The Logic of Practice

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As a complex theorist, Pierre Bourdieu was not an easy read for me. Nonetheless, it was very worthwhile from an intellectual point of view. His main concepts of habituspractical sense, symbolic capital, and symbolic violence are so thick that I feel a dissertation won’t suffice to fully appreciate and internalize them. For the purpose of this memo I’d like to first draw parallels with the other social theories, and then use one field – academic in particular – to illustrate Bourdieu’s theoretical insights.

The central idea of Bourdieu’s work is the concept of habitus, a system of dispositions of body and mind that individuals develop under social structures which are then used to respond to these same structures. Habitus underpins the practical sense that Bourdieu contrasts with the rational one, and is used by agents unconsciously – as a “feel for the game” – to reproduce social structures and power relations within a field.

What comes to mind here is Giddens’ concept of “practical consciousness”. However, while the latter serves to maintain an individual’s ontological security (going on in the world despite its fragility and “lurking chaos”), the former also defines an agent’s position in a social space. For example, a person’s taste for refined wine can signal his/her upper-class status.

Bourdieu develops the conception of habitus to bridge the gap between objectivism (structures) and subjectivism (individual experience), a problem that was dealt with by other social theorists also. Thus, for example, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann emphasize the irreducible individual-society dialectic via the process of externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Similarly, Ervin Goffman approaches the agent-structure issue via a dialectic relationship, using a dramaturgical perspective. Furthermore, the whole premise of Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory is the idea that neither individual experience nor social structure is primary; Giddens postulates that agents are both enabled and constrained in their practices.Similarly, Bourdieu talks about “improvised regularity” to emphasize that determination and choice must be understood as a dualism, not an antinomy. The “objectivity of the subjective”, as the author puts it, means that objective social structures are internalized in agents who form sets of dispositions and respond with them to the world.

Similarly, Bourdieu talks about “improvised regularity” to emphasize that determination and choice must be understood as a dualism, not an antinomy. The “objectivity of the subjective”, as the author puts it, means that objective social structures are internalized in agents who form sets of dispositions and respond with them to the world.

Another parallel can be drawn between Bourdieu and Antonio Gramsci. Bourdieu makes a distinction between economic and symbolic capital, as well as develops the related concept of symbolic violence which helps reproduce the modes of domination via the consent of the dominated. In other words, symbolic violence makes habitus natural, unquestioned, and taken-for-granted. This resonates with Gramsci’s idea of the legitimacy of the ruling class that requires acceptance by the ruled. Both authors conclude on the necessity of such a masked form of domination and exploitation. As Bourdieu nicely put it (p. 128): “The harder it is to exercise direct domination … the more likely it is that gentle, disguised forms of domination will be seen.” On a side note, Bourdieu’s differentiation of economic and symbolic capital can be correlated with Gramsci’s war of position and war of maneuver.

Academic field is a great illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory. Academia is a social space with specific practices and “rules of the game”. Graduate students must not only acquire and produce knowledge, but also develop “academic habitus” and “learn the game”. One part of the game, for instance, is striving for getting published in peer-reviewed journals. Academia is thus inevitably a space of power struggle with an existing hierarchy of social positions (academic ranks). Once significant symbolic capital is acquired (citation frequency, reputation, and authority in the field), it can be translated into economic advantages (higher salary, lower teaching load). Finally, academia, by virtue of its symbolic capital, consecrates the legitimate meaning of what “true science” is.

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