Remembering Pierre Bourdieu, 1930-2002

By Reed-Danahay, Deborah | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Remembering Pierre Bourdieu, 1930-2002


Reed-Danahay, Deborah, Anthropological Quarterly


Pierre Bourdieu died in Paris of cancer on January 23, 2002. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Marie-Claire, and their three children Jerome, Emmanuel, and Laurent. Bourdieu was a prolific writer and significant post-war intellectual whose influence on contemporary thought in the social sciences and humanities has been immense. His key concepts of habitus, field, and symbolic capital continue to shape research and theory in many disciplines. The author of over 25 books, his Outline of a Theory of Practice is the best known of his works among American anthropologists.1

Given the wide breadth of his writings, and the uneven timing of translations of his work, knowledge of Bourdieu's many contributions is scattered in the United States according to disciplinary interests, and there are relatively few scholars who are familiar with the total oeuvre. His social activism and political position in France are also not well known among his readers outside of France. During the 1990s, Bourdieu became firmly established, along with Derrida and Foucault, as a major French intellectual presence in American academia. He was at this time, already, one of the leading intellectuals in France, widely known and controversial among the public as well as among scholars. His outspoken criticism of the social class structure provoked a range of critics in France.

For English-speaking audiences, Bourdieu's work has been the subject of several book-length treatments2 and edited collections.3 A two and one-half hour documentary film on Bourdieu, "Sociology is a Combat Sport" (with the title based on a quote from Bourdieu), was widely shown in France in 2001. Bourdieu felt that much of his work was misunderstood by readers, and he tried to clarify the meaning of his work through several published interviews and essays (In Other Words [1990]; An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology [1992]).

Bourdieu was born to a rural family in the region of Bearn, in southwestern France, near the Pyrenees. His family had peasant roots and spoke the regional dialect of Gasgogne as well as French. His father, who never finished high school, was a postal worker. Bourdieu's modest origins made him particularly sensitive to issues of power and prestige in France, shaping his research interests, social activism, and defense of the underprivileged. He was a "scholarship boy" who attended lycee in the regional city of Pau and then went on to lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, before eventually entering the Ecole Normale Superieure (one of the elite institutions of higher learning in France.) There he studied with Louis Althusser and received a degree in philosophy. He started his teaching career in 1955 in a high school in Moulins. From there, he took teaching positions in Algiers (1958-60), Paris, and then in the industrial northern French city of Lille.

Bourdieu became Director of Studies at EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales) in Paris in 1964, where he edited the journal Actes de la Recherches en Sciences Sociales and founded the Center for the Sociology of Education and Culture. In his early years at EHESS, he worked with Raymond Aron. He was elected to the prestigious Chair of Sociology at College de France in 1981. His inaugural lecture at the College de France (reprinted in In Other Words as "A Lecture on the Lecture") is now famous for its self-reflexive commentary on the giving of such lectures. Bourdieu gave his last lecture there on March 28, 2001, as he prepared to retire after 20 years. In 1993, Bourdieu received the highest honor from CNRS (the French National Scientific Research Center), the "Medaille d'Or" (Gold Medal).

Bourdieu studied philosophy, anthropology and sociology. He came of age in a French academic climate dominated by Sartre and Levi-Strauss, amid the backdrop of the Algerian war for independence from French colonial rule. Influences on Bourdieu's work include, in addition to those thinkers already cited, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Mauss, Elias, and Goffman. …

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