Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist, anthropologist and philosopher known for his extensive body of writings and for the influence his work had on social sciences and humanities in the second half of the 20th century.
Bourdieu introduced a number of sociological concepts that came to be widely accepted. The broad range of his academic interests also included cultural criticism, psychology, gender studies, linguistics, art and economics. Outside academic circles, Bourdieu was engaged in politics and is remembered as a social activist, defending underprivileged members of society.
Bourdieu was born in a village in southwestern France. As an adolescent, he moved to Paris to enroll at the prominent secondary school Lycée Louis-le-Grand and later went on to study at the reputable higher education institution École Normale Supérieure. Bourdieu graduated with a diploma in philosophy in 1954 and taught this subject at the Lycée de Moulins for two years.
In 1956, Bourdieu moved to Algeria where he initially served in the army but then became an assistant professor in Algiers. In 1958 he published his first book, The Algerians, which divides the population of the country in four main ethnic groups and investigates the effects of the French colonization on the Algerian people. The work established Bourdieu as a sociologist and was the starting point for his research into social domination, equality and autonomy.
Upon returning to France in 1960, Bourdieu continued teaching in Paris and then in Lille. He was later named director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, a post he held for the rest of his life. At the school, he launched a journal on social sciences and founded a Center for the Sociology of Education and Culture. Bourdieu was elected chair of sociology at Collège de France in 1981.
An important aspect of Bourdieu's work is the idea that culture and education reinforce the division of social classes, reproducing the differences that exist in society. This is the subject of his influential work Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, which appeared in 1970. The book argues that success in education depends on what Bourdieu calls symbolic capital and cultural capital. These terms build upon the Marxist understanding of capital and denote non-financial assets, such as honor, recognition and prestige, which enable an individual to achieve a higher social standing.
Bourdieu further developed the notions of symbolic and cultural capital in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979). In this book Bourdieu argues that cultural and aesthetic tastes are socially predetermined rather than objective and that people associate themselves with a certain social class by choosing to describe something as beautiful or ugly. In this way, taste becomes a means of social division that distinguishes classes from one another. Distinction is credited as Bourdieu's most famous book. The International Sociological Association chose it as one of the 10 most important sociological works of the 20th century.
Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) was Bourdieu's attempt to offer an alternative to the opposition between subjectivist and objectivist views in social sciences. For this purpose he put forward the notion of habitus: a system of dispositions that an individual acquires through upbringing and education and takes for granted. The system is a product of history and determines the way an individual makes judgments, acts and perceives the world.
The last decade of the 20th century saw the publication of two Bourdieu books on art: The Rules of Art (1992) and The Field of Cultural Production (1993). In these works the sociologist examines works of art in the context of the social conditions in which they are produced and consumed. Bourdieu studies the subject via his concept of field: the social setting in which individuals act in accordance with their habitus and capital. The books show how the field of art is structured by looking at the individuals and institutions generating cultural products.
Another notable example of Bourdieu's later work is Masculine Domination (1998), which addresses sexism. This examines how masculine domination in society is a prime example of symbolic violence. The concept is described as the soft and invisible creation of inequality through social habits that make victims believe they are inferior, often inculcating this idea unconsciously. Bourdieu died of cancer four years later at the age of 71, leaving a legacy of more than 25 books and 300 essays and articles.