Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

by David L. Swartz

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Power is the central organizing principle of all social life, from culture and education to stratification and taste. And there is no more prominent name in the analysis of power than that of noted sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Throughout his career, Bourdieu challenged the commonly held view that symbolic power—the power to dominate—is solely symbolic. He emphasized that symbolic power helps create and maintain social hierarchies, which form the very bedrock of political life. By the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu had become a leading public intellectual, and his argument about the more subtle and influential ways that cultural resources and symbolic categories prevail in power arrangements and practices had gained broad recognition.   In Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals, David L. Swartz delves deeply into Bourdieu’s work to show how central—but often overlooked—power and politics are to an understanding of sociology. Arguing that power and politics stand at the core of Bourdieu’s sociology, Swartz illuminates Bourdieu’s political project for the social sciences, as well as Bourdieu’s own political activism, explaining how sociology is not just science but also a crucial form of political engagement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226925028
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/12/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 497 KB

About the Author

David L. Swartz is assistant professor of sociology at Boston University and a senior editor of Theory and Society. He is the author of Culture & Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and coeditor of After Bourdieu: Influence, Critique, Elaboration.

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Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals

The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92500-4



Reading Bourdieu as a Political Sociologist

Power is a central organizing feature of all social life. Power finds expression in many valued resources that become objects of struggle. Power also finds symbolic expression in cultural forms and practices that legitimate the unequal distribution of valued resources. And power concentrates in particular arenas of struggle for control of the social order. So contends Pierre Bourdieu, arguably one of the greatest post–World War II sociologists.

The multifaceted work of Pierre Bourdieu has been widely discussed, if not always understood, outside of France. All of his major books have received extensive attention and discussion. Many sociologists are by now familiar with most of his principal concepts and arguments. He has inspired much work in the sociology of culture, education, theory, taste, and stratification, but received very little attention in political sociology and practically none in political science. Neglected by most observers is the underlying political analysis in Bourdieu's work, both his sociology of politics and his underlying political project. Bourdieu is often read as a theorist, a sociologist of culture or education, or an anthropologist, but only seldom as a political sociologist. This is particularly the case in the United States though generally true in Great Britain and Europe as well (Voutat 2002). Yet arguably Bourdieu was also a political sociologist. Bourdieu was centrally concerned with power and saw his work as an expression of political struggle. However, his work did not follow the usual categories or objects of investigation commonly found in political sociology and particularly in political science. Nevertheless, Bourdieu's life and work fundamentally concerned power and politics.

Bourdieu's work on politics has been neglected by political sociologists and political scientists alike because he did not write books or articles that fit directly within the disciplinary contours of the subfield of political sociology or the academic discipline of political science. Indeed, Bourdieu did not devote much attention to political parties, voting, lobbying, electoral campaigns, government administration, legislatures, or social movements. Except for the act of delegating political power, Bourdieu did not accord much attention to political processes, such as decisionmaking, coalition building, or leadership selection. Bourdieu's sociology attempts a broader sweep of political issues than those delineated by the boundaries of these academic disciplines. Indeed, I argue that Bourdieu's sociology makes no distinction between the sociological approach to the study of the social world and the study of political power. Bourdieu sees all of sociology as fundamentally dealing with power. He sees power as a central organizing dimension of all social life. Power is not an independent domain that can be separated from culture or economics but a force that pervades all human relations. Politics concern the structures and exercise of power; the sociology of politics must reveal that fundamental dimension of social relations regardless of level of analysis or substantive area. Bourdieu's sociology of symbolic power and violence highlights that political dimension of all social life. He therefore rejects the validity of a substantive area of investigation specialized in the study of only the power dimension of social life. He rejects the traditional academic division of labor between sociology, political sociology, and political science.

This book aims to offer a richer understanding of Bourdieu's life and work to those who until now have focused on particular aspects of Bourdieu's sociology without considering the concern for power and politics that unifies his endeavors. In many instances, this deeper purpose of Bourdieu's concepts and sociological investigations has been lost as selective appropriations of his work have been fit into subfields and conceptual arguments of mainstream academic social science. This is particularly the case for his work on culture and education where elements of his approach, such as cultural capital, have been abstracted from the critical political perspective he invested in his work. One purpose of this book is to correct these shortcomings. Chapters 2 and 3 illuminate this deeper mission of Bourdieu's sociology.

Relatedly, there is an ongoing concern from his early work to his later writings with the relationship of sociology-as-science to politics and the role of the critical social scientist in the public arena. This concern is too frequently missed in the selective use of his concepts and arguments within conventional sociology. Yet this selective academic disciplinary appropriation from Bourdieu's work frequently misses another overriding concern for Bourdieu: what Robert Lynd (1986 [1939]) classically phrased as "knowledge for what?" Bourdieu thought and acted politically throughout his life and work, and this is insufficiently appreciated by many who draw selectively from him. We see this concern present in his choice of research objects (he often picked topics to have a political impact), in his critical defense of the intellectual autonomy of sociology, and in his public interventions, particularly later in his life. As Bourdieu (1988c) himself puts it, "to think politics without thinking politically" represents the challenge he saw in offering a sociology that "intervened" not as advocacy but as a critical force in public life. Understanding Bourdieu's view of the relationship of social science to politics will appeal to those interested in recent debates over public sociology. Chapters 6 and 7 explore Bourdieu's vision and practice of the political vocation of sociology.

Perhaps most important, the book also aims to show the relevance of Bourdieu's thinking and work to readers with a particular interest in political sociology. Bourdieu has much to offer to political sociology, particularly in his analysis of symbolic power and his challenges to received views of state power. Chapters 1, 4, 5, and 8 identify his most salient contributions for the sociological analysis of politics. Finally, the book also offers critical evaluation of central tensions in Bourdieu's thought and work on the relationship between sociology and politics.

Though he is not known as a political sociologist, Bourdieu's analysis of power, particularly in the form of domination, stands at the heart of his sociology. He proposes a theory that centrally includes the concepts of symbolic power, violence, and capital that stress the active role that 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 particularly through the cultural resources and symbolic categories and classifications that interweave prevailing institutional arrangements into everyday life practices. Moreover, he identifies a wide variety of valued resources beyond sheer economic interests that function as power resources 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 that Bourdieu calls fields. He sees concentrations of various capitals in particular arenas of struggle, such as the field of power, the political field, and the state. Key to Bourdieu's understanding is how power resources (capitals) and field struggles over them become legitimated (misrecognized) as something other than power relations. The struggle for symbolic power in the political field for gaining access to state power is particularly salient. In addition, he examines critically how leadership representation and delegated authority "dispossess" individuals of their effective voice in political life. Finally, Bourdieu offers not only a sociology of politics but also a politics of sociology. Sociology as science can challenge a key foundation of power relations—their legitimation—and thereby open up the possibility for social transformation.

One finds in his work a vision for what he thinks the practice of social science can do for democratic life and a critical role he assigns to social scientists as intellectuals (Swartz 997, 247–66; Wacquant 2004, 9– 2). There is, therefore, a political project in his sociology that for the most part goes overlooked in its reception outside of France. At the time of his death in 2002 Bourdieu was the leading public intellectual and social scientist in France, and perhaps in Europe as well, of the antiglobalization movement (Swartz 2003a). But less well understood is how political concerns shaped his life and work from the very beginning in Algeria. This book highlights these political sociological aspects of Bourdieu's life and work. Readers interested in how Bourdieu's work can inspire specific types of political analysis will find later in this chapter a selected list of promising contributions.

This introductory chapter makes the argument that Bourdieu can be fruitfully read as a political sociologist. It offers a selective survey of this kind of reading of Bourdieu in other countries. It also suggests a number of reasons why American political sociology and political science have been slow in seeing the relevance of Bourdieu's work for understanding political life. And it identifies some new directions in North American political sociology that are more open to the promising insights of Bourdieu's thinking for political analysis. Chapter 2 gives an overview of the key conceptual tools Bourdieu uses in his thinking and research on power and domination. How does Bourdieu conceptualize power as domination? Forms of capital, power fields, symbolic power, violence, and capital will be briefly introduced and then explored more fully in later chapters. This chapter situates Bourdieu's thinking relative to dominant foci in political sociology and suggests some implications for the analysis of power and politics. Chapter 3 examines Bourdieu's key conceptual tools of capital and field to analyze power. Political practices, as all practices, occur using strategic resources (capitals) in structured arenas of conflict that Bourdieu calls fields. Particular attention is given to the field of power, political capital, and the political field.

Chapter 4 presents Bourdieu's thinking on symbolic power as a form of domination that elaborates and modifies Max Weber's emphasis on the legitimation of power. Bourdieu proposes a theory of symbolic power, violence, and capital that stresses the active role that symbolic forms play as resources that reflect, constitute, maintain, and change social hierarchies. While contested, symbolic power is also naturalized and misrecognized as taken-for-granted inequality so that it constitutes a form of violence. Symbolic power plays a central role in the political field particularly through the processes of representation, delegation, and dispossession that limit broad participation in democratic life. In chapter 4 Bourdieu's conceptual language of symbolic power, symbolic violence, and symbolic capital are distinguished, explored, and evaluated. In modern differentiated societies, Bourdieu argues that symbolic power tends to be centered in one key institution—the state.

Chapter 5 explores Bourdieu's view of the state as an extension of his sociology of culture, particularly his conceptualization of symbolic power, classification struggles, and his field analysis. It examines how Bourdieu understands the origins of the modern state, its leadership and ideology, and situates his view of the state relative to his concept of the field of power. His emphasis on the symbolic power of the state and its internal divisions as a field of struggle over statist capital marks out a distinctive position relative to the prevailing unitary, state-centric views in political sociology that stress the physically coercive character and material resources of state power. The chapter concludes with an evaluation of Bourdieu's thinking about the state, including comparisons to other leading theoretical perspectives on the state.

Bourdieu offers not only a sociology of politics but also a politics of sociology. He assigns to sociology as science a critical debunking role of symbolic power and violence. Because of its critical nature, sociology as science is also a form of political engagement. Doing sociology is doing politics in a different way. Chapter 6 examines Bourdieu's normative vision for the political vocation of the sociologist. His model for intellectual political activism is compared with several other views, notably Michael Burawoy's advocacy for a public sociology. Chapter 7 explores how Bourdieu implemented his vision in various public interventions during his career, beginning with his decisive experience in wartorn Algeria during the 950s. It examines the process by which Bourdieu both produced a prodigious scholarly record and became near the end of his career the leading European public intellectual at the head of the antiglobalization movement that emerged in France and other Western European countries in the 990s. It illustrates and evaluates how Bourdieu pursued his "scholarship with commitment" strategy. And chapter 8 identifies key features of Bourdieu's thinking about social change, revisits his understanding of the relationship between sociology and politics, and explores his normative vision for democratic politics.

Bourdieu in France and Europe

Bourdieu's work has been enormously influential in France. Many of his ideas have shaped the general sociological environment there so they are taught, referenced, criticized, or simply assumed as the way to think sociologically about issues. His influence on political sociology and particularly political science, however, has been more uneven. Philippe Corcuff (1998) refers to the "bourdieusian school" in French political science. I think the term school is too strong if that suggests a geographical location or close network of political analysts. Outside of the networks of scholars gravitating around Actes de la Recherches en Sciences Sociales and Raisons d'Agir, two very productive publications directly influenced by Bourdieu, his influence among French scholars of politics is broad but fragmented, and often more one of selective inspiration than faithful application of his full research program.

Certainly lines of influence can be identified. Daniel Gaxie (1978, 1990), Erik Neveu (2005), and Michel Offerlé (1987), themselves students during the sixties and now university professors, in their own works offer notable illustrations of Bourdieu's impact on political analysis in that country. Today many of their students continue to draw inspiration from Bourdieu. That influence takes the form often of challenging traditional academic compartmentalization of knowledge by opening up traditional political analytical concerns to sociological and historical considerations (Voutat 2002, 104). However, Bourdieu's influence in France has been highly segmented, largely ignored, or sharply opposed by many of Bourdieu's own generation of French political scientists, particularly among those holding positions in the Institutes of Political Studies (Instituts d'études politiques). One can see the influence in the work of a few individuals in certain university departments and a few political studies institutes but no single academic program as a whole in France today would be considered strongly Bourdieusian. For example, some Bourdieusian influence can be found at the University of Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne), the University of Amiens and of Lille, and the political studies institutes in Strasbourg, Toulouse, and Rennes. While a Bourdieusian presence is more likely found in French university political sociology than in political science, there are anomalies. The University of Strasbourg sociology, for example, has little Bourdieusian presence whereas the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies (particularly within the Groupe de sociologie politique européenne— European Political Sociology Group) has considerable.

In general, Bourdieu's influence on French political science has been strikingly less pronounced, indeed strongly resisted for the most part in the French institutes of political studies, particularly at the flagship Paris Institute of Political Studies. Traditionally, the political studies institutes focused on public administration offering little political sociology; however, some of that resistance was no doubt due to the fact that Bourdieu himself did not hold political science and the French institutes of political studies in high esteem. He called political science a "false science" and a "rationalization" project in which its practitioners offer rational tools for political professionals rather than engaging in genuine scientific analysis. Bourdieu's antagonistic relationship with the Paris Institute of Political Studies was legendary, though in recent years that has been changing as some researchers from that institute draw inspiration from Bourdieu and take up beyond traditional electoral sociology a broader range of sociological considerations, such as racism, anti-Semitism, the media, and rightwing political movements.


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Reading Bourdieu as a Political Sociologist
Chapter 2. Forms of Power in Bourdieu’s Sociology
Chapter 3. Capitals and Fields of Power
Chapter 4. For a Sociology of Symbolic Power
Chapter 5. Bourdieu’s Analysis of the State
Chapter 6. For an Intellectual Politics of Symbolic Power
Chapter 7. Critical Sociologist and Public Intellectual
Chapter 8. For Democratic Politics


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