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bourdieu = 75%?

In this post, I want your opinion on the following social theory conjecture: Bourdieu’s sociology is successful because it draws on three of the four main streams of modern sociology. To see why I might say this, consider the following summary of Bourdieu’s main concepts:

  • There are “social fields” – socially constructed domains defined by a type of  action (e.g., the state, the arts, the market).
  • These domains of action have their own “capital” – resources that can be used to further one’s position and create more resources (see Sean’s post).
  • These domains also have hierarchies based on the creation and destruction of field specific capital, and even “doxa,” the range of what can be expressed within a social field. In other words, a field is a whole bunch of things.
  • Habitus – the deeply help dispositions that reflect an individual’s internalization of the rules and values associated with that domain.
  • All of this is terribly endogenous (“self-structuring structrues… yada yada“).

If you buy this thumbnail sketch – and it omits much – then you can easily see that Bourdieu’s theory is highly constructionist. It’s also fairly obvious that he draws on critical theory – Marxian class analysis is obviously one inspiration for how he views capital and habitus (think of “class culture” in Distinction).

The more controversial claim is that Bourdieu draws on a very basic form of rational choice theory. If you read Introduction to Reflexive Sociology, Bourdieu is asked whether this is true and he just says the comparison is off base. I think Bourdieu is sort of wrong, but not totally. Specifically, he responds to Becker’s rational choice theory and I think Bourdieu is correct in drawing the distinction. The homo economicus is very different than the mood driven habitus. Explicit calculation is simply not the main variable of Bourdieu’s theory.

On the other hand, striving for status and attention is an implicit, ecological view of strategic behavior. Field based actors do strategically try to defend their turf using their resources, even if they ways they do it are not always conscious or well articulated. I call this “ecological” competition because biological and social ecology theories depict actors who must compete over space/resources with inherited traits/strategies that do emerge from conscious calculation.

The final claim of this post is that Bourdieu pretty much circumvents a fourth type of sociology – the values/institutions/social structure stream associated with the old & new institutionalists, Parsons, and network analysts. It’s pretty obvious that he’s not a big fan of functionalism or of any theory focusing on the links between values and orgs/networks/institutions. For him, the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital. Sociology is about explaining who’s making and breaking these hierarchies and using the capital. If you really believe that, there’s not much point in talking about networks, decoupling, logics, or any other stuff associated with the values & structures branch of sociology, even though Bourdieu gets many “respect citations” from that crowd.

So, orgheads, a fair assessment of Bourdieu? Post your reactions in the comments!

Written by fabiorojas

June 1, 2009 at 12:02 am

13 Responses

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  1. Explicit calculation is simply not the main variable of Bourdieu’s theory.

    Not the main variable of Becker-style rational expectations the way I learned it. A lot of rational action is worked out through inarticulate groping towards our preferences on his view, I believe.

    I’m not familiar with Bourdieu but I can see the potential for parallels between what you describe as Habitus and the stable individual preferences that are part of Becker-style rational expectations. But the way economic equilibrium is constructed in neoclassical theory, I think explanation for how these stable preferences may have evolved through interactions with other agents is precluded. So in terms of ecology, Becker is doing hydroponics at best whereas Bourdieu’s got a vineyard.

    As far as whether hierarchies are a cause or an effect of relative differences among individuals, the answer must be both. I can understand why a French person after WWII might have taken one position rather than the other, but the truth must lay somewhere in between.

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    Michael F. Martin

    June 1, 2009 at 2:21 am

  2. The final claim of this post is that Bourdieu pretty much circumvents a fourth type of sociology – the values/institutions/social structure stream associated with the old & new institutionalists, Parsons, and network analysts…. For him, the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital. … If you really believe that, there’s not much point in talking about networks, decoupling, logics, or any other stuff associated with the values & structures branch of sociology

    I’m not sure how you reconcile this last bit of your characterization with (a) your earlier mentions about doxa (” the range of what can be expressed”) and habitus (“an individual’s internalization of the rules and values” of a field), (b) Bourdieu’s own focus on the logic of practice, and (c) the insistence of many Bourdieuians that their approach is at bottom a relational one. There’s your values, structures, logics and social relations right there (the Bourdieuians will say).

    Perhaps the core difficulty is that Bourdieu’s project is — both as a matter of principle and as an exercise in rhetoric — designed to resist easy classification within a schema such as this. So on the one hand, there’s the problem of how to describe and assess the substance of Bourdieu’s project and his claims about it. (On their own terms? As a cover for something much simpler than it appears? And so on.) On the other, there’s the problem of where Bourdieu’s project fits in to your fourfold scheme. With a writer like Bourdieu, who makes strong yet difficult-to-pin-down claims about the scope and nature of his project, answering the second question is going to entail having a view about the first question. In the short summary here, I think you’re giving us the version of Bourdieu that takes him as a particular kind of neo-Marxist (hence your view that for him “the hierarchy is the principal model of social organization and hierarchies are just visible manifestations of who has the capital”).

    This is a quite defensible reading of Bourdieu, but I think you’re going to need to actually defend it rather than just slotting him in to position in the table. You’ll need to argue directly that many of the concepts (and much of the rhetoric) that Bourdieu provides don’t do much work at the end of the day and that the hierarchical notion of fields and capital is what makes everything go, etc. Otherwise you’ll get Bourdieuians pointing to all of that other machinery and asking why you’re ignoring it. There’s also Bourdieu’s irritating habit — shared with many Grand Theorists, but better executed by none — of insisting, when noticing them at all, that various criticisms either miss the point of the work or can be shown to be the result of erroneously focusing on just one part of the overall project.

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    Kieran

    June 1, 2009 at 2:34 am

  3. Bourdieu’s sociological framework definitely goes against the functionalism of “old” institutionalism but I don’t think it circumvents neo-institutionalist emphases on values and norms. Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic capital and violence are relevant in this respect.

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    Alex

    June 1, 2009 at 2:56 am

  4. You’re making two distinct claims here: First, that Bourdieu fits into 3 traditions/styles and does not in to a fourth and, second, that Bourdieu is prominent *because* he draws on those 3 streams. I don’t have many thoughts on the first part this early in the morning, but the second seems potentially harder to prove. Specifically, if to even claim Bourdieu as a kind of rational choice theorist is non-obvious, how does that factor into his popularity? Does that make him popular because savvy RCers will draw upon the parallels and thus gain legitimacy with their others? Vice versa? Both? Or is this more of a subconscious kind of popularity enhancer – RCers and their others both see things they like in Bourdieu even if they haven’t quite named them? The post mainly deals with claim 1, I’m curious to see the explicit link to claim 2.

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    Dan Hirschman

    June 1, 2009 at 12:08 pm

  5. Couldn’t you settle this debate by doing citations counts? I doubt that that RCers cite Bourdieu much at all precisely because they see the world in a very different way.

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    brayden

    June 1, 2009 at 1:23 pm

  6. Actually, what does “successful” mean in this post? Mere citations don’t cut it because there’s a tendency to namecheck Bourdieu, especially as one of the pioneers of ‘social capital’ with James Coleman, even though the theoretical foundations of both are quite different.

    I’d imagine there’s something more substantial about his work that fills a general lacuna in contemporary sociological analysis. Not so much because he “draws” on different streams as the post says, but because his analyses link the micro with the macro (or agency with structure, if you will) in an integrated framework. Bourdieu, I presume, would renounce such dichotomies in the first place.

    Frank Dobbin has written about Bourdieu and organizational theory specifically here:
    http://www.springerlink.com/content/x8j88xx3784lu4v4/

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    Alex

    June 1, 2009 at 2:11 pm

  7. Alex: thanks for that link. I hadn’t seen that piece and will look forward to reading it.

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    Sean Safford

    June 1, 2009 at 3:21 pm

  8. Bourdieu is not only influential because he fits into several existing paradigms of sociology, but because his work speaks to core issues such as agency and structure, as well as to theories of social change, stratification, culture, ideology, and so on. This is why Bourdieu consistently pops up in subfields like culture and political sociology, and more recently scholars in areas like sex and gender and religion also find much to engage with in Bourdieu’s work.

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    bedhaya

    June 1, 2009 at 7:34 pm

  9. My Bourdieu is rusty, but from what I can remember, there was definitely a flavor of rational choice in it, although one that is socially constrained by the menu of options made thinkable by an individual’s habitus. Where the whole construction seemed weakest was on the emergence and reproduction of the habitus itself.

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    Olivier

    June 1, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  10. Agreed. Although it’s not traditional rational choice, as Fabio noted, the premise is that individuals strive for status of various kinds. I’m currently using a Bourdieu-ian framework in my own writing, but am finding this issue a bit of a problem. But perhaps the concept of habitus can be separated from status-seeking?

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    bedhaya

    June 1, 2009 at 9:46 pm

  11. When he got home, Vasquez gave his 13-year-old son a model EVA Air plane. His son asked him, “Daddy, when the captain called, why didn’t you just stay seated?”

    Habitus?

    http://www.mercurynews.com/ci_12472308?source=email

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    Michael F. Martin

    June 1, 2009 at 10:52 pm

  12. “I think you’re giving us the version of Bourdieu that takes him as a particular kind of neo-Marxist”

    J’avais pris l’habitude, depuis longtemps, lorsqu’on me posait la question, généralement mal intentionnée, de mes rapports avec Marx, de répondre qu’à tout prendre, et s’il fallait à tout prix s’affilier, je me dirais plutôt pascalien.

    (Introduction of Méditations Pascaliennes)

    I guess a semi-relevant point to remember from this quote is that the act of classification, even with the best of intents, is bound to depend on intellectual traditions. As Kieran wrote, Bourdieu explicitly resisted being classified from the onset; in fact before he even started sociology, if he is to be believed.

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    Z

    June 4, 2009 at 6:08 am

  13. […] of objectivity to theory. Even Bourdieu’s theory of fields is like this (and this is where I can agree with Fabio that Bourdieu and rational choice theorists have something in common!). Bourdieu, when it comes […]

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