Monday, November 4, 2013

Sketch for a Self-Analysis, by Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu, a philosopher by education, and an anthropologist and sociologist by choice, is one of the most esteemed names in twentieth-century French thought. With his election in 1981 to the chair of sociology at the College de France, he joined the distinguished ranks of the most respected French social scientists, Raymond Aron and Claude Levi-Strauss. Prolific writer, Bourdieu has published more than 30 books and 340 articles over the period 1958 to 1995. The Social Science Citation Index ranking from high to low in 1989 for leading French thinkers was the following: Foucault, Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Althusser, Sartre, Poulantzas, Touraine, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Aron.

Although his subject was mainly Algerian and French society,  Bourdieu’s approach is useful in analyzing power in many more illuminating ways than offered by Foucault. While Foucault sees power as "ubiquitous" and beyond agency or structure, Bourdieu sees power as economically, culturally, socially and symbolically created, and constantly re-legitimized through an interplay of agency and structure. The main way this comes about is through what he calls "habitus" or socialized norms or tendencies that unconsciously guide behavior, choices and thinking. In Bourdieu’s stipulation, habitus is "the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them."
In his Sketch for a Self-Analysis, written shortly before his death in January 2002, Bourdieu offers a "self-socioanalysis," in only 113 pages, and provides a compelling narrative of his life and career, and insights from his lifelong preoccupation with sociology, including intimate insights into the ideas of Foucault, Sartre, Althusser and de Beauvoir, among others, as well as his reflections on his own formative years at boarding school and his moral outrage at the colonial war in Algeria. Please join us as at Brooklyn Book Talk, as we explore some of the most stimulating thoughts of one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth-century.


Anonymous said...

It is a bit alarming when sociology and sociologists alone try to understand and explain the self--and that too on the basis of French sociology of the 60's, 70's and 80's only. The idea of self-analysis has to be multi-disciplinary if it has to make any sense in the modern inter-connected world, where knowledge about mind, brain, culture(s), and evolution has increased exponentially. Self, like love, is a many splendored, multi-valent mystery. Sociologist be warned.

Nomi said...

Indeed, given the complexity of self, its study needs to be multidisciplinary and Bourdieu is fully aware of that. He therefore from the outset sets it straight that he is only going to talk from the sociological lens and offer a self-socioanalysis. He writes: "In adopting the point of view of the analyst I oblige (and authorize) myself to retain all the features that are pertinent from the point of view of sociology, in other words necessary for sociological explanation and understanding, and only those."

Anonymous said...

I have found Bourdieu's idea of the habitus sometimes hard to distinguish from his idea of capital. Don't they overlap in meaning in some aspects?

Nomi said...

There is indeed some overlap between the concepts of habitus and capital, but I will argue that it has more to do with Bourdieu's own development. At earlier stages of his sociological research, habitus was definitely conceptualized differently but in its later articulations, the concept became more refined--especially in its relationship to other concepts such as capital, field, and practice. Bourdieu offers the following equation as summary formula of his sociological model:

[(habitus) (capital)] + field = practice.

Nomi said...

Following is a brief description of the four concepts:

The multivalent concept of habitus (not unlike Foucault’s concept of epistemes) can be conceptualized as an individual’s or group’s “internalized” or “embodied” knowledge of the world; the permanent internalization of the social order in the human body; a set of habitual dispositions through which people give shape and form to social conventions; a tacit understanding of how to “go on” as a social agent; a strategy to play the inevitable power game in the context of class-related processes of domination, and hence both economically constituted and linked to status; a form of disposition derived from life experience; an internalization of reality, and in the moment of practice, an externalization of self as constituted through past experience. Habitus integrates actor-symbolic representations with structural factors.

Bourdieu conceptualizes resources as capital (and its varieties) when they function as a “social relation of power” by becoming objects of struggle as valued resources; assets which enable holders to mobilize authority e.g., competencies, skills, qualifications. For instance, his concept of cultural capital (which can become a power resource) covers a wide variety of resources such as verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, scientific knowledge, and educational credentials.

A field is the social space, structured internally in terms of rules, legitimate opinions and power relations, in which agents struggle and strategize to seek desirable resources. For example, a profession such as the law is a field, which is structured internally in terms of power differential between judges and lawyers. The position of each particular agent in the field is a result of interactions between the formal (constructed according to underlying nomos--fundamental principles of "vision and division") and informal rules of the field, agent's habitus and agent's capital (social, economic and cultural). Fields interact with each other, and are hierarchical (most are subordinate of the larger field of power and class relations).

Practice in Bourdieu’s system suggests a dialectical relationship (the "dialectic of objectification and incorporation") between a structured environment and the structured dispositions engendered in people which lead them to reproduce the environment even in a transformed form. In other words, practices are constitutive of structures as well as determined by them. He emphasizes that structures are themselves socially constructed through everyday practices of agents. He also suggests that practice cannot be deduced either from the present conditions which may seem to have provoked it or from past conditions, which have produced the habitus but from their inter-relationship.

The formula signifies that Bourdieu resists reducing practice to the independent effects of either habitus, capital, or field. It is rather the joint blend of the three which produces practices.

Ready Teacher said...

Habitus is dynamic. It changes with time and experience. But sometimes Bourdieu emphasizes habitus at the expense of agency. Can personal agency be reconciled with the idea of habitus?

Nomi said...

Bourdieu attempts to find a middle-path between structure and agency. He acknowledges that structure influences human behaviour, and but at the same time, humans are indeed capable of changing the meta-physical, economic, social and political etc., structures they inhabit--thus creating a new habitus for ensuing structures, and so on. Bourdieu's reconciliation of structure and agency is perhaps not unlike Hegel's idea of dialectical progress in which a thesis gives rise to an antithesis, which culminates into a synthesis.