A recent French documentary about Pierre Bourdieu is entitled, after one of his own pronouncements: La Sociologie est un sport de combat. When he died in January 2002, Bourdieu was widely considered France’s leading sociologist, its most influential intellectual – and one of its angriest men. In an autobiographical fragment published within days of his death (now available as a book, Esquisse pour une auto-analyse), he recalled the ‘stubborn rage’ engendered in him by his experience of boarding-school and the mockery he suffered there, in part for his rural accent and origins, in part for being a ‘bon élève’ who clearly aspired to rise above his fellow pupils. The fragment’s unauthorised publication set off a noisy public dispute, which returned again and again to Bourdieu’s personal combativeness. Even his defenders conceded that he was a ‘génie colérique’ (Michel Onfray) and asked for sympathy for ‘les fragilités d’un sociologue du combat’ (Philippe Corcuff). In the eyes of his philosopher friend Jacques Bouveresse, the politeness of the establishment, which Bourdieu had manifestly failed to acquire, was merely the sign of its immense, taken-for-granted privileges, the very privileges that Bourdieu had spent his life railing against. Others pointed out that he had picked fights with everyone, including some who were no more privileged than he was. And climbing to the pinnacle of the French academic world, at the Collège de France, might be thought to disqualify him from presenting himself as an eternal and uncompromising rebel.
What made this self-presentation so irresistible a target was Bourdieu’s certainty, repeated in book after book, that scholarship boys from lowly provincial backgrounds will invariably sell their souls to the institutions which elevate them, and that their claims to rebelliousness will turn out to be empty: unconscious but self-interested moves in a scripted game. At one point in the film, a young passer-by recognises Bourdieu, stops and tells him, smiling, that his books have changed her life: ‘I thought I was free, but I wasn’t.’ Bourdieu no doubt winced at this summary of his thought, but the filmmakers, despite their unambiguously friendly intentions, did not see fit to cut it. It is not quite a travesty of what Bourdieu taught. In the decades of research he and his collaborators devoted to the study of laboratory working practices, literary and artistic career-making, musical taste, family photography, leisure-time athletics, and above all the apparatus of education, the constant refrain is that social status continues to be transmitted faithfully from generation to generation. Domains like art and science, which might appear to be free from the political and economic constraints operating elsewhere, are in fact structured by an aggressive competition for ‘symbolic capital’ that is neither open nor equitable. In one way or another, things are arranged so that rewards end up in the hands of those who started at the top of the social hierarchy. In short, Bourdieu’s work discovers the law that he himself broke by producing it: that in devious ways social origins reproduce themselves.
However oblivious Bourdieu may have been to the contrary force of his own example, he deserves credit for showing that, on the whole, social origins do reproduce themselves – a simple, indignant premise that sent him off to explore a fascinating variety of archives. In Homo Academicus, for example, he examines student files from an elite girls’ high school which conveniently recorded, next to remarks about the students’ progress, their parents’ professions, and points out a flagrant correlation between the educational level of the parents – what Bourdieu calls their cultural capital – and the talents attributed to the children. Students of petit-bourgeois origins (the poor have already been eliminated) tend to receive adjectives like ‘clumsy’, ‘insipid’, ‘servile’, ‘awkward’ and ‘simplistic’. At the other end of the scale, the daughters of surgeons and professors are described in terms of ‘mastery’, ‘subtlety’, ‘cultivation’ and ‘ease’.
In Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, co-written with Jean-Claude Passeron (who translated Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy into French), the class assumptions evident in this vocabulary of evaluation, which is supposed to be neutral and objective, are shown also to prevail in the culture of the written examination, which tends to reward a certain command of tone and intellectual abstraction. Addressing topics as disparate as the language of newspaper obituaries or the meanings of ‘don’t know’ answers in political surveys, Bourdieu distinguished himself from other French thinkers of his generation by his openness to empirical testing. He shared with them, on the other hand, an extreme scepticism about the structures of formal democracy, which he believed functioned so as to disguise the hereditary transmission of privilege, allowing the success of some and the failure of the rest to appear as an innocent process of selection on merit. Again like the cohort with whom he so often quarrelled, Bourdieu made a powerful case for the significance of culture. So deeply unjust a social system, he suggested, could not persist without the constant legitimation it receives from the cultural meanings we seize on and cling to: the definitive constraint comes from the very domain where we think we are most free. Finally, and paradoxically, he seemed to imply that if there was any freedom to be found in so determined a system, it would be among those doing the work he himself was doing: the sociologist, even when working for the state, remained a sort of implicit hero.
Of course, this ambiguous heroism tended to replace other sorts. Consider Bourdieu’s account of the events of May 1968. Like most of his analyses, this one emphasises local dynamics – within the university in this instance – at the expense of more general political issues. A large proportion of the most active protesters, he notes, were students and young faculty members in new disciplines such as sociology (for men) and psychology (for women). These young and fragile disciplines could not satisfy students’ expectations of further employment. Many of the frustrated students came from the dominant class, but their educational achievement did not correspond to their social origin. Thus the key actors in the protest were ‘all those who have not managed to obtain social recognition of and reward for their inherited cultural capital.’ Underlying the protest, in other words, was a failure of the pattern of class reproduction. What was happening in the world outside the university was almost irrelevant.
The students’ experience of ‘downclassing’ may have driven them to sympathise with those worse off than themselves, but this for Bourdieu is the sad truth about the way left-wing politics operates in general. Those who are subordinate within the field of power declare their solidarity with those who are subordinate in society as a whole: the truly powerless. The relatively minor grievances of certain intellectuals lead them to declare their solidarity with, say, the proletariat, who have altogether larger problems, and only in this indirect fashion do movements for revolution and reform come into being. The protesters are trying to negotiate a better position for themselves among the intellectual class; those who are truly dominated initiate nothing. The depth of Bourdieu’s cynicism appears in an afterthought: alliances like those between students and workers have more chance of succeeding, he says, ‘if the partners … have less opportunity to enter into direct interaction, to see and speak to each other’.
This exposure of the tenacity of the class system beneath surface change, and of the devious means by which its stability has been disguised, was an accomplishment entirely worthy of the academic honours Bourdieu received. Yet his view of society made it hard to conceive that there could ever be anything except stability, so that a success such as his own represented a complete anomaly. Tempted by the glaring contradiction between his life and his thought, critics have been able to use the theory to discredit its author: ‘Critic of glory and honour, he is avid for glory and honour … disdainful of the system of education, he has submitted himself to the greatness of the School, and so on ad infinitum,’ as Bourdieu exasperatedly paraphrases it in Esquisse. Jealousy and resentment can never be discounted as motives, but it would be more interesting and more generous (to the critics as well as to Bourdieu) to use the life to amend the theory. Perry Anderson has compared Bourdieu to Raymond Williams, another scholarship boy who turned into a social critic – and, however reluctantly, into a kind of social success. Surely there are further conclusions to be drawn from such stories – not least that lowly origins can themselves serve as a sort of cultural capital. Should we not revise our view of a system that rewards Bourdieu or Williams and the possible place of anger within it? Social criticism that reaches its ironic consummation in social success, despite or because of the critic’s anger, seems a phenomenon important enough to call for theoretical consideration.
Like the smiling passer-by in the film, Bourdieu invites the question of what difference it makes to know one isn’t free. What has her life been like since reading Bourdieu? Can living in the consciousness of unfreedom become a kind of freedom? The closest Bourdieu comes to an answer is when, rather than discussing himself, he discusses his discipline. Science of Science and Reflexivity, an annotated version of his final course of lectures at the Collège de France, is the last book Bourdieu published during his lifetime, and is in part a look back at his career. It expresses his pride at having given birth to a ‘reflexive’ version of sociology. Reflexivity exempts the discipline from the seemingly universal struggle to earn symbolic capital, and makes it the site of society’s self-consciousness. As such, Bourdieu treats sociology as the culmination of a collective upward mobility that overlaps with his own and gives additional meaning to it.
When he started out in the 1950s, Bourdieu says, ‘sociology, and to a lesser extent anthropology, were minor, even despised disciplines.’ Like photography, sociological analysis was something everyone thought they could do, but Bourdieu would prove that the sociologist is superior to the crowd, just as the amateur photographer’s freedom to improvise is only apparent: ‘There is nothing more regulated and conventional than photographic practice and amateur photographs.’ Thus the two underdogs, the individual and his discipline, begin their conjoined and magical rise, vanquishing dragons at every step. Bourdieu’s teacher, Raymond Aron, Sartre’s estranged friend and political enemy, was the one who ‘transported into sociology the total ambitions of Sartrean-style philosophy’. But it was Bourdieu himself, we are given to understand, who realised those ambitions by entering into interdisciplinary battle. He professes to feel no hostility towards ‘the French philosophers who achieved fame in the 1970s’, but he accuses them of achieving success by trying to destroy (while mimicking) the social sciences. True or not, this accusation recalls Bourdieu’s own tactic of borrowing the language of philosophy and anthropology in order to seize on as much of their authority as possible.
It’s the same when Bourdieu comes to the book’s main theme: the careers of natural scientists. He tries to distance himself from what he calls ‘a naively Machiavellian view of scientists’ strategies’, according to which ‘the symbolic actions they perform in order to win recognition for their “fictions” are at the same time influence-seeking and power-seeking strategies through which they pursue their own glorification.’ But when he goes on to describe the scientific world as ‘a universe of competition for the “monopoly of the legitimate handling” of scientific goods’, it’s hard to see how his own view differs.
How can he be so scornful, for example, of Bruno Latour? In Les Microbes: Guerre et paix (1984, translated into English as The Pasteurisation of France), Latour uses the confusion of a Russian defeat of Napoleon’s army, as described by Tolstoy, as an analogy for the way in which Pasteur discovered how to defeat anthrax. As the battle analogy suggests, Latour accepts that the victory was real, however unplanned and unheroic: something was actually discovered about the way nature works; anthrax, like Napoleon, was really beaten. Bourdieu accuses Latour of ignoring the ‘purely scientific’ side, but himself ignores the premise he holds in common with him, of the reality of nature. Both Bourdieu and Latour are moderate ‘constructionists’, but Latour does not share Bourdieu’s belief that ‘society’ is the agent that does the constructing. Uncommitted as he is to any one discipline, Latour favours a hybrid conception of agency, one that straddles the divide between nature and society. The comparison makes Bourdieu look like a mere apologist for sociology, itself now a well-established discipline. If science were as self-regulating as he suggests, moreover, it would hardly need the strenuous sociological oversight that he demands for it in the next lecture. Here as elsewhere, he is ready to forget a great deal in order to assert the right of social science to sit in judgment on all rival branches of knowledge, including the natural sciences and philosophy.
What he is trying to account for is, in effect, the paradox of his own life: that of the rebel who achieves power. This seems to guide many of his brushes with self-contradiction, as when he writes that there are ‘two ways’ in which existing ‘systems of selection (such as elite schools) favour great scientific careers.’ The first is ‘by designating those whom they select as remarkable’ – the implication being that this could be anyone, whether talented or not. The second is ‘by conferring a particular competence’, a formulation that takes away with one hand what it has given with the other. Is the ‘great scientific career’ arbitrary, or is it the reflection of genuine competence, of an objectively verifiable achievement? You can’t tell. In Bourdieu’s prose, oxymoronic phrases like ‘regulated improvisation’ and ‘unconscious strategy’ habitually try to have it both ways. ‘Habitus’, his term for an individual’s largely unconscious knowledge of his or her social ‘context’, is both structured (from without) and structuring (enabling the individual to improvise actions that may change his or her context). This is one of sociology’s more intriguing ripostes to the notion of the fully determined homo economicus. But Bourdieu goes on to claim that the concept transcends the oppositions that everyone else remains stuck in: objective v. subjective, practical v. theoretical and so on. If overcoming such oppositions required nothing more than coining a term and quarrelling more or less violently with the proponents of each side, there would be less cause to doubt Bourdieu’s right to count this among his achievements.
In the last decade of his life, he took well-publicised stands against neo-liberal globalisation, racist immigration policies and warmongering. Having become famous, he was asked to pontificate on various subjects, not necessarily those he had earned his fame by investigating. Indeed, he had had little to say earlier in his career about economic and political questions – perhaps because there was no scholarly credit to be gained from it – or for that matter about race or gender. Then suddenly, he seemed eager to take his place in the great tradition of public intellectuals like Zola and Sartre, and this although he had never suggested that such a place might be earned, deserved or of genuine significance to the world at large. For him, gestures of political commitment are generally moves in a self-contained game (the metaphor is everywhere), irrelevant to the genuine but infinitely postponed conflict between haves and have-nots, and meaningful only within the internecine squabbles between what he calls (usefully, it must be said) the dominant and dominated fractions of the dominant class. When an intellectual invokes ‘the people’, Bourdieu never sees any good reason why ‘the people’ should listen. His analysis of May 1968 is written as if the sociologist could never imagine himself as an excited participant in these or any other événements, having never had expectations strong enough to be disappointed.
As many of his critics have noted, a concept such as ‘habitus’, however promising as a map of social constraint, never adequately compensates for Bourdieu’s reductive sense of human nature as motivated only by self-interested competition for status. Thus the woman who stops him in the street to tell him he has changed her life might be seen as simply making an unscripted bid for familiarity with an intellectual media star. I would not dare to suggest that she could represent, on the contrary, the ‘public opinion’ that Bourdieu declared, in a memorable one-liner, doesn’t exist. But she does lend her authority, such as it is, to the notion that he is more than a spokesman for sociology as a martial art. When she has been factored into our understanding of how and why society’s rewards are distributed, we will be more able than Bourdieu himself was to account for the reasons it might grudgingly accept, welcome and even honour someone like him.