commentary on dylan riley’s essay on bourdieu

Dylan Riley has an essay in a Catalyst Journal about the popularity of Bourdieu in American academia. Riley makes two claims. First, Bourdieu can’t be popular because he is accurate because Bourdieu is completely wrong. Second, Bourdieu is popular because his theory allows academics to feel good in a world where they have little connection to real world struggle. This blog post is a criticism and discussion of Riley’s second claim, as I think it is an incomplete and misleading account of Bourdieu’s popularity.

Let’s start with where I agree with Riley. Like Riley, I do not believe that Bourdieu provides a terribly accurate account of social class. I won’t delve into this point, except to note that even some hard core Bourdieusians have had tough times when they work with the data. For example, the second edition of Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods has a new appendix noting that variation in school attitudes – the paragon habitus variable – does not explain long term school attainment. Even in DiMaggio’s 1992 article on the association between cultural capital and high school grades, the results were mixed. Cultural capital measures had an impact mainly on humanities subjects but not math (see Tables 3 and 4), which reeks of endogeneity to me. I.e., if cultural capital is possession of knowledge and exposure to cultural norms, then that would mean that knowledge of culture is correlated with… knowledge of culture.

Now, where do I disagree with Riley? I think Riley has an odd, skewed  and, ironically, Bourdieusian theory of how science achieves prominence. In other words, when we ask why a scientific or scholarly theory is accepted, Riley only focuses on two answers: it is true or it is politically valuable within the field of science. A focus on truth and self-interest leads Riley to overlook other factors that bolster a theory. They include the aesthetics of the theory (“this is elegant”), the theory’s association with high status individuals or institutions, or the theory’s conceptual suppleness, which I think is really at work with Bourdieu’ popularity.

By conceptual suppleness, I mean that the theory is useful for describing things, providing a language for some range of phenomena, and it is very easy for a lot of scholars to generate hypotheses about the world (including wrong hypotheses). When you read a lot of “applied Bourdieu,” which is a requirement when you work in the fields of education and organizational analysis, you quickly realize that Bourdieu’s basic terms have an incredible, but non-trivial, flexibility. I make this argument in chapter 2 of my new social theory book, where I claim that what is attractive about field and habitus theory is that it is a way to seamlessly integrate the idea that there are distinct areas of social life (“fields”), these fields has specific hierarchies and resources (“forms of capital”) and that stratification is not only about violence, but inequality in terms of how people instinctual knowledge of the field (“habitus”) is deployed.

At various points, Riley downplays the importance of field theory as a way of thinking  about or describing social life, but I think that is misguided. Basically, anything that occurs in an institutional context can be usefully thought of as a field. Let’s take one of Riley’s examples – labor. He write the following:

“One general problem with the ludic or field view of the social is that there are many zones of social life that are not configured like games. One of these is the world of labor, in the sense of material transformation and creation. Even in the most exploitative and alienated conditions, labor involves a collective effort at transformation and is therefore oriented toward a project, not toward “stance taking” or “distinction” in a field.”


Riley assumes, in this passage, that collective action and “stance taking” are incompatible processes. If I understand this argument, Riley is trying to argue that cooperation and the seeking of position can’t happen at the same time. There are a few reasons to think that this not quite right. For example, in actual workplaces, there is almost always a division of labor, which some tasks or jobs getting more recognition than others. Perhaps Riley was thinking about the political aspects of labor. Once again, people participate in labor politics, which has its own internal organization – some people become leaders, acquire status or honor within the domain of labor politics. This can all be done while people break out of the ideological “misrecognition” of capitalist society that Riley alludes to.

In fact, one of the most fecund lines of thought to emerge from Bourdieu’s work is that written by Doug McAdam, Neil Fligstein, Sidney Tarrow and others in the “Dynamics of Contention” tradition. In that line of thought, you don’t see collective action as incompatible with older field theories. Rather, you see contention as a normal aspect of fields. Collective action is inherent in fields; they are challenged and disrupted over time.

You might not agree with the dynamics of contention school in social movements research. Certainly, many of my co-bloggers don’t. But it is easy to see that the Bourdieusian framework gives you a lot to work with, even if some of its hypotheses don’t work out.

Riley is certainly onto something when he claims that Bourdieusian sociology allows people to have a certain cache, a political hipness. Riley explains:

“Bourdieu’s sociology, however, offers something more than a generalization of the “professorial” experience. It also offers an identity, one with certain parallels to what Lenin called the “professional revolutionary.” Bourdieusian sociologists are a vanguard. They possess insights into the workings of the social world that derive from their social theory but are denied to the laity mired in the swamp of common sense and everyday understandings.”

However, take a step back and ask if Bourdieusianism is really the Leninism of modern academia. For some in the post-Cold War world, it might be. For some folks, Bourdieu provides the academic with a sense that they have figured it all out, that they have the secret code. If it’s a revolutionary impulse, it’s an incredibly muted one that lacks anything but a vague left politics.

But if you span the wide range of academia that uses Bourdieu, the education schools, the business schools, the sociologists, the ethnic studies scholars, and even the music scholars, you simply get the view that Bourdieu has tapped into something simple. We actually do live in circumscribed worlds that have rules and resources, and we need a language to describe it. Bourdieu doesn’t have the last word, but he’s part of the conversation.

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Written by fabiorojas

October 3, 2017 at 4:01 am

4 Responses

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  1. I thought his claim that “the culture of the US capitalist class has tended to be dismissive of formal university training compared to practical industrial experience” was pretty strange and frankly groundless. He apparently has no idea about the research of Lauren Rivera or the work of economists showing that both education and work experience are important predictors of earnings. For Chrissake, even Peter Thiele’s own company requires workers have college degrees, despite his shtick about college students becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg by dropping out of college.

    That said, I do enjoy a good Bourdieu thrashing which Riley provided in spades.


    Josh Klugman

    October 3, 2017 at 5:04 am

  2. “As I argued in the introduction to this article, there are three reasons for Bourdieu’s popularity among elite academics in the advanced capitalist countries, especially in the United States. First, his sociology resonates with the lived experience of academics; second, it offers an ersatz political identity to left-oriented academics; third, it offers a powerful defense of academic privilege and autonomy for professionally minded scholars.”

    [Umm, fourth: it has proved useful in describing / understanding a range of phenomenon related to the intersection of culture and class even if we don’t have everything worked out and even if both of those immense categories are fuzzy and hard to pin down conceptually / empirically.]

    “To account for Bourdieu’s ascendancy, one must look therefore to the “logic of practice” rather than the “logic of theory.””

    [I don’t know why people don’t just say what they mean. I think Riley means that Bourdieu is attractive because his theories do things for us as professionals (his three benefits listed above). Ok, maybe there’s some of that going on. But doesn’t it seem much simpler to argue that people have found Bourdieu’s framework useful in describing the world? Here I would like to point out that Riley doesn’t cite or talk about much empirical work that has benefited from Bourdieu’s insights.

    Riley sets up the claim that for something to be influential it must accomplish the things that grand, or macrosociological theories accomplished. Then he (convincingly, I think) shows that Bourdieu does not deliver on his grand ambitions (to explain social stratification, reproduction, and change). But a lot of ideas / frameworks become popular without being “macrosociological.” The study of social networks has exploded in the last few decades and how many coherent, grand theories have arisen from that body of work?

    Bourdieu popularized the simple insight that symbolic distinction is an important part of class stratification systems. People have noticed this playing out in the real world, thus, they cite Bourdieu. Doesn’t that seem a more compelling explanation than the tortured identity stuff that Riley introduces? Sorry, I should be more of a theorist – perhaps we should consider the “logic of observation” instead of the “logic of practice.”]

    Other stuff I found weird:

    “They possess insights into the workings of the social world that derive from their social theory but are denied to the laity mired in the swamp of common sense and everyday understandings.”

    [Like virtually every social theory. Bourdieu isn’t Marxism, sure, but I don’t think this is compelling evidence for the “logic of practice” conclusions that Riley draws.]

    “Bourdieu’s sociology, in short, promises a kind of self-transformation. Correctly approached, it is a way of becoming a sociologist rather than an explanatory framework for understanding the social world.”

    [There are plenty of other sociological theories / ideological commitments that perform this same function. The devotion to inequality, appreciating intersectionality, etc. Socialization into sociology, or any other discipline, involves such self-transformation. The question remains, then, why Bourdieu in relation to other contenders?

    I realize my “useful” argument borders on functionalist logic, but I can only speak from my own experience. Bourdieu was not a part of my project initially, but as I read through my data I realized there were all sorts of symbolic distinction things going on between people of different “classes.” I draw on other cultural theorists as well, but it seemed ridiculous to not acknowledge Bourdieu’s contributions to thinking on these issues.]



    October 3, 2017 at 3:45 pm

  3. What Riley doesn’t seem to consider seriously is the possibility that the Bourdieu became popular because, unlike Catalyst magazine or its forefather Jacobin, he offered a non-reductionist (i.e. sophisticated as opposed to crude) account of culture and class.



    October 4, 2017 at 12:04 am

  4. Just a point of clarification re: the above point: Catalyst is the project of a sociologist (Vivek Chibber) and a historian (Robert Brenner) and was conceived completely independently from Jacobin. The association with Jacobin is for publishing/promotion but has nothing to do with its editorial process. If anything, the Catalyst people are closer to the New Left Review.

    Also, I’d be curious to hear what pieces that Catalyst has published could be construed as reductionist.


    Karl Bigglesby

    October 7, 2017 at 10:51 pm

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