Move over, shrinks

April 14, 2000

French thinker Pierre Bourdieu thinks an interview with a sociologist will allay anxieties and help you understand your life. Harriet Swain reports.

For Pierre Bourdieu, arguably France's leading sociologist, an interview is more than an exchange of information - for the person being interviewed, it is therapy. "Sociology has a function everyone forgets," he says. "It has a clinical function. People think that sociologists may help politicians or prime ministers. In fact, there is something more modest but very important that they do, a kind of psychoanalysis."

For his recent book The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, Bourdieu and his team of sociologists conducted interviews with ordinary people struggling to survive - teenagers just out of prison, immigrant families and their neighbours, factory workers, unemployed people, farmers and teachers.

The book builds a complex picture of the ways in which people suffer. It provides useful lessons for social workers, politicians, perhaps even urban planners. But Bourdieu says that it also fulfilled a more direct function. One of his subjects was a teacher who was interviewed at home and at work and whose attitudes emerged as very different in the two settings. "She was, I don't say cured, but she was very happy after (those interviews)," he says. "I had lunch with her afterwards and she had the feeling of having mastered what had happened to her."

So enthusiastic is he about this "socioanalysis" that he wants to formalise his interview techniques into a kind of guidebook for schools and hospitals. He advocates resident sociologists in schools easing relations between teachers and misbehaving pupils by explaining the sociological background to the children's naughtiness. Often, he says, an interviewee is so grateful for the discoveries they make about themselves and the ability to express them that they thank the interviewer. It is quite a responsibility to bear.

Now, here he sits in an armchair in a small London hotel, his large, analyst's head dominating a stocky, workmanlike body - being interviewed himself.

He readily admits that sociology has helped him, too. "You use sociology to understand yourself, how you are, and to accept yourself," he says. "You don't love yourself more. But you may be disappointed with yourself, you may be upset by what you are, but you have instruments to understand and to accept it and that is the main problem of life."

His work in identifying instruments for understanding has made him a prominent public figure in France. He is frequently on television, his books are bestsellers and he has become increasingly outspoken about politics. Just over a year ago he found himself embroiled in an intellectual row when historian Jeannine Verdes-Leroux accused him of "sociological terrorism" and "manipulative activity in the intellectual domain". Central to the argument was the relationship between academics and the media - something Bourdieu tackled in the book, On Television and Journalism. In it he criticised academics for courting a medium that he argued was inadequate for intellectual discussion. One of the accusations from Verdes-Leroux and others was that Bourdieu indulged too much in wooing the media himself.

But taking on a public role is something he has started doing only recently, he says, partly because he feels he has a duty to speak out against the dangers of "neo-liberal politics concealed by social democratic rhetoric", and partly because he is making use of his "cultural capital".

This is a key Bourdieu idea - the notion that culture is a currency rather than an innate quality, that acquiring specific literary and musical tastes alters our position and weight within a society, though it does not alter us intrinsically. Institutions, such as schools or universities, carry their own fixed cultural worth. For instance, when he became chair of the Coll ge de France in 1981, he explains, he benefited from some of the cultural capital of that institution, which meant that if he chose to speak out about such issues as the inequalities of the education system he was more likely to be listened to than before his appointment.

Connected to this idea of cultural capital are the concepts he has developed of "habitus" and "field". These he uses to describe how people inherit the way they perceive society and adapt these perceptions according to their experiences, constructing different "fields" within which their actions achieve meaning and recognition.

The terms recur as a consistent theme in his work, which has covered topics as diverse as photography, Algerian peasant societies, students and masculinity. And just as sociology has helped him come to terms with his background, his background has helped his sociological work.

Bourdieu was born in 1930 in Bearn, southwest France, in a small, backward-looking village. His father began his working life as a peasant farmer, then became a postman. The bright young Bourdieu was encouraged by his school teachers to try for the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. He won a place, and his colleagues included Jacques Derrida. He describes the experience of this elite education as "ambiguous".

"People I admired - some professors - told me the best thing to do would be to become a professor, to go to the Ecole Normale, to win the competition," he says. "I did everything they told me. And I developed a kind of shame about my origins. I remember coming back by train to my home and when I arrived in Bordeaux, people had these terrible accents. I was ashamed of everybody - even my family."

It took him a long time to deal with these feelings, and in the end it was sociology that came to the rescue. After studying philosophy in Paris and spending a year teaching, he served for two years with the French army in Algeria. There, using anthropological and ethnographic techniques, he wrote the first of his studies on the Kabyles, a North African tribe that he describes as having "a very old, Mediterranean tradition of honour". In this and later studies of the Kabyles he found his knowledge of the way French peasant society worked helped his understanding.

In the 1960s, he decided he should properly study the society he had come from. In Celibat et condition paysanne, he investigated the problems male farmers in the Bearn were having finding wives and adapting to the modern age. Later, he examined the difficulties that students from working class and provincial backgrounds such as his own experienced after embarking on philosophy and sociology degrees in urban universities.

While he is scrupulous about carrying out quantitative as well as qualitative research, he is open about drawing lessons from his own experiences and those of the people close to him. "Maybe my main discoveries I owe to my mother," he says. It was she who taught him that kinship was not simply a matter of genealogy, as had been generally assumed in anthropological studies, but that relatives needed to be cultivated to retain their kinship value. Perhaps the most important legacy of his background is his abiding interest in education. He argues that school has a crucial role to play in people's future achievements, whatever their social origins.

In the 1980s he was asked to compile a report for President Mitterrand on the future of education. It achieved the creation of Arte, France's cultural television channel, and it inspired the establishment of a committee to revise the school curriculum. But Bourdieu says it became a political tool, used by Mitterrand to say he had the backing of the Coll ge de France and by education ministers to justify decisions they had already made.

He has a somewhat gloomy view of academics' ability to affect the way society works. "I don't like sociologists who think they contribute to change," he says. "Most of them don't know reality."

It is an attitude that prompted criticism from Geoff Mulgan, a Downing Street adviser, during a recent debate with Bourdieu about The Weight of the World at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. "The danger is that you can feel, reading the book, that there is no way out," Mulgan said. "What about solutions? Is the only contribution to be made I that of 'throwing a spanner in the works'?" But Bourdieu says there are things that can be done. He argues that it is better to do a lot of little things systematically, "because those little things generate changes that generate changes". He says the problem with France is that it has a tendency to carry out grand, sweeping reforms that even the best sociologists would not be able to plan - the transformation of an entire system of education, for instance. "The vision of the engineer must be abandoned in favour of the vision of the gardener," he says.

His anxiety about sweeping change is that it creates sweeping backlashes. In 1968, Bourdieu stood up in front of 2,000 students and told them off for talking of revolution, warning them that it would frighten people into conservatism. "And so it happened. We have a very conservative academy."

Instead of trying to find radical solutions, he wants academics and others to concentrate on increasing our understanding of society. For him, confronting the weight of the world in this way brings its own burdens - burdens that he seems grateful to get off his chest.

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