The Basic Theoretical Position

  • Cheleen Mahar
  • Richard Harker
  • Chris Wilkes


The contribution which Pierre Bourdieu has made to the social sciences has been in his attempt to construct a general theory of practice. This has been established through the creation of a method with which we may grasp the many levels of practical life, using an economic metaphor. Taken as a whole, his work provides novel and often persuasive alternatives for dealing with some of the major problems which beset the work of contemporary Anglo-American social scientists. In particular such problems are due to the (apparently) irreconcilable perspectives of objectivism and subjectivism. The intention of Bourdieu’s work can be seen to transcend this opposition between two conceptions of scientific knowledge and to transform them into a dialectical relationship between structure and agency.l


Social World Objective Condition Cultural Capital Social Space Symbolic System 
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  1. 1.
    The structure/agency debate centres on the role that institutional and structural influences have in shaping society and how much part the actions of individuals (and groups) play in the same process; see, for example, Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory (Macmillan, London, 1979). This debate, of course, is not new to social science, but can indeed be seen as a major theme in some disciplines, e.g. sociology. Marx, for example, in a famous dictum, argued that men can change the world through their actions, indicating the role of agency, but that they are not free to do so just as they please, indicating the social and economic limits to action in society. Marxist and functionalist accounts are sometimes therefore said to be structuralist accounts because they emphasise the structuring and determining quality of society over and against the voluntarist capacity of agents. Weberian and phenomenological accounts of society have sometimes, in contrast, been viewed as voluntarist, having centred too much on the actions of individuals to create and recreate the world, as if external constraints did not exist. One of Bourdieu’s major contributions can be seen as an attempt to construct a method which accounts for both structure and agency, e.g. in his use of habitus. Some of the issues underlying the structure-agency debate are further elaborated in Chapter 9. Structuralism can be considered a cul-de-sac since it has led to the ‘death of agents’, and in E. P. Thompson’s view, excluded human subjects from history. Whether this view is reductionist is less clear. It is not reductionist in the normal use of the term, which generally refers to single-cause explanations, e.g. Marxist theories are considered reductionist when they stress economic explanations at the expense of other causes. However, structuralism in its Althusserian form was clearly not reductionist in this sense, since ideological, political and economic causes were frequently stressed together. Structuralism could be said to be reductionist in its limited use of levels of analysis, perhaps, reducing all cause to the level of the structure. See Chapter 2 for an account of Bourdieu’s rejection of this position.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The Collectif goes on to discuss the ‘moment’ of both Bourdieu and Althusser: ‘the critique of illusions in the Inheritors accompanied at its outset, the great Althusserian battle for revolutionary science against ideology. The theory of reproduction mixed the austere axioms of structuralism with the flavour of the cultural revolution ... it accepted the theoretical and political heritage of critical marxism and it completed their interpretive scheme. In the university, as in journalism, it allowed the recovery of lines of division and of social classes in the most lowly inflexion of prose writers or in the posturing of politics. To the teacher or the activist as with reformers who try to resolve their problems, he (Bourdieu) explains the illusions and the failures of popular education. But at the same time he has taken away this interpretive capacity of the practical hypotheses of marxism and the naiveties of “hoping socially” (translator’s commas). He allows denunciation both of mechanisms of domination and the illusions of liberation . . . ’ (1984:6; trans. C. D. Wilkes).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In the book Homo Academicus Bourdieu analysed the debate between Barthes and Picard to demonstrate how the logic of the field structures the relationships between the position-taking of academics and how specialists are distributed amongst the possible approaches and different possible methods (Fr. ed. 1984:23–5).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Readers may find that Distinction (Harvard University Press, 1984) is a good place to begin their reading. The wealth of ethnographic detail is interesting and balances the ‘weightier’ theoretical passages. Another book, Algeria 1960 (1979), is also a good place to begin because of the emphasis on ethnography. Then, the more theoretical works, such as Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Le Sens pratique or the many articles available (see bibliography), are more easily grasped.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    However, in an attempt to situate himself within an arena known to his American audience Bourdieu characterised his work as being constructivist structuralism. By ‘constructivist’ Bourdieu emphasises the subjective side of his methodology, which focuses upon the social genesis of mental structures. Through the use of the word structuralism (a different structuralism than that found in L€vi-Strauss) Bourdieu emphasises the objective structures which unconsciously act to orient and constrain social practice (there is an important break between Bourdieu and ‘constructivists’ which is discussed in the conclusion of this chapter).Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    ‘The perception of the social world is the product of a double structuration’ between objective and subjective aspects. (Bourdieu Fr. ed. 1987:158).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    This refers to the process of reconstructing objects through the use of categories and methods inappropriate to the reality of the objects themselves. An extreme illustrative example of this would be asking an Indian group how many ‘souls’ they have, or attempting to enumerate the number of gods in Hinduism.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The world, however, does not present itself as being totally structured and totally imposing on all practice. It is open — available to the many possibilities and possible structurations which both create fields and are created by them. Thus the social world is open to change from those who struggle for the dominant vision such as those struggles between class divisions and between ethnic groups and between genders. There is always a degree of fuzziness and ‘semantic elasticity’ in the perception of the objects in the social world.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    This process of symbolic power can be likened to the power of worldmaking (Nelson Goodman) or to Thomas Dewey’s power of constitution which includes both philosophical and political meanings (Bourdieu: Actes 1986b). Perhaps a more interesting and comfortable connection can be drawn between Bourdieu’s work on symbolic power and the influence of the work by Emile Benveniste (1969, 1974) on the development of this idea. The work of Benveniste was instrumental in developing Bourdieu’s own thought. (Personal communication.)Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Disenchantment (a term derived from Weber): to be enchanted is to be under a spell so that one fails to see (or misrecognises) connections. The ‘transition’ referred to is the historical transformation that occurs when the symbolic and the economic are separated and certain activities are seen as being political, religious, and others as being economic. Bourdieu’s position on this question is deeply complex. For the rest of his work in fact, attempts to show how this separation expresses new forms of enchantment.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Bourdieu began to develop his idea of the field while teaching about Weber and his theory of religious agents (i.e. priests, sorcerers and prophets). In attempting to understand the relationship among these three agents, Bourdieu says that he realised that they were tied together in their own clerical world which had its own laws and forms of symbolic and cultural capital. While Weber’s work is locked into the logic of functions he did write about specialists and their particular interests (i.e. the functions that their products, religious doctrines, juridical corpora, etc., fulfill for them). It is in part through this development of the microcosm of the clerical world that Bourdieu came to write about the field. (Personal communication.) Other less important influences on the concept of the field come from Kurt Lewin and the anthropologists of the cognitive tradition (such as Conklin and Frake). The field is a relational concept and is expressed in speech though based upon objective relations (see Ce que parler veut dire, Fr. ed. 1982). This is an important point because it distinguishes Bourdieu’s approach from the psychological/interactionist approach which is a dominant tradition in American sociology.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    The most obvious example is afforded by members of the radical left who speak on behalf of the working class, thus generating an ‘authority’ to act as spokespersons for a group. In short, this is the capacity to name. In a sense they constitute the working class as a theoretical class, independent of whether or not the ‘working class’ is a mobilised and active group. Bourdieu (1985) covers this phenomenon in some detail, and it is discussed further in Chapters 3 and 5. The role that language plays is discussed in Chapter 7, and Bourdieu’s self-analysis in these terms is discussed in Chapter 8.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    In his inaugural lecture to the CollBge de France, Bourdieu gives the example of the Roman censor who assigns people to their societal categories, thereby both defining and maintaining hierarchical positions — see Chapter 8 in this volume.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977:164) Bourdieu introduces the word doxa to refer to those schemes of thought and perception which are produced by objective social structures but are experienced as natural and selfevident, and therefore taken for granted. Doxa is constituted of all those systems of classification which set limits upon cognition but also produce a misrecognition of the arbitrariness on which they are based.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    For example ‘etiquette’ advice in women’s magazines, assumes that learning the rules is all that is required. The point that Bourdieu would make, is that ‘manners’ deliberately learned signal a lack of symbolic capital which is only ‘legitimate’ if ‘natural’ — i.e. acquired from the family through primary socialisation.Google Scholar

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© Richard Harker, Cheleen Mahar and Chris Wilkes 1990

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cheleen Mahar
  • Richard Harker
  • Chris Wilkes

There are no affiliations available

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