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Social Science, Social Conscience: Remembering Pierre Bourdieu

After Pierre Bourdieu’s death this past January, Le Monde delayed publication by several hours so the front page could carry the news. It was the lead story on TV news in France (and other European countries) and ran with expressions of grief and loss from France’s president, prime minister, trade union leaders, and a host of other dignitaries and scholars. These continued to flow for weeks, accompanied by special programs on national television and radio, though after a few days, they were predictably complemented by attacks from old enemies and pretentious would-be heirs. Bourdieu was, after all, the most influential sociologist in the world and one of the most famous critics of neoliberal globalization.

The media low point came when a Nouvel Observateur journalist—Didier Eribon, famous primarily for exploiting his relationship with Michael Foucault after Foucault’s death—published a first-person story of the supposed deathbed scene, the last hours of the dying sociologist. As it happened, Eribon hadn’t seen Bourdieu in months and certainly not in the hospital. But even in this travesty, we can see something of the French intellectual field that Bourdieu himself famously analyzed. We see the intellectual as a celebrity, the desire of politicians to appear as men of ideas, and journalism’s debasing effect on the intellectual life that it ostensibly exalts. We glimpse also the workings of a scientific field in which scholars struggle for distinction—some by associating themselves with a great man and others by claiming to be important enough that their differences from him actually matter. But not least we see a reflection, however distorted, of an extraordinary scientific career and the concentrated intellectual resources that made it possible.

Bourdieu was the grandson of an itinerant sharecropper and son of a farmer who later turned postman in the remote village of Lasseube in the Pyrénées mountains. From this humble background, he rose through the public school system to the top of his class at the École Normale Supérieure, the preeminent institution for consecration of French intellectuals. Never allowed the unselfconscious belonging of those born to wealth, cultural pedigree, and elite accents, he also never confused his success with simple proof of meritocracy. Instead, he developed from it an extraordinary capacity for critical social analysis and epistemic reflexivity. Though educated in philosophy, Bourdieu embraced sociology precisely in order to make empirical research a tool for breaking through ordinary consciousness to achieve truer knowledge about a social world usually considered too mundane for philosophical attention. And his critical distance from the institutions within which he excelled propelled his telling analyses of French academic life, and, indeed, more generally of inequality, the state, and capitalism.

In 1955, Bourdieu was sent to do military service in Algeria during that French colony’s bloody struggle for independence—and Republican France’s horrific repression of it. Scarred but also toughened, Bourdieu stayed on to teach at the University of Algiers and became a self-taught ethnographer. He immediately proved himself an extraordinarily keen observer of the interpenetration of large-scale social change and the struggles and solidarities of daily life. His native familiarity with the peasant society of Béarn gave him an affinity with the traditional agrarian society of Kabylia that was being destroyed by French colonialism. Conducting research in Kabyle villages and with Berber-speaking labor migrants to Algeria’s fast-growing cities, he addressed themes ranging from the introduction of money into marriage negotiations, to cosmology and the agricultural calendar, to the economic crisis facing those who are forced into market relations for which they are not prepared. These studies helped forge his theory of practice and informed his entire intellectual trajectory, including both his academic endeavors as well as his later political critique of neoliberalism. Near the end of his life, in a lecture delivered at Keisen University in Tokyo, he wrote:

As I was able to observe in Algeria, the unification of the economic field tends, especially through monetary unification and the generalization of monetary exchanges that follow, to hurl all social agents into an economic game for which they are not equally prepared and equipped, culturally and economically. It tends by the same token to submit them to standards objectively imposed by competition from more efficient productive forces and modes of production, as can readily be seen with small rural producers who are more and more completely torn away from self-sufficiency. In short, unification benefits the dominant.” (“Unifying to Better Dominate,” 2001)

Unification, of course, could be a project not only of the colonial state but also of national states, the European community, and the World Trade Organization.

Confrontation with the Algerian war, and with the transformations wrought by French colonialism and capitalism there, left a searing personal mark on Bourdieu, solidifying his commitment to the principle that research must matter for the lives of others. It was also in Algeria that Bourdieu learned to fuse ethnography and statistics, ambitious theory and painstaking observation, and where he crafted a distinctive approach to social inquiry aimed at informing progressive politics through scientific production.

Field data from Kabylia also supplied the foundation for Bourdieu’s theoretical innovations. His Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) is perhaps the single most influential effort to overcome the reified oppositions between subject and object, agency and structure. Bourdieu built on structuralism and especially the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, who among other things had helped rehabilitate the Durkheimian project of a science of the relations between culture and social organization and thus sociology as well as anthropology. He drew also on Marx, Wittgenstein, Merleau-Ponty, Cassirer, and Bachelard to produce studies that join with Foucault’s work of the same period in moving beyond structuralism’s avoidance of embodied subjectivity and with Derrida’s effort to recover epistemology by breaking with the notion that it must be grounded in the Cartesian perspective of the individual knowing subject. In an important sense, the imprecise term “poststructuralist” fits Bourdieu as well as it does his classmates Foucault and Derrida. But unlike them, he embraced science.

Indeed, reviewing The Rules of Art (1992), Harrison White suggested that “masquerading behind the appearance of a Parisian intellectual,” Bourdieu was in truth a hard empirical scientist recently fashionable among self-declared critical thinkers, not least because it was itself elitist and politically disempowering. He thought that the “French theory” that claims indebtedness to Foucault and Derrida (through it usually fails to meet their intellectual standards) had “much to answer for” on both the scientific and the political fronts. He considered “postmodernism” to be a “global intellectual swindle” made possible by the uncontrolled “international circulation of ideas” that gained prestige from their exotic provenance even while this undermined what should have been the corrective mechanisms in different intellectual fields. Much of French postmodernism derived, thus, from a German Lebensphilosophie opposed to the historicist rationalism at the root of French social science lineage. While he shared the view that simple empiricism was liable to reproduce ideologically conventional views, he argued that the necessary response was not positivism, in other words to abandon empirical research. The goal was rather to wield continual collective vigilance over the classification and relations through which scientific knowledge was produced and disseminated—including by state bureaucracies whose categories pigeon-hole human beings for their own purposes while providing social scientists with apparently neutral data.

Bourdieu railed equally against the false antinomies of typical academic work, the kinds of scholastic oppositions that serve less to advance scientific knowledge than the careers of those who write endless theses arguing one side or the other, or proposing artificial syntheses designed essentially to create a new academic market niche. The point was not simply to choose Weber over Marx, or Lévi-Strauss over Sartre, but to escape from false dualities and imposed categories. “Objective analysis,” he wrote in Homo Academicus (1984), “obliges us to realize that the two approaches, structuralist and constructivist…are two complementary stages of the same procedure.”

Only by paying attention to both methods can social scientists do the necessary, if hard, labor of “conquering and constructing social facts”—that is, of distinguishing the hidden forms and mechanisms of social reality from the received understandings of previous academic knowledge, folk knowledge, and the everyday preconceptions of “culture” more generally. Analysis must attend to both the social genesis and makeup of objective social worlds (fields) within which agents develop and operate and the socially constituted dispositions (habitus) which fashion the manner of thinking, feeling, and acting of these agents. And nowhere is this sort of analysis more needed than in understanding academia itself. Bourdieu demanded that social scientists pay scrupulous attention to the conditions and hence limitations of their own gaze and work and continually objectify their own efforts to produce objective knowledge of the social world. This would start, for example, with recognition of the very unequal social distribution of leisure to devote to intellectual projects (a challenge to the notion of that intellectual production is simply a matter of individual creativity rather than social conditions that make it possible). In place of the narcissistic memoir of scientific creation as individual achievement, he sought a truly sociological understanding. Bourdieu challenged, in other words, the common tendency to propound objective explanations of the lives of others while claiming the right of subjective interpretation for one’s own.

Pursuit of such a reflexive grounding for social science was one of the central motivations for Bourdieu’s sociology of the scientific and educational fields in books like The Inheritors (1964), Homo Academicus, and The State Nobility (1989). The first was one of the inspirations for the events of May ’68, but the second was also a critical analysis. One cannot understand the stances intellectuals took during those events, Bourdieu agreed, without understanding both the positions they held within their microcosm or the place of that intellectual field in the web of symbolic and material exchanges involving holders of different kinds of power and resources which Bourdieu christened “the field of power.” This bears not just on political position-taking but on intellectual work itself. It is necessary to use the methods of social science—not merely introspection or memory—to understand the production of social science knowledge. In the context of ’68, for example, despite his own critiques  of the educational system, Bourdieu was wary of romantic radicalism that imagined leaping beyond it or beyond inequality of power at a single jump. This neglected the way in which institutions actually worked; it posed the risk of making matters worse by destroying rather than expanding the opportunities offered by the university system. He worried later that misappropriations of his own analysis of social reproduction encouraged abandonment of educational standards more than the real struggle to transform education and society to the benefit of the marginalized.

Bourdieu’s studies of intellectual production and its hidden determinations were also motivated by his acute interest in social inequality and the ways in which it is masked and perpetuated, in particular, through the forging, conversion, and communication of “cultural capital” and, more broadly, by the operation of “symbolic power”—arguably the central category of his entire scientific project. He analyzed, for example, the element of “symbolic violence” implicated in an education system that taught a specific cultural perspective but made it appear neutral or universal, and which claimed to be meritocratic but in fact reproduced and legitimated social inequalities, for example, by transforming differences in family background or familiarity with bourgeois language into differences in performance on academic tests.

These studies of education were part of a broader approach to culture and power that drew also on a series of influential empirical studies of the art world, from the place of photography to the workings of great museums. In these and other investigations, Bourdieu laid the basis for a general theory of “fields” as differentiated, more or less autonomous social spaces in which external determinations and interests interact with individuals’ struggles over specific forms of value. Thus, as he detailed in his masterwork The Rules of Art, Flaubert, Baudelaire, and their contemporaries transformed the field of literature by advancing a contrast between creative writing and mere journalism. Manet and others effected a similar revolution in painting, and the very idea of art in the modern world reflects both—and depends on the partial autonomy of an artistic field, in which the effects of art markets are mediated by field-specific values like the ideal of “art for art’s sake,” which compels artists to simultaneously pursue recognition and denigrate mere popularity.

Bourdieu’s exploration of the operation of different forms of power blossomed into a full-fledged model of the relations between economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital in the deployment of strategies of class reproduction, best known through Distinction (1970). This is an effort to overcome the opposition of objectivist (especially Marxist) and subjectivist (Weberian) theories of class. But it is also crucially a response to Kant’s Third Critique (and to subsequent philosophical disquisitions on judgment). Much as Durkheim had sought to challenge individualistic explanation of social facts in Suicide, so Bourdieu sough in Distinction to uncover the social roots and organization of all forms of judgment to show how knowledge buttresses the hierarchies of the social world, how the world-as-it-is-perceived issues out of and bolsters the world-as-it-is. Sociology thus enabled Bourdieu to rethink major philosophical themes and problems by means of empirical observation and analyses rooted in “a practical sense of theoretical things” rather than through theoretical disquisition.

Bourdieu approached sociology, understood as the science of social life in general, not merely as one discipline among others, but instead as the active, ongoing practice of research and analysis, and not simply a body of scholastic principles. It was no accident that he titles his book of epistemological and methodological preliminaries The Craft of Sociology (1968). The craft worker is always a lover of knowledge; the craft itself it precisely a store of knowledge, yet it is never fully discursive and available for explicit transmission as such. Masters teach their skills by example and coaching, realizing that know-how cannot be reduced to instructions, and never escapes its situated and embodied character. Like habitus, “the rules of art” is a phrase that signifies practical knowledge, learning-by-doing, tacit understanding, like the knowledge of cooking embodied in a grandmother’s demonstrations and guidance rather than a cookbook. Art can never be reduced to follow set rules, and yet to say it is without coherence, strategy, or intention, or not based on socially organized and shared knowledge, would be to misunderstand it utterly. Neither is science simply the value-free expression of “truth.” It is a project, but one organized, ideally, in a social field that rewards the production of verifiable and forever reversible truths—including new truths and new approaches to understanding—and not merely performance according to explicit rules and standards. It is a project that depends crucially on reason as an institutionally embedded capacity, and therefore refuses equally the rationalistic reduction of reason to rules, simple determinism’s unreasoned acceptance of the status quo, and the expressive appeal to insight supposedly transcending history and not corrigible by reason.

It was as a scientist that Bourdieu in the last years of his life turned to analyze the impacts of neoliberal globalization on culture, politics, and society. He was concerned above all that the social institutions that supported reason—by providing scholars, scientists, artists, and writers with a measure of autonomy—were under unprecedented attack. Reduction to the market threatened to undermine science; reduction to the audience-ratings logic of television entertainment threatened to undermine public discourse. The problem was not internationalization as such. Bourdieu himself called forcefully for a new internationalism, saw science as an international endeavor, and founded Libèr, a European review of books published in six languages. The problem was the presentation of a particular modality of “globalization” as a force of necessity to which there was no alternative but adaptation and acceptance. He usually called this the American model, annoying Americans who wished to distance themselves from government and corporate policies but capturing with this label a worldwide trend toward commodification, state deregulation, and competitive individualism aggressively exemplified and promoted by the dominant class of the fin-de-siècle United States. Whatever the label, he meant the view that institutions developed out of a long century of social struggles should be scrapped if they could not meet the test of market viability. Many of these, including schools and universities, are state institutions. They were far from perfect—as his own work demonstrated—but collective struggles had grudgingly and gradually opened them to a degree to the dominated, including workers, women, ethnic minorities, and others. These institutions are fragile social achievements that open up the possibility of more equality and justice, and to sacrifice them is always a step backwards, no matter whether it is masked by a deterministic analysis of the “market” or a naked assertion of self-interest by the wealthy and powerful. In his own life, Bourdieu recognized, it was not merely talent and effort that propelled his extraordinary ascent from rural Béarn to the Collège de France, but also state scholarships, social rights, and cultural access to the closed world of “culture.”

Especially in the last dozen years, Bourdieu worked to protect the achievements of the social struggles of the twentieth century—pensions, job security, open access to higher education, and other provisions of the social state—against budget cuts and other attacks in the name of free markets and international competition. In the process, he became one of the world’s most famous critics of neoliberal globalization, a theme central to his two short books, Acts of Resistance (1998) and Firing Back (1999).

Bourdieu’s political writings after 1995 brought him a wide readership in and beyond the universities, but also met with a vicious collective backlash from French journalists and even derision from some academics. The sociologist who had criticized the Sartrean model of the philosopher as “omnicompetent individual” seemed to be taking on a Sartrean mantle. Bourdieu stubbornly resisted the prophetic role of the “total intellectual,” but as his theory suggested, public fame is a product of the field not just the individual, and he could not escape it. Especially after Michel Foucault died, the field seemed to demand that someone occupy the position of France’s foremost public intellectual. Indeed, Bourdieu became remarkably famous, especially after Pierre Carles’s documentary movie on his political work, Sociology Is a Martial Art, became a surprise commercial success in 2000-2001. Theater groups even staged performances based on his ethnographic exploration of social suffering, The Weight of the World (1999).

In his book, On Television (1996), Bourdieu addressed how the media undercut public discourse by reducing it to “cultural fast food.” As his theory predicted, the media made him all the more a celebrity when he attacked the celebrity-making machine. Moreover, though he resisted (and sometimes fiercely denied) becoming one of the “mandarins” of the French system, that system’s structural pressures asserted themselves. Bourdieu created institutions—research centers, journals—to foster collaborative work, but to achieve personal autonomy, several of Bourdieu’s early students and colleagues felt it necessary to go through painful rebellions. A few could not restrain themselves from publicly expressing pathetic emotions originating from their quasi-Oedipal struggles in newspaper commentary after Bourdieu died. The most intense anger, though, was over the fact that Bourdieu refused to turn his own success—in the intellectual world, on the political scene, and in the media—into an endorsement of the system and thus of all those honored by it. On the contrary, Bourdieu remained relentlessly critical of the consecration function performed by all institutions—educational, political, cultural.

Bourdieu, though, could not escape such consecration entirely, even in death. He was accorded the honor of burial in Père Lachaise Cemetery. This famed site in the Northeastern corner of Paris is the resting place of a remarkable range of French and international public figures, from the Revolutionary Abbé Sieyès to sociology’s anti-revolutionary founder, Auguste Comte; from the medieval lovers Abelard and Héloïse to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; from Balzac to Bizet; and for that matter, Jim Morrison. Bourdieu is buried between St. Simon and Brillat-Savarain, a founder of social science and the progenitor of gastronomy. And on February 3rd, more than 2,000 people packed the Théâtre National de la Colline in Paris to honor Bourdieu’s life and work. The speakers included professors, trade union leaders, artists, and political activists. They included close French comrades and international colleagues from several European countries, Algeria, the U.S., Palestine, and Japan. As one after another said, it was an honor and privilege to know Bourdieu, the person as well as the scholar.

The irony, of course, was that Bourdieu himself loathed both official honors and social pomp. He had a passion to know and understand, not to receive tributes and honors. And this is actually the source of much of the resentment toward him: that he gained worldwide scientific recognition without seeking the formal signs of recognition so important to others. He refused to even take a doctoral degree and succeeded anyway. His very transcendence insulted those invested in the system. In this regard, academics too often participate in a kind of mutual reassurance scheme: cite me and I’ll cite you; praise me and I’ll praise you; be clever and facile but do not be too demanding because most of your colleagues want new understanding much less than they seek comforting reassurance that they already know everything worth knowing.

Bourdieu never confused social facts with the preferences of colleagues or the public. He knew the political importance of science, but also that this importance would be vitiated by reducing science to politics. In Pantagruel, Rabelais famously said, “Science without conscience is nothing but the ruin of the soul.” It is a better line in French, where “conscience” also means consciousness. It is not the sort of line Bourdieu would quote, though, because public appeals to conscience are too commonly justifications for a jargon of authenticity rather than the application of reason. But Bourdieu demonstrated that conscience—in both its senses—is not simply an interior state of individuals. It is a social achievement. And as such, it is always at risk. Bourdieu was a scholar and researcher of great rigor and also a man and a citizen with a conscience attuned to inequality and domination. Would there were more.


Craig Calhoun

Craig Calhoun is a sociology professor and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU.


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