Psychology Wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Social psychology: Altruism · Attribution · Attitudes · Conformity · Discrimination · Groups · Interpersonal relations · Obedience · Prejudice · Norms · Perception · Index · Outline

Western Sociology
Name: Pierre Bourdieu
Birth: August 1, 1930 (Denguin, France)
Death: January 23, 2002 (Paris, France)
School/tradition: Genetic structuralism
Main interests
Power, Symbolic violence, Academia, the relationship between historical structures and subjective agents
Notable ideas
cultural capital, field, habitus, illusio, reflexivity, social capital, symbolic capital, symbolic violence
Influences Influenced
Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem, Emile Durkheim, Norbert Elias, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Blaise Pascal, Ferdinand de Saussure, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen |
Michel de Certeau, Loïc Wacquant,

Pierre Bourdieu (August 1, 1930January 23, 2002) was an acclaimed French sociologist whose work employed methods drawn from a wide range of disciplines: from philosophy and literary theory to sociology and anthropology. He is best known for his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, in which he tried to connect aesthetic judgments to positions in social space. The most notable aspect of Bourdieu's theory is the development of methodologies, combining both theory and empirical data, that attempt to dissolve some of the most troublesome antagonisms in theory and research, trying to reconcile such difficulties as how to understand the subject within objective structures (in the process, trying to reconcile structure and agency).

Bourdieu also pioneered methodological frameworks and terminologies such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of habitus, field, and symbolic violence. Bourdieu's work emphasized the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics. It builds upon the theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Georges Canguilhem, Karl Marx, Gaston Bachelard, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Norbert Elias, among others. A notable influence on Bourdieu was Blaise Pascal after whom Bourdieu titled the book Pascalian Meditations.


Bourdieu was born in Denguin, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, France in 1930, where his grandfather was a sharecropper and his father was a postman and later, a postmaster. He married Marie-Claire Brizard in 1962 and had three sons.

Bourdieu studied philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure. After getting his agrégation he worked as a teacher for a year. During the Algerian War of Independence in 1958-1962, and while serving in the French army, he undertook ethnographic research, laying the groundwork for his sociological reputation. From 1964 on, Bourdieu held the position of Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études (the future École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), in the VIe section, and from 1981, the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France , in the VIe section (held before him by Raymond Aron, Maurice Halbwachs, and Marcel Mauss). In 1968, he took over the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, the research center that Aron had founded, which he directed until his death. In 1975, with Luc Boltanski, he launched the interdisciplinary journal "Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales", with which he sought to transform the accepted canons of sociological production while buttressing the scientific rigor of sociology. In 1993 he was honored with the "Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique" (CNRS). In 1996, he received the Goffman Prize from the University of California, Berkeley and in 2002 the Huxley Medal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Bourdieu's work is influenced by much of traditional sociology, which he undertook to synthesize into his own theory. From Max Weber he retained the importance of domination and symbolic systems in social life, as well as the idea of social orders which would ultimately be transformed by Bourdieu into a theory of fields. From Karl Marx he took the concept of capital, generalized with respect to all forms of social activity, and not merely economics. From Emile Durkheim, finally, he inherited a certain deterministic and, through Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss, structuralist style that emphasized the tendency of social structures to reproduce themselves. However, Bourdieu critically diverged from these Durkheimian analyses in emphasizing the role of the social agent in enacting, through the embodiment of social structures, symbolic orders. He furthermore emphasized that the reproduction of social structures does not operate according to a Functionalist logic.

One should not neglect Bourdieu's philosophical influences: Maurice Merleau-Ponty and, through him, the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl played an essential part in the formulation of Bourdieu's focus on the body, action, and practical dispositions (which found their primary manifestation in Bourdieu's theory of habitus).

Bourdieu's work is built upon the attempt to transcend a series of oppositions which characterized the social sciences (subjectivism/objectivism, micro/macro, freedom/determinism). In particular he did this through conceptual innovations. The concepts of habitus, capital or field were conceived, indeed, with the intention to abolish such oppositions.


Bourdieu routinely sought to connect his theoretical ideas with empirical research, grounded in everyday life, and his work can be seen as cultural sociology or as a theory of practice. His contributions to sociology were both empirical and theoretical. His key terms were habitus, field, and symbolic violence. He extended the idea of capital to categories such as social capital, cultural capital, and symbolic capital. For Bourdieu each individual occupies a position in a multidimensional social space; he or she is not defined by social class membership, but by the amounts of each kind of capital he or she possesses.

Bourdieu felt uncomfortable in the role of the ivory tower social scientist and intellectual. Although he had no partisan affiliation, he was known for being politically engaged and active. He supported workers against the influences of political elites and neoliberal capitalism. Because of his independence, he was even considered an enemy of the French Left; the French Socialist party used to talk disparagingly of "la gauche bourdieusienne" (Bourdieu's Left).

Some examples of his empirical results include:

  • showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts, people's artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with their social position
  • showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style — all part of cultural capital — are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job).

Pierre Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, preserve their social privileges across generations despite the myth that contemporary postindustrial society boasts equality of opportunity and high social mobility, achieved through education.

Bourdieu was an extraordinarily prolific author, producing hundreds of articles and three dozen books, nearly all of which are now available in English. His style is dense in English translation, but he was considered an elegant and incisive writer in French-speaking Europe.

Bourdieu's theory of power and practice

At the center of Bourdieu's sociological work is a logic of practice that emphasizes the importance of the body and practices within the social world. Against the intellectualist tradition, Bourdieu stressed that mechanisms of social domination and reproduction were primarily focused on bodily know-how and competent practices in the social world. Bourdieu fiercely opposed Rational Action Theory (Rational Choice Theory) as grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Social agents do not, according to Bourdieu, continuously calculate according to explicit rational and economic criteria. Rather, social agents operate according to an implicit practical logic--a practical sense--and bodily dispositions. Social agents act according to their "feel for the game" (the "feel" being, roughly, habitus, and the "game" being the field).

Bourdieu's sociological work was dominated by an analysis of the mechanisms of reproduction of social hierarchies. In opposition to Marxist analyses, Bourdieu criticized the primacy given to the economic factors, and stressed that the capacity of social actors to actively impose and engage their cultural productions and symbolic systems plays an essential role in the reproduction of social structures of domination. What Bourdieu called symbolic violence (the capacity to ensure that the arbitrariness of the social order is ignored—-or misrecognized as natural—-and thus to ensure the legitimacy of social structures) plays an essential part in his sociological analysis.

For Bourdieu, the modern social world is divided into what he calls fields. For him, the differentiation of social activities led to the constitution of various, relativley autonomous, social spaces in which competition centers around particular species of capital. These fields are treated on a hierarchical basis and the dynamics of fields arises out of the struggle of social actors trying to occupy the dominant positions within the field. While Bourdieu shares prime elements of conflict theory with the Marxists, he diverges from Marxist analyses in thinking that social struggles are not reduced to the fundamentally economic conflicts between social classes. The conflicts which take place in each social field are largely specific to those fields and are not reducible to each other.

Pierre Bourdieu developed a theory of the action, around the concept of habitus, which exerted a considerable influence in the social sciences. This theory seeks to show that social agents develop strategies which are adapted to the needs of the social worlds that they inhabit. These strategies are unconscious and instead act on the level of a bodily logic.

Field and Habitus


Bourdieu shared Weber's view, contrary to traditional Marxism, that society cannot be analyzed simply in terms of economic classes and ideologies. Much of his work concerns the independent role of educational and cultural factors. Instead of analyzing societies in terms of classes, Bourdieu uses the concept of field: a social arena in which people maneuver and struggle in pursuit of desirable resources.

A field is a system of social positions (e.g. a profession such as law) structured internally in terms of power relationships (e.g. the power differential between judges and lawyers). More specifically, a field is a social arena of struggle over the appropriation of certain species of capital--capital being whatever is taken as significant for social agents (the most obvious example is monetary capital). Fields are organized both vertically and horizontally. This means that fields are not strictly analogous to classes, and are often autonomous, independent spaces of social play. The field of power is peculiar in that it exists 'horizontally' through all of the fields and the struggles within it control the 'exchange rate' of the forms of cultural, symbolic, or physical capital between the fields themselves. A field is constituted by the relational differences in position of social agents, and the boundaries of a field are demarcated by where its effects end. Different fields can be either autonomous or interrelated (e.g. consider the separation of power between judiciary and legislature) and more complex societies are "more differentiated" societies that have more fields.

Fields are constructed according to underlying nomos, fundamental principles of "vision and division" (the division between mind and body for example, or male and female), or organizing "laws" of experience that govern practices and experiences within a field. The nomos underlying one field is often irreducible to those underlying another, as in the noted disparity between the nomos of the aesthetic field that values cultural capital and in some sense discourages economic capital, and that of the economic field which values economic capital. Agents subscribe to a particular field not by way of explicit contract, but by their practical acknowledgement of the stakes, implicit in their very "playing of the game". The acknowledgement of the stakes of the field and the acquiring of interests and investments prescribed by the field is termed illusio.


Bourdieu re-elaborated the concept of habitus from Marcel Mauss--although it is also present in the works of Aristotle, Norbert Elias, Max Weber, and Edmund Husserl--and used it, in a more or less systematic way, in an attempt to resolve a prominent antinomy of the human sciences: objectivism and subjectivism. Habitus can be defined as a system of dispositions (lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought and action). The individual agent develops these dispositions in response to the objective conditions they encounter. In this way Bourdieu theorizes the inculcation of objective social structures into the subjective, mental experience of agents. For the objective social field places requirements on its participants for membership, so to speak, within the field. Having thereby absorbed objective social structure into a personal set of cognitive and somatic dispositions, and the subjective structures of action of the agent then being commensurate with the objective structures and extant exigencies of the social field, a doxic relationship emerges.


Doxa are the fundamental, deep-founded, unthought beliefs, taken as self-evident universals, that inform an agent's actions and thoughts within a particular field. Doxa tends to favor the particular social arrangement of the field, thus privileging the dominant and taking their position of dominance as self-evident and universally favorable. Therefore, the categories of understanding and perception that constitute a habitus, being congruous with the objective organization of the field, tend to reproduce the very structures of the field. Bourdieu thus sees habitus as the key to social reproduction because it is central to generating and regulating the practices that make up social life.

Reconciling the Objective (Field) and the Subjective (Habitus)

As mentioned above, Bourdieu utilized the methodological and theoretical concepts of habitus and field in order to make an epistemological break with the prominent objective-subjective antinomy of the social sciences. He wanted to effectively unite social phenomenology and structuralism. Habitus and field are proposed to do so for they can only exist in relation to each other. While a field is constituted by the various social agents participating in it (and thus their habitus), a habitus, in effect, represents the transposition of objective structures of the field into the subjective structures of action and thought of the agent.

The relationship between habitus and field is a two-way relationship. The field exists only insofar as social agents possess the dispositions and set of perceptual schemata that are necessary to constitute that field and imbue it with meaning. On the other hand, by participating in the field agents incorporate into their habitus the proper know-how that will allow them to constitute the field. Habitus enacts the structures of the field, and the field mediates between habitus and practice.

Therefore, Bourdieu attempts to use the concepts of habitus and field to tear down the division between the subjective and the objective. (Whether or not he successfuly does so is debatable.) Bourdieu asserts that any research must be composed of two "minutes." The first an objective stage of research--where one looks at the relations of the social space and the structures of the field. The second stage must be a subjective analysis of social agents' dispositions to act and their categories of perception and understanding that result from their inhabiting the field. Proper research, he says, cannot do without these two together.

Symbolic capital and symbolic violence

Bourdieu sees symbolic capital (e.g. prestige, honour, the right to be listened to) as a crucial source of power. Symbolic capital is any species of capital that is perceived through socially inculcated classificatory schemes. When a holder of symbolic capital uses the power this confers against an agent who holds less, and seeks thereby to alter their actions, they exercise symbolic violence. We might see this when a daughter brings home a boyfriend considered unsuitable by her parents. She is met with disapproving looks and gestures, symbols which serve to convey the message that she will not be permitted to continue this relationship, but which never make this coercive fact explicit. People come to experience symbolic power and systems of meaning (culture) as legitimate. Hence the daughter will often feel a duty to obey her parents' unspoken demand, regardless of her suitor's actual merits. She has been made to misunderstand or misrecognize his nature. Moreover, by perceiving her parents' symbolic violence as legitimate, she is complicit in her own subordination - her sense of duty has coerced her more effectively than explicit reprimands could have done.

Symbolic violence is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents who then take the social order to be just. It is the incorporation of unthought structures that tend to perpetuate the structures of action of the dominant. The dominated then take their position to be "right." Symbolic violence is in some senses much more powerful than physical violence in that it is embedded in the very modes of action and structures of cognition of individuals, and imposes the vision of the legitimacy of the social order.

In his theoretical writings, Bourdieu employs some terminology of economics to analyze the processes of social and cultural reproduction, of how the various forms of capital tend to transfer from one generation to the next. For Bourdieu, education represents the key example of this process. Educational success, according to Bourdieu, entails a whole range of cultural behaviour, extending to ostensibly non-academic features like gait or accent. Privileged children have learned this behaviour, as have their teachers. Children of unprivileged backgrounds have not. The children of privilege therefore fit the pattern of their teachers' expectations with apparent 'ease'; they are 'docile'. The unprivileged are found to be 'difficult', to present 'challenges'. Yet both behave as their upbringing dictates. Bourdieu regards this 'ease', or 'natural' ability--distinction--as in fact the product of a great social labour, largely on the part of the parents. It equips their children with the dispositions of manner as well as thought which ensure they are able to succeed within the educational system and can then reproduce their parents' class position in the wider social system.

Cultural capital (e.g. competencies, skills, qualifications) can also be a source of misrecognition and symbolic violence. Therefore working class children can come to see the educational success of their middle-class peers as always legitimate, seeing what is often class-based inequality as instead the result of hard work or even 'natural' ability. A key part of this process is the transformation of people's symbolic or economic inheritance (e.g. accent or property) into cultural capital (e.g. university qualifications)- a process which the logic of the cultural fields impedes but cannot prevent.


Bourdieu insists on the importance of a reflexive sociology in which sociologists must at all times conduct their research with conscious attention to the effects of their own position, their own set of internalized structures, and how these are likely to distort or prejudice their objectivity. The sociologist, according to Bourdieu, must engage in a "sociology of sociology" so as not to unwittingly attribute the object of observation the characteristics of the subject. One must be cognizant of their own social positions within a field and recognize the conditions that both structure and make possible discourses, theories, and observations. A sociologist, therefore, must be aware of his or her own stakes and interests in the academic or sociological field and render explicit the conditions and structures of understanding that are implicitly imbued in his or her practices within those fields. Bourdieu's conception of reflexivity, however, is not singular or narcissistic, but must involve the contribution of the entire sociological field. Sociological reflexivity is a collective endeavor, spanning the entire field and its participants, aimed at exposing the socially conditioned unthought structures that underlay the formulation of theories and perceptions of the social world.

Bourdieu's sociology in general can be characterized as an investigation of the pre-reflexive conditions that generate certain beliefs and practices that are generated in capitalist systems.

Science and objectivity

Bourdieu contended there is transcendental objectivity, only there were certain historical conditions necessary for its emergence. Bourdieu's ideal scientific field is one that persistently designates upon its participants an interest or investment in objectivity. Transcendental objectivity, he argued, requires certain historical and social conditions for its production. The scientific field is precisely that field in which objectivity may be acquired. The structure of the scientific field is such that it becomes increasingly autonomous and its "entrance fee" becomes increasingly strict. Further, the scientific field entails rigorous intersubjective scrutinizing of theory and data. This makes it difficult for those within the field to bring in, for example, political influence. Therefore, the structure of the scientific field imposes upon its participants a habitus that has tacit interest or investment in objectivity.


Bourdieu takes language to be not merely a method of communication, but also a mechanism of power. The language one uses is designated by one's relational position in a field or social space. Different uses of language tend to reiterate the respective positions of each participant. Linguistic interactions, thus, are manifestations, or instantiations, of the participants' respective positions in social space and categories of understanding, and thus tend to reproduce the objective structures of the social field. This determines who has a right to be listened to, to interrupt, to ask questions, and to lecture, and the degrees thereof.


In its obituary, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom said Bourdieu "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan". His works have been translated into two dozen languages and have had an impact on the whole gamut of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. Several works of his are considered classics, not only in sociology, but also in anthropology, education, and cultural studies. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste was named as one of the 20th century's ten most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. His book Outline of a Theory of Practice is among the most cited in the world. The Rules of Art has impacted sociology, history, literature and aesthetics.

In France, Bourdieu was not seen as an ivory tower academic or cloistered don, but as a passionate activist for those he believed subordinated by society. Again, from The Guardian: "[In 2003] a documentary film about Pierre Bourdieu — Sociology is a Combat Sport — became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre in French public life, and slugging it out with politicians because he thought that was what people like him should do."

For Bourdieu, sociology was a combatant effort at exposing the unthought structures that underly the somatic and cognitive practices of social agents. He saw sociology as a means of combating symbolic violence and exposing those unseen areas where one could be free.

Bourdieu's work has continued to be influential, and sociologists such as Loïc Wacquant have persisted to apply his theoretical and methodological principles to subjects such as boxing, employing what Bourdieu termed participant objectivization, or what Wacquant calls carnal sociology.


Selected works:

  • Les héritiers: les étudiants et la culture (1964), engl. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture, University of Chicago Press 1979
  • Algeria 1960: The Disenchantment of the World: The Sense of Honour: The Kabyle House of the World Reversed: Essays, Cambridge Univ Press 1979
  • Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d'ethnologie kabyle (1972), engl. Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press 1977
  • La distinction (1979), engl. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press 1987
  • Homo Academicus, (French Edition) Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1984. (English Edition) Polity press 1990
  • Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (Theory, Culture and Society Series), Sage, 1990, with Jean-Claude Passeron (in French: La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d'enseignement, Minuit, 1970)
  • with Luc Boltanski e P. Maldidier, La défense du corps, in Social Science Information, vol. 10, n° 4, pp.45-86, 1971
  • with Luc Boltanski, Le titre et le poste : rapports entre système de production et système de reproduction, in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 1, n° 2, pp. 95 – 107, 1975.
  • with Luc Boltanski, Le fétichisme de la langue, in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 1, n° 4, pp. 2– 32, 1975.
  • with Luc Boltanski, La production de l'idéologie dominante, in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, vol. 2, n° 2-3, 1976, pp. 4-73.
  • Choses dites, 1987 - In Other Words: Essays toward a Reflective Sociology, Stanford, 1990
  • The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Polity press 1991
  • The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public, Stanford University Press 1991
  • Language & Symbolic Power, Harvard University Press 1991, paperback edition, Polity press 1992
  • An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (with Loic Wacquant), University of Chicago Press and Polity press 1992
  • with Hans Haacke, Free Exchange, Stanford University Press 1995
  • (with Luc Boltanski and Robert Castel), Photography: A Middle-Brow Art, Stanford University Press 1996
  • Les régles de l'art, 1992 - Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Stanford University Press 1996
  • (with Monique De Saint Martin, Jean-Claude Passeron),Academic Discourse: Linguistic Misunderstanding and Professorial Power, Polity Press 1996
  • Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action, Stanford University Press 1998
  • "La domination masculine" (1998), engl. Male Domination, Polity Press 2001
  • State nobility. Elite Schools in the Field of Power, Polity press 1998
  • Weight of the World. Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Polity press 1999
  • On Television, New Press 1999
  • Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, New Press 1999
  • Pascalian Meditations, Polity press 2000
  • "Contre-Feux" (1998), engl. Counterfire: Against the Tyranny of the Market, Verso Books 2003
  • "Science de la science et réflexivité" (2002), engl Science of Science and Reflexivity, Polity press 2004
  • Interventions politiques (1960-2000). Textes & contextes d’un mode d’intervention politique spécifique, 2002
  • The Social Structures of the Economy, Polity press 2005


  • Calhoun, C. et al. (1992) "Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives." University of Chicago Press.
  • Lane, J.F. (2000) Pierre Bourdieu. A Critical Introduction. Pluto Press.
  • Wacquant, L. (2005) Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics. Polity Press.
  • Fowler, Bridget, Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations (London, California and New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1997).

See also

External links

Obituaries and biographical material

Other resources

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).