Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) was born to a working-class family in a small village in southern France called Denguin. Bourdieu’s father was a small farmer turned postal worker with little formal education, but he encouraged a young Bourdieu to pursue the best educational opportunities his country had to offer. Bourdieu took his father’s advice, eventually gaining admittance to one of France’s most prestigious universities, the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he studied philosophy under the famous Marxist thinker, Louis Althusser.
After receiving his doctorate, Bourdieu took a teaching position in Algiers, Algeria in 1958. Algeria was at that time a French colony, but a war was underway between France and an Algerian independence movement. During this time, Bourdieu undertook ethnographic fieldwork among the Kabyle, Algeria’s largest indigenous group. Based on his fieldwork, Bourdieu published his first book, The Algerians, which was an immediate success. Later, Bourdieu would also use this fieldwork to write Outline of a Theory of Practice, one of his first and most influential theoretical statements.
Bourdieu’s rising reputation as a leading social theorist landed him a position as Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and later, in 1981, the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France.
Bourdieu was a prolific academic writer. He published more than 25 books and over 300 articles and essays over his career. He was also a leading public intellectual in France, speaking out and organizing protests against what he saw as the unfair and exploitive aspects of neoliberal economic policy and globalization. By the time of his death in 2002, Bourdieu was known as one of France’s greatest scholars and one of the most influential social theorists in the world.
How Bourdieu Matters Today
It is hard to overestimate the influence Bourdieu has had on social theory. Bourdieu’s works have been translated in over two dozen languages and many are already considered classics in disciplines across the social sciences and humanities. Not only sociologists, but also those in anthropology, cultural studies, and education consider Bourdieu required reading for anyone trained in their disciplines. Bourdieu’s understanding of sociology as a “combat sport” that critically takes on and exposes the underlying structures of social life has also had a strong impact on the academic field, particularly in his home nation of France.
While he didn’t consider himself a Marxist sociologist, the theories of Karl Marx heavily influenced Bourdieu’s thinking. Marx’s influence is perhaps most evident in Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. Like Marx, Bourdieu argued that capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within the social order. For Bourdieu and Marx both, the more capital one has, the more powerful a position one occupies in social life. However, Bourdieu extended Marx’s idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—the same taste in movies, for example, or a degree from an Ivy League School—creates a sense of collective identity and group position (“people like us”). But Bourdieu also points out that cultural capital is a major source of social inequality. Certain forms of cultural capital are valued over others, and can help or hinder one’s social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital comes in three forms—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. One’s accent or dialect is an example of embodied cultural capital, while a luxury car or record collection are examples of cultural capital in its objectified state. In its institutionalized form, cultural capital refers to credentials and qualifications such as degrees or titles that symbolize cultural competence and authority.
Habitus is one of Bourdieu’s most influential yet ambiguous concepts. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital, to the deeply ingrained habits, skills, and dispositions that we possess due to our life experiences. Bourdieu often used sports metaphors when talking about the habitus, often referring to it as a “feel for the game.” Just like a skilled baseball player “just knows” when to swing at a 95-miles-per-hour fastball without consciously thinking about it, each of us has an embodied type of “feel” for the social situations or “games” we regularly find ourselves in. In the right situations, our habitus allows us to successfully navigate social environments. For example, if you grew up in a rough, crime ridden neighborhood in Baltimore, you would likely have the type of street smarts needed to successfully survive or steer clear of violent confrontations, “hustle” for jobs and money in a neighborhood with extremely low employment, and avoid police surveillance or harassment. However, if you were one of the lucky few in your neighborhood to make it to college, you would probably find that this same set of skills and dispositions was not useful—and maybe even detrimental—to your success in your new social scenario.
Habitus also extends to our “taste” for cultural objects such as art, food, and clothing. In one of his major works, Distinction, Bourdieu links French citizens’ tastes in art to their social class positions, forcefully arguing that aesthetic sensibilities are shaped by the culturally ingrained habitus. Upper-class individuals, for example, have a taste for fine art because they have been exposed to and trained to appreciate it since a very early age, while working-class individuals have generally not had access to “high art” and thus haven’t cultivated the habitus appropriate to the fine art “game.” The thing about the habitus, Bourdieu often noted, was that it was so ingrained that people often mistook the feel for the game as natural instead of culturally developed. This often leads to justifying social inequality, because it is (mistakenly) believed that some people are naturally disposed to the finer things in life while others are not.
Along with Bourdieu’s notion of a “feel for the game” came his theory of the game itself. Bourdieu understood the social world as being divided up into a variety of distinct arenas or “fields” of practice like art, education, religion, law, etc., each with their own unique set of rules, knowledges, and forms of capital. While fields can certainly overlap—education and religion, for example, overlap in many religiously-based colleges and universities in the United States—Bourdieu sees each field as being relatively autonomous from the others. Each field has its own set of positions and practices, as well as its struggles for position as people mobilize their capital to stake claims within a particular social domain. In art, for example, Bourdieu noticed that each generation of artists sought to overturn the established positions of those who came before them, only to be critiqued by the next generation of “avant-garde” artists who sought their own powerful positions within the field. Much like a baseball or football field, social fields are places where people struggle for position and play to win.