Social Theory: Pierre Bourdieu

15th Jul 2022 by Toby Dodge

Social Theory: Pierre Bourdieu

Toby Dodge ‘Using Pierre Bourdieu’s “thinking tools” to understand Middle East politics’.


An increasing number of academics seeking to understand the complexities of the contemporary Middle East are reaching for Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach, primarily his intellectually interdependent concepts of field, capital, habitus and symbolic violence. Bourdieu’s ‘thinking tools’ offer a flexible approach, allowing analysts to factor in both the ideational and material causalities behind the events they are seeking to understand. Bourdieu described his own working method as ‘constructivist structuralism’ and his approach certainly focuses on causative structures beyond the consciousness of agents, arguing that an individual’s perceptions have a ‘social genesis’. However, he also wanted to reintroduce the role of agency that structuralism sought to abolish and  make people’s actions more than mere obedience to rule.

Bourdieu’s attempt to balance individual agency with structural causality owes its origins to the milieu within which he developed as an intellectual. Bourdieu was born in 1930 and grew up in south-west France, arriving as a student in Paris as an outsider in terms of both class and geography. The Paris in which he became an academic was dominated by the structuralism of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and the increasing influence of Bourdieu’s intellectual contemporary, the Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser. Initially, in his early anthropology focused on the Kabyle in 1950s Algeria, Bourdieu followed this structural trend, developing the concept of habitus to challenge the free choice at the centre Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism. However, as his work evolved, he sought to balance structuralism with discussions of improvisation and strategy. In addition, throughout his intellectual life, Bourdieu shaped his work through a detailed dialogue with classical sociologists, including Marx, Weber and Durkheim.

Key argument:

At the core of Bourdieu’s working method are four key concepts, habitus, field, various forms of capital and the central notions of symbolic power and symbolic violence.  An individual’s habitus sits at the centre of Bourdieu’s social theory and his understanding of agency. One’s habitus is the cumulative sum of a person’s socialisation, from the child growing up in the family to the changing socialisation individuals are constantly subjected to in society. Its influence on both cognition and physical action is subconscious, with an individual’s habitus being the target of on-going struggles within society to shape perception, action and obtain dominance.

For Bourdieu, every society transformed by modernity becomes divided into a number of specific arenas for competition, which Bourdieu labels fields.  These fields, although interrelated, or ‘homologous’, are differentiated from each other. The boundaries of a field and the values to be fought over within it are set by the competitors and the struggles they are involved in.

Those fighting with each other for dominance within fields seek to accumulate and deploy capital to win their struggle. Although there are many types of capital, four tend to predominate in Bourdieu’s work. The first and most obvious is economic capital: money and property rights.  The second is social capital.  This is gained through social networks and obligations, the ability to organise and mobilise, the benefits that come from group membership. The third type is cultural capital. This can be objectified in material objects like paintings, books and furniture but it can also be institutionalised in educational qualifications or embodied in an individual’s bearing, her language capabilities or scholarly or religious learning.  Finally and central to his work, Bourdieu identifies symbolic capital as the most important capital and symbolic violence as the use of that capital to shape perceptions and order society. In seeking to explain how one group within a field seeks to dominate another, Bourdieu deliberately avoided using the term ideology. His understanding of the power of ideas was much wider, encompassing how cognition, communication, social organisation and domination are all shaped by symbolic power. Bourdieu is clear that the struggle to gain a monopoly over symbolic violence, the power to impose a vision of what the social world is and have this definition seen as legitimate, is as important as the Weberian notion of the monopoly over physical violence.

The struggle to gain symbolic power, to impose symbolic violence, is the competition to structure the common sense operating in any given field and across society as a whole. For Bourdieu, common sense is structured around the process of classification, the division and ordering of the social world through the imposition of categories and their naming. This is how agents gain their perception of the social world that they live in and are allocated the groups they become members of and hence their identities. Symbolic violence draws distinctions and establishes hierarchies between different groups, removing empirical fluidity. So, the struggle for symbolic power  across the Middle East, is the struggle to impose classifications of how the social world should be understood, what social categories, for example Arab, Kurd, Sunni or Shi’a, should dominate common sense and be seen as legitimate.

A central focus of Bourdieu’s work is the political field, its relationship with other fields and the state. The political field, like all fields, is an arena in which people and groups amass symbolic capital in the competition to impose their own vision as the dominant common sense.  However, struggles within the political field, conducted by politicians, journalists and assorted ‘experts’, have a larger aim beyond the field itself, to define what the social world is in its totality. Bourdieu labels these competing definitions of the social, ‘principles of vision and division’. These, in the hands of competing politicians, start off as ‘speculative ideas’ only to harden into powerful positions through their ability to be adopted by and hence mobilise people. The political field has a powerful role within any society, a role of censorship, of ‘limiting the universe of political discourse’, of placing boundaries on what is politically thinkable.

Bourdieu’s view of the state and the role of the political and bureaucratic fields within it has two different aspects. Bourdieu’s first and most important understanding of the state is disaggregated, an ‘ensemble of fields that are the site of struggles’. The struggle in the political field to propagate a dominant ‘principle of vision and division’ would be joined by struggles within different fields that make up the state; administrative, bureaucratic and coercive and fields outside the state, like the religious field. Secondly, Bourdieu also perceived of that state in its totality, as the ‘central bank of symbolic capital’, an institution of immense potential power that through its deployment of informational and symbolic capital ‘… inculcates common forms and categories of perception and appreciation, social frameworks of perceptions, of understanding or of memory, in short state forms of classification’.  

Bourdieu applied to the Middle East:

Sami Zubaida was one of the first academics studying the Middle East to deploy Bourdieu’s definition of the political field and his understanding of the state.  Zubaida used this approach to understand the ‘weak’ and ‘external’ nature of the post-colonial state in the region and how ‘communalist sentiments’ entered into but were then transformed in the political field.  Hazem Kandil has also successfully deployed a Bourdieusian approach to explain the different trajectories of three ‘revolutions from above’ carried out by modernising army officers in Iran, Egypt and Turkey. Kandil deploys Bourdieu’s concept of the field of power, doxa and habitus to disaggregate the state and explain the different motivations of the politicians, army officers and bureaucrats struggling for power in the three different states and why different groups prevailed in different cases. Baczko, Dorronsoro and Quesnay also use Bourdieu’s understanding of the changing value of different capitals and the struggle within semi-autonomous fields to understand the transformation of Syrian society as the state’s power collapsed and the country descended into civil war after 2011. Finally, Dodge combines Bourdieu’s concept of the political field with his understanding of capitals to examine the rise of sectarian identities in Iraq’s after regime change in 2003 and, writing with Renad Mansour,  how these sectarian identities were challenged by the mass social movement of 2019.

Suggested reading:

Good introductions to Bourdieu’s work:

David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Bourdieu on the state:

Pierre Bourdieu, On the State Lectures at the College de France, 1989-1992, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014).

George Steinmetz, ‘Pierre Bourdieu, ‘On the State. Lectures at the Collège de France 1989-1992’,  Sociologica, Fascicolo 3, settembre-dicembre 2014.

Bourdieu applied to the Middle East:

Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay, Civil War in Syria; Mobilization and Competing Social Orders (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

Toby Dodge, ‘Beyond structure and agency: rethinking political identities in Iraq after 2003’, Nations and Nationalism 26/1 (January 2020), pp. 108-122.

Hazem Kandil, The Power Triangle: Military, Security, and Politics in Regime Change, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Sami Zubaida, ‘Community, class and minorities in Iraqi politics’, in Robert A. Fernea and Wm. Roger Louis (eds), The Iraqi Revolution of 1958.  The Old Social Classes Revisited (London: I.B. Tauris, 1991).