Practice theory is generally recognized as a way to account for social life through the synthesis of societal structures and a person’s individual dispositions. Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) is perhaps the most famous social theorist associated with this method of apprehending social life—a method that in the early 1990s he termed genetic structuralism. Until his death in 2002, Bourdieu held the chair of sociology at the Collège de France and directed the Centre de Sociologie Européenne.
In Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), Bourdieu argued that in their attempt to account for social practice, sociologists and ethnographers must not only leave the objectivist grand theories of history and society behind, they must also abandon the unmediated subjectivism of phenomenology and existentialism. For Bourdieu, neither set of theoretical apparatuses could satisfactorily account for the social practice of everyday life. By reconstructing the dialectic between structure and agency, he hoped to reconcile the levels of abstract structures with the actions, feelings, and mental states of individual persons. It is critical to appreciate that while Bourdieu’s work is situated in the ethnographic present, it works simultaneously in the world of politics and semantics of institutions, social structures, and social movements.
While Bourdieu vigorously critiqued earlier attempts to theorize social life, he also took seminal aspects of his own argument from European social theorists such as Max Weber (1864–1920), Karl Marx (1818–1883), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), Georges Canguilhem (1904–1995), and Georges Bataille (1897–1962). In particular, his use of the concepts of domination, social class, and power reflects earlier economic and sociological theories, particularly those of Marx. In his use of personal dispositions and dynamic personal agency, Bourdieu’s work reflects his rejection of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, which in the late 1950s and 1960s had argued that there were specific rules that governed kinship and symbolic structures in traditional society.
Instead, Bourdieu argued for an active synthesis of theory and method as tools to investigate the interactions between larger, objective structures of society and the individual. The thread that connects activism with his method is his understanding of society as a struggle of symbolic and material forces, in which the “truth” about reality is constructed both from interpretation and from structural necessity imposed by a dominant symbolic structure, which treats its particular version of reality as natural.
In order to achieve adequate analysis, he proposed a set of concepts, defined in such a way that they can be used in any ethnographic situation for the study of everyday life; in fact, it is the empirical work that actualizes this program. Bourdieu also argued that these concepts not only constitute his method of investigating social practice, they imply a theory of social structure as well. Bourdieu’s basic outline for a theory of practice involves three major conceptual categories—habitus, field, and capital —as well as concepts of struggle and strategy, which evoke intentionality on the part of individuals, families, and social groups as they seek to manipulate their position in various social fields.
In brief, habitus refers to durable dispositions, to a sense of one’s place in the social world, and it embodies our understanding of the logic of society and the place we have in it. In broader terms, it refers to social structures that operate on the person, as well as a system of models of perception and appreciation that results from our learning in the world and from our acting in the world.
Bourdieu’s concept of field is one that reflects the space of social interaction, conflict, and competition. Fields are defined by a system of objective relations of power that lie between positions in the field. For Bourdieu, society is a system of fields that are relatively autonomous, but that nonetheless exist in relationship to one another and that collectively exist within a larger social space (defined as the overall conception of the social world). Each field is dynamic and has its own logic and its own structure and forces, which are organized around specific capitals over which individuals and groups struggle as they attempt to maintain or change their position in a field.
In using the concept of capital, Bourdieu rejects the purely economistic meaning of the word, and adds to it the notions of symbolic and cultural capital as ways through which class positions and power are manifested. Broadly defined, capital is a socially valued good. Symbolic capital is the most critical form of capital; Bourdieu argues that not only are precapitalist and capitalist societies organized around symbolic capital, but that capital also structures our everyday lives through the use of judgments about taste, social hierarchy, and methods of discernment. Symbolic capital is also closely connected to class privilege, and the domination of masculine ideology, which is itself related to his use of symbolic violence.
Bourdieu’s work has influenced the fields of sociology, philosophy, education, and social anthropology. In particular, his work has been central in what has been called the reproduction debate, in which scholars investigate the reproduction of social hierarchy and the cultural production of forms of resistance, social identity, and ethnicity. In addition, his has been a voice in the debate on practices of authorship, reflexivity, and objectivity. Perhaps most importantly, Bourdieu has been a political voice that spoke for the dispossessed, the unheard, and those who suffered through the institutions of racism and sexism.
SEE ALSO Bourdieu, Pierre; Habits; Habitus; Marx, Karl; Marxism
Bourdieu, Pierre.  1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Symbolic Power. Critique of Anthropology 13/14: 77–85.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1985. From Rules to Strategies. Cultural Anthropology 1 (1): 110–120.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Alain Accardo. 1999. The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Trans. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc J. D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Cheleen Ann-Catherine Mahar