Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

Roma, Friday, January 25, 2002


The French ethnologist and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (b. 1930) who died from cancer yesterday (Wednesday) at the age of 71 must be placed in the grand French tradition of the post-World War II era dominated by such leading figures as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fernand Braudel, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Gilles Deleuze. Even though such a generation of thinkers would have been inconceivable without the labor of their German counterparts, in particular the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, the forced exile of a large part of the German Jewish intelligentsia to other parts of Europe and the United States has shifted intellectual activity, beginning with the 1940s, to France, thus giving to the latter a cultural prestige which coincided with its declining political and economic role as a world-power. It is as if that political decline, and the emergence of the United States as a superpower with a hegemonic mass-media culture, has triggered an internal critique, or a deconstructive process, among a generation of French intellectuals, all of whom must have realized that the illustrious heritage of the French Revolution and l'époque des lumières must have finally and slowly come to an end. Alternative constructions of the role of the individual and society, not to mention the public sphere, had therefore to be elaborated, a process which is still in its infancy, in particular that, post-colonialism notwithstanding, Europe and the western world are just beginning to feel the weight of those "outside" societies that have barely adapted to the long heritage of laissez-faire capitalism and democracy. Cynics who have long been suspicious of the "frivolous" nature of French intellectual life, have often noted its declining influence since the 1980s, but that's only because it could no more be contained, with the emergence of new power-relations, into the writings of leading patrimonial figures. Indeed, experimenting with "smaller" topoi has become more of a norm, in particular that the decline of the classical values of higher education and its mass appeal has pushed intellectuals and the culturati towards mini-reassessments and alternative critiques of societal values.

It could be easily argued that the grand Germanic sociological tradition of the inter-wars period, that of Werner Sombart, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, Norbert Elias, and more recently, Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas, has no equivalent in the western world. Thus, neither the French sociological tradition of Émile Durkheim and his nephew Marcel Mauss, nor the American urban Chicago school of the 1950s, and the critical sociologies of C. Wright Mills, David Riesman, Talcott Parsons, and Daniel Bell in the 1960s, achieved the same status as their Germanic counterparts. Hence the importance of those French "philosophes" who could not be contained within academic "disciplines," to the point that their writings became more celebrated as anti- than inter-disciplinary.

When France was suffering its worst colonialist nightmare in Algeria in the 1950s, at the time of De Gaulle's ascendancy to power, Pierre Bourdieu was then completing his military service. Having grown in the poor northern region of Béarn, the young Bourdieu realized that kinship relations, rituals, and land distribution, among others, all operate within a similar set of "representations" between societies as different as the Kabyles in mountainous Algeria and northern France. Such a realization pushed him towards an ethnographic reformulation of what he later labeled as "le sens pratique," meaning all schemes of objective representations destined to be "interiorized" by individuals in their daily practices, and without which no social life would be possible. Once the objective representations are interiorized, they become an ingredient of our daily habitus, and precisely due to their unconscious nature, individuals living under one scheme of representations are capable of perceiving other societal values critically, while they take their own for granted. Unlike Max Weber, Bourdieu never created a hierarchy among symbolic representations in between societies, cultures, and civilizations, which pushed his sociology, in an era of an increasing movement of globalization (or Europeanization) of western values, towards an international appeal. However, Bourdieu's resistance towards an historical evaluation of cultures and civilizations is, I think, his weakest point. Indeed, the general Weberian assessment of cultures and civilizations in terms of their economic, legal, and political historical underpinnings is absent in the writings of Bourdieu, Foucault, and Derrida, and manifests an unwillingness, for this post-colonial generation of thinkers, to look for signs of "superiority" in western civilization, while on the German side, the likes of Habermas have resisted such a complacency towards non-western societies.

With Bourdieu the "social" achieves an ontological status, and thus replaces the old philosophical notions of a transcendental reality to be grasped through the senses and reason. It is indeed the "rationality" of the "social" as such that needs to be grasped, and it was Durkheim (pace Karl Marx) who had declared, at the turn of the twentieth century, that "social relations" ought to be comprehended as "things" (les relations sociales comme des choses en soi), and thus are open to investigation for their own sake in that they engender a "collective consciousness" ( conscience collective), which acts as a "mediator" for the values of a particular society. Such a "consciousness" does exist even in capitalist societies, which subject their individuals to a harsh division of labor. Thus, in the traditions of both the French and German sociological traditions of the twentieth century, Bourdieu kept his eyes open on the cement that brings a society together, and in his view, societal representations are incorporated in each person's body as habitus. This emphasis on the body and its daily practices turned him away from what was to be labeled as "the linguistic turn," or a Foucauldian type of discursive analysis, or Habermas's notion of "communicative action," all of which, he argued, fell into the traps of the old continental philosophical traditions of language, truth, and reason.

Even though his career began de facto with his military service in Algeria and his numerous publications devoted to Algerian society in the 1950s and 1960s, he became known in France through his sociological critique of the educational system. Thus, it was Les Héritiers ("The Inheritors," 1964) that pushed him to be acknowledged as France's most promising young sociologist. The French educational system was perceived, through the lens of Bourdieu's critical analysis, as one that reproduces all social differences, and the latter are symbolically reproduced at every stage of the process, from the family, the school, up to higher education and the firm. Thus, higher education, for example, reproduces the homo academicus, that academic animal who takes him(her)self seriously enough through his/her intellectual activities, lectures, ranks, and tenured appointments, while ignoring the societal privileges that make such a leisured life possible.

In the 1990s Bourdieu's thought has shifted towards the overtly political, thus strongly criticizing what has become since then, and after the failure of communism, as the one and only economic reality --that of laissez-faire capitalism. In that he joins a long tradition of leftist European intellectuals, a tradition much less known in the United States, in condemning what is commonly perceived as the "virtues" of a purely liberal society, one in which "the public sphere" has been increasingly eaten by the successes of capital and its ego-centric and narcissistic individuals.





1958 : Sociologie de l'Algérie
1963 : Travail et travailleurs en Algérie
1964 : Le Déracinement and Les Héritiers
1966 : L'Amour de l'art
1968 : Le Métier de sociologue

1972 : Théorie de la pratique
1979 : La Distinction
1982 : Ce que parler veut dire
1984 : Homo Academicus
1988 : L'Ontologie politique de Martin Heidegger
1989 : La Noblesse d'État
1993 : La Misère du monde
1997 : Méditations pascaliennes
1998 : Contre-feux (Raison d'agir éditions) and La Domination masculine
2000 : Les Structures sociales de l'économie