black and while image of Pierre Bourdieu

Who was Bourdieu?

Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002) born to postal worker and wife, was French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher. Educated at the Lycée in Pau, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and École Normale Supérieure (ENS) to study philosophy.  Wrote The Sociology of Algeria (1958) following ethnographic research. Became a teacher and Director of Centre de Sociologie Européenne, dying of cancer age 71. Theoretical ideas informed by empirical research and described as sociology of culture or “Theory of Practice”. Key terms habitus, capital and field with capital covering a variety of categories such as social, cultural and financial capital, all combined as symbolic capital. Books include Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1979) and Language and Symbolic Power (1982)

Why does Bourdieu matter?

Bourdieu produced a theory of social class based on the concept of capital which determined the social spaces individuals could legitimately occupy. Capital has multiple forms and the principles can be used to construct a digital capital appropriate for a digital society in 21st century.  Bourdieu’s theories provide explanations for social status and structures and is known for his analysis of structural nature of taste and status associated with classical and popular art forms. Unlike Foucault’s technologies of self, where power is ubiquitous and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu’s explanations power as culturally and symbolically created, dynamically legitimised through the interplay of agency and structure.

Bourdieu in one sentence

Bourdieu provides a conceptualisation of social reality using the concepts of habitus, field and capital which explains the links between agency (what people do and why they do it i.e. habitus and capital) and structure (institutional discourse and ideology i.e.  fields and doxa).

Key concepts

Theory of Capital – Capital (Cultural – behavioral codes which act as identifiers of status  i.e. what you know – and Social – the people you associate with i.e. who you know) defines life chances for citizens in post war society. The distribution of capital builds class and status with capital being unequally distributed and different types of capital can be  grouped together as Symbolic Capital.

Cultural Capital (cultural knowledge) has three forms.

  • Embodied capital – material objects eg body, skills, language, literacies, accent, posture, car  etc or symbolic eg tastes in music art and literature etc. Dominant/powerful social classes can differentiate themselves by how they look and behave.
  • Objectified capital – possessions i.e. what you have are expressions of prestige and identity,  what you have or  don’t have is how you are measured with social status being attached to expensive items in capitalist societies (this is the process of making attributions, assumptions, stereotypes etc on appearance)
  • Institutionalised capital – Credentials and qualifications e.g. HE degrees perceived as higher from Oxbridge and Russell Group institutions – this also covers professional accreditation and status

Social Capital is gained through social relationships and being connected. Social capital derives from the relationships you acquire and maintain (e.g. family and friend ) or through inheritance (e.g. the class you are born into or are taken into) Social capital equates to individual power. People often want to make connections with those with higher levels of social capital.

Symbolic Capital – this assigns agents to legitimate position within a field (think Community of Practice Apprenticeship model and legitimate peripheral participation where the newcomer has not yet acquired the knowledge of practice but is accepted as having beginner status). Symbolic capital makes use of a set of rules in the field (doxa – see feild below)

Habitus is the relationship between agents (individuals capital, the socialised norms which guide attitudes and behaviour) and structure (field). Habitus is then interplay between agency and structures and is dynamic rather than fixed. It can have negative or positive outcomes depending on the environment or field.  It operates below level of consciousness – is tacit – uncritical – internalised – like a fish takes water for granted and is only aware of it when taken our onto the land. Your habitus can be known through reflection and analysis.

Fields are structures with associated discourse (e.g. class, sub-groups or institutions e.g. academia, science, medicine etc) with power relations between those associated with them (e.g. lecturers/students, doctors/patients) Fields can  be places or spaces (e.g. different departments e.g. library, TEL Team, ICT etc) or clusters of agents like friendship groups. A groups of fields together can create a Macro field e.g. university campus or hospital.  Fields have their own prescribed rules and behavioural expectations – doxa. When an individual enters a field the people/agents (social groupings) already located there will evaluate the person and ascribe their position and potential impact on existing power structures (using visible capital) accordingly – i.e. will they fit in peacefully or pose a challenge to existing rules (ways of working). Rules and codes are the doxa and new comers need to learn how to doxa works within different situations.

Relevance of Bourdieu  to my research

If power is socially and culturally located it may be possible to challenge and change the circumstances (field and doxa) and cultural capital as practice (lifestyle) and product of habitus,. It represents socially qualified systems made up of preferences and taste. Bourdieu claimed actions are not determined by but are influenced by the social environment which, although power relations have been obscured and hidden, they can be revealed through critical analysis. Individuals are situated within a socially constructed environment which has the potential to be restructured.

Reflections on Bourdieu

Among other insights, Bourdieu has helped our understanding of what constitutes art and how individual taste portrays where people are positioned within class systems. Rather than power being ubiquitous, it’s social and cultural structures can be revealed which opens opportunities to challenge and change them.

The notion of cultural capital as embodies, objectified and institutionalised ca be used to develop a conception of digital capital. Changing from a technology-first to a pedagogy-first approach to embedding  digital practices through fields such a learning design, and positioning this within other fields where it might not always be found, eg subject groups, programmes, and teaching teams,  may encourage changes in attitude and practice more successfully than adopting a ‘training’ approach which seeks to change the individual irrespective of the environment in which they are located.