Bourdieu and the Structuring of Agency

By | July 14, 2017

I have long been of the view that theorists and theories overlap and that being overly faithful to any particular ones can constrain and even lead one astray (this notwithstanding the regular use I have made of the likes of Habermas, Bhaskar and Archer). What each theorist must do is: (a) come to terms with, (b) reconcile themselves to, or (3) attempt a resolution of – the perpetual tension between social structure on the one hand and agency on the other. Dawe’s ‘two sociologies’ must become one. We are only what we make of ourselves using the materials made available by our ‘natal placement’ and primary and secondary socialization.

Much has been made of the pros and cons of Giddens versus Archer, Archer versus Bourdieu, and so on ad infinitum. I have no objection to these debates. What I privilege over them, however, is their salience for substantive research: the proof of any theoretical pudding is its empirical eating (or digestion).

Starting Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-brow Art, long lost amongst the stacks of books in my study but recently rediscovered, I came across a paragraph that impressed me as a serviceable summary of my own approach:

‘by its very existence, sociology presupposes the overcoming of the false opposition arbitrarily erected by subjectivists and objectivists. Sociology is possible as an objective science because of the existence of external relationships which are necessary and independent of individual wills, and, perhaps, unconscious (in the sense that they are not revealed by simple reflection), and which can only be grasped by the indirect route of observation and objective experimentation; in other words, because subjects are not in possession of the meaning of the whole of their behaviour as immediate conscious data, and because their actions always encompass more meanings than they know or wish, sociology cannot be a purely introspective science attaining absolute certainty simply by turning to subjective experience, and, by the same token, it can be an objective science of the objective (and the subjective), i.e. an experimental science, experimentation being, in the words of Claude Bernard, ‘the only mediator between the objective and the subjective’.’

And with Bourdieu’s orientation to class in mind (to which I am personally sympathetic):

everything … takes place as if the shadow cast by objective conditions always extended to consciousness: the infra-conscious reference to objective determinisms which influence practice and always owe some of their effectiveness to the complicity of a subjectivity that bears their stamp and is determined by the hold they exert. Thus the science of objective regularities remains abstract as long as it does not encompass the science of the process of the internalization of objectivity leading to the constitution of those systems of unconscious and durable dispositions that are the class ‘habitus’ and the ‘ethos’: as long as it does not endeavour to establish how the myriad ‘small perceptions’ of everyday life and the convergent and repeated sanctions of the economic and social universe imperceptibly constitute, from childhood and throughout one’s life, by means of constant reminders, this ‘unconscious’ which becomes paradoxically defined as a practical reference to objective conditions.’

Good stuff I reckon. Online buddies like Steve Hall would shout out: ‘Lacan!’ Maybe, I’ll check him out, with a degree of reluctance. But I find Bourdieu eloquent here, and that’s the rationale for my blog.

Leave a Reply