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Pierre Bourdieu in brief

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu approaches power within the context of a comprehensive ‘theory of society’ which – like that of Foucault – we can’t possibly do justice to here, or easily express in the form of applied methods (Navarro 2006). And although his subject was mainly Algerian and French society, we have found Bourdieu’s approach useful in analysing power in development and social change processes (see the articles by Navarro, Moncrieffe, Eyben and Taylor and Boser in Eyben, Harris et. al. 2006; Navarro offers a particularly solid introduction to Bourdieu’s method).

While Foucault sees power as ‘ubiquitous’ and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu sees power as culturally and symbolically created, and constantly re-legitimised through an interplay of agency and structure. The main way this happens is through what he calls ‘habitus’ or socialised norms or tendencies that guide behaviour and thinking. Habitus is ‘the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them’ (Wacquant 2005: 316, cited in Navarro 2006: 16).

Habitus is created through a social, rather than individual process leading to patterns that are enduring and transferrable from one context to another, but that also shift in relation to specific contexts and over time. Habitus ‘is not fixed or permanent, and can be changed under unexpected situations or over a long historical period’ (Navarro 2006: 16):

Habitus is neither a result of free will, nor determined by structures, but created by a kind of interplay between the two over time: dispositions that are both shaped by past events and structures, and that shape current practices and structures and also, importantly, that condition our very perceptions of  these (Bourdieu 1984: 170). In this sense habitus is created and reproduced unconsciously, ‘without any deliberate pursuit of coherence… without any conscious concentration’ (ibid: 170).

A second important concept introduced by Bourdieu is that of ‘capital’, which he extends beyond the notion of material assets to capital that may be social, cultural or symbolic (Bourdieu 1986: cited in Navarro 2006: 16). These forms of capital may be equally important, and can be accumulated and transferred from one arena to another (Navarro 2006: 17). Cultural capital – and the means by which it is created or transferred from other forms of capital – plays a central role in societal power relations, as this ‘provides the means for a non-economic form of domination and hierarchy, as classes distinguish themselves through taste’ (Gaventa 2003: 6). The shift from material to cultural and symbolic forms of capital is to a large extent what hides the causes of inequality.

These ideas are elaborated at length in Bourdieu’s classic study of French society, Distinction (1986), in which he shows how the ‘social order is progressively inscribed in people’s minds’ through ‘cultural products’ including systems of education, language, judgements, values, methods of classification and activities of everyday life (1986: 471). These all lead to an unconscious acceptance of social differences and hierarchies, to ‘a sense of one’s place’ and to behaviours of self-exclusion (ibid: 141).

A third concept that is important in Bourdieu’s theory is the idea of ‘fields’, which are the various social and institutional arenas in which people express and reproduce their dispositions, and where they compete for the distribution of different kinds of capital (Gaventa 2003: 6). A field is a network, structure or set of relationships which may be intellectual, religious, educational, cultural, etc. (Navarro 2006: 18). People often experience power differently depending which field they are in at a given moment (Gaventa 2003: 6), so context and environment are key influences on habitus:

‘Bourdieu (1980) accounts for the tensions and contradictions that arise when people encounter and are challenged by different contexts. His theory can be used to explain how people can resist power and domination in one [field] and express complicity in another’ (Moncrieffe 2006: 37)

Fields help explain the differential power, for example, that women experience in public or private, as Moncrieffe shows in her interview with a Ugandan woman MP who has public authority but is submissive to her husband when at home (2006: 37).  This has been widely observed by feminist activists and researchers, and is another way of saying that women and men are socialised to behave differently in ‘public, private and intimate’ arenas of power (VeneKlasen and Miller 2002). See gender perspectives on power and a New Weave of Power chapter 3 Power and Empowerment.

A final important concept in Bourdieu’s understanding of power is that of ‘doxa’, which is the combination of both orthodox and heterodox norms and beliefs – the unstated, taken-for-granted assumptions or ‘common sense’ behind the distinctions we make. Doxa happens when we ‘forget the limits’ that have given rise to unequal divisions in society: it is ‘an adherence to relations of order which, because they structure inseparably both the real world and the thought world, are accepted as self-evident’ (Bourdieu 1984: 471).

Bourdieu also uses the term ‘misrecognition’, which is akin to Marxian ideas of  ‘false consciousness’ (Gaventa 2003: 6), but working at a deeper level that transcends any intent at conscious manipulation by one group or another. Unlike the Marxian view, ‘misrecognition’ is more of a cultural than an ideological phenomenon, because it ‘embodies a set of active social processes that anchor taken-for-granted assumptions into the realm of social life and, crucially, they are born in the midst of culture. All forms of power require legitimacy and culture is the battleground where this conformity is disputed and eventually materialises amongst agents, thus creating social differences and unequal structures’ (Navarro 2006: 19).

While much of this may sound abstract, Bourdieu’s theories are firmly grounded in a wide body of sociological research, and across a range of social issues. Part of his appeal, in fact, is that his research is so prolific and empirically documented. Another appeal of Bourdieu for politically committed researchers is that he sees sociological method as part of the process of change. Careful analysis can help to reveal the power relations that have been rendered invisible by habitus and misrecognition (Navarro 2006: 19).

Bourdieu proposed a ‘reflexive sociology’– in which one recognises one’s biases, beliefs and assumptions in the act of sense-making – long before reflexivity became fashionable.  Self-critical knowledge that discloses the ‘sources of power’ and  reveals ‘the reasons that explain social asymmetries and hierarchies’ can itself become ‘a powerful tool to enhance social emancipation’ (Navarro 2006: 15-16).

The methods and terminology used by Bourdieu are distinct from those used in the powercube, and suggest much more detailed sociological analysis of power relations rooted in a comprehensive ‘theory of society’. Yet the implications for applied analysis and action resonate very strongly with the meanings of internalised, invisible power and ‘power within’, and with the implicit ‘theory of change’ in the powercube, This is the idea that understanding power and powerlessness, especially through processes of learning and analysis that expose invisible power, cat itself be an empowering process.

References for further reading:

Bourdieu, P. (1980). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London, Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). ‘The Forms of Capital’. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Capital. J. G. Richardson. New York, Greenwood Press: 241-58.

Gaventa, J. (2003). Power after Lukes: a review of the literature, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

Moncrieffe, J. (2006). “The Power of Stigma: Encounters with ‘Street Children’ and ‘Restavecs’ in Haiti.” IDS Bulletin 37(6): 31-46.

Navarro, Z. (2006) ‘In Search of  Cultural Intepretation of Power’, IDS Bulletin 37(6): 11-22.

VeneKlasen, L. and V. Miller (2002). A New Weave of Power, People and Politics: The Action Guide for Advocacy and Citizen Participation. Oklahoma City, World Neighbors.

Wacquant, L. (2005) Habitus. International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. J. Becket and Z. Milan. London, Routledge.


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