Bourdieu, Pierre (1930–2002)

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BOURDIEU, PIERRE (1930–2002)


French sociologist.

Best known for developing a sociological framework grounded in the concepts of field, habitus, and capital, Pierre Bourdieu was among the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century. He first came to national attention in France with the publication in 1964 of Les héritiers (The inheritors; coauthored with Jean-Claude Passeron), a critique of the French higher educational system. Among his subsequent books were La distinction (1979), Homo academicus (1984), La noblesse d'état (1989; The state nobility), Les règles de l'art (1992; The rules of art), and Les structures sociales de l'économie (2000; The social structures of the economy). Translated into many languages, Bourdieu's hundreds of articles and dozens of books earned him an international audience and influence within and beyond sociology. A series of books written late in his career and aimed at a broader readership were widely read and discussed in France: La misère du monde (1993, with multiple coauthors; The misery of the world), Sur la télévision (1996; On television), and La domination masculine (1998; Masculine domination). He held the chair in sociology at the Collège de France from 1981 to the time of his death.

Born in a remote village in southwestern France to a father who served in the postal service and a homemaker mother, Bourdieu studied in Paris at elite schools, first at Louis-le-Grand high school and then at the École Normale Supérieure, from which he graduated with a degree in philosophy, at that time the most prestigious of academic disciplines in France. Bourdieu's trajectory from provincial origins to one of the most elite high schools in France had a profound effect on his intellectual development, as did several years spent in war-torn Algeria in the late 1950s. These experiences contributed to his growing dissatisfaction with philosophy and an increasingly strong commitment to anthropological and sociological research. Influenced by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, Bourdieu conducted intensive research on social rituals and family relations in Kabylia (Algeria) that would result in his pathbreaking Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique (1972; published in English as Outline of a Theory of Practice in 1977). Nevertheless, deeply discomfited by what he characterized as the paradoxical detachment of Lévi-Straussian anthropology from the social world, Bourdieu turned decisively in the early 1960s to sociology, a discipline that afforded him the freedom to explore, in great empirical detail, the issues of power and inequality that were to become the dominant themes of his life's work. This decision, in turn, would have a major impact on French sociology. When Bourdieu began teaching at the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1964 (later the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), sociology was among the least prestigious of academic disciplines. By the end of his career, through his books and articles, the work produced by his research group, and his increasingly visible public profile, Bourdieu had contributed to a dramatic shift in the place of sociology in the hierarchy of academic disciplines in France.

Bourdieu's primary contribution to sociology was his articulation of a theory of social life aimed at overcoming a number of persistent dualisms that dominated sociological theory and research: between subject and object, between structure and agency, and between the micro and macro levels of analysis. Drawing on (but also criticizing) Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, Lévi-Strauss, and Erving Goffman, Bourdieu developed a sociological research program centered on the concepts of field, habitus, and capital, which he insisted could not be understood in isolation from one another. The concept of field was elaborated to describe and explain the macro-level social contexts in which social actors find themselves. Bourdieu's framework assumes that any given society is composed of multiple, historically specific fields of varying scope or scale; examples of fields Bourdieu himself analyzed in his empirical work include the French literary field in the nineteenth century and the field of French higher education in the 1960s. According to Bourdieu, each individual social actor at any given time is engaged in one or more different fields; one's behavior within a given field is, in large part, the product of one's past experiences in various social fields, particularly those experienced early in life. Through these experiences, Bourdieu argued, social actors acquire particular dispositions, habits, and patterns of thought that guide, but do not determine, one's relation to and behavior in the social fields encountered later in life. These dispositions, habits, and patterns of thought are, in turn, captured in Bourdieu's framework by the concept of the habitus. The concept of capital, for its part, allows the specific structures of fields and the relative positions of power of given actors in these fields to be mapped out. Bourdieu extended the concept of capital beyond its more common economic sense to include all the resources—for example, cultural, educational, linguistic, literary, political—that social actors draw on, whether consciously or otherwise, in their daily lives. The unequal distribution of these resources and the consequences of this inequality for different social groups was an abiding theme in Bourdieu's work.

In the 1990s this interest in social inequality led him to speak and write with increasing public visibility about what he considered the most pressing political issues of the day. In 1995 he spoke on behalf of striking railroad workers at the Gare de Lyon in Paris; in 1996 he launched a new book series, Raisons d'agir (Reasons to take action), in which he and others published strong critiques of neoliberalism and globalization. Bourdieu was criticized in France for his political activities by a number of scholars and journalists who saw a tension between objective scholarship and political engagement, yet he continued to insist until his death that what he termed "scholarship with commitment" was both possible and necessary.

See alsoGlobalization; Lévi-Strauss, Claude; Neoliberalism.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, U.K., 1977.

——. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. London, 1986.

——. Homo Academicus. Translated by Peter Collier. Stanford, Calif., 1988.

——. The Rules of Art. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Stanford, Calif., 1996.

——. The State Nobility: Elite Schools in the Field of Power. Translated by Lauretta C. Clough. Stanford, Calif., 1996.

——. On Television and Journalism. Translated by Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. London, 1998.

——. Masculine Domination. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford, Calif., 2001.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relation to Culture. Translated by Richard Nice. Chicago, 1979.

Victoria Johnson

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Bourdieu, Pierre (1930–2002)

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