Pierre Bourdieu, a thinker of emancipation

Pierre Bourdieu.

By Dimitris Fasfalis

February 3, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Ten years after his death, Pierre Bourdieu’s work and commitments are commemorated throughout the world by friends and foes alike. Le Monde, for instance, described him as a “classic thinker”: second-most quoted author of the academic world after Michel Foucault.

Academia thus recognises Bourdieu as a major sociologist of the 20th century whose concepts (habitus, fields, types of capital, symbolic violence) have become pillars of the social sciences. Few voices, however, have reclaimed Bourdieu’s radical legacy, while his work is of great interest for all those committed to emancipation.[1]

Unveiling the hidden strings of domination

One of the points of departure of Bourdieu’s critical sociology is the weight of determined social relations upon what appears to be actions and attitudes guided by people’s free will. Even though modern society and its members claim to be free in their doings, they are not argues Bourdieu. In fact, human actions follow patterns inherited from the past generations that reproduce – or tend to do so – their social formation. In Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, the latter is represented as the combination of different fields of human activity (politics, economy, mass media, arts and culture, sports, schools/university, etc.) which share interdependent relations while being at the same time relatively autonomous one another. The changing hierarchy between these fields is at the root of the national peculiarities of any given society; hence the difference between the German Democratic Republic, where the political/bureaucratic field dominates the others, and 19th century Dickensian England, where the economic field overrides all others.

The tendency (or law) of reproduction of the established order – and thus the determinism or lack of freedom in human relations – stems mainly from the different social strategies which in their turn depend of one’s position in a given field of activity. Individuals interiorise rules of conduct through their social experience in different fields and tend to reproduce them to obtain the “benefits” of their position. These interiorised rules – that Bourdieu called habitus – depend however of one’s position in a given field. Every field of human activity, from the school institutions to the media or sports, is structured by an uneven distribution of a specific type of “capital”. A pyramid thus translates the structure of these fields where the ruling layers concentrating (different types of) capital reproduce the existing order through the defence of orthodoxy (in their respective fields), while the layers at the bottom, with no capital, seek to subvert the existing order through different strategies linked to heterodoxic views.

This sociological framework has been used numerous times by Bourdieu and his followers to criticise the existing order. It operates to uncover the hidden basis of oppressive social relations in a manner that links Bourdieu to the Marxian critique of ideology as class-biased representations of the world. If emancipation from the social determinisms lies in the discovery of these mechanisms, inversely, the ruling class has an interest in showing the existing order as being “natural” or as being driven by “commonsense”, and not to question anything of it.

A fatalistic approach of the oppressed?

If humans are not free, what’s the use of a sociology that further underlines it? Bourdieu has often been criticised from the critical left for a presumed failure of his theories to encompass struggle for emancipation of the oppressed. Jacques Rancière’s Le philosophe et ses pauvres (1983) illustrates this point.

Bourdieu’s answer was relatively simple: critical sociology could help emancipation struggles only by shedding light on the origins of domination. As to the iron laws weighing upon individuals, only their clear understanding could allow those bearing them to find strategies to resist the “natural” way of doing things, i.e. to reproduce the existing order. Asked if a more developed knowledge doesn’t lead to demoralisation and disillusionment among those subjected to domination, Bourdieu answered:

The knowledge of what’s most likely to happen is what renders possible, following other goals, the achievement of what is less likely to happen (…) True political action consists in using one’s knowledge of what’s likely to happen to reinforce the chances of what’s possible. It is opposed to utopianism which, like magic, pretends to act on the word through performative discourse. What’s specific to political action is to express and to exploit, more often unconsciously than consciously, the inner/underlying potentialities of the social world, in its contradictions or its immanent tendencies.[2]

Finding ways to emancipation

Beyond the discovery of the true relations that structure society, Bourdieu’s critical toolbox also offers key insights to avoid some of the pitfalls of past popular struggles. Among these, we find three threads highly important for emancipation struggles. This list is not exhaustive and his critique of intellectuals is another example of critical tools provided in his work.

First of all, we find a criticism of social and political prophecies, that is “discourses that pretend to offer total answers to total questions, especially concerning ‘life and death questions’.”[3] While all past revolutions have used the state to proclaim a new social order, only a few revolutionary leaders have underlined the difficulties in establishing it by abolishing and subverting past social relations (Lenin, Trotsky, Che Guevara and Victor Serge stand out). Bourdieu underlines these problems of “the transition period” (in Marxist terms) by using the theoretical framework of society as a combination of different fields:

it is as if it was sufficient to take hold of the “state apparatus” and to change the program of the great machine, to have a radically new social order. In fact, political will must take into consideration the inner logic of social fields, profoundly complex universes where political intentions can be overturned and diverted.[4]

Critical sociology therefore provides a useful antidote against the dangers of revolutionary voluntarism. But it also highlights the inner tendencies of bureaucratic conservatism as shown in all the 20th century silent counter-revolutions.

Another major contribution is Bourdieu's attention to language and its relation to political consciousness. Which words must militants use in their agitation and propaganda? What type of discourse, which metaphors, which symbols, what style should a political leaflet adopt? Burning questions for those eager to convince the oppressed and exploited of their own capacity to fight and win? Bourdieu’s answer:

the militant’s work consists precisely to transform the personal or individual adventure (“I’am fired”) in a specific case of a general social relation (“you are fired because…”). This generalisation uses necessarily a concept; it thus contains a risk of an already-made formula, an automatic and autonomous language, that is, a ritual speech in which those of which and for whom we talk do not recognize themselves anymore, as we use to say. This dead speech blocks thought, as much in the case of the one who pronounces it as in those to whom it is destined and it should mobilise.[5]

How many of us have experienced – and still do this “dead speech”? Here lies a huge field of thought concerning the art of subversion.

At last, Bourdieu’s thought helps to build emancipation strategies in face of power. Instead of considering power as external to those on which it is exercised, Bourdieu views it as a social relationship, in the same manner as Max Weber considers domination as a relationship based on the adherence of the dominated, or as Marx views capital not as a thing or object but rather as a socially determined relation between the capitalist and the wage worker. This theoretical framework is crucial for the strategy of emancipation struggles since it can help them identify the tasks (what’s to be done?) in their own ranks as to establish the necessary conditions for the progress of freedom, thus pointing the way towards cultural hegemony.

Where should one start to study the lifelong work of a prolific sociologist? Perhaps the best way to discover Bourdieu is to start with Questions de sociologie (1984). His work remains difficult but its tools are numerous for all those who are trying to figure out how another world can be built and what obstacles stand in the way of doing so.

[Dimitris Fasfalis currently lives in Paris and has written for a number of left publications, including Socialist Voice, Presse-toi à gauche and Europe solidaire sans frontiers.]


[1]For instance, Jean-Emmanuel Ducoin and his editorial published in L'Humanité, January 23, 2012, and also Daniel Bensaïd, « Pierre Bourdieu, l'intellectuel et le politique » (2002), www.contretemps.eu/.

[2]Pierre Bourdieu, Questions de sociologie, Paris, Minuit, (1984) 2002, p. 46. Translation to English by the author of the article.

[3]Questions de sociologie, p. 50.

[4]Questions de sociologie, p. 137.

[5]Questions de sociologie, p. 64.