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  Pierre Bourdieu


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Pierre Bourdieu

 Pierre Bourdieu

The Times, TUESDAY JANUARY 29 2002.



ritic of the 'symbolic violence' of social structures who became one of France's most prominent political activists

His international fame might not quite have equalled that of his friend Jacques Derrida, but in France the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was probably the most convincing embodiment of the politically active intellectual since Jean-Paul Sartre or Michel Foucault. He combined eminence in his field with a readiness to speak out and become involved in the life of the country. But then, with characteristic rigour, he disdained the term “intellectual” in favour of “committed sociologist”.

In recent years, particularly, Bourdieu’s name was linked to the anti-globalisation movement, whether he was defending the charismatic farmer José Bové (who rose to fame by trashing a McDonald’s outlet), encouraging striking French railways workers in 1995, campaigning on behalf of immigrants unable to regularise their status (the so-called “sans papiers”), or accusing business leaders of cultural vandalism. More than anyone else, Bourdieu spoke for what he ironically called “the Left of the Left” — in other words, for those whose views were not adequately represented by France’s ruling (or at least power-friendly) Socialist party, or by any form of conventional political organisation.

As an intellectual conscience, his authority was all the greater because, unlike so many others, he refused to play the television pundit, with all the risks of glibness that this involved. Bourdieu’s intellectual enterprise was about understanding “the system”, and how its structures make us what we are. And those structures naturally include the media. His political commitment was to defending the victims — and defence meant action.

The son of a post office employee, Pierre Bourdieu was born in Denguin, near Pau, where he went to school. In 1948, like so many outstanding pupils, he completed his schooling at one of the great Parisian lycées, Louis Legrand, before proceeding to study philosophy with Louis Althusser at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (1951-54).

He rose swiftly into the ranks of the French intellectual elite. After teaching briefly at a school in Moulins, and serving as an assistant in the faculties a Algiers (1958-60) and Paris (1960-61), he was made a lecturer at Lille University before taking up positions at two of the capital’s leading intellectual institutions, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and the Ecole Normale Supérieure, in 1964.

His intellectual position was consolidated by his editorship of the Sens Commun collection at Editions de Minuit (which published some of his own major books), and, in 1975, of the influential journal Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, where many of his important articles first appeared. In 1982, proposed by Michel Foucault, he was elected to the chair of sociology at the most prestigious French intellectual institution of all, the Collège de France.

Internationally too, Bourdieu’s work was quick to gain recognition. He was a visiting member of the institute of advanced studies at Princeton (1972-73), a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Max Planck Institute (1974- 76). He also founded and directed the Centre de Sociologie Européenne and was editor of Liber, an international review that he and others launched when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

Bourdieu’s first three major books (plus two subsequent volumes) all came out of his experience in Algeria, where (like Derrida) he served during the years of the country’s war of independence from France. These studies stood out for their methodological rigour and careful combination of statistics and observation in the field. His Sociologie de l’Algérie (1958) was where he began to develop both his striving for objectivity and his sympathy for the oppressed: when considering the Algerians, Bourdieu realised, one necessarily had to be aware of the way one looked, of how one’s own position was determined.

Although too marginal and obscure a figure to play a prominent role in the anti-colonial movement of the day, Bourdieu was highly critical of French treatment of the Algerians. More importantly, perhaps, he began to understand how the domination of one people by another was a matter of what he called “symbolic violence” as well as physical oppression. This was to be a key notion throughout his work. Bourdieu was to analyse the way in which social and cultural structures — what he later called “fields” (champs) — secrete their own representations and values, and how these function both to identify insiders and to exclude outsiders. The first step towards improving society was to understand how it worked. Consequently, his analysis ranged across numerous social spheres. Back in France, he collaborated with Claude Passeron on Les Héritiers (1964), a small and remarkably successful book about the way in which differences in “cultural inheritance” favours the perpetuation of social inequality through, and often because of, the school system. They developed this theme in La Reproduction (1970). Bourdieu had set about a gradual and systematic definition of all the social contexts that determine how we act, and ulti- mately, the degree to which we can act upon or change circumstances.

On the theme of class difference, Bourdieu’s magnum opus was La Distinction (1979), a study of the workings and significance of taste, and the way it is shaped by our habitus — another key concept of his, meaning mental and social conditioning. This “social critique of judgment” was voted one of the 20th century’s ten most significant works of sociology by the International Sociological Association.

Among his later works were an analysis of academic life itself in Homo Academicus (1984); a study of the French Grandes Ecoles system (La noblesse d’Etat, 1989) — prescient in a country where it has now become fashionable to decry the effects of the dominance and esprit de corps of such institutions — and a study of the emergence of “the modern literary field” in Les règles de l’art.

If Bourdieu’s national and international eminence as a sociologist was secured in the 1970s and 1980s, his public fame as a campaigning intellectual is more recent. In France, it took a large stride with La misère du monde (1993), a thick volume about social suffering. Published in what were depressed times in France, this became a surprise bestseller (with more than 120,000 copies sold in France alone).

As Bourdieu became an increasingly prominent figure in the developing movement against mainstream politics and freemarket orthodoxy, so his books attracted increasing controversy. His Sur la télévision was dismissed by some critics as jaundiced and old hat — among other things it upbraided fellow intellectuals for gratuitous “fast food” opining on subjects they knew nothing about — but it too sold well (some 150,000 copies). This kind of popular success was surprising given Bourdieu’s preference for stolid rigour over any kind of seductive prose.

La domination masculine (1998), concerning male domination, also met with a mixed response, even from feminists. Indeed, in the same year one former disciple published a book about “Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological terrorism”. Such criticism was itself a reflection of his apparent domination of his subject and — always irritating for less glamorous colleagues — his immense public stature. His ideas have passed into common intellectual parlance, much as Lacan’s and Foucault’s did a decade or two earlier.

Pierre Bourdieu is survived by his wife, Marie-Claire, and three children.

Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist, was born on August 1, 1930. He died on January 23, 2002, aged 71.


Pierre Bourdieu


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