Pierre Bourdieu in Context1

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Pierre Bourdieu in Context1

Craig Calhoun2

Placing Pierre Bourdieu has proved difficult for many readers. Anthropologist, sociologist, or philosopher? Action theorist or structuralist? Materialist or culturalist? Determinist or committed to political struggle? Seeking throughout his life to overcome problematic oppositions, Bourdieu also embodied them. Difficult to read, he reached a broad audience far beyond academic walls. Intensely competitive and even combative, he inspired personal loyalty and argued for solidarity. A critic of the higher education system, he was among its most successful products. An opponent of the grands mandarins who dominated French intellectual life, he became one of them. A very private man as well as a critic of the media, he became a remarkably prominent celebrity.

The fame came especially in the last years of his life, and to some extent has distorted reception of his career and oeuvre as a whole. In the 1990s, Bourdieu became France’s most famous campaigner against the imposition of a neoliberal model of globalization. Pierre Carles’ documentary movie on his political work, Sociology Is a Martial Art, was a surprise commercial success in 2000-2001—portraying Bourdieu as a sort of intellectual equivalent of the farmer and anti-fast food activist José Bové. Theater groups staged performances based on his ethnographic exploration of social suffering, La misère du monde.3 Women approached him in the street to tell him how La domination masculine had inspired them.4 When he died on January 23rd, 2002, Le Monde delayed publication by several hours so the front page could carry the news. It was the lead story on TV news in France (and other European countries) and ran with expressions of grief and loss from France’s president, prime minister, trade union leaders, and a host of other dignitaries and scholars.
The entry into politics that made Bourdieu so prominent a celebrity also aroused criticisms, suspicions, and resentments among his fellow social scientists. Beyond theoretical or empirical differences, the new conflicts were fueled by both academic and state politics. On the first side, there were many who saw Bourdieu’s fame and influence as unfair, leaving too little room for their own or that of other heroes. Others accused him of bringing a “militant” style to scholarly disputes. Disappointed former protégés and colleagues complained that Bourdieu was not only dominant but also domineering.5 In a comment after Bourdieu’s death, a distinguished former student and co-author, Luc Bolstanski, acknowledged that Bourdieu had been a serious scientist in the 60s and 70s but suggested that his more recent work was little more than “agit-prop”.6 That Boltanski broke the norms of mourning made this shocking, but much the same view had been expressed for several years by others whose differences were more in the realm of state politics, and who were troubled by Bourdieu’s criticisms of the Socialist government, especially after the strikes of 1995. Journalists, wounded by his attacks on the mainstream media, joined in.7 Bourdieu came to symbolize the “gauche de gauche,” the many groups that outflanked the Socialist Party on the Left. Bourdieu indeed had accused the successive prime ministers Juppé and Jospin of selling out and making their version of socialism little different from neoliberalism. As perhaps the most prominent “mainstream” socialist to argue that the party had abandoned both its radicalism and its critical stance on capitalism he was seen as supporting defections to the smaller parties of the Left. When the Socialists were ignominiously defeated in the first round of the 2002 elections, many blamed Bourdieu posthumously (rather than the still-living if uninspiring candidate). Others, of course, suggested that the defeat of Jospin merely confirmed Bourdieu’s diagnosis, and that the party’s sacrifice of principle was also poor electoral strategy.
Though differently motivated, these lines of criticism and attack converged on the notion that Bourdieu’s work changed deeply in the 1990s, and especially that there was a sharp divergence between his earlier, scientific research and his later political interventions. By contrast, I will try to establish the unity of Bourdieu’s work, the extent to which the concerns expressed in his political writings are both of a piece with and supported by his scientific analyses. The extent to which Bourdieu directly entered public debates and the frequency with which he wrote polemics for broader audiences certainly changed through his career and especially in the 1990s. But the intellectual themes, conceptual framework, and both theoretical and empirical orientation of Bourdieu’s sociology remained impressively consistent, especially from its first fully mature expressions in the early 1970s through his death. This is not to say that there was no internal development; new dimensions were added to Bourdieu’s sociology and older themes both deepened and extended. Concepts and theoretical provenance earlier left more implicit were made more explicit. But Bourdieu worked not by declaring a theoretical system and then revising it, but by continually deploying a core conceptual framework and set of insights in different empirical analyses.8 The definitions of concepts were to some extent pliable and reworked in the midst of different analyses (to the consternation of later systematizers). New concepts were added, but the growth was incremental and consistent, not a matter of sharp breaks.9 Far from being arbitrary in relation to his more scientific work, his political analyses of the 1990s reflect grounding in that scientific work going back to his early studies of Algeria, and extend a consistent analytic framework to new objects—albeit, given the pressures of time and political immediacy, often without the empirical research necessary to fully substantiate his claims.
Bourdieu’s political actions are fully consistent with and understandable in terms of his scientific sociology, though they were not dictated by it. Bourdieu’s challenge to threatened collapse between scientific and economic (and for that matter, political and economic) fields in the 1990s and early 2000s is of a piece with his rejection of a collapse between academic and political fields in 1968 and both are informed by his theory of quasi-autonomous social fields and by his analysis of the disruption of traditional life and marginalization of former peasants in Algeria.
If it is a misapprehension to divorce Bourdieu’s politics too sharply from his sociology, it is equally misleading to read him only through oppositions to other leading French intellectuals and not through the affinities which also exist. For example, I shall emphasize the extent to which Bourdieu was part of the “poststructuralist” generation (along with Foucault and Derrida among many others). Of course, his work was distinct within that broad movement (and especially distinct from much of what made poststructuralism a movement in the English-language world). Not least, it was more serious about science and social organization than other lines of work usually grouped under that label. But the generation was also shaped by common intellectual sources, institutions and political context.

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