Pierre Bourdieu: Social Theory and Cultural Change

I’ve always been a theory nerd. I think about the panopticon every single day. Today, I’m going to attempt to explain social theory as an activist tool. And I’m going to do my best to make it accessible! I love theory, but if we can’t talk about it in a way that makes sense to our daily realities, it loses relevance.

Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociological practitioner and theorist who lived from 1930-2001. I’m telling you that to give you an idea of the historical moment from which his work emerged, and to acknowledge that (like most of my education) these ideas are coming from a dead white dude. I’m going to discuss four of his concepts.

First, let’s talk about capital. Society runs on various forms of capital. There’s economic capital (money and assets), social capital (relationships, group membership), and cultural capital (knowledge and experience). How much money we have, who we know, and how well we can navigate cultural worlds guide our social experience.

We use our capital in fields. Fields are basically any group or cohort. Society is a collection of many diverse fields: religious, academic, athletic. Even the broad social structure of the United States can be considered a field. Agents in a field use capital to gain power and influence. This obviously creates conflict and competition as we vie to gain and trade capital resources. For example, social capital might be traded in for economic capital, like if my friend can get me a job at her high paying firm. Economic capital may be traded for cultural capital, like when I buy books, music, and movies. Capital is what we use to negotiate our position in any given field.

Fields are malleable and have a tendency to evolve. If we were to change the distribution of capital within a field, we would actually change the field itself. This is great news for us, because it means we can change the fields we’re agents in! Bourdieu calls this organic change the habitus. Habitus is the internalized knowledge of a lifetime’s worth of external messages and instruction. We produce our thoughts and actions through the habitus, which results in the continued creation of the external world. I like to think of this as a feedback loop: while the habitus structures society, society is also structuring the habitus. Every image of a woman I received growing up showed, for instance, hairless legs. Now, my habitus defaults to the idea that women should have hairless legs. This thought results in the action of me shaving my own legs. This action results in more societal images of bald-legged women!

Bourdieu’s definition of habitus differs from other theorists; the habitus may guide, shape, and constrain our thoughts and actions but it doesn’t determine our thoughts and actions. I’m in favor of this view, because it positions us as thoughtful, emotional, free-willed beings instead of as pre-programmed automatons.

When our habitus and field are aligned, we react instantaneously and with ease. If I’m writing an academic essay, I know where to put my thesis statement (end of the first paragraph!) without even thinking about it. I don’t have to think about it because my habitus is in line with my specific field: Rhetoric and Composition nested in general academics nested in the broad US society. This is what Bourdieu calls “cohesion without concept”. I’m so ingrained in this community and its value systems, that it’s become invisible to me. (Kind of like how we don’t notice we’re breathing until we have a cold.)

If habitus and field aren’t in alignment, we have to navigate an unfamiliar field that abides by rules we were never taught. When I’m working with students who are unfamiliar with the conventions of academic writing in the United States, I sometimes have to spend a lot of time explaining what a thesis statement is, why it’s valued here, and where to situate it within a paper. Not all fields produce a habitus that normalizes thesis statements!

Capital, field, and habitus all contribute to the fourth concept of Bourdieu’s: symbolic violence. Habitus is a reflection of the dominant narratives of society. Because these narratives are a normalized part of society, the inequality and injustice they perpetuate is often invisible- even to the groups who are being marginalized! This results in marginalized groups sometimes contributing to their marginalization. (I meet smart, talented women who don’t believe in feminism, because they don’t believe they’re subjugated, all the time.) Symbolic violence is the unconscious exertion of cultural domination. It’s ‘symbolic’ because while it’s not physical violence, it’s detrimentally and harmfully shaping society.

According to Bourdieu, the real conflicts aren’t happening between the people in positions of power and subordination but between our habitus and our field. Positioning conversations as a dichotomous struggle between men/women, straight/gay, white people/people of color, won’t result in change. If we want to change the culture, we have to change our habitus, which will then change our field. Essentially, we have to change the way we think and act if we’re going to change our culture and society.

Of course, that’s a gross over-simplification. I can choose to change my habitus by rejecting the external knowledge I’ve been given, but if my material reality doesn’t also change, the whole experiment is ineffective. But material reality can’t change without capital and marginalized groups generally don’t have the capital that’s necessary to change collective habitus. Reducing these issues down to a nice catchphrase, “Change your thoughts to change your world!” doesn’t do anything.

Why, then, did I even bother spending all this time explaining Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas? Because I think there is real value in them! The first step in organizing any social movement is getting people to understand the systems we’re all operating in. Like I mentioned before, I still meet smart women who don’t think feminism matters. Most white people have no idea what white privilege is. Straight people don’t understand why a civil union isn’t the same as a marriage. Our collective habitus has formed around dominant narratives so completely that most of us aren’t even recognizing the culture we’re constantly creating and recreating. We’re breathing without being aware of air. If we’re going to change anything, we need to start by deconstructing these narratives.

Once folks (hopefully those with privilege) recognize the system we are part of, we can use our capital to change our habitus, which will change our field. We really can use our thoughts and actions to change our world. It’s going to be more complicated than that cute little line implies, but it can be done!

2 thoughts on “Pierre Bourdieu: Social Theory and Cultural Change

  1. Great post! We have to figure out a way to push theory from academia to the real world. I wish everyone knew about these systems, and capital, and privilege :/ I think there’d be a lot more tolerance and understanding.

  2. Pingback: Foucault and the Panopticon | Angry Feminist Killjoy

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