Top of the Class

Geoffrey Hawthorn

No theorist of what only a theorist would dare to call ‘modern society’ commands more attention in the anglophone world; no one is closer to the centre of the local ‘field of power’, as he would describe it, that is Parisian intellectual life. Pierre Bourdieu’s first book, his 1958 ethnography of the Kabyle of Algeria, was, it’s true, social anthropology done in the British manner: it talked of the social functions of ‘solidarity’. But even as he finished it, Bourdieu was being drawn to the very different theory of ‘practical ensembles’ that Sartre was directing against the orthodox Marxism-Leninism of the French Communist Party. His essays on Algeria in the early Sixties talked of a ‘solidarity’ fashioned in more adversarial circumstances. At the same time, Louis Althusser was trying to revive the Party’s materialism with his notion of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ that did capitalism’s work with powers that were distinctively their own. Bourdieu was drawn by this, too. In 1972, he recast his thoughts on the Kabyle in a discernibly Althusserian Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Five years later, in a revised English edition of that book, he settled on the view of what shapes social practices that has since guided his writings on class, education, post-Romantic art and the theory and practice of sociology itself.

The idea, notwithstanding Loïc Wacquant’s ponderous Preface to this translation of The State Nobility, is simple. People pursue power by accumulating ‘capital’ in the ‘fields’ of economy and culture. (‘Culture’, the translator explains in her useful Glossary, should be taken to include ‘culture, Culture, education, upbringing, knowledge, learning, and all of the above’.) The two fields are sometimes in harmony, sometimes not. But even when they are, they are distinguished by the different styles, semantic, syntactic, sartorial, sexual, more generally semiotic, in which those who inhabit them behave, styles which both define and are defined by the relations between the fields. People at once ‘possess’ the appropriate practices and are possessed by them. Possession ‘truly happens when the categories of perception and action that [a person] puts into practice in the individual acts through which the “will” and the power of the institution are accomplished ... are in direct conformity with the objective structures of the organisation because they are the product of the embodiment of these structures.’ Institutions consist of the practices of their members, but are pre-formed by the imperatives of power and themselves ‘constitute’ the ‘objects’ who, as human subjects, enact the practices which ensure that the institutions will continue. ‘Habitus’, as Bourdieu has come to call the way which this or that kind or person behaves, institutionally speaking, is ‘at the basis of strategies of reproduction that tend to maintain separations, distances, and relations of order(ing), hence concurring in practice (although not consciously or deliberately) in reproducing the entire system of differences constitutive of the social order’. Other social theorists persist in asking how much of the social world we can make, how much we have to take. That, Wacquant tells us, is pointlessly scholastic. Bourdieu’s achievement is to have shown that what we believe to be our acts of ‘will’ are determined by real divisions that our acts serve in turn to sustain. ‘Tout se passe,’ he has often said, ‘comme si.’ It always has and, as he has repeatedly insisted (even to striking students in Paris in 1968), it always will.

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