Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002)

by Brook Bolander

pierre-bourdieuPierre Bourdieu is undoubtedly one of the best known sociologists of the twentieth century, and a scholar whose work continues to influence sociology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy, as well as social theory more generally. Born in Denguin, France, in 1930, Bourdieu attended the renowned École normale supérieure university in Paris. After his studies in Paris, he taught in a provincial school before being sent to Algeria in 1956, where he spent two years in the French army, and then two further years doing fieldwork and collecting data. After returning in 1960, he spent the majority of his life as a scholar in Paris, where he was a director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and chair of sociology at the Collège de France.

The time in Algeria had a strong influence on both his early and later work, as reflected, for example, in his 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. His ethnographic fieldwork in Algeria largely consisted in observing local practices and social interaction, and reflecting on the possible meanings of these practices for broader questions of society. For example, questions on the meaning of the division of local houses into dark and light, male and female, and high and low spaces. It is from this experience that his dual interest in theory (or more abstract and general processes of thinking) and practice (observations about what people do) emerges. For Bourdieu these observations were not restricted to the people whom one observes. Doing research also means observing oneself as a researcher. And this process of research needed to be based on both theory and practice. The two should not be separated, in other words.

From this early time period, Bourdieu also began to address the complicated relationship between structures (like the structure of the local houses previously referred to) and social behavior. This means exploring how our social behavior is influenced by social structures and facts like economic background, age and sex. For Bourdieu, humans are able to make their own choices to behave in particular ways, while at the same time being influenced by broader structures.

Other topics which remained important in the course of Bourdieu’s lengthy academic career, are classification (i.e., the organization of society) and social reproduction (i.e., its maintenance and change). This interest is linked to issues of power and inequality, between, for example, people from different social class backgrounds. A child who grows up in a family with a lot of books, who speaks a language seen as socially prestigious, who goes to the theater a lot and is read to, and whose parents are educated is, for example, more likely to succeed and become powerful than one who grows up without these forms of, what Bourdieu called, ‘cultural capital’. The same goes for ‘economic capital’ (financial resources), ‘social capital’ (resources based on personal connections and relationships) and ‘symbolic capital’ (resources based on one’s honor and prestige), all of which place individuals in positions of relative social advantage or disadvantage. These ideas of capital are still widely applied to different contexts around the world, and are also valid for thinking about and addressing power and inequality in Central Asia.

To explore how society is shaped in space and over time, Bourdieu developed a range of concepts. One of the most well known is the ‘habitus’, which was developed early on and remained important throughout his career. The ‘habitus’ is a set of dispositions. Each of us has a different habitus, because of the various experiences we have in the course of our lives. The habitus is like a social suitcase, which we begin to pack when we are born and continue to pack in the course of our lives. What we choose to pack is influenced both by what we experience and how we interpret that experience. Yet since the habitus results from a dual process of internalization (the outside becomes the inside) and externalization (the inside becomes the outside), this suitcase does not stay the same over time or in different contexts. This means the habitus is both structured and structuring. It is structured because society influences the characteristics of the habitus, and it is structuring because individuals adapt their social behavior to the context they are in. It is this factor which explains both why society is maintained, but also can change over time.

Of central importance in these discussions are questions of power and domination. While everyone has a habitus and everyone produces practices, powerful institutions and individuals have power precisely because they can shape what is viewed as appropriate, legitimate or valued across space and time. No single behavior is essentially better than any other. Rather, social convention defines certain behaviors as more or less legitimate. Since institutions and people are behind these definitions, society is imbalanced. Some have more power than others, and this has implications reaching far beyond scholarship. Furthermore, these conventions are often not made explicit; they are treated as common sense (Bourdieu’s concept of ‘doxa’) and taken-for-granted. This means they are less likely to be called into question. If, for example, I view it as obvious or evident that Tajik should be the only official language of Tajikistan, I am less likely to think about whether this is fair in light of all the minority groups and languages in Tajikistan. I am more likely to expect everyone to be able to speak and use Tajik, and to criticize individuals and groups for the failure to do so, rather than the system which legitimizes Tajik as more important than other languages.

As this description outlines, Bourdieu’s ideas have implications for but also beyond scholarship; and questions about voice and the right to speak remain important topics today. Importantly, too, they cannot be confined to a particular geographical region, but are valid all around the world, and thus also in Central Asia.

Click here to access the Kyrgyz version of this article on BBC Kyrgyz and here for the Uzbek version available on BBC Uzbek.

About the author:

Brook Bolander is assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong