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Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre-Félix Bourdieu (August 1, 1930-January 23, 2002) was a French sociologist. In its obituary, The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom said he "was, for many, the leading intellectual of present-day France... a thinker in the same rank as Foucault, Barthes and Lacan". His book Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, was named as one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Association. Although he has a formidable reputation amongst sociologists in the English-speaking world, he is much less well-known amongst the general Anglophone intelligentsia than Foucault or Jacques Derrida, both of whom Bourdieu castigated in Homo Academicus as Parisian mandarins, distant from the real world, secure in their privileges.

In France, Bourdieu was not seen as an ivory tower academic or cloistered don, but as a passionate activist for those he believed subordinated by society. Again, from The Guardian: "[In 2003] a documentary film about Pierre Bourdieu - Sociology is a Combat Sport - became an unexpected hit in Paris. Its very title stressed how much of a politically engaged intellectual Bourdieu was, taking on the mantle of Emile Zola and Jean-Paul Sartre in French public life, and slugging it out with politicians because he thought that was what people like him should do." Perhaps the nearest equivalent in the English-speaking world would be Noam Chomsky.

He was born in Denguin (Pyrénées-Atlantiques). From 1962 to 1983 he was married to Marie-Claire Brizard.

Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu studied philosophy in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure. He worked as a teacher. Afterwards (1958-1960) he did research in Algeria, laying the groundwork for his sociological reputation. Since 1981, Bourdieu held a chair at the Collège de France. In 1993 he was honored with the "Médaille d'or du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique " (CNRS).

His work was empirical, grounded in the everyday life and can be seen as cultural sociology or as a theory of practice.

Bourdieu was both completely empirical and a master theorist, a rare if not unique combination in sociology. His key terms were habitus and field. He extended the idea of capital to categories such as social capital, and cultural capital . For Bourdieu the position an individual is located at in the social space is defined not by class, but by the amount of capital across all kinds of capital, and by the relative amounts social, economic and cultural capital account for.

He was also known as a politically interested and active leftist intellectual, supporting work against the influences of political elite s and neoliberal capitalism. He was the left's enemy of itself: the French Socialist party used to talk of la gauche bourdieusienne, their enemies on the left. It is difficult to think of an Anglo equivalent: perhaps a sober Christopher Hitchens.

Some examples of his empirical results include:

  • showing that despite the apparent freedom of choice in the arts in France, people's artistic preferences (e.g. classical music, rock, traditional music) strongly correlate with the position in the social space
  • showing that subtleties of language such as accent, grammar, spelling and style -- all part of cultural capital -- are a major factor in social mobility (e.g. getting a higher paid, higher status job).

Pierre Bourdieu's work emphasized how social classes, especially the ruling and intellectual classes, reproduce themselves even under the pretense that society fosters social mobility.

Bourdieu was extraordinarily prolific, author of hundreds of articles and many books, only some few dozens of which are available in English. His style is dense in English translation: and even more unexpected for those prepared for the sociological jargon but not for the literary effects that strike the English-speaker as mannered and unnecessary.

To summarise Bourdieu's theoretical and political stance and complexities: he would have applauded Wikipedia as empowering the average person in an attempt to recapture the definition of knowledge from the ruling classes, but he would have derided its neutral point of view policy as a fantasy of Anglo-American faux-liberals, who-- by claiming a meta-stance above the rest of us-- merely foist on us their own definition of power and reality.

Bourdieu's work

  • Esquisse d'une théorie de la pratique, précédé de trois études d'ethnologie kabyle (1972)
  • La distinction (1979)
  • Homo Academicus (1984)
  • La Noblesse d'État (1989)
  • La Misère du monde (1993)

External links

  • The Nation remembrance
  • Bourdieu Link Page
  • HyperBourdieu -- a multilingual bibliography
  • - "Practice and field: Revising Bourdieusian concepts

Last updated: 02-07-2005 18:35:07
Last updated: 02-20-2005 20:11:59