Pierre Bourdieu

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Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French social thinker who built on ideas popularized by postmoderns such as Michel Foucault and the semiologist Roland Barthes. Like Foucault, Bourdieu was critical of Marxism, Existentialism and Structuralism and he tried to understand the practice of Sociology within its own cultural context.

Michael Payne says Bourdieu also argued that theories, beliefs and dispositions influence cultural practice, often “unconsciously and uncritically.”¹

So any good theory, including scientific theory, should be “reflexive”—that is, it should seek to identify and overcome its own biases. This sounds sensible but, at the same time, scientists are just people, with all the flaws, limitations, pride and ambition that we all share. These personal biases usually interfere, in varying degrees, with the reflexive aspect of science. In other words, the ego gets in the way. This is, perhaps, most obvious in so-called “soft science” disciplines like psychology and psychiatry, but it’s present in all aspects of science. Whenever a worldview becomes an entrenched form of belief, its reflexive aspects usually diminish. For a while, anyhow.

As a sociologist, Bourdieu developed seminal concepts such as “habitus,” “fields,” “cultural capital” and social “reproduction” to better illustrate his ideas about societal discrimination, inequity and domination. With regard to domination, he introduced the term “symbolic violence” to describe ways of seeing that are subtly imposed on groups and individuals. Along these lines, Bourdieu made important contributions toward the deconstruction of language, scholarship and science. Without the deconstruction of ideas and practices, those with social power seek to impose their particular view of the “natural” or “just” on those who lack the power to shape the understanding of these concepts within society. Whether or not this dynamic occurs willfully or unreflectively is a matter of debate.

Again, it would be wrong to say that Bourdieu was the first to come up with the idea of symbolic violence. Sociologists have been thinking out of the box ever since Max Weber argued that the Protestant work ethic played a central role in the development of Capitalism. As such, the related concepts of work and laziness have taken a definite shape and form in so-called developed societies. And Emile Durkheim looked at the phenomenon of suicide from a statistical perspective, trying to link social conditions to this tragic activity. So for Durkheim, suicide isn’t just a personal choice. It’s linked to the norms and expectations of a given culture.

¹ Michael Payne, ed. A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, Oxford: Blackwell, 1997, p. 73.



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