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Obituary: A Man of Distinction

Feature Article by Alex Callinicos, February 2002

Alex Callinicos remembers the life and work of French radical Pierre Bourdieu.

The great French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu died of cancer in a Paris hospital on 23 January. Born to a peasant background in southern France in 1930, Bourdieu reached the pinnacle of the French university system, becoming a professor at the Collège de France. But he never forgot what in a famous book he called 'The Weight of the World'--the suffering experienced by ordinary people. In the last decade of his life Bourdieu threw himself into political activity, becoming one of the champions of the movement against capitalist globalisation.

Bourdieu belonged to the same generation as the philosophers Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, who became world famous as champions of poststructuralism. Indeed, he studied philosophy with Derrida at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. But in his work as an anthropologist and sociologist Bourdieu sought to transcend what he regarded as the sterile opposition between, on the one hand, liberal individualism, which made the individual subject the master of the world, and structuralism and poststructuralism, which reduced this subject to an effect of impersonal structures and processes.

The best known concept through which Bourdieu sought to escape this opposition was that of the habitus. He argued that the demands social structures make on individuals become embedded in patterns of behaviour and perception that people unreflectingly apply in everyday life. Thus in the most celebrated of his many books, 'Distinction' (1979), Bourdieu showed how the artistic preferences expressed by individuals depend on the unequal distribution of what he called cultural capital--the skills in handling symbols that are inculcated in middle class households, and that give their offspring a decisive advantage in the competition for academic qualifications and well paid jobs.

Bourdieu fiercely rejected the fashionable relativism that denies that the sciences can obtain genuine knowledge of the world. He saw himself in the French sociological tradition stemming from the writings of Émile Durkheim at the end of the 19th century. But he was also aware of at what cost scientific objectivity was obtained. In the superb 'Pascalian Meditations' (1997) Bourdieu reflected on the distance that separates academic research from everyday life--he argued that the relatively affluent and leisurely life of the scholar is a form of social privilege, but that it also provides a degree of detachment from ordinary material pressures that permits an insight into the workings of reality.

Some of Bourdieu's most original work showed how the apparently autonomous world of artists and intellectuals had historically specific social roots. In 'The Rules of Art' (1992) he traced the emergence of aesthetic Modernism in 19th century Paris. He analysed an endless competitive struggle in which, as each artistic innovation became accepted and assimilated by the larger society, new schools would emerge, developing styles and techniques that were even more at odds with common sense. Despite modern art's assertion of absolute autonomy, its development was rooted in the social logic of what Bourdieu called the artistic field.

'The Rules of Art' also analysed the formation of another distinctive figure of modern French society, the intellectual whose prestige is based on his achievements in an artistic or scientific field but who uses this authority to intervene in public life, as Emile Zola did during the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s and Jean-Paul Sartre did after the Second World War.

In his last years it was Bourdieu himself who stepped forward into this role. In the late 1970s the so called 'new philosophers' succeeded in relegating Marxism to the intellectual margins in France by equating it with Stalinism. After 1989 there seemed to be no alternative to neoliberalism.

Resistance nevertheless exploded in the great public sector strikes of November and December 1995. And in Bourdieu they found a passionate advocate. An undercurrent of sympathy with the oppressed had run through his earlier writings. Now it came to the surface. He told striking railway workers outside the Gare du Nord in December 1995 that they were 'fighting against the destruction of a civilisation'. When the unemployed or refugees took direct action, he supported them. With a group of close collaborators, Bourdieu formed a group of what he called 'researcher-activists', Raisons d'agir. They produced a series of cheap short books that were widely read. These tore apart what Bourdieu denounced as the 'fatalism' with which politicians, journalists and academics proclaimed the inevitability of neoliberal policies.

When the 'plural left' coalition under Lionel Jospin took office in June 1997, continuing these policies, Bourdieu was unsparing in his criticism. He called for a 'left of left' based on the social movements that had developed since 1995 as an alternative to 'the neoliberal Blair-Jospin-Schröder troika'. He was now more likely to be found at trade union conferences than academic seminars. The peasant leader José Bové described Bourdieu at the great demonstration at Millau in June 2000, 'He took part in the debates for two days. He was there, anonymous among all those people.' Though politically close to Christophe Aguiton, one of the founders of Attac, the movement against financial speculation, Bourdieu, according to a friend, 'thought it too reformist, too close to the authorities'.

It is easy enough to find things to disagree with in Bourdieu's writings. Theoretically they seemed to suffer from the determinism that he mistakenly attributed to Marxism. Politically he believed social democracy, defeated on the national stage, could be reinvented at the European level to control capitalism. But all this is less important now. Bourdieu lent to the struggle against neoliberalism the immense prestige that a great French intellectual can command. The anti-capitalist movement has lost one of its most powerful voices.

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