Sunday 22 June 2008

A Day With Bourdieu

Alas, only metaphorically seeing as this titan of the French intelligentsia passed from the scene six years ago. But Pierre Bourdieu's ideas live on and this was the topic of yesterday's Reproductions day school at Warwick University. After the customary tea and biscuits the proceedings began.

The first session by Michael Grenfell, titled 'Social Class? Bourdieu and the Practical Epistemology of Social Classification' was an overview and recap of Bourdieu's work for those of us whose brains had gotten a bit stiff. Among other things, he suggested there were three key moments in Bourdieu's approach empirical work. The first concerns the construction of the research object. This means anything the sociologist approaches as an object of study is not innocent. To illustrate, social space is composed of an overlapping and shifting number of fields. Each of these fields operate as if they are an economy, with their own methods of regulation, stakes to fight over, capital to accumulate and strategies that can be deployed in struggle. There are any number of agents active within these fields who occupy certain positions and trajectories and have an interest in struggling for the possession of the capital specific to it. The more capital one has, the greater the potential for reconfiguring the field around their interests. All social phenomena have a position in one or multiple fields and are constituted by their relations to other objects within the field and the overarching dynamics of struggle. Therefore starting point for sociological research is to conceptually locate the object in relation to everything else and not commit the fallacy of treating it as stand alone phenomena.

The second methodological instance consists of three distinct levels. Even though social space is configured through interrelated fields, it is worth bearing in mind that contemporary social formations are organised hierarchically - and this applies to fields too. The wider social field constitutes/is constituted by the economic and political fields, but it is also dominated by them. Even though each field has a certain autonomy and a specificity that cannot be wholly understood with reference to external determinations, who "decides" what is and isn't legitimate tend to be those who are rich in the capital of the dominant fields. The closer a field is to this field of power, the more apparent this domination is, and the more value the cultural capital specific to it has vis other fields. For example, among academic disciplines Economics enjoys close links to the business world, attracts more research monies, influences key decision making and so on by virtue of its position. The same cannot be said of Cultural Studies. Hence sociological research involves analysing this field of power, the relations between the agents competing in the field and the 'habitus' of agents, a "practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play." (Practical Reason 1998, p.25).

Thirdly and crucially is the element of Bourdieu's work Grenfell felt was often overlooked by sociologists - the process of 'self-objectivation'. What this means is turning the sociological gaze back upon ourselves. It follows that if all social phenomena are bound up in the structures and struggles outlined above, so are we. There's no Mount Olympus from which sociologists can observe the social space below, we are as much part of the fields we study as anyone else. Bourdieu is not for a 'sociology of the sociologists' because it's a jolly excuse for academics to churn out more papers no one is likely to read: it is the condition of scientific sociological knowledge. By looking at our own trajectories, positions and interests in academic and other fields we control for the distortions and biases that are the inevitable outcome of a sociology operating in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This can only strengthen the claims our research makes (something, incidentally, that concerns about half of my thesis).

Then came the first of the day's workshops. The first was Raffaella Bianchi whose paper was on musical culture and class in Risorgimento Milan. She looked at how opera was assimilated into the class practices of the nascent Milanese bourgeoisie, of how private boxes at La Scala became a key site for the constitution of common political interests and a new nationalist hegemony to counter the Austrian and Papal domination of Italy. The second was from Will Atkinson who was using Bourdieu to understand class reproduction in a self-stylised individualist age. As education is one of the primary fields where we all begin acquiring the cultural capital that allows us to get on, he was interested to see if class remained a key factor in its accumulation and therefore individual life chances.

After lunch Andreas Bieler gave a talk on European integration and 'Neo-Gramscianism' - but I'll leave that one for a post of its own. So it's to the afternoon workshops. Saleem Izdani Khan gave a presentation on sectarianism and class in Pakistan. This was basically an account of the shifting composition of the Pakistani ruling class and the project of constructing a secular Muslim state in the aftermath of Partition. He also looked at the position of the army and the contradictions arising from Pakistan's backwardness (i.e. feudal basis of much of the ruling class, low rate of urbanisation, regional rivalries, geopolitical positioning, etc.). Considering no one knew anything about Pakistan apart from Saleem, the question and answer session was very thorough.

The final event saw Lisa Adkins give a talk called 'Mobility in a Time of Futurity' which was a complex encounter between Marx and Bourdieu, and one where Bourdieu didn't come off lightly. Adkins critiqued him for ignoring how exploitation and surplus extraction are also fundamental constituents of the social order. He disregards the Marxist understanding of capital as representatives of congealed abstract labour time and deploys capital merely as effort recognised by others in a field. The problem with this, I would suggest, is by treating capital in this meritocratic manner Bourdieu can only really describe the reproduction of the uneven distribution of capitals, but not explain it. For that you need Marx. Adkins went on to look at the composition of abstract labour in contemporary capitalism and argued there were new modes of capital accumulation starting to emerge. With reference to her work on freelance web designers, she described how they made their money. Basically they build websites and charge according to the number of potential hits it would likely generate. In classical terms, the designer is not exploiting their labour power as would a self-employed small business owner, instead earnings are entirely future-oriented, based on time that does not yet exist. I wasn't entirely sure about this myself.

Overall it was an excellent day. All the sessions were high quality and gave pause for thought. And it was good to see plenty of Marxist and Marxisant postgrads in attendance. If this is in anyway representative, it looks like the increasing take up of Bourdieu is paving the way for a sociological comeback of Marx. Afterall, it is impossible to talk about Bourdieu and not have the old beard crop up sooner or later. 


steven rix said...

I miss all these guys: Foucault, Derrida, Bataille, Lacan, Bourdieu, Sartre, Camus, oh man the list is exhaustive :)
I've seen you also wrote about Zizek. I know this guy and he makes me laugh when he says "We, leftists should ... blah blah". Zizek is more specialized in the oeuvre of Lacan if I have a good memory (psycho-analysis).

Here is a good friend of mine, that I know personally:

Read his article, it's great.

He's a french philosopher, he's now 87 y/o I believe.

Here is his website:

Gotta pick up da wife, I'll come back later. On Wed. nite I go back to work, so I won't be that much online, but I'll still stop by on yar blog.

Phil said...

No need to miss them, Politiques. They're still fashionable, with the exception of Sartre of course. Why does no one give a monkey's about poor old Jean-Paul anymore? Is it because of his adherence to Marxism? Or his criminally unhip Hegelianism?

Anonymous said...

"Is it because of his adherence to Marxism? "

I think you mean 'Stalinism'. That sort of thing puts a lot of people off, it's true.

The trouble with all this fun stuff about Bourdieu and pals is that the word 'science' gets bandies about. But in what way is what Bourdieu does or did 'science'. How can his theories be put to the test through experiment? Without that, it is so much hot air, isn't it? Easily refuted by simply saying 'no'.

Phil said...

You're working with a very naturalistic definition of science, John. That of course is fine for the physical sciences but not for the social sciences. Where sociological explanation is concerned, concepts and models ultimately rest on the empirical study of social phenomena. The scientific validity of these concepts and models depend on how closely they approximate the phenomena observed, on their ability to describe and explain the operations and outcomes of social relations.

For those of us who use social theory as a guide to action (Marxists, feminists, greens, anarchists etc.) the ultimate criterion of validity is practice. I would write more, but I have to dash out!

steven rix said...

Why does no one give a monkey's about poor old Jean-Paul anymore?
I do. JPS is more of an existentialist theorician among Camus, but he had a great impact I'd say against the words of Heidegger and national's selfishdom. He has been forgotten for his marxist views.
Visit my friend's blog (De Dieguez as mentionned above), he was the friend of Jean-Paul Sartre and Heidegger.

Anonymous said...

"Where sociological explanation is concerned, concepts and models ultimately rest on the empirical study of social phenomena. "

You are right of course, but thinkers like Bourdieu are not helped, are they? What observed conditions or relations or actions would serve to falsify any of his theses? They are so plastic as to be beyond falsification. And there is always a simpler explanation on offer for any of the phenomena Bourdieu studies, which Occam would have us prefer. Why does economics attract so much funding? The simple explanation is that economics is right, or closer to right than other sociological explanations. Without experimental evidence to the contrary, wOccam has us prefer that reasonable explanation to complexities such as Bourdieuian field theories.

Anonymous said...

I really question if interest in Bourdieu heralds a return of Marxist influence in sociology. For the simple reason that Bourdieu was not a Marxist. His concepts of Habitus, and his take on structuration, have a strong functionalist element - as was pointed out by Ranciere and the collective of Revoltes Logiques in the 1980s. The journal he most associated with, Acts de Recherche etc was also stunningly boring. Very conventional sociology in fact.

His political past was always marked by his infantile support for the Coluche (France's largely unfunny Clown) candidature for French President in 1981. His collection, Raisons d'agir did publish some interesting stuff in the 1990s and he did stand up for strikers and left causes. But I think, and I really really hate to admit this, that Callinicos summed up rightly in more details along the lines I have just written.

Another case of anglo-saxon academics wholly misreading French intellectuals say I.


Phil said...

Well yes John, obviously social theory can be disproved, otherwise we'd be stuck with the same kind of functionalist orthodoxy that settled over the discipline in the immediate post-war period. It originally gave way because the Marxist, feminist and psychoanalytic perspectives that broke through offered more convincing explanations of social phenomena as well as attacking functionalist theorising as having the effect of offering a sophisticated apologia for the prevailing system.

And so it it with Bourdieu's work with habitus, fields and capital. If you have to do real violence to empirical material for it to fit your framework, then there's something wrong. It means either modifying the theory or disregarding it completely. Bourdieu's methodology is flexible enough to model convincing explanations about a hell of a lot of stuff. There are issues as Coatesy's pointed out but as far as I'm concerned, no materialist analysis can do without the weapons he's produced.

As for Occam's razor, well we can see straight away how applying it to social relations leads to ideological conclusions. The 'truth' of economics is not innocent. Yes, like all disciplines it has truth effects but it is bound up in a network of power relations that place it close to where those relations are concentrated. Because of the role economics play in reproducing the class relations of capitalist society, its truths are privileged over those provided by sociology.