Jon Elster

  • La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement by Pierre Bourdieu
    Editions de Minuit, 670 pp, £9.05, August 1979, ISBN 2 7073 0275 9

In his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France – in the very chair occupied today by Pierre Bourdieu – Raymond Aron coined the word ‘sociodicy’: an apt term for the apologetic tendency of much contemporary social science, a tendency which has a long ancestry, going back to the theodicies of the 17th century. Within the theological tradition two ways of justifying evil emerged: pain and sin, which could be seen either as indispensable conditions for the good of the universe as a whole, or as inevitable by-products of an optimal package solution. The first was that of Leibniz, who suggested that monsters, for instance, had the function of helping us to see the beauty of the normal. The second was that of Malebranche, who poured scorn on the idea that God created monstrous birth defects ‘pour le bénéfice des sages-femmes’, and argued that accidents and mishaps should be understood as the cost God had to pay for the choice of simple and general laws of nature. In both cases, the argument was, of course, intended to explain that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds.

There is no logical reason why the best of all possible worlds should contain the best of all possible societies. Perhaps the miseries of human society are to be explained by the edifying function they have for the inhabitants of other worlds or the celestial spheres. Yet Leibniz in his sociological writings consistently applied the logic of theodicy to history and society: he justified luxury, for instance, as a regrettable but unavoidable side-effect of prosperity. It was left to Bernard Mandeville – the founder of the modern sociodicy – to argue more boldly that luxury, by creating employment, was actually a means to prosperity. The theme struck by The Fable of the Bees has been pursued for more than two centuries, by Adam Smith, Malinowski, Merton and many others. To cite just two examples: income inequalities are justified by their positive effect on savings, investment, average income and ultimately on minimal income; political apathy is seen as a functional prerequisite for modern democratic systems which would risk overload and breakdown if participation became widespread. Seen in isolation, poverty and political alienation may appear undesirable, but in the wider perspective one can argue that even the worst-off would be made worse-off by attempts to improve their situation.

Sociodicy as a legitimating device has been closely wedded to functionalism as an explanatory framework. Once it has been pointed out that certain deplorable phenomena have good net consequences, it is only a short step to the argument that the latter also explain the causes that produce them. Logically speaking, this argument has no validity unless one can also document the causal link from the effect to the maintenance of the cause, but few authors take the trouble to do this. There has been, and still is, an incredible sloppiness in much sociological work, which tacitly assumes that a social institution or a behavioural pattern is explained once its ‘latent functions’ have been identified.

It should not be thought, however, that this sloppiness is found only in bourgeois sociology defending the status quo. That functionalism can be dissociated from sociodicy is amply proved by the various strands of Marxist or radical social science. Marx’s case is especially interesting. He played like a virtuoso on two explanatory registers: social phenomena could be accounted for in terms either of their beneficial consequences for capitalism or their favourable effects for the transition to socialism. He explained social mobility by pointing out that it was useful for the capitalist class to attract the best minds of the exploited class; and he suggested that the business cycle could be explained as a means of keeping a combative class-consciousness alive among the workers. He was, indeed, obsessed with the idea that all social phenomena have a meaning – and correspondingly blind to the notion that there could also be sound and fury in social life, unintended consequences with no function or significance whatsoever. Later radical sociologists have mainly emphasised the functionality of institutions for the maintenance and entrenchment of oppression. Crime exists because society needs a scapegoat; mental illness because of social ‘labelling’; educational institutions prepare children for the capitalist work discipline; and so on in a dreary, familiar drone. It’s a school whose slogan could be that all is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. Or it could appropriate the label on a denim jacket I once bought in San Francisco: ‘Any defect or fault in this garment is intentional and part of the design.’ The proponents of this view offer an inverted sociodicy wedded to a frictionless functionalist mode of explanation.

In France the current supports – as some of them might put it – of this mode of analysis include Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. In a number of works Foucault has set out to explain madness, crime and sexuality in the light of the Machiavellian question, Cuibono? And he has invariably found patterns which serve the interests of the oppressing classes and are to be explained by the fact that they serve these interests. Consider a characteristic passage from his work on the penitentiary system, Discipline and Punish:

   But perhaps one should reverse the problem and ask oneself what is served by the failure of the prison; what is the use of these different phenomena that are continually being criticised; the maintenance of delinquency, the encouragement of recidivism, the transformation of the occasional offender into a habitual delinquent, the organisation of a closed milieu of delinquency. Perhaps one should look for what is hidden beneath the apparent cynicism of the penal institution, which, after purging the convicts by means of their sentence, continues to follow them by a whole series of ‘brandings’ (a surveillance that was once de jure and which is today de facto; the police record that has taken the place of the convict’s passport) and which thus pursues as a ‘delinquent’ someone who has acquitted himself of his punishment as an offender? Can we not see here a consequence rather than a contradiction? If so, one would be forced to suppose that the prison, and no doubt punishment in general, is not intended to eliminate offences, but rather to distinguish them, to distribute them, to use them; that it is not so much that they render docile those who are liable to transgress the law, but that they tend to assimilate the transgression of the laws in a general tactics of subjection. Penality would then appear to be a way of handling illegalities, of laying down the limits of tolerance, of giving free rein to some, of putting pressure on others, of excluding a particular section, of making another useful, of neutralising certain individuals and of profiting from others.

Observe the use of predicates which have only objects, never subjects. Althusser remarks of Hegel that he had the merit of seeing history as a process without a subject, but one may doubt whether this was really an advance when he also retained the idea that history was directed by a goal. A goal without a subject for whom it is a goal is an incoherent notion. I am reminded of Leibniz’s curt comment on the Neo-Confucianist philosophy: ‘je doute fort qu’ils aient la vaine subtilité d’admettre une sagesse sans admettre un sage.’ Similarly there is much vain subtlety in Foucault’s conception of a diabolical plan to which there corresponds no devilish planner.

Pierre Bourdieu has been engaged with a similar argument for a number of years, and in La Distinction it reaches its culmination. His earlier works, Les Héritiers and La Reproduction (both written with J.-C. Passeron), were influential during May ’68 and its aftermath, no doubt because they conveyed this image of a society systematically organised for the reproduction of inequality, even – or especially – through the institutions nominally designed to counteract it. In particular, Bourdieu argued that French academic institutions strongly reinforced traditional inequalities, notably by using an inaccessible and convoluted language. This critique of the mandarin language, however, was couched in a language no less esoteric. As will be painfully obvious to any reader of La Distinction, Bourdieu is a past-master of the opaque sentence, with nesting sub-clauses and parentheses. It could perhaps be said that by making no concessions to the reader, Bourdieu at least has not invited the easy popularity which has made much of French intellectual life into a battleground for charlatans. But I do not believe that the price needed paying; that clarity and simplicity cannot be achieved without superficiality. Moreover, it is not only the reader who gets lost in the page-long sentences: it is hard to believe that Bourdieu himself is not seriously hampered by his style. Inconsistency of thought easily goes undetected when embedded in such complexity of expression.

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