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Understanding Post-Structuralism and Pierre Bourdieu: Some Key Concepts

Updated on August 20, 2014

The Rise of Post-Structuralism

The social and intellectual milieu in France that gave rise to Post Structuralism was a varied and profound ferment of ideas and social forces which provided competing angles of approach to the fundamental, divisive questions of the Social Sciences. Structuralism, which had originated with Saussure’s linguistics in the early 20th century (Deleuze 2002:170), had been appropriated and popularized by Claude Levi-Strauss (Blackburn 2008). French intellectuals such as Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and others formed the Structuralist movement while investigating the theory’s applications to fields as diverse as philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, and anthropology.

Also part of the admixture of the intellectual milieu of France at the time was Merleau-Ponty and, after him, Lyotard and Derrida, who were examining the phenomenology of Husserl (Robbins 2002:302). At around the same time, the influence of Heidegger on the intellectual scene could be found first in Sarte and later in Foucault; Max Weber had a prominent proponent in Raymond Aron; and Jean Hyppolite brought renewed interest to Hegel, Marxism, and Existentialism (Robbins 2002:302). Taken collectively, a primary bifurcation existed between German Romanticism and Weberian sociology on the one hand, and the Durkheimian ideas that led to Structuralism, on the other, with other important currents involved as well.

The optimistic positivism of structuralism’s collectivistic goals, along with many individuals’ faith in the paradigm of social structures referred to as “Modernism”, were thrown into question by the political and social events of the 20th century: “…the great impact of the Second World War in France elevated issues of politics and ethical responsibility arising from questions about humanism, the self, and power.” (Silva 2012:564). People began to question the assumptions that were believed to have caused the widespread injustices and inequalities which were becoming associated with Modernism. Among those who were eventually defined as Post Structuralists, the individuals who began in the 1960’s to attack Structuralism’s basic tenets had themselves previously been included among the coterie of Structuralists, including Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, and Pierre Bourdieu (Deleuze 2002:170-192). Joining in the siege of Structuralism were such notable intellectuals as literary critic Roland Barthes, among others (Lavers 1982). Though some proponents of Structuralism remain, exemplified by the work of Jacques Lacan, the dominant trend in the French intellectual establishment from the 1960’s onward was reacting against such universalizing “meta-narratives”, and that trend was called Post Structuralism.

A final note about the intellectual climate of France around the time of the rise of Post Structuralism is important: since the development of the discipline of sociology in France was somewhat late, many important sociologists received their original training in philosophy (Silva 2012:564). According to Silva, this had important reverberations throughout their later, sociological careers by inculcating commitment to “…a resistance to specialization”, “training in different fields”, “…engagement with competing currents of thought”, “…combination of empirically grounded and theoretically informed social science”, and “…politically committed work.” (Silva 2012:564). Pierre Bourdieu, the subject of this text, was a student of the philosopher Althusser before gravitating toward anthropology, as will be discussed below, and this foundation had a significant impact on his thought in the ways discussed above (Silva 2012:564).

With a sketch of the intellectual milieu of France in the middle of the 20th century established, this text will now turn to a closer look at the tenets of Post Structuralism, before moving on to the life and thought of Pierre Bourdieu.

Post Structuralism

Post Structuralism is a theoretical construct defined primarily by its opposition to Structuralism, and by its (slight) differentiation from Post Modernism. Rather than digress into a lengthy examination of Post-Structuralism as a never-integrated mass of outputs from many sectors of academia, this section of the text will define it in contrast to those theoretical constructions to which it is most often compared.

While Structuralism argued that human culture could be understood by identifying structures that mediated between concrete reality and abstract ideas (Deleuze 2002:171-173), Post Structuralism generally finds fault with the binary oppositions found within Structuralism as well as with the self-contained explanatory and causal power of the structures posited by Structuralism (Craig 1998:597).

To be brief, Structuralism: does not doubt the existence of objective reality; emphasizes the coherence of systems as a property essential to the construction of meaning; focuses on how systems set limits on what can be thought; is reductive in pursuit of universal truths; and is anti-humanist in that it deterministically places world-view creation in the hands of its structures (Whisnant 2012:1).

Post Structuralism, in contrast: doubts the existence of objective reality, “…or at the very least…emphasize(s) the extent to which the widely understood difference between “ideas” and “reality” is one constructed through discourse” (Whisnant 2012:1); maintains that the pressures and interactions of multiple systems of discourse lead to incoherence and plural meaning; is also reductive, but is self-reflexive in its reduction, analyzing the differences being ignored for possible ways to challenge the “ at work.” (Whisnant 2012:1); does not pursue “Universal Truth”; and is partially deterministic, in that it posits the power of discourse and language to structure thought while also maintaining a subjective creativity and unpredictability for individuals within social fields (Whisnant 2012:1).

The above comparison provides an approximate outline of the similarities and differences between Structuralism and Post Structuralism – though it should be noted that such generalizations about a philosophical movement as diverse as Post Structuralism are only that, generalizations, and many of the eminent thinkers categorized by American academia as “Post Structuralists” claimed it was not a label they accepted for themselves. The boundary between Post Modernism and Post Structuralism, however, is a somewhat less stark affair. Post Modernism and Post Structuralism share an affinity in that both serve as “critiques of positivism.” (Stockman 1984). Another commonality is that both “…theoretical perspectives…reject presuppositionless representation, arguing explicitly that such representation is both politically undesirable and philosophically impossible.” (Agger 1991:105).

Thus, Post Modernism and Post Structuralism find inherent, impassable obstacles between the application of positivist science to the study of culture, and both philosophies reject the possibility of objectivity in knowledge, representation, and perception. But there are differences as well, though a clean separation of the two is difficult to achieve (Agger 1991:107). Noted intellectuals are often claimed by both Post Structuralism and Post Modernism: Foucault, Barthes, and Lyotard are examples of this trend (Agger 1991:107). One way to ‘slice the pie’ is put forward by Agger, who comments on the subject, “For my purposes…poststructuralism (Derrida, the French feminists) is a theory of knowledge and language, whereas postmodernism (Foucault, Barthes, Lyotard, Baudrillard) is a theory of society, culture, and history.” (1991:107).

Since the two terms are so historically entwined, I would put forward that Post Structuralists are what individuals are called who have adopted a (mostly) Postmodern perspective after beginning their intellectual careers as Structuralists – a phenomena which took place mostly in France and the French cultural sphere, as it happens, which is where many of Post Structuralism’s central theorists (e.g. Foucault, Lacan, Barthes, Lyotard, Bourdieu, Derrida) were from.

As a brief aside, an interesting, alternative way to distinguish Post Modernism, Post Structuralism, and Structuralism is to view Structuralism as an attempt to create unifying principles out of social phenomena (objective truth), Post Modernism as the abandonment of the attempt at unifying principles (subjective truth), and Post Structuralism as some kind of (vague) middle ground between the two (objective and subjective truth).

It could be that the two philosophical schools have not been rigorously separated theoretically because they are such close allies in their stance against positivism. As Habermas says in On the Logic of the Social Sciences, "the positivist thesis of unified science, which assimilates all the sciences to a natural-scientific model, fails because of the intimate relationship between the social sciences and history, and the fact that they are based on a situation-specific understanding of meaning that can be explicated only hermeneutically ... access to a symbolically prestructured reality cannot be gained by observation alone." (Outhwaite 1988:22). The union of Post Modernism and Post Structuralism exists in their joint recognition of these ideas of Habermas’ – in their joint antipositivist orientation and their enthronement of subjectivity as the only possible path to social knowledge.

With this necessarily approximate understanding of where Post Structuralism is situated among the philosophies to which it is most often compared, this text will now proceed to examine the life and works of Pierre Bourdieu, considered to be one of the preeminent Post Structuralists (despite his disdain for the label).

A groundbreaking theorist at work.

Pierre Bourdieu at his desk.
Pierre Bourdieu at his desk. | Source

Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu was born on the 1st of August, 1930 in Denguin, France, to a working class family, and his early education in provincial schools led to his admittance to the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he initially studied philosophy under the Marxist Louis Althusser (Packwood 2003:6). Upon gaining his doctorate, in 1958 Bourdieu accepted a teaching post in Algiers, Algeria (Packwood 2003:6). French colonial Algeria was in turmoil as the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) was effectively at its midpoint (Horne 1977:15). Conscripted into a year of military service, Bourdieu acted as a guard for military installations before being transferred to clerical work (Goodman 2009:8-9). While he was there Bourdieu commenced ethnographic fieldwork with Algeria’s largest indigenous group, the Kabyle. From his research among the Kabyle he wrote The Algerians (1962), which upon publication was an immediate success. 1962 was a good year for Bourdieu in a number of ways, as it was also the year that he married Marie-Claire Blizard, which whom he would have three sons.

From his fieldwork in Algeria, Bourdieu brought with him more than the outcomes represented by his brief book mentioned above – he brought the seeds of much of his later thought as well. For it was his experiences among the Kabyle that shaped the philosophy that would come to be manifested in Bourdieu’s Outline for a Theory of Practice (1977), though that would not be published in English until eighteen years after his time in North Africa. During the interim, Bourdieu held a number of posts at the École Normale Supérieure, the University of Paris, and the University of Lille, as well as at Princeton University. Bourdieu finished his academic career with two decades as chair of the sociology department at the College de France (Packwood 2003:6). By his death from cancer at the age of 71, Pierre Bourdieu was considered to be one of the leading intellectuals of France, with forty published books and hundreds of articles on subjects so diverse that it is as difficult to define his oeuvre as it is to define Post-Structuralism itself.

In Bourdieu and Culture, Derek Robbins views this sprawl of Bourdieu’s research interests and the diversity of his publications as the direct result of “…his trajectory within the French academy, a matter of dispositions changing as a result of competition and struggle within the intellectual field.” (Warde 2002:1004). Robbins goes on to enumerate three stages to Bourdieu’s intellectual life: cultural anthropologist, scientific sociologist, and public intellectual (Warde 2002:1004). Viewing his career in this matter – using Bourdieu’s own idea of the history of idea formation to explain Bourdieu’s shifting focal points and public stances – gives ample explanation to the broad spectrum that is his corpus. Regardless of what some see as a lack of focus, Bourdieu’s prolific career achieved the highest possible status at the period toward the end of his life, from 1990 onward becoming “…the most quoted sociologist in the world, much more quoted than giants of contemporary social sciences like Goffman, Giddens, Habermas…Elias, and Luhman.” (Santoro 2011:5).

Now that a brief biographical sketch has illuminated the foundations and benchmarks of Bourdieu’s life, this text will turn to his main theoretical contributions and ideas.

Bourdieu's Theories

Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts are many, but for brevity’s sake this text will only explore those central to much of his work, which happen to be some of the same theories which are most applicable to anthropology. It is important to note that methodologically Bourdieu was ceaselessly self-reflexive, stressing empiricism in his work with a rigorous and consistent materialist approach, accumulating massive amounts of information for his investigations and using methodologies to match his theories, such as multiple correspondence analysis (Bourdieu 1984:41). Among his many important concepts Bourdieu developed ideas concerning social, cultural, and symbolic capital (Bourdieu 2013:297); the term habitus (2004:582 and 2000); the connection between class and taste (1984:1-20); the concept of social fields(1989:14); and the idea of symbolic violence (Weininger 2002:156). Each of these theories will be briefly described below.

Bourdieu took the concept of capital, applied originally to the study of economics, and theorized that other kinds of capital where also distributed unevenly among individuals in any social field, determining the ability of individuals to survive in those social fields (Bourdieu 1989:14 and 2013). These kinds of capital were social and cultural capital: social capital being the social connections an individual can utilize when needed; and cultural capital being the advantages (or disadvantages) deferred on the upper classes (or lower classes) by merit of the dispositions and tastes that affirm their social positions (1984:69). Any kind of capital that was not economic, social, or cultural capital Bourdieu called symbolic capital (Wacquant 2006:7). Symbolic capital can be seen as advantages conferred on individuals who have achieved some sort of prestige, fame, elected position, award, or some other “attribute of excellence” which enhances their social positions in some way (Bourdieu 1984:66).

Interconnected with the concept of different kinds of capital, and in particular cultural capital, is the term habitus (Bourdieu 1990:53). Bourdieu was not the first to use the term, which can be found in the work of Weber, Husserl, and others, and which even then is a reworking of Aristotle’s original term hexis. But the way Bourdieu defined and applied the term made it indelibly his. Habitus as Bourdieu defines it refers to the habitual manifestations of a gradually accumulated disposition, taste, or predilection for certain practice-based methodologies for individuals to play the ‘rules of the game’ of social fields (1990:53). “The habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.” (Scott and Marshall 1998). In other words, habitus is the way people learn to behave and navigate different kinds of social situations (or fields, see below), based not only on the objective ‘rules of the game’ (the social structures such as laws, rules, manners, etc.) but also on the individual’s own unique methods for advancing his or her position in those various social fields by any means possible, including creative use of the structures. Here is the most recent (and last) definition of habitus which Bourdieu provided us with:

Systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.Objectively `regulated' and `regular' without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (Bourdieu 1990:53).

From the above one can see that habitus is presented as an intrinsic process, the field-driven and unconscious education of an individual in the subtle strategies of navigating that field for greatest success.

Habitus is related to cultural capital because the social class of an individual partially determines whether his or her habitus will propel or handicap his or her advancement in society – the upper-class habitus infers more cultural capital because it is part of a self-perpetuating system that assigns value determined by the upper-class, while the lower-class habitus perpetuates the lower class’ social positions in a similar manner, promoting tastes which when displayed in public signify the symbolic distance between the lower classes and the upper classes in social fields (Bourdieu 1984:69).

Also deeply connected to both cultural capital and habitus, the manner in which individuals display their status through the presentation of their social space to the world, their ‘aesthetic taste’ or ‘distinction’, is determined by, while also determining of, their social class: taste “functions as a sort of social orientation, a ‘sense of one’s place,’ guiding the occupants of a space towards the social positions adjusted to their properties, and towards the practices or goods which befit the occupants of that position.” (Bourdieu 1984:466). Internalized dispositions in taste which are passed unconsciously from parent to child reflect the different classes’ aesthetic criteria, which in turn are reflective of their relative position in society while also reifying that position. People, Bourdieu suggests, tend to accept the “definitions that their elders offer them.” (Bourdieu 1984:477), and thus they tend to retain the aesthetic presentations of the classes from which they have issued. Habitus reinforces habitus by reinforcing class.

The concept of the field is entwined in Bourdieu’s thought as well. Habitus is produced through the interaction of the individual with the ‘rules of the game’ of different social fields. A social field is any area of social discourse with its own set of rules, accepted behaviors and norms, and schemes of control (1989:14). Some of the main fields Bourdieu saw in modern societies included the arts, education , law, politics, and the economy – all of which require of the individual the development of some fraction of his or her habitus in order to navigate successfully, while also limiting the possibilities of that development through the specific requirements of each field. In other words, to Bourdieu the habitus-field interaction meant that, rationality is “socially bounded.” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:126).

Finally, Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence in intrinsically connected to his theory of symbolic capital. If symbolic capital can be seen as the advantages conferred on an individual based on the relative prestige they enjoy among their peers, the prominence of their positions and achievements, or their accumulation of the “attributes of excellence” (Bourdieu 1984:66), then symbolic violence is understood as the range of events in which such symbolic capital is negated, held back, or made to be lost. “When differences of economic and cultural capital are misperceived as differences of honor, they function as what Bourdieu calls symbolic capital.” (Weininger 2002:145). Symbolic capital is representative of the relative ‘situatedness’ of the players on a given social field in terms of respective levels of ‘honor’, while symbolic violence can be seen as the prevention of an individual or group of individuals from gaining symbolic capital by another individual or group: “Bourdieu’s later work takes gender domination to be the “paradigmatic form of symbolic violence.” (Weininger 2002:156).

Bourdieu's methodologies documented patterns of behavior in "Distinction"

A chart depicting relative taste in food of individuals with different amounts of economic and cultural capital.
A chart depicting relative taste in food of individuals with different amounts of economic and cultural capital. | Source


Ultimately, just as he theorized while also conducting fieldwork, Pierre Bourdieu sought to use his concepts of habitus and field to dissolve the collectivist/individualist, objective/subjective, micro/macro dichotomies that divided the social sciences. Through his theory of practice he created the habitus, representing the phenomenological tradition and subjectivity, to which he joined the field, a descendant of structuralism and representative of objectivity. The habitus of an individual meets the social laws of the field in terms of the individual’s dispositions in relation to the pursuit of various forms of capital, and it is toward this union of supposedly alienated opposites – quantitative and qualitative methods, agency and structure, theory and praxis – that he directed our gaze over the course of his fifty-year exploration of the nature of humanity.

The sources of Bourdieu’s ethnographic authority ranged as widely as his oeuvre, though the core contributions to the public perception of his authority were: his innovative creation of a terminological system that attempted (succeeded?) to end the bifurcation of the theoretical and philosophical approaches to the social sciences; his combination of theory and practice, quantitative data and qualitative interpretation – essentially, a combination of experiential and interpretive authority, in Clifford’s terminology (Clifford 1983:142); his illustrious academic credentials and eventual role as a prominent ‘public intellectual’ engaged in activism scholarship; and his prodigious, prolific, and encompassing professional output. The extent of his overall achievement being still open to debate in academia, it seems safe to say, based solely on the mounting citations of his work, that the continued examination and concomitant understanding of his texts will continue to yield new surprises, insights, and tools for the engaged social scientist and any individual interested in understanding human society.

Works Cited

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