black and while image of Pierre Bourdieu

Who was Bourdieu?

Pierre Bourdieu (1930 – 2002), French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher. Born to small farmer turned postal worker and wife, in southern France, Bourdieu was educated at the Lycée in Pau, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris and the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) whre he studied philosophy.  Wrote The Sociology of Algeria (1958) following ethnographic research, became a teacher and Director of Centre de Sociologie Européenne,  and is known for his theoretical ideas around a sociology of culture, theory of practice and analysis of the structural nature of taste and status associated with classical and popular art forms. Bourdieu died of cancer aged 71. He presented society as a combination of structure, culture and agency  through the concepts of habitus, capital, and field as the motivators of social action and practice.

Habitus is about dispositions (inherent qualities of mind and character) with regard to seeing and being in the social world (schemes and schemata). It includes shared characteristics such as race, relation, education, class etc alongside cultural  preferences with regard to taste, style, food, music, politics, and values. Habitus is ‘the dialectic of the internalisation of externality and the externalisation of internality or, more simply, of incorporation and objectification’*

Capital is associated with status and progression, can be social, cultural, economic, or symbolic and understood as embodied, objectified or institutional. Examples of social capital include connections between people, and networks, made visible through interpersonal communication and trust. Cultural capital includes the knowledge, behaviours, skills, competence and education which determines social status.  Capital determines the social spaces individuals legitimately occupy and legitimates the ties which bind people to certain groups and locations.  The principles of capital can be applied to digital practice thereby creating a new form of digital capital.

The concept of field (more recent than habitus and capital) is the place where capital is distributed, shared and transferred leading to replication and reinforcement of habitus. Fields are sites of power struggles where capital is contested and status established. They can be political, intellectual, cultural, religious etc and contain a meta-field of diversity and struggle and a field which represents the dominant power. Technology Enhanced Learning can be viewed as field where possession of digital capital bestows entry and recognition.

[(habitus) × (capital)] + field = practices (from Distinction,1984: 101)

Habitus is the internalisation of fields, reinforced by capital, shaped by past and present actions, which result in practice which either replicates and reinforces habit or creates opportunities for resistance and change.

Texts 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’s theories provide explanations for social status and structures. Unlike Foucault’s technologies of self, where power is ubiquitous and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu’s explanations power are as culturally and symbolically created, dynamically legitimised through the interplay of agency and structure against a background of cultural appropriation or loss. Theorising social reality in this way offers the conceptual tools to question and critically analyse it in order to identify unequal relations of power.

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).

More about the 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 field below)

Habitus is the relationship between agents (individuals capital, the socialised norms which guide attitudes and behaviour) and structure (field). Habitus is the (often unconscious) 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 out onto the land. 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

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 embodied, 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.

* from Outline of a Theory of Practice by Pierre Bourdieu 1977 p72 – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press