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Born in August 1930, Pierre Bourdieu followed an adventurous life trajectory from rural southern-western France (at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains) to a fruitful educational career and his enrolment at the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure as a philosophy major. Against the spirit of his time, overwhelmingly characterized by Sartrean existentialism, early Bourdieu focused on the study of logic and the history of science under Alexandre Koyre, Jules Vuillemin, Eric Weil, Martial Gueroult, Gaston Bachelard, and Georges Canguilhem.
His military service in Algeria and his systematic engagement in anthropological work on Kabylia, mainly focusing on the structural effects of power and stratification within the context of colonialism and native cultural practices, strongly prompted him to turn to the disciplines of ethnology, sociology, and statistics. This was, however, a reflexive turn because, at about the same time, Bourdieu directed the newfound instruments and tools of social science back onto his own childhood village in a parallel effort to better understand both the collapse of the European peasant society (during the postwar decades) and the specificity/peculiarity of the sociological gaze itself.
Bourdieu’s long-term empirical field studies served as a useful springboard for his groundbreaking Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), where he sophisticatedly explains his signature concern for a relational method of sociological work based on reflexivity – that is, a continuous turn of one s sociological tools upon one s scientific practice, so as to critically reflect on the wider social conditions and concrete operations of construction of the object. This particular epistemological need to master (in a fashioned way) the various distortions that the analytic posture (the scholastic point ofview) implicitly introduces in the mutual relation between the subject and the object (the observer and the observed) constitutes the cornerstone of Bourdieu’s lifework.
The circular dialectic between actual social life and the relevant sociological accounts, as well as between symbolic structures and the actions of social agents, was strategically designed to resolve the old and persistent dilemmas of sociology: naturalism versus anti-naturalism, objectivism versus subjectivism, quantity versus quality, structure versus agency, culture versus practice, determination versus freedom.
Most importantly, Bourdieu insisted on the existence of both invisible objective structures and agents subjective interpretations of their lived experiences and situations. The former involves the dynamic and anti-reificatory/anti-essentialist conception of social fields – that is, the designation of relatively autonomous spaces of hidden forces and patterned struggles over specific forms of authority (such as cultural capital, a generalized theorization of capital as congealed and convertible ”social energy ). The latter involves the Aristotelian-Thomist conception of habitus to further elaborate an anti-mechanistic, anti-rationalist, and dispositional philosophy of action as springing from socially shaped (power loaded) and individually embodied (mental) schemata of perception and appreciation.
Late Bourdieu entered the public sphere to critically engage major political issues and used his carefully developed concepts and research to illuminate social problems, over against a growing political apathy, the naturalization of doxa (the attitude of everyday life) and the increasing mediatization of public intellectuals.
Contrary to the dominant trends of postmodernism, Bourdieu believed not only in social science as a unifying knowledge project, but also in sociology s unexhausted capacity to ”inform a ‘rational utopianism needed to salvage institutions of social justice from the new barbarism of the unfettered market and withdrawing state (Wacquant 2002: 556).
- Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Wacquant, L. (2002) The sociological life of Pierre Bourdieu. International Sociology 17, 4, 549-56.