastes. These attributes are part of the symbolic or cultural capital of a social group. 

In a stratified society, a higher value is associated with the symbolic capital of members of the dominant sectors versus the less dominant and "controlled" sectors of society. So that people who go to museums and like abstract art, for instance, are expressing a form of symbolic capital that is more highly valued than that of someone who either rarely goes to museums or who doesn't like abstract art.
The person feels that this is "just" a matter of taste, but this can have important consequences for children at school who have not been exposed to various forms of symbolic capital by their families.

Bourdieu studied both social processes (such as the French educational system, Algerian postcolonial economic dislocations, or the rural French marriage system), and individual figures and their social trajectories -- including Heidegger, Flaubert, and an Algerian worker. Bourdieu was trying to show how the choices these people made (and he often wrote of choices that were not really choices) were expressions of the articulation of habitus and the social field in which it is operating.

Q: Something about his career always seemed paradoxical. Sartre was always his worst-case reference, for example. But by the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was regarded as the person who had filled Sartre's shoes. Has your work given you a sense of how to resolve this seeming contradiction?

A: There is a lot of silence in Bourdieu's work on the ways in which he acquired power and prestige within the French academic system or about how he became the most famous public intellectual in France at the time of his death. He was more self-reflexive about earlier periods in his life. I have trouble defending Bourdieu in this contradiction about his stance toward the public intellectual, even though I applaud his political engagements. 

I think that Bourdieu felt he had more authority to speak to some of these issues than did other academics, given his social origins and empirical research in Algeria and France among the underclass. Bourdieu repeatedly positioned the sociologist (and one can only assume he meant himself here, too) as having a privileged perspective on the "reality" of systems of domination.

Bourdieu was very critical of Sartre for speaking out about the war in Algeria and for championing a sort of revolutionary spirit among Algerians. Bourdieu accused him of trying to be a "total intellectual" who could speak on any topic and who did not understand the situation in Algeria as profoundly as did the sociologist-ethnologist Bourdieu. When Bourdieu himself became more visible in his own political views (particularly in attacks against globalization and neo-liberalism), he does seem to have acted like the "journalist"-academics he lampooned in Homo Academicus. Nevertheless, when he was criticizing (in his essay On Television) what he saw as the necessity for "fast thinking" on television talk shows in France, where talking heads must quickly have something to say about anything, Bourdieu did (in his defense) refrain from pontificating about any and everything.

There is still a huge controversy raging in France about Bourdieu's political engagements. His detractors vilify him for his attacks against other intellectuals and journalists while he became a public intellectual himself. His defenders have published a book of his political writings ( Interventions, 1961-2001) seeking to show his long-standing commitments, and continue to guard his reputation beyond the grave.

I cannot help but think that Bourdieu's public combative persona, and his (in his own terms) refusals and ruptures, helped rather than thwarted his academic career. The degree to which this was calculated or (as he claimed) was the result of the "peasant" habitus he acquired growing up in southwestern France, is unknown.

Q: So much of his analysis of academic life is focused on the French university system that there is always a question of how well it could apply elsewhere. I'm curious about your thoughts on this. What's it been like to move between his concepts and models and your own experience as an American academic? 

A: I see two ways to answer your question. Certainly, in the specifics, French academia is very different. I have experienced that directly. My own American cultural values of independence (which may, I am aware, be a total illusion) conflict with those of many French academics. 

When I first arrived in France to do my dissertation fieldwork, I came with a grant that opened some doors to French academia, but I had little direct sponsorship by powerful patrons in the U.S. I was doing a project that had little to do with the work of my professors, none of whom had done research in France or Europe, and it was something that I had come up with on my own. This was surprising to the French, who were familiar with a patron-client system of professor/student relations. Most of the graduate students I met in France were involved in projects related to the work of their professors.

French academia, still centralized in Paris despite attempts at decentralization, is a much smaller universe than that of the vast American system. There is little room for remaining "outside" of various polemics there. I've learned, for instance, that some people whom I like and admire in France hated Bourdieu and that Bourdieu followers tend to be very fierce in their defense of him and want to promote their view of his work.

This is not to say that American academia doesn't have similar forces operating, but there are multiple points of value and hierarchy here. Whereas Bourdieu could say that Philosophy dominated French academia during the mid-20th century, it is harder to pinpoint one single dominant intellectual framework here.

I do, however, feel that Bourdieu's critique of academia as part of a larger project of the study of power (which he made very explicit in The State Nobility) is applicable beyond France. His work on academia provided us with a method of inquiry to look at the symbolic capital associated with academic advancement and, although the specific register of this will be different in different national contexts, the process may be similar. Just as Bourdieu did in France, for example, one could study how it is that elite universities here "select" students and professors.

Q: We have a memoir of Sartre's childhood in The Words. Is there anything comparable for Bourdieu?

A: Bourdieu produced self-referential writings that began to appear in the late 1990s, with "Impersonal Confessions" in Pascalian Meditations (1997), a section called "Sketch for a Self-Analysis" in his final lectures to the Collège de France, Science of Science and Reflexivity (2001), and then the stand-alone volume Esquisse pour une Auto-Analyse, published posthumously in 2004. [ Unlike the other titles listed, this last volume is not yet available in English. -- S.M.]

A statement by Bourdieu that "this is not an autobiography" appears as an epigraph to the 2004 essay. I find his autobiographical writings interesting because they show us a bit about how he wanted to use his own methods of socio-analysis on himself and his own life, with a focus particularly on his formative years -- his childhood, his education, his introduction to academia, and his experiences in Algeria.

Bourdieu was uncomfortable with what he saw as narcissism in much autobiography, and also was theoretically uncomfortable with life stories that stressed the individual as hero without sufficient social analysis. He had earlier written an essay on the 'biographical illusion" that elaborated on his biographical approach, but without self-reference. These essays are not, then, autobiographical in the conventional sense of a linear narrative of a life. Bourdieu felt that a truly scientific sociology depended on reflexivity on the part of the researcher, and by this he meant being able to analyze one's own position in the social field and one's own habitus.  

On the one hand, however, Bourdieu's auto-analysis was a defensive move meant to preempt his critics. Bourdieu included a section on self-interpretation in his book on Heidegger, in which he referred to it as "the riposte of the author to those interpretations and interpreters who at once objectify and legitimize the author, by telling him what he is and thereby authorizing him to be what they say he is..." (101). As Bourdieu became increasingly a figure in the public eye and increasingly a figure of analysis and criticism, he wanted to explain himself and thus turned to self-interpretation and auto-analysis. 

Q: In a lot of ways, Bourdieu seems like a corrosive thinker: someone who strips away illusions, rationalizations, the self-serving beliefs that institutions foster in their members. But can you identify a kernel of something positive or hopeful in his work -- especially in regard to education? I'd like to think there is one....

A: Bourdieu had little to say about how schools and universities operate that is positive, and he was very critical of them. The hopeful kernel here is that in understanding how they operate, how they inflict symbolic violence and perpetuate the illusions that enable systems of domination, we can improve educational institutions.

Bourdieu felt strongly that by de-mystifying the discourses and aura of authority surrounding education (especially its elite forms), we can learn something useful. The trick is how to turn this knowledge into power, and Bourdieu did not have any magical solutions for this. That is work still to be done.



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