A troubling enfant sauvage

Culture and Power

November 13, 1998

David Swartz was one of the first people in the United States to recognise the importance of Pierre Bourdieu's work and to recommend it. In 1977, on the basis mainly of articles that had appeared in English translation in sociology of education readers and of Bourdieu's Reproduction: In Education, Society and Culture, published in the US that year, he considered the contribution Bourdieu's work had made to the understanding of why increased access to higher education had failed to diminish social inequality.

Swartz seemed aware of the cultural studies Bourdieu had undertaken in the 1960s that have been translated into English only in this decade. But he paid little attention to Bourdieu's anthropological research in Algeria in the late 1950s or to his development of a distinctive view of the philosophy of the social sciences, presented most clearly in Outline of a Theory of Practice.

Swartz slightly remedied these omissions in a 1981 article by focusing attention for the first time on Bourdieu's concept of "habitus". Nevertheless, this article was a comparative evaluation of the work of Raymond Boudon and Bourdieu as contributors specifically to the sociology of education.

In Culture and Power, Swartz seeks to do justice to the full range of Bourdieu's work. It introduces his career and mentions several formative intellectual influences, judiciously discussing his relationship to the work of Marx, Durkheim and Weber, and, importantly, giving proper attention to the influence of Bachelard. A chapter is devoted to an account of "habitus" and another to the concept of "field". One, on "Education, culture and social inequality", covers some old ground, but later chapters are excellent. In these Swartz considers Bourdieu's most recent (post-1990) reflections on the social function of intellectuals and the role of the scientific intellectual in politics - although, surprisingly, there is little reference to La mis re du monde (1993), yet to be translated, but in which Bourdieu offers social observation as a form of political intervention.

Swartz's account is lucid and well written but there is something missing. He is able to tell us that Bourdieu has a theory of strategic action and he knows Bourdieu claims to advance a theory of sociological method rather than a social theory, but tends to present Bourdieu as though he were a systematic thinker rather than a strategic activist.

Bourdieu once wrote that sociology is "une science qui derange" - a science that disturbs, unsettles or makes trouble. If sociology should fail to force people to think alternatively about their social situations, Bourdieu would deploy - and constantly has deployed - other intellectual forms to achieve an unsettling effect. This book is not unsettling. Swartz talks, for instance, about the influence of Sartre on Bourdieu, but the discussion is bland and does not adequately recognise that Bourdieu seems impelled to be a public intellectual in the Sartrean mode while rejecting Sartre's egotistical detachment. Swartz represents Bourdieu's theory of practice as a "metatheory of sociological knowledge" - transposing it at a stroke into the kind of theory for theory's sake Bourdieu abhors. Where in this is the "enfant sauvage" of postwar French thought - the young researcher during the Algerian war of independence, the newly appointed professor of sociology whose inaugural lecture analysed it as an initiation rite or the internationally acclaimed thinker who still goes out of his way to give a voice to the socially oppressed?

Swartz's Bourdieu is too much a sociologist for other sociologists. It is clear from his work that Bourdieu dislikes routinisation. Any book about him runs the risk of making fixed those concepts and practices Bourdieu has tried to keep creatively fluid. Swartz tames Bourdieu, domesticates him, assimilates him to the prevailing assumptions of academic sociology. Swartz rightly concludes that nothing since the work of Alvin Gouldner has challenged sociologists to submit their own practices to critical examination as much as the work of Bourdieu. This book should be read to understand how this can be justified, but it needs to be read with an extra dose of anti-academic fervour.

Derek Robbins is head of the department of social politics, languages and linguistics, University of East London.

Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

Author - David Swartz
ISBN - 0 226 78594 7 and 78595 5
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £45.50 and £12.75
Pages - 333

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