Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist: born Denguin, France 1 August 1930; Professor of Sociology, Collège de France 1981-2002; married 1962 Marie-Claire Brizard (three sons); died Paris 23 January 2002.
Since the end of the 19th century there has always been a small group of French intellectuals who were, in Pierre Bourdieu's poignant term, "miraculous survivors", who owed their careers to a path of free education from the lycée to a grande école, and from there into academia. Bourdieu, as the son of a postman, was one of such a group, empowered undoubtedly by a trajectory through the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but – despite a prolific output of 25 books – never entirely at ease as an intellectual.
He could never forget the profound "scholastic bias" in the more privileged thinkers whose own leisurely comforts led them to extend the order of logic too far and too readily. Yet, in him, academic difference induced clarity of vision rather than resentment. Thus his knowledge of the French peasantry from his own family in the Hautes-Pyrénées turned out to enrich his understanding of the precapitalist world of Kabylia, southern Algeria, in a manner unavailable to most other anthropologists.
Indeed, Bourdieu was unlike most high-flying thinkers in undertaking "fieldwork in philosophy" at all. His happy phrase describes in fact a quite exceptional journey – at once disciplinary and geographical – from philosophy in 1950s Paris, to anthropological observation of the Kabylean "art of living", courtesy of military service, at the height of the Algerian war (his first book published in English was The Algerians, 1962, a translation of Sociologie de l'Algérie, 1958), and from there to large-scale sociological enquiries into French students, culture and consumption in both Lille and the metropolis.
This gave his sociology an unrivalled depth of theoretical knowledge and mastery of methods. It also gave him a profound sense of the scope and the tensions in the stakes to be fought for, nothing less than a symbolic revolution in sociology. Indeed what might appear combative in Bourdieu was more precisely an acute insight into the importance of such symbolic representations of the world, with a simultaneous concern for the necessity of an "active materialism". Choice of theoretical stance was always conditioned by the value of those theoretical positions for humanity as a whole.
The influences shaping Bourdieu's theory of practice are remarkably diverse, combining sociologists and anthropologists with philosophers. His most profound debts, however, are to Pascal and Marx: that is to the dual critiques of a disembodied and individualist rationalism on the one hand and of an ahistorical, one-sided spiritualistic interpretation of the world on the other.
Perhaps his most important work was bringing to bear his understanding from Algeria on what was distinctive in French late capitalism in the 1960s. He was concerned especially with France's democratisation of cheap luxuries, but also with the expansion of education and the more individualised transition into work. Consequently, for the subordinate class, failure was increasingly felt less as a collective group outcome and more as a personal inadequacy.
A continuing theme of his work from the Sixties was the shift from an old to a new mode of class and gender reproduction. One aspect of this was the huge extension in the "market for symbolic [cultural] goods": Bourdieu was to build a whole theoretical construction over apparently small details such as the contemporary lack of legitimacy for photography as high culture.
He insisted on the need to reintegrate what was normally kept separate and sacred: people's taste for, say, Stravinsky, had to be understood as part of a seamless web of tastes of a more "profane" kind, types of wall covering, for example, or for eating boned fish. In a series of four extraordinary books – La Distinction (1979; translated as Distinction, 1984), Le Sens pratique (1980; The Logic of Practice, 1990), La Noblesse d'Etat (1989; The State Nobility, 1996) and Les Règles d'art (1992; The Rules of Art, 1995) – Bourdieu simultaneously turned the tables on all the warring theoretical camps. He did so by developing a new and powerful synthesis, the theory of practice or constructivist objectification, within which earlier theories were taken up and transcended.
This was a theory based not on "things" or substances, but on the structural arrangement and meanings of their social relations. From this singular perspective, which built on the classical social theorists, he demystified the distinctive ideologies of our time.
Perhaps the most important of these concerned the field of cultural production. A suspicion of accounts of the free availability of the artistic heritage to all led Bourdieu to show systematically that the public with a taste for the canonised works of high culture were those with much greater education. Some tastes, such as that for modern jazz, might have varying structural relations in different societies and periods. But the rarest passions – say, for Mondrian – were possessed by those whose educational capital was the greatest, and especially by those whose origins were from the liberal professions and from artists themselves.
Creativity, he contended, was not due to an artist's innate or natural gifts or "inspiration" but was particularly linked to a Bohemian avant-garde, high in cultural capital (education), and sufficiently insulated by parental allowances to be able to spend early adulthood in voluntary poverty for the long period of experimentation necessary to make an artistic mark.
The first modernists, Manet, Flaubert and Baudelaire, celebrated "the virtues of revolt and resistance". Members of later modernist movements did not need to be so heroic; there were subtle accommodations to power. Works of art were liberated from specific political or moral discourse, artists' economic disinterestedness was imposed as a rule.
In the last decade, Bourdieu gave much of his energy to the public movement against neo-liberal globalisation, marked by the end of job stability in the interests of ever- extended productivity, a movement accompanied by what he saw as the high but uncalculated social costs, in terms of crime, broken families, divorces and suicides.
His earlier Distinction had objectified the game of culture and the great post-war shift from the ethic of self-denial to the fun ethic. It had shown not only that the unleashed aesthetic sense created new bases of sociability – "Taste is a matchmaker," he remarked – but also, more insidiously, that the social exclusions proliferating with the rise in significance of aesthetic and bodily cultivation reduced some to a state of lower being, mere existence, in a way that material inequalities did not.
Thus, in his most sustained and brilliant combinations of empirical data and theoretical construction, Bourdieu had explored the "velvet glove" of the new post-1968 regime of accumulation. At the end of his life he was forced to rethink his earlier abandonment of political prophecy for sociology in order to warn against the iron fist. He saw neo- liberalism, the ideology of economists, as a "conservative revolution", plausibly allying it to the similar revolution of Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger in inter-war Germany, and suggesting that its hidden power was to present, in the language of reform, policies that were deeply regressive.
He spoke out to and for those who are not usually heard: Le Monde in 1995 wrote of the respectful silence in which he was heard by public- sector strikers as he criticised the Juppé government and the technocratic élite's condescending advice as to where their true interests lay. Thus he came to draw out a new logic from Max Weber's twin essays "Politics as a Vocation" and "Science as a Vocation". Intellectuals, Bourdieu argued, might enter the public sphere, not as the total intellectuals advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre, but rather as "rational militants" who acted within a "corporatism of the universal". A precondition for such an intervention was the personal guarantee of public trust gained from earlier, specific achievements, an expertise won only in one's own field and through the intensive testing offered by one's scientific and artistic peers.
Bourdieu's last period at the Collège de France was marked by determination to popularise his work. The delicate but dense Proustian sentences were replaced by more accessible responses to interview questions, La Misère du monde (1993; The Weight of the World, 1999) – a collection of interview-based narratives about people's lives – was staged as theatre, and a documentary film was released in France.
To those who knew Pierre Bourdieu he was a generous teacher and unstintingly helpful, a man devoid of any personal arrogance. To a small number of his political antagonists, this most gentle of men appeared as a monster: one recent opponent compared his work to sociological "terrorism". For some critics, his most problematic element appeared as a tendency to reinvent himself periodically. For others his death means the loss of an architect of a great and consistent synthesis of social theory – a defender of scientific procedures as a counter to relativism.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies