Bourdieu, the Master

By Frank, Arthur W. | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Bourdieu, the Master


Frank, Arthur W., Canadian Journal of Sociology


Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, Elizabeth Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal, and David Wright, Culture, Class, Distinction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009, 311 pp. $US 55.95 paperback (978-0-415-56077-1), $US 153.00, hardcover (978-0-415-42242-0)

Elizabeth Silva and Alan Warde, editors, Cultural Analysis and Bourdieu's Legacy: Settling Accounts and Developing Alternatives. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2010, 182 pp. $US 42.95, paperback (978-0-415-53414-7), $US 138.00, hardcover (978-0-415-49535-6)

Simon Susen and Bryan S. Turner, The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu: Critical Essays, London: Anthem Press, 2011, xxix + 439 pp. $US 130, hardcover (9780857287687)

These volumes are ample evidence--41 authors, writing over 900--pages--of the continuing influence of Pierre Bourdieu a decade after his death in 2002. I believe Bourdieu is as great a sociologist as ever lived. His biographical situation positioned him to produce what is arguably the most compelling culmination of the social science tradition that begins with Marx. But Bourdieu's work may endure mostly because his limitations create openings: the gaps, assumptions, and even biases in his writing incite controversy, attempts at revision, on-going searches for updated empirical application reflecting local contingencies, and as the title of Elizabeth Silva and Alan Warde's volume puts it, alternatives. The final section of Michele Lamont's chapter in Silva and Warde poses the question: "Bourdieu, good to think with?" (p. 138). The affirmative response is evident in the consistent fascination and remarkable variation of these books' engagements with Bourdieu.

THE CASE FOR BOURDIEU

Let me count six ways in which Bourdieu seized the possibilities of his temporal and spatial place in the social scientific tradition; specifically, his place in the field of sociology. Bourdieu was not what he would have called an inheritor of academic capital, but he was distinctly positioned to be able to generate capital, and he utilized his position, or positionings, to maximum advantage.

First, Bourdieu did not think in terms of "convergence" that Talcott Parsons sets as the goal of theory in his classic The Structure of Social Action (1937). Yet Bourdieu's writing is always a dialogue with Marx, Durkheim, and Weber especially, and as the chapters in Simon Susen and Bryan Turner's collection show, many other theorists as well. Bourdieu's never-completed graduate studies were in philosophy. He was self-taught as an ethnographer, and as far as I can determine from the text he insisted is not an autobiography--Sketch for a Self-Analysis (published posthumously in 2007)--he learned sociological theory primarily by teaching it. In the volumes being reviewed, the sole moment when Bourdieu speaks for himself other than in short quotations is in Susen's translation of a 1999 interview originally published in German. Here Bourdieu recalls when he first taught Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. His writing never ceased to juxtapose and adapt their ideas.

Second, Bourdieu's theoretical dialogue proceeds in relation to a sequence of research projects that have their apex in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, published in English in 1984. Distinction represented an ambitious attempt to survey the relationship between cultural taste and class position in France. It provides the model for the equally ambitious research of Tony Bennett and his colleagues to determine how well Bourdieu's findings apply, decades later, in the United Kingdom, and more about that below. What matters here is that Bourdieu's career balance between theory and research is--always arguably--unmatched, and the books under review reflect that balance, situating Bourdieu's concepts in relation to other theories and collecting new data to test his research questions.

Third, as Bourdieu himself emphasized, he entered the academic field at a particular time, in a particular place. …

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