Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Bourdieu and “history”

The opening sentence of the introduction to this interesting volume reads, “It is not difficult to imagine some readers repeating the title of this book in the form of an incredulous question:  Bourdieusian theory and historical analysis?!” (Gorski, p.1)[1] The editor continues to imagine the reader’s surprise: “Wasn’t Bourdieu first and foremost a theorist of social reproduction rather than a theorist of historical transformation?” (ibid.) If the reader happens to subscribe to some form of a reproductionist reading of Bourdieu, this is not because it might be at least partly right, but because the reader is either ill-informed or ignorant: “To accuse Bourdieu of being a reproduction theorist… is to confess that one has not read that much of his work or that one has not read it very closely” (ibid., p. 11). This, in my opinion, is not a very felicitous way to begin a book, setting up Bourdieusian theory as a kind of club, open only to those who have read every word of the sacred texts, and who hold the officially approved interpretation(s) of the work. Fortunately, not all the contributors take this tone, and the book contains a number of interesting and useful essays that push one to think more deeply about both Bourdieu’s work and the idea of “history.”

Click to enlargePierre Bourdieu (photograph by Leonardo Antoniadis)

Pierre Bourdieu (photograph by Leonardo Antoniadis)

The book consists of thirteen essays, plus the introduction and a concluding essay by the editor, Philip S. Gorski.  Gorski and almost all the contributors are sociologists; the two non-sociologists are historians.  Although there are no contributions by anthropologists in the book, it should nonetheless be of interest to anthropologists seeking a more theorized approach to forms of domination and historical transformations thereof, past and future.

The essays are organized into three sections.  The first, called “Situating Bourdieu,” consists of readings of Bourdieu’s work as a whole in relation to the question of history (Swartz, Calhoun, Charle).  The second, called “Theoretical Engagements,” consists of essays juxtaposing Bourdieu’s work with the work of a range of other theories/theorists, including rational choice theory (Ermakoff), Lacanian psychoanalytic theory (Steinmetz), Actor Network Theory (Eyal), the pragmatism of John Dewey (Emirbayer and Schneiderhan), and various approaches to the sociology of knowledge (Camic).  The third section, called “Historical Extensions,” consists of case studies applying Bourdieusian theory to a range of historical cases (Goldberg, Gorski, Sapiro, Nye, Defrance).

I must begin by making some preliminary comments.  First of all, I have a different take on the question of whether Bourdieu is primarily concerned with social reproduction or social transformation.  As noted, Gorski and most of the contributors state or imply that it is simply incorrect to think of Bourdieu as primarily a theorist of social reproduction. Yet even within his earlier and later work, in which he does explicitly raise historical questions, it seems to me that the processes of social reproduction – the lag and drag of history, via habitus – dominate his thinking on the subject.  Bourdieu can be certainly be read against the grain (as basically all of these authors are doing) to show his abiding historical concerns, to show particular moments when instances of social transformation come to the fore, and to show the ways in which – regardless of his bias toward social reproduction – his work can be used to understand historical processes and historical events.  That is what this book offers us, and that is very useful indeed.

But it nonetheless seems to me clear that Bourdieu’s passion, almost his obsession, is with the forces and dynamics of social reproduction, not because he does not care about social change, but because he cares about it very much.  His is a theory of why, despite injustice, despite humiliation, despite violence, and often despite sheer common sense, people cannot see what is holding them down. Although Gorski argues that the view of Bourdieu as primarily a reproduction theorist derives from the popularity of his middle-period work (mostly Outline of a Theory of Practice, Distinction, and Logic of Practice), in fact the question of social reproduction is central to virtually everything he wrote.  Thus for example he states at the beginning of a later work, Masculine Domination:

I have always been astonished by what might be called the paradox of doxa – the fact that the order of the world as we find it, with its one-way streets and its no-entry signs, whether literal or figurative, its obligations and its penalties, is broadly respected; that there are not more transgressions and subversions, contraventions and ‘follies’…; or, still more surprisingly, that the established order, with its relations of domination, its rights and prerogatives, privileges and injustices, ultimately perpetuates itself so easily… (2001:1).

Thus most of Masculine Domination is taken up not (as one might have expected) with the social organization of patriarchy as a system of power, but with the ways in which it perpetuates itself through “symbolic violence,” that is, through women’s deep psychological and somatic internalization of their own inferiority.  Indeed women are perhaps the paradigmatic case for Bourdieu of “the paradox of doxa,” across history and across many cultures.  (The article by Robert Nye, “The Transmission of Masculinities:  The Case of Early Modern France,” usefully takes up some of these issues.)[2]

Second, as this discussion suggests, there is a kind of hidden term in the consideration of Bourdieu and history, which is not about just the ways in which his work is or is not useful for historical analysis, but about the ways in which his work sustains a critical/political agenda.  Indeed the articles in the book may be seen as breaking broadly into two groups, one (the larger one) in which the focus is primarily on Bourdieu’s theoretical system in a relatively neutral academic sense, and one in which the focus is primarily on Bourdieu’s theory as informed by a set of critical political concerns.

With respect to the first group, the focus tends to be on extending Bourdieu’s conceptual apparatus. Bourdieu has given us a rich vocabulary of theoretical concepts – fields, capital (all kinds), doxa, habitus, and so forth – and many of the articles are devoted to working through what those concepts mean and how they work and how far they can be pushed in relation to other theoretical vocabularies.  To take a few examples from the book, Bourdieu’s notion of “field” is fundamentally theoretical, a kind of abstract space in which (real) struggles for various forms of capital take place.  But Gil Eyal asks us to think of fields in a more empirical/material way, and to consider whether there are, as in the title of his essay, “Spaces between Fields”.  Similarly, in “Bourdieu’s Two Sociologies of Knowledge,” Charles Camic asks us to think of fields as “porous,” and to consider the significance of borrowing across fields.  Finally, in the Conclusion, Philip Gorski usefully points out that Bourdieu uses the concept of “field” in two different ways, as a “force field” and a “playing field;” Gorski goes on to define historical transformation as five kinds of changes in “fields.”

The second, and smaller, group of essays takes a somewhat different tack.  Here Bourdieu is read not simply in terms of extending and deepening his theoretical apparatus, but in terms of how the theory is always informed, and sometimes driven, by critical historical and political concerns.  Three essays are developed around this perspective, though in very different ways, and I will say a few words about each.

In “Metaprinciples for Sociological Research in a Bourdieusian Perspective,” David Swartz reads Bourdieu not primarily in terms of his theoretical vocabulary, but in terms of “the intellectual dispositions that animated [his] work” (p. 20).  Swartz lists six principles, of which the first is to develop “a sociology of power and domination” (p.21):  “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.”(ibid.) A second principle is to “break with received views” (ibid.), in order to reveal these processes of domination that are invisible to those immersed in the games of social life.  A third principle is to use his concepts as “conceptual arms for combat” (p. 24), to expose symbolic violence wherever it occurs, and especially – in his later work and his activism – within the current neoliberal order.  And so forth.

Once we understand this fundamentally critical/political disposition behind Bourdieu’s work, from Swartz’s point of view, we can return to the theoretical vocabulary with new eyes.  For example we are reminded to see social fields as outcomes of struggle, rather than as abstract sites in which struggles for power and prestige may take place:

How might one construct a field?  First, identify some arena of struggle.  Ask what the struggle is over?  (Where is the fire?)  Do not think of it simply in topological terms, such as the space of all higher education institutions or the arena of religion that would include all places of worship.  That would be too empiricist and too abstract.  Population ecology is not a Bourdieusian field.  All nonprofits do not constitute a field.  Start with a struggle.  (p. 27).

In sum, Swartz argues that power and domination are at the center of Bourdieusian theory, and that the theory only achieves its full force when viewed this way, rather than as an assemblage of methodological tools.

In “For the Social History of the Present:  Bourdieu as Historical Sociologist,” Craig Calhoun makes the case for seeing Bourdieu as a historical sociologist, in the sense that “social transformations – and their limits and unintended consequences – were core foci of his sociological project” (p.36).  These macro-level transformations are all, in one way or another, tied to transformations of state power:  1. “The way state power and market expansions produced a deracination or uprooting of ‘traditional’ ways of life;” 2. “The creation of… modern society by the differentiation of state and market power;” 3. “The great economic expansion and welfare state project of the post-Second World War era;” and 4. “The massive attack on the state… that is often called neoliberalism” (p. 37).  Calhoun goes on to show the ways in which these macro-historical, which are also macro-political, transformations, shaped Bourdieu’s work at the level of both empirical interests and theoretical categories.  Thus for example Bourdieu’s early work on the Kabyle, and on Béarn, was shaped by the fact of French colonialism and/or by the state-market nexus of changes in which both Algerian and French peasants were at a deep disadvantage.  It was in this context, Calhoun argues, that Bourdieu developed his concept of “symbolic violence” (p. 38).  Or at a different level, Bourdieu’s extensive work on the French education system is illuminated by seeing it in the context of, among other things, the formation and expansion of the French welfare state after World War II.  In sum, where Swartz draws our attention primarily to the on-the-ground struggles for power and capital within fields, Calhoun draws our attention to macro-political processes that shape the fields within which those struggles take place.

The third and rather different example is the article by Mustafa Emirbayer and Erik Schneiderhan called “Dewey and Bourdieu on Democracy.”  Emirbayer and Schneiderhan show the extensive parallels and continuities between Bourdieu’s and Dewey’s theoretical thinking.  They argue as well that, with a different vocabulary, Bourdieu shared Dewey’s concern with “democratic politics”:  “From his earliest studies of colonial Algeria and provincial Béarn, to his midcareer work on education, politics, and social class in France, to his researches later in life on global neoliberalism and the retrenchment of the welfare state, he pursued scholarly work as a way of engaging indirectly in democratic politics” (p. 138).  Emirbayer and Schneiderhan go on to discuss the ways in which Bourdieu’s thought went beyond Dewey’s, especially in the concept of social/historical fields which mediated between large scale social forces and people’s abilities to realize democratic participation.  Emirbayer and Schneiderhan also focus on Bourdieu’s analysis of the state with its enormous capacity for not only physical violence but symbolic power.  “Much of Bourdieu’s life’s work was devoted to analyzing how the state operates outside the scope of democratic oversight – ‘beneath consciousness and choice’ – to induce compliance”(p. 142).  Finally, the authors’ Deweyite perspective also leads them to introduce the thorny issue of “agency,” or the role of at least partially intentional action in social transformation:  “Having an integral and comprehensive theory of agency… would have allowed [Bourdieu] greater analytic leeway when analyzing instances of transformative action” (p. 151).

The political dimension of Bourdieu’s work is not wholly absent from the other articles (see, for example, George Steinmetz on the idea of a “disjunctural habitus” under colonialism, p. 123, or Robert Nye on the reproduction through “dehistoricization” of forms of masculinity, p. 286ff).  On the whole, however, the three articles just discussed are particularly clear in bringing out the political concerns underlying Bourdieu’s work, and in arguing in effect that one cannot think of “Bourdieu and historical analysis” without keeping those political concerns clearly in mind.

Returning now to the broader question of “history,” several authors quote Bourdieu as explicitly calling for a rapprochement between sociology and history:  “I can say that one of my most steadfast ambitions… has been to promote the growth of a unified social science, in which history would be a historical sociology of the past and sociology would be a social history of the present” (quoted in Charle, p. 67).  Nonetheless, the idea of “history” is never systematically theorized in the book, perhaps because Bourdieu himself used the term in multiple ways, and perhaps because the authors of the articles have different agendas with respect to “history.”  In closing, then, I would like to pull together the senses of “history” that are, often implicitly, developed in this book.

The first, and least developed, is history as social reproduction.  There is a persistent tendency to equate history with change, but of course social reproduction is as historical as social transformation.  Moreover, as already indicated, I would argue that the dominant view of “history” in Bourdieu’s writings is much more on the side of reproduction than transformation:  over and over, Bourdieu views history (i.e., the past) as a drag on the present and an impediment to social change.  This is central to his core concept of habitus, which he defined as “embodied history,” the mechanism through which forms of domination are reproduced in subjects and in social formations over time.  This theme is quite downplayed in the book (but see Emirbayer and Schneiderhan, p. 147), in keeping with the contributors’ interest in resisting the reading of Bourdieu as (only) a theorist of social reproduction.

The second, and dominant, meaning of “history” in this volume, then, is history as social transformation.  Social transformation itself takes several forms.  One is epochal transformation, particularly the transition from the pre-modern world to modernity (Calhoun; Emirbayer and Schneiderhan). Another condenses around particular events in the past, and specifically “times of crisis” (Ermakoff), the main case being the events of May ’68 in France (Gorski, Sapiro, and others).  For peasants and other peoples in remote areas, both the encounters with modernity and with specific historical conditions like colonialism constitute important “conjunctures” in which major transformations may be triggered as a result of the misfit between an existing habitus and the new conditions (see also Sahlins 1981, Sewell 2005).  A final type of social transformation is the most specifically Bourdieusian: the transformations of social fields, whether through incremental, but ultimately radical, transformation as a result of generational and other struggles within fields (Gorski, Calhoun), or through the gain or loss of field “autonomy” under particular macro-historical conditions (Sapiro, Defrance).  The effect of these many essays on Bourdieu and social transformation is very persuasive, not so much in showing that Bourdieu “really” was concerned with change, as in showing how Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, and his broader critical perspective, can in fact provide a range of powerful tools for the interpretation of both social reproduction and social transformation.

And finally, there is one more important use of the concept of “history” in Bourdieu’s work and in this book:  “history” not as the reproduction or transformation of the world “out there,” but as a critical (in both senses) perspective for the social sciences.  History in this sense is central to Bourdieu’s insistence on reflexivity, for both individual scholars and for the social science fields as a whole, and ultimately for all academic work.  “History appears as a privileged instrument for breaking with received views that strike the uncritical observer as self-evident, commonsensical, and only natural” (Swartz, p. 22).  “History demonstrates that existing relations are made, not necessary” (Calhoun, p. 63).  “[H]istoricization is a potent means of denaturalization, a way of uncovering the social that is concealed in the natural” (Gorski, p. 353). “History” here is the simple but mind-opening idea that the social world is always being made, unmade, or held in place by real social actors, that it was different in the past and can be (made to be, though not easily) different in the future.



Bourdieu, Pierre.  2001.  Masculine Domination.  Trans. Richard Nice.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Ortner, Sherry B.  2006 [1995].  “Resistance and the Problem of Ethnographic Refusal.”  In S.B. Ortner, Anthropology and Social Theory:  Culture, Power and the Acting Subject, pp. 42-62.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Radin, Paul.  1927.  Primitive Man as Philosopher.  New York:  D. Appleton Co.

Sahlins, Marshall.  1981.  Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities:  Structure in the Early History of the Sandwich Islands Kingdoms.  Ann Arbor, MI:  University of Michigan Press.

Scott, James.  1990.  Domination and the Arts Of Resistance:  Hidden Transcripts.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.

Sewell, William H., Jr.  2005.  “A Theory of the Event:  Marshall Sahlins’s ‘Possible Theory of History.’”  In W.H. Sewell, Jr., Logics of History:  Social Theory and Social Transformation, pp. 197-224.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

  1. [1]Acknowledgements: I wish to thank Rogers Brubaker, Gail Kligman, and Timothy D. Taylor for their willingness to provide comments on very short notice, and for their very thoughtful and helpful comments.
  2. [2]One might question how empirically real or absolute doxa is in any given case, even in very simple traditional societies.  There is an alternative literature on this question which neither Bourdieu nor the contributors to this book consider, for example, Paul Radin’s old classic, Primitive Man as Philosopher (1927), in which Radin suggests that “primitive man” is often more self-reflexive than anthropologists and others imagine, or James Scott’s more recent Domination and the Arts of Resistance (1990), in which Scott argues that dominated actors often know very well what is keeping them down, but comply for a variety of reasons, including fear of reprisals, tradeoffs and benefits, etc. (see also Ortner 2006).  This would be the subject of a different essay.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues