I’ve been on a Bourdieu kick for the course I’m currently taking on social theory (LHA 1803Y: Theory in Higher Education), and since Steve Easterbrook mentioned he wasn’t familiar with Bourdieu, I figured I’d write a quick and dirty introduction to Bourdieu’s social theories. Steve’s a systems thinker so this is written for such an audience.
In systems thinking we like to think of people as existing in many (overlapping) social systems (because, after all, pretty much everything to a systems thinker is a system.) These social systems can be things like school, work, a professional community, or even your favourite internet community.
Bourdieu would call those systems fields. (Specifically, a field is a system of social positions, with internal structure.) In his terminology, the rules determining the system/fields are known as nomos. (Fields are not the same as class, which I’ll get to later.) When people in fields ‘play by the rules’ of the system, and invest in it, he calls this illusio.
If you’re wondering if he also has paradigms in his systems, the answer is yes! He calls them doxa, the concepts and ideas which go without saying as it comes without saying – “the universe of possible discourse”.
As an individual, I interact with numerous fields. There are two things that matter about me in how I interact with these fields: my capital, and my habitus.
Bourdieu distinguishes numerous forms of capital:
- economic capital, how many financial assets I have
- social capital, who I know, my social networks, what I can get out them, etc.
- cultural capital, the knowledge, skills, advantages and education that I have – along with the cultural ‘know-how’ of how to navigate particular social situations
- symbolic capital, the resources available to me on the basis of honour, prestige, recognition, or my other forms of capitalA thing worth noting about capital is that its value is context-dependent. For example, my knowledge of Star Trek trivia (which is cultural capital), has use in nerdy fields like computer science, but less so at gatherings of my extended family. Similarly, my Canadian money is of lesser value outside of Canada, and even less value were I to visit a society with a bartering or gift-giving economy.
As for habitus, the description on Wikipedia wraps it up nicely: “the habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste”. Your habitus is developed in part through socialization. Bourdieu conceived of habitus as a way to study the interaction area between individual and society – in software engineering terms you might think of your habitus as being the coupler between an individual and society.
Every individual has a habitus – but likeminded individuals together can have group habitus. For example, a class habitus would refer to sensibilities, dispositions, tastes and ways of thinking about the world that are common to a social class.
Unlike previous social theorists like Weber or Marx, Bourdieu’s view of class is not based on just economic capital, but instead on all capital (social, cultural, economic, symbolic). For me this is an appeal of Bourdieu: it explains why a ‘blue collar’ tradesman making the same amount of money as a ‘white collar’ adjunct are not really the same class.
Much of Bourdieu’s work looks at the reproduction of social inequality. He identifies feedback loops (though not by name) of what keeps the classes separate – and cultural capital plays a major role. How much cultural capital a person has, and to what social standing they are born, are determine their social mobility.
Those with a large amount of cultural capital in society are able to determine taste in society – such as what is low-brow vs. high brow (and everything in between). And people judge other people based on taste – does somebody ‘fit’ into a particular field? When people don’t fit in to a particular field, symbolic violence is used to keep them out or make them feel uncomfortable. Symbolic violence (also known as symbolic power) comprises things like implicit biases, microaggressions, de facto discrimination, and all that other lovely stuff that’s used to “keep them in their place”.
Symbolic violence allows for the reproduction of social divisions. A kid growing up in a working class family is going to have less access to means of accumulating cultural capital, is more likely to be affected by class dispositions to not value education as highly, and is more likely to say and do things when interacting with intellectuals that make them stick out like a sore thumb. Indeed, Bourdieu focuses extensively on the little things that stop people (or allow people) to accumulate capital – what they wear, the things they say, the hobbies they have – for him it’s all about the gain on the feedback loops here. The word ‘accumulation’ tends to come up a lot.
The stories women have of not feeling like they belong in tech/CS are the type of thing very amenable to a Bourdieusian analysis. Indeed, his early work focused on how the French university system amplified social inequalities (both in terms of gender and of class – and the intersection of the two, well before the term _intersectionality _took off).
His work has been used quite a bit by sociologists to look at the reproduction of social inequalities – for example, a recent study used Bourdieu to examine how low-income minority ethnic groups feel alienated when they go to science museums – and why they don’t really go to them in the first place (hint: habitus plays a role – they have not been socially conditioned to see museums as a thing worth going to).
In many ways Bourdieu was a systems thinker – he thought of feedback loops, systems-within-systems, and systems-level behaviours, structures, rules and paradigms – but did not have the systems thinking vocabulary available to him. While he was active at the same time as the Systems Thinkers in the English-speaking world, few Systems Thinking based books have been translated into French – and most of the translations happened after Bourdieu died in 2002 (for example, Limits to Growth wasn’t translated into French until 2012!)
- Dawson. “Not Designed for Us”: How Science Museums and Science Centers Socially Exclude Low-Income, Minority Ethnic Groups, Science Education
- Pierre Bourdieu, Wikipedia* Bourdieu and Passeron, Les Héritiers, les étudiants et la culture
- Bourdieu, Questions de sociologie
- From Foucault to Bourdieu?, Let’s Read and Find Out
- some online lectures: