Bourdieu and Historical Analysis

Bourdieu and Historical Analysis

by Philip S. Gorski (Editor)


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The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had a broader theoretical agenda than is generally acknowledged. Introducing this innovative collection of essays, Philip S. Gorski argues that Bourdieu's reputation as a theorist of social reproduction is the misleading result of his work's initial reception among Anglophone readers, who focused primarily on his mid-career thought. A broader view of his entire body of work reveals Bourdieu as a theorist of social transformation as well. Gorski maintains that Bourdieu was initially engaged with the question of social transformation and that the question of historical change not only never disappeared from his view, but re-emerged with great force at the end of his career.

The contributors to Bourdieu and Historical Analysis explore this expanded understanding of Bourdieu's thought and its potential contributions to analyses of large-scale social change and historical crisis. Their essays offer a primer on his concepts and methods and relate them to alternative approaches, including rational choice, Lacanian psychoanalysis, pragmatism, Latour's actor-network theory, and the "new" sociology of ideas. Several contributors examine Bourdieu's work on literature and sports. Others extend his thinking in new directions, applying it to nationalism and social policy. Taken together, the essays initiate an important conversation about Bourdieu's approach to sociohistorical change.

. Craig Calhoun, Charles Camic, Christophe Charle, Jacques Defrance, Mustafa Emirbayer, Ivan Ermakoff, Gil Eyal, Chad Alan Goldberg, Philip S. Gorski, Robert A. Nye, Erik Schneiderhan, Gisele Shapiro, George Steinmetz, David Swartz

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822352730
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Philip S. Gorski is Professor of Sociology and of Religious Studies at Yale University, where he directs the European Studies Council and codirects the Center for Comparative Research and the MacMillan Initiative on Religion, Politics, and Society. He is the author of The Protestant Ethic Revisited and The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe.

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ISBN: 978-0-8223-5273-0

Chapter One



In recent years the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu has been widely referenced across a broad range of subfields in American sociology (Sallaz and Zavisca 2007). Not only referenced but also engaged substantively and critically, Bourdieu's work has become a leading reference for framing much substantive research and theoretical discussion. A review of the leading journals and several recent books shows numerous creative efforts to apply key ideas of Bourdieu to new settings and issues not examined by the French sociologist himself. His pivotal concepts of capital, habitus, and field plus his central arguments about symbolic domination and social distinction are being applied, expanded, modified, and elaborated in a great variety of recent pieces of research. Frequently missing, however, from the many efforts to work with his concepts is an understanding of the broader framework of metaprinciples that guided Bourdieu in his work. Yet metatheoretical considerations decisively shaped Bourdieu's understanding of sociological research. I will argue here that one can identify at least six orienting principles in Bourdieu's sociology that would be useful to keep in mind as one attempts to extend his thinking to new areas of investigation: (1) focus on multiple forms of power and domination, particularly cultural and symbolic ones, (2) challenge received views of the social world, (3) employ relational analysis, (4) connect micro and macro levels of analysis, (5) adopt a self-critical, reflexive posture in sociological work, and (6) include an intellectual activist orientation for a public sociology.

Neither Grand Theory nor Empiricism

One might begin, as Bourdieu himself always did, by identifying who or what he argued against—his intellectual enemies. Bourdieu conducted empirical research, yet his conceptual language is fundamentally antipositivist. He developed his concepts out of critical reflection in particular empirical domains, but his concepts do not designate particular empirical phenomena as the positivist tradition would require. Bourdieu does not see himself employing concepts as definitions for which one can pin down precise empirical content. His concepts are not intended to be reflections of empirical reality. Rather, his concepts try to convey a certain way of approaching the study of the social world; they are orienting tools for research. He thinks of his concepts as agendas of questions for research rather than as ready-made answers (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 110).

We would do ourselves a disservice as well to veer from the path Bourdieu designated if we were to focus, say, on just what habitus means or what exactly the empirical content of a field is. We need to approach his concepts, as Brubaker (1993: 220) insightfully suggests, as "designators of particular intellectual habitus or sets of habits." Bourdieu wants them read and applied in a "dispositional manner."

On the other hand, his concepts are not purely theoretical constructs either. One does not find in capital, field, and habitus a tightly structured theory of the social world as exemplified in the work of Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann. Bourdieu's concepts are not expressions of "grand theory," as C. Wright Mills put it. His concepts are tools for conducting empirical research rather than formal constructs, definitions, or abstract, fixed propositions. They attempt to assemble in diverse ways a variety of relevant empirical materials for sociological investigation. They developed out of a research orientation and stem from efforts to understand certain empirical phenomena.

Some Key Metaprinciples in Bourdieu's Sociology

How might one draw upon core concepts of Bourdieu's sociology for carrying out new sociological research? One way is to focus on the overarching meta-principles and intellectual dispositions that animated Bourdieu's work. His master concepts—field, capital, and habitus—are situated within a broader framework of metatheoretical principles and intellectual dispositions that oriented Bourdieu's conceptual development and his employment of concepts in his research (Brubaker 1985; Swartz 1997). I want to outline six guiding principles that traverse Bourdieu's conceptual orientation and suggest that they might serve as important guides in how one applies his concepts in various areas of investigation.

The perspective I outline recommends that we approach Bourdieu's concepts as "tools for research" that embody certain sociological dispositions. It is a dispositional perspective, a kind of sociological habitus that I am after rather than a strictly theoretical reading or empirical application of Bourdieu. While it is very tempting to talk about field, capital, and habitus as theoretical constructs and thereby evaluate them in terms of logical consistency, contradiction, affiliation with theoretical traditions, indebtedness to classical theorists, and so on, I recommend that we think of them more as forms of sociological practices that have a practical, dispositional orientation for understanding the social world. As Brubaker (1993: 212) advises, "Resist the temptation to 'talk about concepts' instead of 'making them work.'" To illustrate with his concept of field: the strategy I am proposing is not to give a correct definition of the concept of field but to identify key metaprinciples that Bourdieu used to guide his own field analyses. To this end, I posit six guiding principles that I think characterize Bourdieu's work and can be usefully employed for approaching new areas of sociological investigation.


First is Bourdieu's objective to do a sociology of power with particular attention to forms of domination. Indeed, the analysis of power stands at the heart of Bourdieu's sociology. He is a conflict theorist who stresses the competitive, stratified character of social worlds and who sees them firmly ordered by mechanisms and processes of domination and reproduction. He proposes a theory of symbolic power, violence, and capital that stresses the active role symbolic forms play as resources that both constitute and maintain social hierarchies. Bourdieu's perspective challenges the commonly held view that symbolic power is simply symbolic. His sociology sensitizes us to the more subtle and influential forms of power that operate through the cultural resources and symbolic categories and classifications that interweave everyday life with prevailing institutional arrangements. Rejecting both Marxist and non-Marxist forms of economic reductionism, he identifies a wide variety of valued resources beyond sheer material interests that function as resources of power and that he calls forms of capital, such as social capital and cultural capital. Furthermore, individuals and groups struggle over the very definition and distribution of these capitals in distinct power arenas Bourdieu calls fields. He sees concentrations of various forms of capital in specific areas of struggle, such as the field of power, the political field, and the state. Bourdieu's sociology offers conceptual tools for analyzing three types of power: power vested in particular resources (capitals), power concentrated in specific spheres of struggle over forms of capital (fields of power), and power as practical, taken-for-granted acceptance of existing social hierarchies (symbolic power and violence).


For Bourdieu social science begins with an "epistemological break" with the received views of the social world. This second principle represents in fact "the most crucial research operation," regardless of the substantive domain under investigation (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 224). Inspired in part by Emile Durkheim (1966), Bourdieu's method calls for breaking with received categories by constructing a conceptual model of the social world that explains the social world by situating the actors and their categories within a broader social and historical framework of which they are the product (a view not usually available to insiders). Constructing the object means refusing to take insider behaviors and claims at face value or refusing to focus on those units most immediately and directly visible, such as individuals, social groups, and organizations. To do so would be to miss the underlying dynamics and processes of conflict that have generated their immediate visibility.

In order to facilitate the critical questioning of the taken-for-granted, Bourdieu advises that we "mobilize all the techniques that are relevant and practically usable, given the definition of the object and the practical conditions of data collection" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 237). Constructing the field of practices is his key methodological device for breaking with received views of the social world. Fields show that views are generated out of competing positions that bring into play different power resources (capitals) and relations of hierarchy and domination among the relevant players. A related privileged intellectual tool for doing so is social history (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 238). History appears as a privileged instrument for breaking with received views that strike the uncritical observer as self-evident, commonsensical, and only natural.


Breaking with the most immediately visible forms of social life, such as individuals, social groups, and organizations, calls for relational thinking. Social realities obtain sociological significance only by comparison to others. Focus not on the immediately visible units but on the structure of relations that unite and differentiate them (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 107). Focus on fields of relations rather than on individual entities that are artificially extracted from their context. Bourdieu was among the first contemporary sociologists to criticize sharply "substantialist" thinking. Thinking relationally means not looking for intrinsic properties of individuals or groups but constructing their relational attributes. Relationality for Bourdieu means conceptualizing capitals, individuals, groups, organizations, and even nations, as interdependent units in terms of broad networks of relations that shape their action beyond individual consciousness or direct contact or control. This sets Bourdieu apart from methodological individualism and interactionist perspectives that focus attention on individuals and units of exchange between individuals.


It is also Bourdieu's ambition to offer and call for a sociology that integrates subjective and objective forms of knowledge into what he calls a "general science of practices" (Swartz 1997: 56). He contends that the social sciences have for too long been plagued by a series of classic antinomies that have limited the development of a comprehensive view of human action. Bourdieu's conceptual strategy is to overcome these classic dualisms by forging concepts that will permit integrating subjective and objective forms. He offers a conceptual program that would weave together the following four dualisms: (1) theory versus empirical research, (2) agency versus structure, (3) symbolic forms versus material objects of social life, and (4) micro versus macro levels of analysis.

Bourdieu emphasizes that theorizing and empirical investigation must go hand in hand. Theory without an empirical object is vacuous and sociological significance does not emerge automatically from empirical realities. This call to combine theory and empirical investigation is such a commonplace in sociology today that few would dispute its charge. Still one finds journals and books specialized in one or the other. Bourdieu calls for a social scientific practice that resolutely practices both simultaneously.

The sociological habitus Bourdieu would have us cultivate is one that motivates us to seek out and demonstrate the intrinsically dual character of social life—its objective and subjective features. Bourdieu heightens our awareness of the duality of social life and shows how, via theory, method, and available data, we frequently are tempted to give fractured portrayals of that totality. We need to develop dispositions to seek out the rich, often subtle ways in which the social world is simultaneously subjective and objective, internal and external, symbolic and material, individual and collective, free and constrained and to integrate these dual moments into our sociological accounts. His concepts are oriented toward that kind of integrating view of the social world. This would mean that characteristics of individual actors, their views, the forms of power they represent as well as the organizational structures—locally, nationally, and internationally—they inhabit should be taken into account.


Fifth, all of Bourdieu's concepts are to be employed reflexively. They call for critical examination of all assumptions and presuppositions not only of the sociological object investigated but also of the stance and location of the researcher. Reflexivity arises from the need to control the relationship of the researcher to the object of inquiry so that the position of the researcher is not unwittingly projected into the object of study.

Three principal sources of such projection are considered: the habitus of the researcher, the intellectual field position of the researcher, and what Bourdieu considers the most difficult bias to overcome, that of the "theoreticist" bias inherent in the scholarly gaze itself (Bourdieu 1990c; Swartz 1997: 271–77). Habitus and particularly field are key tools for implementing this reflexivity for dealing with these effects that distort an adequate portrayal of human action. Using the language of habitus acts as a reminder that practical, not theoretical, knowledge guides much human action. It reminds us as researchers to take care to avoid the "scholastic fallacy" of mistakenly thinking that human action follows directly our rational theoretical models of human action.

The concept of field offers a more sociological view of reflexivity as opposed to one that depicts the researcher as a kind of ethical hero who would simply display his or her value commitments for all to see. Bourdieu's field analytic perspective shows that even good-faith observations of the social world are situated ones. But more important than situating observations as representing points of view that bear traces of field positions is showing the overall relational character of various viewpoints, which is exactly what field analysis does.

The researcher always faces the danger of being captured by a particular viewpoint, a partial viewpoint in the field of analysis. Field construction, as Dezalay and Garth (2002: 11) insightfully recommend, is best approached from multiple points of entry. The researcher needs to collate multiple data sources and methods so as not to limit her or his view by embracing any one.


Sixth, and most challenging, if not controversial, Bourdieu's master concepts of field, capital, and habitus are more than just research tools. They are also arms for intellectual combat. They are oriented toward trying to achieve specific corrective effects in the practice of sociology. Their intended meanings and empirical content vary in emphasis from study to study. Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992: 80) often "twists the stick in the other direction," as he sometimes put it, to obtain desired effects. Choice of terminology, theoretical content he loads into concepts, and empirical referents he selects all reflect his effort to break with received views, both intellectual and lay. To understand Bourdieu, we need to understand whom he is arguing against. It is always important to read Bourdieu's use of his concepts in light of the specific intellectual fields he is trying to influence, which is true of any intellectual work, including our own. Perhaps one of the positive contributions of Bourdieu is to increase our self-awareness of just how much our own work is shaped by opposing views in the professional fields in which we work that we try to correct, react to, ignore, or sidestep. Using concepts is a way of acting on an intellectual field, and we would do well to understand and be explicit about that in our own work.

But Bourdieu's concepts are more than tools for jockeying for better position in intellectual fields. They are also instruments of struggle against symbolic power. This gives an activist dimension, a political dimension, to Bourdieu's work and concepts. There is no armchair theorizing in Bourdieu. His work is not purely academic. His concepts are "instruments of combat." He wishes to change the world by changing the way we see it. Since Bourdieu believes that the social world is governed by symbolic violence, which takes the form of taken-for-granted classifications and categorizations, he sees his sociology as one of exposing that important dimension of social life for what it is—an expression of power and domination. His texts and conceptual language are "instruments of struggle" that represent a "practical strategy" of trying to change our way of thinking about the social world.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction Bourdieu as a Theorist of Change Philip S. Gorski 1

Part I Situating Bourdieu

1 Metaprinciples For Sociological Research in a Bourdieusian Perspective David L. Swartz 19

2 For the Social History of the Present: Bourdieu as Historical Sociologist Craig Calhoun 36

3 Comparative and Transnational History and the Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu: Historical Theory and Practice Christophe Charle 67

Part II Theoretical Engagements

4 Rational Choice May Take Over Ivan Ermakoff 89

5 Toward Socioanalysis: The "Traumatic Kernel" of Psychoanalysis and Neo-Bourdieusian Theory George Steinmetz 108

6 Dewey and Bourdieu on Democracy Mustafa Emirbayer Erik Schneiderhan 131

7 Spaces Between Fields Gil Eyal 158

8 Bourdieu's Two Sociologies of Knowledge Charles Camic 183

Part III Historical Extensions

9 T. H. Marshall Meets Pierre Bourdieu: Citizens and Paupers in the Development of the U.S. Welfare State Chad Alan Goldberg 215

10 Nation-Ization Struggles: A Bourdieusian Theory of Nationalism Philip S. Gorski 242

11 Structural History and Crisis Analysis: The Literary Field in France during the Second World War Gisèle Sapiro 266

12 The Transmission of Masculinities: The Case of Early Modern France Robert Nye 286

13 The Making of a Field with Weak Autonomy: The Case of the Sports Field in France, 1895-1955 Jacques Defrance 303

Conclusion: Bourdieusian Theory and Historical Analysis: Maps, Mechanisms, and Methods Philip S. Gorski 327

Appendix 1 English Translations of Bourdieu's Works 367

Appendix 2 Original Publication Dates of Bourdieu's Monographs 368

Works Cited 369

Contributors 409

Index 413

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