The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

pierre-bourdieu-paris-france-1998French cultural anthropologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), whose work, characterised as it is by an equal commitment to empirical as well as theoretical research, has embraced the ethnography of Algerian peasant communities (Bourdieu 1979), the sociology of culture (1977b, 1990) and education (1977a) (including the social position of university intellectuals (1984)). At the core of Bourdieu’s project is the attempt to avoid what he perceives as the problematic extremes of objectivist and subjectivist approaches to sociology. The objectivist (represented by, for example, Althusser or Levi-Strauss) presupposes that society is to be understood purely as an external force that constrains or determines the action of the human subject. This approach has no satisfactory way of explaining how human agents may be involved in the producing and sustaining of society. In contrast, the subjectivist (such as Jean-Paul Sartre) places too great an emphasis upon the power of the agent to create, voluntarily, meaningful social action (independently of the constraining force that society actually does impose upon the subject).

The concepts of ‘habitus‘ and ‘field‘ serve to articulate the basic outlines of Bourdieu’s (1985) approach to sociology. ‘Habitus’ refers to the dispositions that human agents acquire, through life-long processes of learning and socialisation, that give them the competence to respond in certain ways to given social situations. While these dispositions are realised in social practice they are not readily reducible to a set of rules governing social behaviour. They are rather the agent’s ‘feel’ for how to proceed in the situation. As such they have a flexibility that at once serves to explain the stability of the social order and its transformation. If ‘habitus’ therefore allows Bourdieu to theorise the agent, ‘field’ theorises the objectivity of the social situation. Society is understood as a structured hierarchy of relatively autonomous fields (such as the fields of politics, economics literature, and education). A field may be characterised in terms of the political and cultural relationships that exist between the positions occupied by agents within it. However, it is not then to be understood as a fixed structure that exists independently of human agents. Rather these relationships are maintained (or reproduced), and to a greater or lesser degree transformed, by the actions of agents within the field. A dramatic example is the way in which Manet, first of the great modernist painters, transforms the field of French high culture in the 1860s, through the exhibition of such paintings as The Absinthe Drinker that in both content and style challenged the then dominant norms of academic excellence in painting (Bourdieu 1993b). Agents within a field may therefore be seen to be in competition over the resources that are characteristic to that field. Such resources may be material (such as income and wealth), but may equally be symbolic power (for example, political power, recognition and status). Manet therefore struggles not for economic gain but for recognition, and does so through an attempt to transform the values of high culture. The gaining of control over resources depends upon agents’ capital and the skill (or fortune) with which they invest it. Again, ‘capital’ is not to be understood as an exclusively material resource (such as financial wealth), but can also be symbolic (one’s degree of prestige or honour) and cultural (one’s cultural knowledge and competence, such as the socially acquired ability to appreciate works of art). The distribution of all forms of capital is unequal, grounded as it is in the class structure.

One important implication of Bourdieu’s sociology, and an implication that he explores in depth in Distinction (1984) and other works, is that there are no purely autonomous aesthetic values. As the example of Manet begins to suggest, the values that determine the greatness and endurance of a work of art are not, for Bourdieu, inherent properties of the work, but are rather the result of social processes and in particular struggles to control resources. Bourdieu is thus critical of Kantian aesthetics (which seeks to defend universal and thus ahistorical criteria of artistic value) and of formalist approaches to literature (that focus upon the art work in isolation from the historical and political situation of its production and consumption). Bourdieu does not seek to reduce the aesthetic, simplistically, to its determination by social forces. A work of art cannot be understood straightforwardly as the reflection or expression of the class interests of its producer. Such an account, at the very least, fails to acknowledge the inherent logic of the field of artistic creation and consumption, and thus its degree of autonomy from the economic and political. However, Bourdieu still seeks to explain ‘taste’, and crucially the generation of distinctions between good and bad (or refined and vulgar) taste, in terms of the reproduction of social differences and inequalities of power. Art and aesthetic value are understood to be produced within a field of power. Works are produced and consumed according to the complex manner in which agents classify themselves and others. Consumption thus serves to express one’s difference from others through the refinements and nuances of what one constructs and (perhaps unwittingly) accepts as good taste.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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