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  Pierre Bourdieu


sociologue énervant



Décès de Pierre Bourdieu :(



Pierre Bourdieu

 Radical agonised over society's ills.

The Australian, February 6th, 2002. This report appears on



Pierre Bourdieu, Sociologist, anti-neo-liberalism militant. Born Denguin, France, August 1, 1930. Died January 23, aged 71.

PIERRE Bourdieu, France's leading intellectual and one of the world's most important sociologists of the late 20th century, died from cancer on January 23.

Bourdieu was born in a remote village in the south of France. He was the first in his family to finish high school; he went on to study philosophy at a leading French institution and occupy the chair of sociology at the College de France, the most eminent position an academic can aspire to in France.

He wrote more than 25 books. The most important academically are The Inheritors, a study of the reproduction of inequality in the French education system; Outline of a Theory of Practice, an ethnographic analysis of Algeria in which he developed his key concepts of habitus, symbolic violence and symbolic capital; Distinction, a study of the relation between taste and class, voted as one of the century's most important sociology books by the International Sociological Association; and Pascalian Meditations, a kind of summation of the philosophical ramifications of his work.

During the Algerian war, which shaped the thoughts of many French intellectuals, Bourdieu, who was teaching in Algeria, became attracted away from philosophy to anthropological and sociological research of Algerian society and, later, French society. He felt that philosophers were best at asking the most difficult questions one can ask about life, but were less successful in providing rich answers because they remained sealed in the domain of pure ideas.

Right from the beginning, this line of thought allowed Bourdieu to develop a somewhat paradoxical approach to research that gave his work its unmistakeable specificity. For him, any social science that fell into being a simple empirical exercise in data accumulation, without dealing with the important philosophical questions of the time, was not worth its while. At the same time, he was particularly down on the French art of theoretical-philosophical pontification. He believed that theorising about society had to be accompanied by a total commitment to a science of society with all the logical and empirical rigour, and hard long hours of labour, the idea entailed.

This attitude was reflected in the way Bourdieu dealt with his research students. In the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the postgraduates-only institution where he taught, students were actively encouraged in the French intellectual tradition to see themselves as "interesting and original thinkers" competing among each other as to how interesting and original they could be.

Bourdieu encouraged an unusual kind of humility among his students. He instilled it by insisting on the limited capacity of academic work to change the world. He used to invite students who had inflated ideas about the importance of their thoughts to keep a sense of proportion by thinking empirically about how many people would get to know about their great ideas even if they managed to publish them. He taught his students to treat their work as work, even as a kind of proletarian work, as opposed to a kind of luxurious quest for bright ideas or truth.

Bourdieu's work was always political. During the revolts of May 1968, it was common to see students on the barricade with The Inheritors under their arms. His work on Algeria was intransigently anti-colonialist and all of his French work aimed at uncovering the various hidden processes of domination that exist in the social world. Yet in these works he never deviated from the need for scientific rigour. He looked down on academics motivated by political ideals, calling them, after Weber, "proletaroid". He believed, as he often put it, that "good sentiments do not produce good sociology".

However, in his later years Bourdieu became increasingly political. He came to occupy the position of the classical engaged leftist intellectual that Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault had occupied before him. This began with the writing by him and other sociologists in his research centre of The Weight of the World, a work that aimed at defining the nature and extent of "social misery" in France. It was a genuinely avant-garde work. It aimed not only at an original academic understanding of misery but at giving a voice to it through the transcription of full interviews with people whose voices would never otherwise be heard.

Paradoxically, it became a bestseller and gave Bourdieu a public media presence he never had before. But it also led him to analyse the foundations of social misery in the present and he became increasingly public in his opposition to neo-liberal policy, writing against it in an almost pamphleteering style. He even created his own publishing house, Raisons d'Agir (reasons to act), to encourage the publication of semi-academic political critiques of neo-liberalism as well as the media.

Last year a feature movie on Bourdieu titled Sociology is a Combat Sport played to full houses in Paris. However, this populism was also accompanied by the writing of a thoroughly academic analysis of the economics of the real estate market and the politics of housing, The Social Structures of the Economy. He had just finished a book bringing together his anthropological work in his home village. It will appear posthumously.

For Australians, especially in today's climate, where the political elite seems intent on developing the art of intellectual-bashing into a full-time national sport, it is hard to understand the social impact created by Bourdieu's death in France and elsewhere. France's President Jacques Chirac paid him tribute by describing him as one of the most recognised French intellectuals in the world, "someone who under the influence of Durkheim and Weber has profoundly marked the sociology of his time with new operational concepts".

Chirac also said in his long tribute that Bourdieu's work had helped politicians understand that "the time of culture cannot be subjected to the time of the economy". I'd be happy to hear an Australian politician mention Weber, let alone say something like this.

Pierre Bourdieu


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