France still feels the force of his habitus

February 8, 2002

The legacy of Pierre Bourdieu (right), a giant of sociology, is the rigour with which others continue exposing the brutal truth of life under capitalism, writes Fred Inglis.

With the death on January 23 of Pierre Bourdieu, not much over 70 and still hard at work, the last of the mighty maîtres à penser of French thought who traced their inheritance back to Jean-Paul Sartre has gone.

Claude Levi-Strauss, well into his 90s, has long fallen silent; Louis Althusser died in melancholy madness; Michel Foucault prematurely of Aids; Roland Barthes in a road accident. All of them have marked the passage of the human sciences from an impossible positivism to an abstruse and exhilarating theory of human oppression with dignity, even grandeur, with an unfailing loyalty to those most maimed and neglected by the depredations of capitalism, and with an eloquence as resonant as it was exciting.

Bourdieu, once the junior of that tradition, turned out to be perhaps the most prodigious and most formidable of them all. For almost 40 years, his books have tumbled unstoppably out, from his classic study of the Kabyle in Algeria, which he began during his doctoral studies and the war of liberation, to the more recent and serenely difficult Pascalian Meditations , which has been available from Polity Press for about a year.

On the way, he was at pains to honour the noble tradition of the intellectual, a social role invented by his apocalyptic avatars, Flaubert and Zola, and do all he could to scandalise the bourgeoisie into recognising its own ineffable complacency and its systematic doing-down of anybody threatening its privileges. In Homo Academicus and The State Nobility , a round 1,000 pages of print, Bourdieu arraigns his nation's inviolable, tranquil management of class succession and success as the children of the middle classes move smoothly on to occupy chairs and seats of high administrative import whose cushions are still warm from the impress of parental bottoms.

Bourdieu's theory would find the same apparatus at work in Britain or the United States, although under different empirical circumstances. It is William Cobbett's critique of old corruption for the modern age, but with the added ingredient of Bourdieu's scientific approach to sociological method, his insistence that only by studying objectively how social structure and action affect each other can we understand and change society.

Sociology, by this harsh token, lives and deals in the thick stuff of being and culture. To learn his method, not so much to acquire professional technique as to see the limits on a rational person's imagination, you cannot do better than turn to Bourdieu's doctoral essay Algeria 1960 and follow his painful account of what he calls "the disenchantment of the world" as experienced by impoverished, landless, unskilled Muslim Arabs desperate for work, driven half-crazy by inactivity, hanging grimly on to traditional pieties of trust, honour and livelihood in economic circumstances that certified their destruction.

Bourdieu was born in 1930, the son of poor peasant smallholders on the unforgiving stones of the Pyrenees. He shared enough of the Kabyle's exigent life to feel an anguished sympathy on their behalf. But his is not an ethnographer's report on the outrages wrought upon the wretched of the earth. Then and thereafter, it is his steely and absolute commitment to practise a science of human affairs, and to do so by following his great sociological masters, Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim, as deep as he can go into the heart of the social mechanisms whose pulse beats in the blood of each and every one of us.

This is the realm of the habitus, Bourdieu's most quoted and least graspable concept. It is "a system of durable transposable dispositions which functions as the generative basis of structural, objectively unified practices". Put like that, it is not much consolation to identity evangelicals, and is in any case hardly more than tautology.

Its use and the hard edge to his thought is in ostensive action. In an astonishing series of empirical studies, from Distinction , Bourdieu's unsettling study of taste published in 1979, to his epic The Weight of the World of 1999, he bent his amazing stamina and terrible algebra to showing just how social structure and class culture spoke their commands to the habitus such that millions of monads went about their business convinced of their own existential uniqueness, tolerating misery and hypocrisy as though they were as unalterable as the weather.

Bourdieu followed the precept of his masters to join together facts, figures and social fiction in a single encompassing ambit. His inclusive image, borrowed from physics, was of the field of mutually bombarding particles, each avid in the competitive struggle to superannuate the senior generation, and to invest their cash or cultural capital in one inexhaustible store of politico-atomic energy.

All social metaphors are testable, as Bourdieu insisted. Handsomely supported by grants for the kind of radical research the Economic and Social Research Council would turn down on sight, he directed an astounding range of inquiries that founded a whole school of inquirers still eagerly at work, all uncovering truths about offences done to the holy French trinity - liberty, equality and fraternity - by the brutal facts of life under capitalism. Bourdieu's admirable lieutenants Jean-Claude Passeron, Monique de Saint Martin, Loic Wacquant, Paul Champagne and others carry these facts and the truths they signify to those who were once Bourdieu's students, then his government, now his mourners, to prove to them how things go in their beloved France.

This is what it is to leave an intellectual inheritance. It isn't the way it happens in England.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies at the University of Sheffield.

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