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SOCIOLOGY IS A COMBAT SPORT
From Parsons to Bourdieu
I often say sociology is a combat sport, a means of self-defense. Basically, you use it to defend yourself, without having the right to use it for unfair attacks.
These sentences are taken from La sociologie est un sport du combat, a popular film produced by Pierre Carles in 2001 about the life of Pierre Bourdieu, featuring him at demonstrations, in interviews about masculine domination, in humorous banter with his assistants, in an informal research seminar with his colleagues, in the lecture hall, on television debating with Günter Grass, and, in a final dramatic scene, facing the wrath of Beur youth from a Paris banlieu. We see Bourdieu voicing opposition to government policies, especially neoliberalism, but we also see him on the defensive — stumbling to explain sociology in simple terms to a confused interviewer, or sweating under pressure of interrogation, or intensely nervous when he has to speak in English.
Is this sociology as a combat sport? If so, where are the combatants? We see Bourdieu, but where is the opposition? Where are the other contestants? It's like watching a boxing match with only one boxer. No wonder he can talk of sociology as "self-defense"; no wonder he can seem so innocent and charming with the opposition absent. Where is the reviled Bourdieu, "the sociological terrorist of the Left," "the cult leader," "the intellectual dictator"? Even the Spanish feminist interviewing him about masculine domination lets him off the hook when it comes to his own masculinity — at which point he leans on Virginia Woolf — or when he claims to understand masculine domination better than women do. Significantly, the only time he comes under hostile fire is when young Beurs tell him they are not interested in his disquisitions on oppression — after all, they know they are oppressed — whereupon Bourdieu goes on a tirade against their anti-intellectualism. It seems he has nothing to offer them but words. Here, only at the end of the film, are the first signs of combat.
This absent combat with the absent enemy is not peculiar to the film. Throughout Bourdieu's writings, combatants are slain off-stage with no more than a fleeting appearance in front of the readership. Sociologists, economists, and philosophers come and go like puppets, dismissed with barely a sentence or two. What sort of combat sport is this? He says sociology shouldn't be used for unfair attacks, but how fair is it to tie up the enemy in a corner and with one punch knock them out of the ring? What is this combat without combat? I've searched through Bourdieu's writings to find elaborations of "sociology as a combat sport" but to no avail. Minimally, if this is a true combat sport, there should be rules of play that allow all contestants to show their abilities — their strengths as well as their weaknesses. And the rules should apply equally to all. There is not much evidence of fair play either in the film or in his writings.
The purpose of these conversations, then, is to restore at least a small band of combatants who, broadly speaking, are Marxist in orientation. They are there in Bourdieu's "practical sense" beneath consciousness, circulating in the depths of his habitus and only rarely surfacing in an explicit and verbal form. To attempt such a restoration is to counter the symbolic violence of their erasure with a symbolic violence of my own. It involves a certain intellectual combat. Still, I restore these Marxists not so much to issue Bourdieu with a knockout blow (as if that were even possible), but rather to orchestrate a conversation in which each learns about the other to better understand the self. In this opening conversation, however, I will probe the idea of sociology as a combat sport as it applies to Bourdieu's own practice, leading to his contradictory postures in academic and non-academic fields. I will suggest that a better model than combat is the more open and gentle one of conversation — a conversation between Bourdieu the academic theorist and Bourdieu the public intellectual — if we are to unravel the paradoxes of his life's work.
COMBAT VS. CONSENSUS
I am struck by the translation of the film's title into English: La sociologie est un sport du combat becomes Sociology Is a Martial Art. There is no warrant for translating combat sport as martial art. Both words exist in French as they do in English, so why this deliberate mistranslation? I can only conjecture that this is a maneuver to attract an English-speaking — and especially an American — audience for whom labeling an academic discipline as a combat sport would discredit both sociology and the film. It does not suit the sensibility of US academics and would have an effect opposite to the one in France, where academics do indeed seem to relish the idea of combat, where struggles are held out in the open, public arena, and where the academic world merges with the public world. In the United States, on the other hand, the academic world is at once more insulated from the public sphere and also more professional. It is dominated by ideologies of consensus formation and peer review. Here, martial art, with its connotations of refinement and science, is a more appropriate and appealing metaphor. Academic exchange operates not according to explicit rules of combat but with unspoken understandings based on a specific culture of engagement. Thus, French-trained Michèle Lamont (2009) is fascinated by the "North American" culture of peer assessment based on trust and mutual respect, just as ignominy befalls Loïc Wacquant when he displays French-style combat in the US academy.
We can better understand Bourdieu's milieu and the work he produced by comparing him to Talcott Parsons, who was born and bred American. Both were the most influential world sociologists of their time. Both conquered their national fields of sociology from the summit of their respective academies — Harvard and the Collège de France. Both reshaped the discipline around the world and in their homelands. Both exerted influence on a variety of disciplines beyond their own. Both wrote in difficult prose that only seemed to magnify their appeal. Both generated waves of reaction and critique, dismissal and contempt, as well as ardent disciples.
The parallels extend to the substance of their social theory. Thus, both were primarily interested in the problem of social order, which they tackled with parallel, functionalist schemes. Parsons focuses on the institutionalization and internalization of common values, whereas Bourdieu explores the constitution of habitus, an enduring set of dispositions acquired in early life and then later modified through participation in multiple fields. Thus, socialization figured equally prominently in both their accounts of social order. Both had difficulty developing an adequate theory of social change, and their thin theories of history relied on the idea of spontaneous differentiation — in Parsons the rise of subsystems of action and in Bourdieu the emergence of differentiated fields. Neither saw the future as very different from the present: revolutionary change was not part of their conceptual repertoire.
Moreover, both were deeply committed to sociology as a science. Indeed, both conceived of sociology as the queen of the social sciences — other disciplines were a special case of or subordinate to sociology. At the same time, both drew heavily on the vocabulary and ideas of the discipline of economics, just as both were hostile to its reductionism. Despite their claims to universalism, their theories were distinctively products of the society they theorized, in the one case the pre-1960s United States and in the other post-1960s France. They were both masters of the art of universalizing the particular — the particular being the social structure of their own countries as they saw it — as neither took comparative research seriously.
But here the parallels cease. If Parsons's social order rested on value consensus that prevented a brutish Hobbesian war of all against all, then Bourdieu's rested on symbolic violence that secured silent and unconscious submission. Where Parsons endorsed value consensus as freedom, Bourdieu condemned symbolic violence as debilitating to both the dominant and the dominated. Accordingly, if Parsons was rather complacent about the world in which he lived, Bourdieu was consistently critical of it. If Parsons stood aloof from society, in the final analysis, Bourdieu was always deeply engaged with it. Where Parsons saw science and society as based on consensus, Bourdieu took an agonistic view, seeing society as a field of contestation. Science in particular was an arena of competition and struggle through which truth emerges. Where Parsons brushed aside intellectual and political antagonisms that divided the academy, Bourdieu made them definitive of the academic field and of scientific progress.
Their divergence is most clear in the way they built their theoretical frameworks. Parsons's (1937) voluntaristic theory of action, which, like Bourdieu, sought to transcend the dichotomy of structure and agency, laid claim to a grand synthesis of four canonical thinkers — Durkheim, Weber, Marshall, and Pareto. Later, he would incorporate Freud. Parsons not only basked in the glory of canonical figures; he actually created the canon himself by examining their writings in meticulous detail. He brought Durkheim and Weber to the center of the US sociological tradition. He is not alone in building on so-called founders: Jürgen Habermas (1984) follows a similar strategy in his two-volume theory of communicative action, building on the work of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Lukács, and the Frankfurt School, as well as Talcott Parsons himself.
Bourdieu, by contrast, took a dismissive stance toward his competitors and forerunners, largely silencing the giants upon whose shoulders he perched. There is rarely a systematic engagement with any sociological work other than his own. Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Lévi-Strauss, Pascal, and others lurk in his writings, but he refers to them only in passing, as if to do otherwise might minimize his own contributions. He presents himself as the author of his own tradition, committing the sin he accuses other intellectuals of, namely their adhesion to the "charismatic ideology" of autonomous "creation," forgetting that the creator too has to be created (Bourdieu  1996, 167). In re-creating sociology, Bourdieu fashioned himself after Flaubert, whom he regarded as the creator of the French literary field because he had such a subtle command of its elementary forces. If sociology is a combat sport, then Bourdieu was its grand master, so effective that the combat becomes invisible, taking place backstage.
Parsons was the great synthesizer and systematizer, ironing out differences and contradictions, thereby generating his ever more elaborate architecture of structural functionalism with its own concepts and vocabulary, liable to collapse under its own weight. Bourdieu, by contrast, refused all systematization. His works are incomplete, full of fissures and paradoxes, a labyrinth that provides for endless discussion, elaboration, and critique. As a gladiator he was the expert at defensive maneuvers to elude his assailants. Whereas Parsons specialized in grand theory, at home with rarefied abstractions, far removed from the concrete, everyday world, Bourdieu rarely wrote without empirical reference. For all its difficulty — its long and winding sentences that continually double back and qualify themselves — Bourdieu's theorizing is deeply engaged with lived experience and follows rich research agendas. Where Parsons's architectonic scheme disappeared without so much as a whimper once its founder passed away, its brittle foundations having lost touch with the world, Bourdieu's ideas outlive their author and are far more flexible in their wrestling with an ever-changing reality.
Unlike Parsons — and more like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim — Bourdieu was steeped in the history of philosophy and, like them, his works are relentlessly empirical, ranging from the study of photography, painting, literature, and sport to the analysis of contemporary stratification, education, the state, and language. His writings straddle sociology and anthropology, including studies of peasant family strategies in the villages of the Béarn, where he grew up, as well as his books on Algeria that dwelt on the social order of the Kabyle, written during the period of anticolonial struggles and marking the beginning of his research career. His methods range from sophisticated statistical analysis to in-depth interviewing and participant observation. His metatheoretical innovations, relentlessly applied to different historical contexts and different spheres of society, revolve around his notions of field, capital, and habitus. Even though Parsons was well versed in anthropology, economics, and psychology as well as sociology, in the end even he cannot compete with Bourdieu's originality or scope, nor with his influence across a range of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.
Parsons was like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in everything that came into his sphere of influence, whereas Bourdieu was more like a mop, pushing backward and forward in all directions. The imagery of the one was consensus building; the imagery of the other was combat; their divergence is reflected in the social theories they developed. Let me turn to that link between the substance of Bourdieu's social theory and sociology as a combat sport.
Symbolic violence is at the center of Bourdieu's sociology. It is a domination that is not recognized as such, either because it is taken for granted (naturalized) or because it is misrecognized — i.e., recognized as something other than domination. The prototype of symbolic violence is masculine domination. According to Bourdieu, it is not generally perceived as such, so deeply is it inscribed in the habitus of both men and women. He defines habitus — a central concept in his thinking — as a "durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations," producing "practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in the objective conditions of the production of their generative principle" (Bourdieu  1977, 78). We are thus like fish swimming in water, unaware of the symbolic violence that pervades our lives, except that the water is not just outside us but also inside us. Drawing on his fieldwork among the Kabyle, Bourdieu ( 2001) describes the way gender domination is inscribed in daily practices, in the architecture of houses and in the division of labor, so that it appears as natural as the weather.
In modern society, education provides one of Bourdieu's most important examples of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron  1977,  1979). The school appears as a relatively autonomous institution following universal rules and eliciting the active participation of teachers and students in the acquisition of labor market credentials. This meritocratic order obscures the bias of the school, whose pedagogy favors those middle- and upper-class students endowed with cultural capital (i.e., those already equipped with the capacity to appropriate mental and abstract teaching — the symbolic goods on offer). The school advantages the dominant classes and reproduces their domination through the participation of the dominated, a participation that holds out the possibility of upward mobility, thereby obscuring the class domination that it reproduces as its basis.
More generally, the dominant classes obscure their domination behind the distinction they display in the cultural sphere (Bourdieu  1984). Their familiarity with high culture — what Bourdieu calls legitimate culture — is conventionally viewed as a gift of the individual rather than an attribute of their class, acquired through socialization. The dominated are ashamed of their inadequate appreciation of legitimate culture, sometimes pretending to claim knowledge of it that they don't have and endowing it with a prestige that obscures its basis in class-determined cultural capital. Dominated cultures are just that — dominated by material necessity, on the one hand, and by the distinction of legitimate culture, on the other.
We will have reason to interrogate these claims in later conversations, but for now I am concerned with the implications of symbolic violence for Bourdieu's conception of sociology as a combat sport. If society is held together by symbolic violence that misrecognizes the grounds of class domination or gives it false legitimacy, then the task of the sociologist is to unmask the true function of the symbolic world and reveal the domination it hides. This, however, proves to be a a most difficult task — symbolic violence is rooted in the habitus, that is, in dispositions that lie deep in the unconscious, inculcated from childhood onward. Even leaving aside the question of habitus, Bourdieu maintained that the dominant classes have no interest in unmasking domination, whereas the dominated do not have the capacity — the instruments of sociological knowledge — to see through domination:
The sociologist's misfortune is that, most of the time, the people who have the technical means of appropriating what he says have no wish to appropriate it, no interest in appropriating it, and even have powerful interests in refusing it (so that some people who are very competent in other respects may reveal themselves to be quite obtuse as regards sociology), whereas those who would have an interest in appropriating it do not have the instruments for appropriation (theoretical culture etc.). Sociological discourse arouses resistances that are quite analogous in their logic and their manifestations to those encountered by psychoanalytical discourse. (Bourdieu  1993a, 23)(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Symbolic Violence"
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Prologue: Encountering Bourdieu 1
1. Sociology Is a Combat Sport: From Parsons to Bourdieu 18
2. The Poverty of Philosophy: Marx Meets Bourdieu 33
3. Cultural Domination: Gramsci Meets Bourdieu 59
4. Colonialism and Revolution: Fanon Meets Bourdieu 76
5. Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Freire Meets Bourdieu 94
6. The Antinomies of Feminism: Beauvoir Meets Bourdieu 110
7. The Sociological Imagination: Mills Meets Bourdieu 133
8. The Twofold Truth of Labor: Burawoy Meets Bourdieu 148
9. The Weight of the World: Bourdieu Meets Bourdieu 172
Conclusion: The Limits of Symbolic Violence 191
What People are Saying About This
“Michael Burawoy sets up an illuminating series of conversations between Bourdieu and some of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century (including Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Simone de Beauvoir, and C. Wright Mills) that seek to ‘bring to life some of the combatants that Bourdieu has repressed.’ Through these conversations Burawoy makes an intriguing case for Bourdieu as a revitalizing force for twenty-first-century Marxism.”
“Offering systematic comparisons between Bourdieu and several leading thinkers, Symbolic Violence represents first-rate scholarship from a seasoned thinker and will be of interest to all those who read Bourdieu.”