bourdieuian organizational studies

Bourdieu is often cited in organizational studies, but references to Bourdieu, as Omar noted, are usually symbolic gestures meant to bring legitimacy to projects. The real Bourdieu, the sociologist interested in power dynamics and culture, is less often found in our American theories of organizations. This point is made strongly by Mustafa Emirbayer and Victoria Johnson in a recent paper published in Theory and Society, “Bourdieu and organizational analysis.” Emirbayer and Johnson argue that the theorization of Bourdieu’s contribution to organizational theory has been incomplete because it has failed to fully utilize the Bourdieuian concepts – the theoretical triad – of field, capital, and habitus. Since the publication of DiMaggio and Powell (1983) the concept of field has become highly central to organizational theory, particularly in institutional theory, but the authors argue that an understanding of fields is incomplete (and perhaps shallow) without linking it to capital and habitus. Because of this, our theoretical understanding of fields has become detached from Bourdieu’s central insight – that fields are the locations of massive, historical struggles for power.

Emirbayer and Johnson provide a good overview of how Bourdieuian concepts might be more fully utilized in organizational research. The paper is well worth reading. Here are some highlights from the text:

Social network studies, not to mention other approaches often taken to task by Bourdieu, are to be faulted only insofar as they deny that the truth of interactions is to be found always (at least partly) outside those interactions themselves (pg. 10).

Much of the contestation in which organizations take part can be said to concern the legitimate valuation that is to be accorded the precise species of capital in which they happen (actually or potentially) to be well-endowed. In such struggles, one typically encounters two sharply opposing strategies of action: on the one hand, a conservation strategy on the part of the dominant organizations, in which their overriding aim is to preserve the principle of hierarchization that is most favorable to them and to safeguard or even enhance their position within this hierarchy; and, on the other hand, a subversion strategy on the part of the dominated organizations in which their contrary aim is to transform the system of authority within the field, including potentially the very rules of the game according to which it ordinarily functions, to their own benefit (pg. 11).

Within the field of organization studies itself, programs whose intellectual profile stresses the analysis of markets and market-like behavior – programs of management studies and organizational analysis usually located inside business schools – often wield an intangible but very real symbolic authority vis-à-vis programs that are associated with sociology and psychology departments and that self-consciously oppose themselves to economistic tendencies within the field. Contestations over symbolic capital or authority – the sacred – are a key feature of nearly every field of organizational transactions, and those firms, academic departments, or other organizations that succeed in amassing it gain considerably thereby in their efforts to assume a dominant position within the field as a whole. (Indeed, it could be said in a reflexive spirit that this present article is itself a contribution to these struggles, assaying as it does an eminently sociology-centered construction or definition of the field of organization studies.) (pg. 12).

It should be apparent that fields are hardly the inert structures, devoid of all processuality, that a simple dichotomization of statics and dynamics assumes. Built into their very logic, in fact, is a dynamism of potential innovation and a motor for ceaseless change: “What defines the structure of the field … is also the principle of its dynamics” (Bourdieu 1993c: 135) (pg. 17).

In the organization, as in the world beyond, the analysis of interactions alone (e.g., among individuals) can never, despite efforts by students of intraorganizational behavior such as
ethnographers, social psychologists, symbolic interactionists, ethnomethodologists, and (in many cases) analysts of intraorganizational networks and social capital, suffice to reveal the larger framework of power relations that expresses itself within such interactions – and that helps to frame them in the first place. Here again, of course, researchers face the thorny problem of determining the structure of the field – in this case, of the organization-as-field (pg. 22).

Organizational actors can certainly be said to pursue interests. But in the approach we are advocating, the concept itself of interest, whose opposite is not disinterestedness but indifference, a total lack of commitment to the game at hand and its stakes, is defined capaciously to include all manner of investments. It is meant to encompass not only, say, the rationalist and calculating dispositions of senior executives in modern corporations, but also the libido administrandi of junior officials in the civil service, typically petits bourgeois whose habitus marked by formalism, punctuality, and a strict adherence to regulations has taken on the form of an abiding investment in “virtues demanded by the bureaucratic order and exalted by the ideology of ‘public service’: probity, meticulousness, rigor, and a propensity for moral indignation” (Bourdieu 1981: 312). In light of such insights, it should come as no surprise that rational action theory is best viewed, as Bourdieu likes to say, as a secondary or derivative
case of the general theory of fields, rather than the other way around (pg. 32).

Written by brayden king

May 13, 2008 at 9:32 pm

9 Responses

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  1. In terms of paragraph (3) Marion Fourcade makes a similar point in her recent ABS article on economic sociology.



    May 13, 2008 at 10:31 pm

  2. Without directly citing Bourdieu, I believe Davis and Marquis 2005 in Org Sci, argue that we have to look at changes in fields. It at least sets up the need to look at them as sites of contest and struggle.

    And, in th 1995 version of Institutions and Organizations by Dick Scott, as well as the newer Organizations and Organizing discuss the shift in institutional theory towards field emergence, change, and restructuration.

    Now, that doesn’t at all mean they adopted the trio of Bourdieuan concepts, just that institutional theory had run up against the limits of static analysis and has shifted towards relational analysis more broadly. Which Emirbayer should appreciate given his (? her?) “Manifesto for a Relational Sociology.”

    I am excited to hear about the article. Thanks for putting it on my radar screen (notch one for value of academic blogging).



    May 14, 2008 at 7:39 pm

  3. I quickly skimmed the article, but I was surprised to that Johnson and Emirbayer don’t address Fligstein’s social skill article, which directly hits on the issue of habitus and field. It’s a theory overview, but Fligstein correctly identifies the need to think about habitus like behaviors and strategic deployment of social & symbolic capital.



    May 14, 2008 at 9:18 pm

  4. Thanks for the tip. I have a couple papers going out this summer on cultural capital in a large white-collar corporate setting, so I’m interested in checking this out.


    Dave P.

    May 15, 2008 at 12:03 pm

  5. Dave P., glad to help. I’m sure you’ll find this paper useful for your project.



    May 15, 2008 at 1:48 pm

  6. Fabio: ..”surprised to that Johnson and Emirbayer don’t address Fligstein’s social skill article…”

    If you haven’t already, it is worth reading the papers accompanying Emirbayer’s and Johnson’s in Theory & Society. Frank Dobbin makes pretty much that same point about the work of Fligstein and others. As a doctoral student trying to figure out how to take a Bourdieusian holy-trinity approach to the study of organizations, I was also thrilled to read Dobbin’s points on the challenges posed to conducting research in this style, especially within in the somewhat different evidentiary tradition of US org studies.

    Brayden, have you had a chance to read the accompanying papers? It would be great to know what you think of these.



    May 15, 2008 at 7:38 pm

  7. Tanya – Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve only read the Swartz paper so far, but it sounds like I need to get on the ball and read the others too.



    May 15, 2008 at 8:12 pm

  8. […] a post on this at, in which brayden states: Emirbayer and Johnson provide a good overview of how Bourdieuian […]


  9. I am in the midst of wondering if something is do-able…. I want to take a relational approach to agency and structure – i.e. as a fluid figuration of transactions. However, it is difficult to circumscribe phenomena as I end up following long transactional chains… Can I overcome this by imposing boudieu’s habitus/field to circumscribe an area, i.e. the social player defines the boundaries of transaction by defining what is important… capital accumulates and diminishes within and across the field…. Have I made some fundamental analytical error anyone can think of?@


    Paul N

    May 28, 2008 at 1:37 pm

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