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Bourdieu’s thoughts on why we are the way we are

Angel Dahouk reviews The Sociologist and the Historian by Pierre Bourdieu and Roger Chartier (Polity, £12.99)

Pierre Bourdieu is perhaps one of the more formidable names in sociology. A prolific and influential thinker, his works have invited praise for their pioneering ethnological approach, grounded in the empirical and informed by the theoretical.

Equally, his works have come under fierce criticism from those who oppose his structural homology that suggests individuals are defined by their social origins.

So it is refreshing to revisit the five narratives of these 1988 radio broadcasts in which historian Roger Chartier speaks with Bourdieu about the themes and practices underpinning his thinking. These discursive conversations explore the fields of sociology and history, presenting their overlaps, oversights and at times oppositional positions.

Bourdieu’s self-professed scientific approach has led him to uncover constants that go a considerable way to explaining why one path is taken by some individuals and not others. This, of course, has much to do with Bourdieu’s renowned concept of “cultural capital,” which he understands as a stock of cultural behaviours and competencies developed in a child’s social environment.

For Bourdieu, this cultural currency is recognised and legitimised through social structures and institutions such as schools, conferring power on those who have inherited cultural capital and similarly discriminating against those who have not.

As the discussions develop throughout the course of the book, Bourdieu criticises the epistemological approach taken by many historians. Their analysis of past times and characters rely on, rather than contest, accepted categorisations. Bourdieu argues that historians are one of the most likely groups to fall prey to anachronism, applying terms to eras in which they hold no meaning.

Taking politics as an example, Bourdieu says that: “The world of what I call the political field is practically an invention of the 19th century.”

He argues that the concepts in today’s political landscape are inherited from the historical construct rather than being a contemporary reality. Bourdieu claims that it is anachronistic to say that Michelangelo was an artist. He was an artisan but the artistic field as we understand it today only functions in a market society, an economic structure that did not exist at the time.

Likewise, Bourdieu admits that sociologists also fall prey to the misapplication of terms and that false truths about the social world are reproduced at the same time as they are expressed. This makes it very difficult to speak about reality at all. “It is a discourse carrying a metadiscourse that constantly says: ‘Be careful what you read’.’”

These dialogues have been compiled for the first time in English and are a welcome return to Bourdieu’s groundbreaking thinking.

They also do well to dispel misrepresentations of Bourdieu as a determinist.

By contrast, Bourdieu comes across as a lively and multidisciplinary scientist who, in questioning the architecture beneath actions, has genuinely introduced the possibility for freedom.


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