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 lycee to a grande ecole, 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 Superieure, 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-Pyrenees 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'Algerie, 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 …