Sociological Theorists: Pierre Bourdieu

By | November 11, 2015

Pierre Bourdieu has become very fashionable in 21st century sociology. He was committed to overcoming the agency/structure and subjectivism/objectivism binaries throughout a long and varied career. He favoured acknowledging the force of structure without losing sight of agency (that is, real-life actors). He focused too on the dialectical relationship between objective structures and subjective phenomena. Objective structures constrain thought, action and interaction, plus the way people represent the world. People’s representations, in turn, affect objective structures.

The outcome of this dialectic is what Bourdieu calls practices. So practices are neither objectively determined nor the product of free will. Bourdieu variously describes this stance as constructivist structuralism, structuralist constructivism or genetic structuralism. His interest, according to Ritzer, is in ‘the study of objective structures that cannot be separated from mental structures that, themselves, involve the internalization of objective structures’. Bourdieu builds bridges between structuralism and constructivism.

Central to Bourdieu’s project is the notion of habitus. This refers to the mental structures – or schemes – through which people deal with the social world. Habitus is the product of the internalization of the structures that comprise the social world. Thus, it reflects objective divisions around class, gender and age (for example). It varies, in other words, with an individual’s position in the social world. Those who occupy similar positions will tend to have a similar habitus (giving rise to the idea of ‘collective habitus’).

Habitus emerges over time and acts like a durable ‘structuring structure’. It comes from practice; and it shapes practice. It predisposes people to think and act in patterned ways. But habitus does not determine action.

Another vital concept for Bourdieu is that of the field. This is best explicated ‘relationally’ rather than structurally. The field is a family or network of relations among the objective positions within it. The occupants of positions can be either agents or institutions. Ritzer:

‘the social world has a number of semi-autonomous fields (e.g. art, religion, higher education), all with their own specific logics and all generating amoing actors a belief about the things that are at stake in a field.’

A field is an arena of struggle, or competition, with people or collectivities occupying positions and oriented to defending/improving them.

‘the fields is a kind of competitive marketplace in which various types of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) are employed and deployed. However, the field of power (politics) is of the utmost importance; the hierarchy of power relationships within the political field serves to structure all the other fields’ (Ritzer again).

Questions posed by Bourdieu: (1) what is the relationship between any given field and the political field; (2) what is the objective structure of the relations among positions in the field; and (3) what is the nature of the habitus of the agents/collectivities who occupy the various types of position within the field.

The positions within the field are determined by the extent and strength of ‘flow’ (if I might put it that way) of each type of capital (economic = wealth, income; cultural = taste, connections; social = social relations; and symbolic = status). Occupants of positions employ (structured, but not structurally determined) strategies to defend/enhance them.

Bourdieu also used the notion of symbolic violence. The state, he argues, is the site of a struggle to secure a monopoly of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is a form of what is often called ‘soft power’. The educational system, for example, is a major conduit for exercising power over people. For Bourdieu, who studied the French educational system empirically and in detail, it served and serves (Parsons would say ‘functions’) to disguise the exercise of power and to reproduce existing power and class relations.

What is so impressive about Bourdieu’s work is that he not only built bridges between theory and research, he crossed the bridges he built to test their strength and durability. Witness his study of ‘taste’ in Distinction. His ‘findings’? How do variations in cultural taste occur, and why? Taste unifies and differentiates. Class and culture – qua fields – matter in this ‘game’. Taste is an opportunity to experience as well as to assert position; but class governs one’s capacity to participate, to ‘play the game’. Culture bends the knee to class: moreover it is itself ‘both hierarchical and hierarchizing’ (my old mate Ritzer again).

Habitus bears on taste too. Taste has longstanding, deep, historical and dispositional roots. These dispositions serve to unify classes, subconsciously. It is the structure of class that shapes the habitus; YET, dialectics prevail for Bourdieu. Field and habitus mutually define one another. From the dialectical relationship between habitus and field, practices are established.

I am no expert in Bourdieu’s work, despite my huge regard for it. In my Health and Social Change I drew on it to posit an altered – and class-driven – national habitus in the UK in the post-1970s era of neo-liberal or financial capitalism. We have been overcome by a (postmodern) ambivalence towards welfare statism, I asserted, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the NHS (since realised via Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act).

This brief blog, like others in this series, does scant justice to a remarkably innovative sociologist. What a plethora of studies – of education, hierarchies, politics, taste, art, photography, Algeria, and so on! Do please read him.


Ritzer,G (2003) Contemporary Sociological Theory and its Classical Roots: The Basics. New York; McGraw-Hill.

Scambler,G (2002) Health and Social Change. Buckingham; Open University Press.



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