Pierre Bourdieu's Masculine Domination: A Critique *

Article excerpt

IN A MARKED BREAK with an earlier pessimism about the political potential of academic sociology (Mesney, 2002), Pierre Bourdieu extended his systematic program of social research to an increasingly public involvement with political questions in the decade before his death on 23 January 2002. He organized and edited a multi-authored volume on the suffering provoked by capitalist globalization. He offered acerbic critiques of Anthony Giddens and the Blairite "third way" in the editorial pages of Le Monde. He denounced American cultural and economic imperialism for imposing its categories on social situations in which they do not apply, thereby distorting social scientific work. He engaged with groups of community activists in many parts of France in an effort to subvert the relations of symbolic violence and domination inherent to the current social order and he took to task those among his fellow intellectuals who engaged in what he denounced as "radical chic" (Bourdieu, 2001b; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999). As a recent feature-length film by Pierre Carles has shown, Bourdieu attempted to mobilize the formidable analytic and conceptual repertoire he had developed over several decades to make sociology into an effective instrument of political critique: in Bourdieu's own words, into a martial art. Such a sociology would embrace its enemy--domination--mastering its characteristic idioms, its strategies and tactics, its feints and gestures, and turn the strength of domination against itself (Carles, 2001).

This essay focusses on Bourideu's recent attempt to come to terms with something he called "masculine domination" or "male domination." This phenomenon had been a long-standing concern in Bourdieu's work. Masculine domination was announced as a matter for future research in The Logic of Practice (1990). Bourdieu addressed it more directly in an article-length piece before producing a short monograph that appeared, with considerable commercial success, in France in 1998 (Bourdieu, 1998). There were solid grounds for a preoccupation with this phenomenon for, as Bourdieu's collaborator and student Loic Wacquant put it,

gender domination constitutes the paradigm of all domination and is perhaps its most persistent form. It is at once the most arbitrary and the most misrecognized dimension of domination because it operates essentially via the deep, yet immediate, agreement of embodied schemata of a vision of the world with the existing structures of that world (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 134, n).

The recent translation of Bourdieu's monograph, Masculine Domination (Bourdieu, 2001a), makes the arguments accessible to an English-language audience. The translation faces a considerable challenge, however, because it makes such foundational claims for masculine domination, and because it is aimed at an audience whose experience of feminist theory and practice is rather different than that of its original French readership.

It has to be said from the outset that Masculine Domination is a disappointing work. At a time when the way forward for many social movements is far from clear, serious reflection on the grounds on which masculinized power and privilege are reproduced, and on the means of eliminating them, might be furthered by analysing them as "masculine domination." Unfortunately, Bourdieu never seems able to connect the broad ambitions of his theoretical plan to anything more than extremely general recommendations for action. While he places "masculine domination" on the analytic and political agenda, he fails to point to any weaknesses in the structures of domination that might encourage political strategies capable of subverting it.

We believe that this weakness stems from a failure on Bourdieu's part to make the best possible use of his own conceptual repertoire and, thus, that there is much to be gained from a critical encounter with his analysis. …