Pierre Bourdieu

In sociology, we often come across terms that are new to us in theory, but which help us articulate phenomena we are actually familiar with. The concepts of cultural, social, and symbolic capital do just this - putting names to systems that we know operate in society, but which we may not have properly identified before. 

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Table of contents

    We will study the work of Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist behind these ideas and many others.

    • First, we will go over the life and significance of Bourdieu in sociology.
    • We will briefly look at some of his famous studies, before moving on to his contributions to sociological theory.
    • Lastly, we will examine Bourdieu's concepts of social class and capital, habitus, fields, and symbolic violence.

    Pierre Bourdieu's significance in sociology

    Pierre Bourdieu, black and white portrait of Pierre Bourdieu, StudySmarterBourdieu's work is deeply influential within sociology.

    Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist and public intellectual, which means that he was recognised for his contributions to public/current affairs as well as more traditional academic endeavours.

    Bourdieu was a key thinker whose concepts helped shape general sociological theory, the sociology of education, and the sociology of taste, class, and culture. His work has also been imperative in other fields such as education, media and cultural studies, anthropology and the arts.

    The life of Pierre Bourdieu

    Born to a working-class family in Denguin, France; Bourdieu went to public secondary schools before going on to study philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, along with noted Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. He worked as a teacher for a year, before being drafted into the French Army in 1955 and serving in Algeria. This sparked an interest in Algerian affairs, as well as in anthropology and empirical sociology.

    Bourdieu worked as a lecturer and researcher in Algiers after his military service, and went on hold academic positions at various universities and institutions in France. He became Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, and founded the Center for European Sociology as well as the interdisciplinary journal Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales.

    He earned many accolades for his academic work throughout his life, and he was also outspoken and involved with social issues such as capitalism and immigration.

    Pierre Bourdieu's famous studies

    Now that we have familiarised ourselves with Bourdieu's life and legacy, let's look at some of his most notable works:

    1. The School as a Conservative Force (1966)
    2. Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977)
    3. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (1977)
    4. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984)
    5. "Forms of Capital" (1986)
    6. Language and Symbolic Power (1991)

    Pierre Bourdieu's theories in sociology

    Bourdieu has made important contributions to sociology, with his concepts forming the basis of many analyses and further theorising. Some of the most prominent of these are his ideas of:

    • Capital

    • Habitus

    • Fields

    • Symbolic violence

    Let's now study these in more detail.

    Pierre Bourdieu: social class and capital

    In economics, "capital" refers to financial assets, goods, and property. However, in sociology, we recognise that an individual can have different forms of capital in society.

    Influenced by the ideas of Marx, Bourdieu expanded the idea of "class" to cover the realm of culture and socialisation as well as finances, creating the concepts of cultural and social capital.

    Cultural capital refers to the knowledge, skills, values, tastes, and behaviours that are considered "desirable" and/or necessary to succeed in life, e.g. having a university degree or "highbrow" interests like classical music and arthouse film.

    Social capital refers to the social networks and contacts that can create opportunities for advancement and success, e.g. being personally acquainted with someone in a company who can recommend you for a job or internship.

    Bourdieu believed that having similar tastes, behaviours, qualifications, etc. defines one's position in society and creates a sense of shared identity like social class does. However, he also argued that cultural and social capital are key sources of inequality among classes. This is because the middle class has higher access to cultural and social capital than the working class and is dominant in society.

    Bourdieu applied this to education, pointing out how schools and academies operate on middle-class cultural norms and in their interests. This meant that middle-class students are more likely to academically succeed, retaining their societal advantages, while working-class students are prevented from moving up the ladder.

    When considering cultural capital specifically, Bourdieu added that it has three characteristics. It can be:

    1. embodied,

    2. objectified,

    3. and institutionalised.

    Embodied cultural capital can refer to a "posh" accent; objectified cultural capital can include a designer outfit, and the institutionalised form of cultural capital can mean a degree from an Ivy League or Russell Group university.

    Pierre Bourdieu: habitus

    Bourdieu coined the term "habitus" to refer to the embodied aspect of cultural capital - particularly the habits, skills, and dispositions an individual accumulates over their life.

    Put simply, a person's habitus is how they would react to a given situation based on how they have reacted to things previously. In the right circumstances, our habitus can help us navigate different environments.

    Consider a person who grew up impoverished in a "rough" neighbourhood. If they get a low-paying job and continue to live in an unstable neighbourhood, their life experiences, skills, and habits would enable them to survive this difficult situation.

    However, if they find well-paid employment and move to a more secure environment, their current habitus may not be of use to them, and may even prevent them from thriving in their new scenario.

    According to Bourdieu, habitus also includes our tastes and preferences for cultural objects such as food, art, and clothing, which are shaped by our social status. In his work Distinction (1984), he suggests that taste is culturally inherited and not innate. An upper-class individual appreciates "high art" because they are accustomed to it from a young age, while a working-class individual may not have developed the same habitus.

    Assigning taste to natural preference and not learned habitus helps to justify social inequality, Bourdieu argued, because it assumes that some people are naturally more likely to be "cultured" while others are not.

    Pierre Bourdieu, person looking at classic paintings in art gallery, StudySmarterAppreciation of cultural objects such as "high art" is learned, according to Bourdieu.

    Pierre Bourdieu: society and fields

    Bourdieu believed that society was divided into several sections called "fields", each with its own rules, norms, and forms of capital. The worlds of law, education, religion, art, sports, etc. are all different fields with separate ways of functioning. Sometimes these fields merge; for example, art and education merge in specialised art colleges. However, Bourdieu argued that these fields are still quite autonomous and should remain so.

    He also noted that fields have different hierarchies and power struggles in which people try to get ahead. No matter the nature of the field, people within it compete to increase their forms of capital.

    In the art world, Bourdieu pointed out that each new generation of artists attempts to make a name for themselves by subverting previous generations of artists, and then eventually face the same fate themselves.

    Pierre Bourdieu: symbolic violence

    The fourth type of capital Bourdieu conceptualised, alongside economic, social, and cultural capital, is symbolic capital.

    Symbolic capital arises from an individual's social position. It includes the resources that come with prestige, honour, reputation, and so on.

    Bourdieu argued that symbolic capital is a crucial source of power in society. It can be accumulated through carrying out social obligations that come with much respect and honour - such as fighting in a war - and can be used to one's advantage. When an individual with high levels of symbolic capital uses it against someone who has less, they are committing "symbolic violence."

    When working-class habitus (accents, clothing styles, hobbies) are degraded by schools and workplaces, symbolic violence is exercised against the working class.

    Symbolic violence can be even more potent than physical violence in some ways. This is because it imposes the will of the powerful on the powerless, and reinforces the social order and what is "acceptable" in society.

    Pierre Bourdieu - Key takeaways

    • Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist and public intellectual whose concepts helped shape general sociological theory, the sociology of education, and the sociology of taste, class and culture.
    • Bourdieu expanded the idea of "class" to cover the realm of culture and socialisation as well as finances, creating the concepts of cultural and social capital.
    • Bourdieu coined the term "habitus" to refer to the embodied aspect of cultural capital - particularly the habits, skills, and dispositions an individual accumulates over their life.
    • Bourdieu believed that society was divided into several sections called "fields", each with its own rules, norms, and forms of capital.

    • The fourth type of capital Bourdieu conceptualised is symbolic capital. When an individual with high levels of symbolic capital uses it against someone who has less, they are committing "symbolic violence."

    Pierre Bourdieu Pierre Bourdieu
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Pierre Bourdieu

    What are Pierre Bourdieu's three forms of capital? 

    Pierre Bourdieu's three forms of capital are social, cultural, economic, (and symbolic) capital.

    What is habitus according to Pierre Bourdieu? 

    Bourdieu coined the term "habitus" to refer to the embodied aspect of cultural capital - particularly the habits, skills, and dispositions an individual accumulates over their life. 

    Is Pierre Bourdieu a Marxist?

    Pierre Bourdieu was heavily influenced by Marx and Marxist ideas, building on them in his own theories.

    What does Pierre Bourdieu mean by distinction? 

    In his work Distinction (1984), Bourdieu suggests that taste is culturally inherited and not innate. 

    What is Pierre Bourdieu's theory of social reproduction? 

    Social reproduction is when social structures and relations, such as capitalism, are reproduced and maintained. According to Bourdieu, this is done through passing on cultural, social, economic, and symbolic capital.

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