Bourdieu, Language and Literature


A Keynote Paper Given at the Conference, Bourdieu and Literature, University of Warwick, Saturday 16th May 2009.


Bourdieu, Language and Literature: Theory and Practice



Prof. Michael Grenfell,

Trinity College, University of Dublin







The primary aim of this paper is to consider the ways in which language features in Bourdieu’s work. It begins with providing a contextual background by situating Bourdieu’s concerns with language in his field work in the Béarn and Algeria (see Grenfell, 2006), and shows how this early work developed in subsequent studies in Education and Culture. It argues that Bourdieu offered both a philosophy of language and a language of philosophy. The former will be contrasted with the way language is treated in various academic fields: for example, linguistics (sociolinguistics and social psychology) and postmodernist philosophy. The latter will consider Bourdieu’s own language and the implications of his conceptual tools for both research theory and practice. I shall draw attention to empirical examples to explore the significance of such terms as ‘linguistic capital’, ‘linguistic habitus’, and ‘linguistic market’. In particular, the paper addresses issues of ‘legitimate language’, and its role in social reproduction, and symbolic violence. Finally, I make some preliminary remarks on the implications of all this for researching Literature from a Bourdieusian perspective, both in terms of consumption and production.


Issues of research practice are particularly paramount in this discussion, as well as the significance of a Bourdieusian approach for both the researched and the researcher. I therefore want to begin with some reflections on the way Bourdieu has been used in social science research.  Here, a range of identifiable strategies have been employed to interpret and critique Bourdieu: let us call them the ‘uses and misuses’ of Bourdieu. Each needs to be considered as characteristic of a specific technique within the academic discourse, and therefore the position of those employing them within it.


First, for example, there is what might be called the ‘false accusations’ based on partial and superficial readings of Bourdieu’s work. For instance, his approach is wrongly construed as being deterministic, overly structural, and lacking in the possibility of resistance to socio-cultural hegemonies. Thus, he ‘failed’. This leads to the charge that there is no scope for change in Bourdieu’s theories, which would be true if the original interpretation were true – even though it might well be argued that his theory of practice is all about change.


The second strategy is based around the academic ploy of setting up the one who is to be shot down. The approach here is to give what Bourdieu has written a certain (partial) interpretation and then use that interpretation to show what Bourdieu does not do – leaving the way open for the writer to come to his aid, thus demonstrating their own superior insight. This strategy often comes with language which suggests Bourdieu deliberately avoided, overlooked or ignored specific themes chosen as pertinent by the critic. The problem here is that the critic rarely contrasts their own position and substantive intent with Bourdieu’s (even in terms of discipline, philosophy, or cultural context), and so dismisses or overlooks anything that does not fit their own interpretative framework.


 The third strategy is a form of reductionism. Here, conceptual terms such as ‘habitus’, ‘field’ and ‘reflexivity’ are reduced to ‘agency’, ‘context’ and ‘self-awareness’. As these latter are common in the social sciences, this argument leads to the claim that Bourdieu does nothing special: what he does, they all do – what he shows, they already know. Thus, the dynamic between these concepts, which is at the centre of a Bourdieusian approach, is underplayed and the methodological potential undermined.


 The fourth strategy can really be understood as a form of theoretical and empirical amnesia. Here, the writers claim that what Bourdieu showed is merely something that was always known. For example, the main insights behind Distinction are taken to be blindingly obvious: as if an understanding of the social construction of taste predates Bourdieu’s studies. This results from an a-temporal reading of his work and what came next, and is exacerbated by the length of time between the publication of texts in French and their subsequent appearance in English (in the case of Photography, this was almost twenty-five years).  So, the work is read out of its time and subsequent discussions are then used to show where the original ‘failed’.


The fifth strategy is rather more prosaic. Here, the Bourdieu’s  key concepts – habitus, field, etc. – are simply thrown at ethnographic data where some of them stick. This strategy is used to give apparent depth and theoretical rigor to the analysis, and as a way of metaphorising the data. Here, the researcher only has to add a Bourdieusian narrative to qualitative data to argue that individual (often biographical) action is shaped by the environment, or simply to re-present individual characteristics in terms of Bourdieu’s conceptual terms. In this case, Bourdieu is hardly needed at all other than to give the empirical a theoretical gloss.


 The sixth strategy extends the prose form to the poetic. Here, the concepts are embroidered and develop hybrid forms. Habitus become field and field becomes habitus. There is no distinction between sites, networks, social spaces and fields. Any human attribute can be put in front of habitus: pedagogic, emotional, psychological, organisational, national, etc. Capital similarly proliferates: technological, physical, aesthetic, journalistic, decorative, managerial, etc. Indeed, many of these terms are sometimes attached to all three – habitusfield and capital – whilst one of the key qualities of Bourdieu’s theoretical tools is that they are kept to a minimum – as necessary and sufficient to the data, and not to be added to when another existing concept is sufficient.


In the seventh strategy, Bourdieu is referenced to in an oblique way; for example, in a footnote, as an academic gesture of acquaintance and comprehensiveness.


Overarching all these strategies is the one which ‘idealises’ Bourdieu and discusses ‘his theory’ in theoretical terms, with little reflexivity of our own field position in approaching the work. This is what Bourdieu called the ‘theory effect’, and it is worth recalling that Bourdieu at least claimed never to ‘theorise’ as such. Rather, he saw his theoretical statements as necessitated by a practical engagement. Anything other was to ‘confuse the things of log with the logic of things’. (1992: 123)


And, of course, there is an eighth strategy to be added: for those who believe they are the holders of the true theoretical inheritance and are keen to establish a Bourdieusian orthodoxy as part of his academic legacy. This final strategy is, of course, doomed since the concepts will survive only so long as they are used rigorously in academic communities to analyse present day socio-cultural data.


In fact, all of these strategies (and others) are common enough in academia where each scholar is struggling to assert their own interpretation of the social world. Such strategies might be found in connection with critiques of any major (and minor) thinker. Bourdieu is not being singled out for special treatment. However, there is an issue here about interest: what is the research that is being written about? How? and Why is it important? Clearly, there are also questions about politics, activism, and both the how and why of social science research. And, I would like to keep these thoughts in mind during today’s conference.


Part I

Bourdieu and Language

Bourdieu was always interested in language. In his very earliest works in Algeria and the Béarn, language formed a significant part of the ethnographies he was to construct. For example, he noted the linguistic practices of the Béarnais peasant; most particularly, to oppositions set up between a largely rural population, who used local dialects, and the nearby towns where French predominated. Many rural people, we are told, actually found it difficult to speak French, and one of the main objectives of schools was to develop French literacy amongst the children of the area (see Bourdieu 2008a/ 02 – a publication of three papers on the peasant farmers in the Béarn originally published in 1962, 1972, and 1989 respectively). Yet, it was more the effect of war, with large numbers of itinerant refugees, and the opening up of economic links with urban areas that seems to have acted as the main impetus to the way that French language prevailed over local linguistic practices. Bourdieu claims to have made copious notes of such practices, but these early analyses were never published by him. In Algeria, as well, Bourdieu noted the way that the dominant use of French or Arab, by different sections of the populace, correlated with dispositional attitudes towards modern and traditional life issues ( 1977b: 94-95).


Given Bourdieu’s own biography – he grew up speaking Gascon, a now dead language of the area, and was apparently taunted at boarding school for his accent –  and these early experiences in the Béarn and Algeria, it is perhaps unsurprising that issues of language should feature in the first of his major studies on education in the 1960s and 70s: Les étudiants et leurs études (1964) Les héritiers. Les étudiants et la culture (1979/ 64) and La reproduction (1977a/ 70). Bourdieu’s big ‘discovery’ was that the ‘democratic school’ was not! Rather than providing equal opportunities and a meritocracy, schools were a kind of cultural filter through which children passed. Those with the necessary cultural dispositions gained from their family backgrounds found themselves to be a ‘fish in water’, swimming with the current; those without such prerequisites had the opposite experience, and were themselves continuously ill-at-ease in the academic environment. And, of course, language was the medium for this implicit ‘social selection’. The fact that it went on invisibly, and misrecognised, made it all the more effective. Those who were excluded even colluded in the process, accepting that their lack of academic success was due to lack of natural talent (see 1979/ 64: 71-2). Both Les héritiers and Reproduction include accounts of the literate practices of French students in the 1960s which juxtaposes ‘high’ (academic) and ‘low’ (popular) culture. Bourdieu saw both a resonance and structural homology between ‘bourgeois’ culture and that implicitly characterising French classical education.


Of course, this characterisation of the academic discourse raises questions about the actual processes at the interface between the individual and the social environment, and between language and knowledge, about which more below. For the moment, it is worth noting that this concern with language continued throughout Bourdieu’s career, and extended beyond education. For example, The State Nobility  (1996/89) begins with an analysis of the ‘categories’ of thought employed by academic lecturers in assessing students’ work – for example, ‘simple-minded’, ‘banal’ ‘vigorous’, ‘sincere’, ‘inspired’ – relating each to the social origins of the students to whom they are applied. Such oppositions are reminiscent of the ‘antagonistic adjectives’ Bourdieu found in expressions of taste (1984/79: 468) in his account of French ‘taste’ in La distinction. In 1976, he had also published an article which showed how the contemporary political class in France adopted a certain language which embodied the new technocratic state – L’Idéologie dominante (1976) – one which excluded traditional welfare values. And, his study of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger rests on the argument that the philosopher employed language in an everyday sense to occlude a system of thought which had, as its intent, the separation of the masses from the elite (1991/88). In later works – for example, The Weight of the World (1999/93) – he again returns to language, most specifically in the way it can be used to impose a entire world-view through its categories of thinking; for example, in the use of such words as ‘immigrant’, ‘native’, ‘we’, ‘one’, etc. For him, liberal economics are also behind the confrontational language found between such systems as Market and State. ‘Market language’ includes such words as freedom, open, flexible, dynamic, moving, future, new, growth, individual, individualism, diversity, authenticity, democracy; whilst ‘state language’ is represented by such words as constraint, rigid, closed, fixed, past, passed, collective, archaic, uniform, artificial, autocratic, totalitarian (see Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2000c: 7). Little wonder, therefore, that Bourdieu at one point warns the would-be researcher to ‘beware of words’ because of the way it is the repository of all sorts of ‘historical assumptions’, silent confusions, impositions, and academic interests. The very language of the constructed object of research is therefore scrutinised for these embedded meanings.


But, Bourdieu also had something to say directly about linguistics itself. Despite the centrality of language to Bourdieu’s project, he did not accept the traditional approach to linguistic study.  Bourdieu is critical of ‘formal approaches to language’. His quarrel goes back to Comte’s view of language as an ‘inner treasure’ and Saussure, after him, who he sees as treating language as ‘an object of study’ rather than as ‘a practice’; it constitutes language as logosrather than praxis. Bourdieu argues that Saussure affects this approach by eliminating the ‘physical part of communication, namely speech, and its individualisation by particular people in particular contexts, in order to privilege the construction of language in itself. As such:


 (Saussure’s work) reduces individual practice, skill, everything that is determined practically by reference to practical ends, that is style, manner, and ultimately the agents themselves, to the actualization of a kind of historical essence, in short, nothing’.

                                         (Bourdieu 1990/80: 33).  


The all-purpose dictionary itself is nothing more than a ‘product of neutralization of the practical relations within which it functions’ (1991b: 39), which has no reality in itself outside of its use as an arbitrary artefact. In a very Wittgensteinian sense, Bourdieu argues that language only has meaning in terms of the situations within which it is immersed at any one time and place – literally, a game!


 Bourdieu’s critique extended to Chomsky and Chomskyan linguistics, with its ‘discovery’ of a semi-biological Language Acquisition Device, deep syntactical structure and Universal Grammar. Bourdieu did not accept the Chomskyan precepts that linguistics should be solely concerned with an ‘ideal speaker-listener’, a ‘homogeneous speech community’, and ‘perfect grammatical competence’ (Chomsky, 1965: 3). For Bourdieu, this was just another form of Saussurian langue:


Corresponding to language as a ‘universal treasure’, as the collective property of the whole group, there is linguistic competence as the ‘deposit’ of this ‘treasure’ in each individual or as the participation of each member on the linguistic community in this public good.

                                                                   (Bourdieu, 1991b: 44)


Such a position, argued Bourdieu, sidesteps the social and economic conditions of language acquisition and competence as an expression of legitimate, orthodox linguistic norms. Moreover, it ignores the way that linguistic usage is always sanctioned, and thus, shaped by imposition and censure. Bourdieu coins the word ‘market’ to express these social processes, defined as, ‘a system of relations of force which determine the price of linguistic products and thus helps fashion linguistic production’ (1989: 47). Such a linguistic market needs to be understood as a field, which, along with habitus, are the two prime concepts in Bourdieu’s approach. To sum up these two:


A field may be defined as a network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions. These positions are objectively defined, in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon their occupants, agents or institutions, by their present and potential situation (situs) in the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field, as well as by their objective relation to other positions (domination, subordination, homology, etc.)

                  (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 97)


If field relates to the objective conditions of social space, then habitus is an expression of subjectivity:


Systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can only be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor’

                                                   (Bourdieu 1990c/80: 53)


So, if linguistic habitus is the subjective element of habitus connected with language use, a linguistic market represents the objective field relations. As always with Bourdieu, the two are in a constant state of dynamic inter-relationship as well as evolving dynamically as a part of the transformation of social structures. Bourdieu’s alternative to Sausurean and Chomskyan linguistics can be summed up as follows:


In place of grammaticalness it puts the notion of acceptability, or, to put it another way, in place of ‘the’ language (langue), the notion of legitimate language. In place of relations of communication (or symbolic interaction) it puts relations of symbolic power, and replaces the meaning of speech with the question of the value and power of speech. Lastly, in place of specifically linguistic competence, it puts symbolic capital, which is inseparable from the speaker’s position in the social structure.

                           (Bourdieu, 1977c: 646 italics in the original)


Of course, behind these arguments lies the philosophical distinction between fact and value. Language is a physical entity, both in its process and production, but the actuality of the former can only really be discerned from the latter – the ‘inside the black box’ issue. And, beyond language there is the primary cognitive act that the individual takes in their mastery of the world.


Bourdieu’s early work was developed in opposition to two salient intellectual traditions, both of which were highly influential during his formative years (the 1950s): existentialism and structuralism. Existential is best represented by the work of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, with its philosophy of personal liberation through the subjective choices we make in defining our lives. Structuralism may be represented by the work on the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and its study of the objective ‘rules’ which can be found across cultures and which govern human behaviour – taboos, myths, etc. Bourdieu referred to the divide between objectivism and subjectivism in the social sciences as ‘the most fundamental, and the most ruinous’ (1990/80: 25). Indeed, his entire ‘theory of practice’ can be seen as an attempt to bridge this divide. He defined his approach as a ‘science of the dialectical relations between objective structures…and the subjective dispositions within which these structures are actualised and which tend to reproduce them’ 1977c/72: 3). Here, the relationship between field and habitus is one of ‘ontological complicity’ (1982: 47). Habitus and field are homologous in terms of structures that are both structured and structuring. In other words, social spaces must be understood as differentiated, and thus structural in essence. Similarly, individual cognition arises from, generates, and is generated by mental structures which are also essentially structured because of their systems of differentiation. Here, Bourdieu’s phenomenology connects with cognitive theory. The primary cognitive act occurs as a baby develops ‘control’ over its environment. Here, there is an interaction between the individual (a tabula rasa for a newborn) and the social environment (the pre-given). In this way, in a very Vygotskyan sense, the inter-psychological forms part of the intra-psychological as a two-way process of social exchange. In the terms of the phenomenology of Husserl, this is the individual’s encounter with the habitualität – the ‘normal’ way of thinking. Established ways of thinking are formed, after which every thing needs to be understood as an interplay between all that an individual knows and individual acts of perception, or what Husserl would call the noema and the noesis. For Bourdieu, any intentional thought involves the establishment of structure between thinking and the object of thought. However, cognition, the inter/ intra-psychological relation, what is known and unknown, does not occur as part of a value-free realm of social intercourse. Rather, all thought, all cognition, all phenomena need to be understood as being saturated with pre-existing values and interests, the very ones inherent in the objective and subjective structures of society, as exemplified in the homologies between habitus and field. And, thought, very often is carried in language, or gives rise to language – but language – at every level – shaped by this cognitive, phenomenological, socio-cultural process.


In a seminal paper in 1966 – Intellectual Field and Creative Project (1971a/66) – Bourdieu similarly builds on the discovery of the historian Panofsky that there was a link between Gothic art, for example in the design of cathedral architecture, and the mental habits of those involved. In other words, each was symptomatic of the other. Bourdieu used this principle to argue that there was a structural homology between subjective thought and objective surroundings, the latter most noticeable in forms of social organisation rather than cathedrals. Such homologies exist because they are both generated by and generate the logic of practice of the field, itself defined in terms of its substantive raison d’être. This approach might also related to Anderson’s ACT-R model (1983, 1993), where declarative (what is known) is contrasted with procedural (how we do things) knowledge. They show how mental processing is successful when action achieves a goal. The issue then is to describe the conditions necessary for such successful action. For Bourdieu, this mechanism needs to be expressed in terms of the social conditions of the social field and the way these promote and inhibit the cognitive processes of habitus as two semi-independent, but mutually constituted entities involved in knowledge construction and social action. Metacognition is also subject to the same pressures which, in effect, in Bourdieusian terms navigate between social and cognitive systems in terms of their congruent or incongruent relations; in other words, socially defined degrees of relative orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy.


To sum up, for Bourdieu, language is a kind of social incarnation. In a very post-modern sense, words are arbitrary. However, in a very un-post-modern sense, they are not meaningless. Indeed, they carry sense as ascribed from social attribution. All social agents have a common set of fundamental schemes of perception, which are objectified in language. These schemes of perception and the language which carries them are each homologously linked to social structures, which act as both their provenance and social destiny. Just as social agents exist in network relations, therefore, words also exist in networks of relations to each other – and partly acquire their meaning in terms of difference and similarity with respect to each other. But, sense and meaning are always determined in the interplay between individual meaning and the social context in which language is being expressed. Words form a part of fields and can represent them. By entering a field, a word takes on meaning from that field through its position within the overall semantic field. The attribution of meaning is therefore always a kind of imposition: a transformation and transubstantiation where, ‘the substance signified is the signifying form which is realized’ (1991: 143) in practice.


Legitimate Language

Bourdieu therefore argues that no-one ever acquires a language without also acquiring a whole social matrix, originating from the structures of society. However, of course, such structures are not neutral, but have differential values according to positions within the fields of power. Thus, the language of the dominant is consecrated and has a legitimacy which is not afforded to the dominated. The most obvious example of this are ‘standards’ in national languages; for instance, RP English, or Academie French. However, the whole point is that besides the highly objectified, publicly recognised styles of language there is a multitude of forms which might each act as ‘the legitimate language’ for a particular social context: even unorthodox and dissident linguistic forms can be ‘orthodox’, ‘consecrated’ and ‘legitimate’ within a social microcosm, within a particularly bounded milieu. Bourdieu is not saying that all linguistic valuation needs to be seen as an opposition between the ‘bourgeois’ and the ‘populaire’; although there are evident cases of this.


The legitimate language is that language which is authorised within a group, class or society. It comes with imposition and censure. It is socially recognised; recognition which itself gives it its moral authority. All this raises questions about the actuality of the linguistic form and, in actual fact, legitimacy, authority, consecration can express itself at any linguistic level: phonetic; phonological; morphological; syntactic; and semantic. The defining issue is always the juxtaposition of levels of ‘competence’ between users. Some may be linguistically ‘knowledgeable’ (connaissance) in terms of having practical mastery of ‘legitimate’ forms; whilst other recognise (reconnaissance) these without the mastery. There is therefore a kind of social dynamic perpetually being played out between those ‘in the know’, so to speak, and those excluded. Indeed, Bourdieu offers a picture of social agents who perpetually undertake a range of strategies in order to occupy the super-ordinate linguistic position. For example, hypocorrection, where the linguistic master ‘descends’ to the populaire, playing with language as a sign of their total control of the linguistic form: a strategy to be juxtaposed with hypercorrection, where the less competent betray their lack of mastery by producing an ultra-correct form – really, a sure sign of linguistic insecurity. The logic of practice of such strategies is one that creates a kind of prise de distance with the interlocutor, as a means of placing oneself in a distinctive position. The fact that it is misrecognised as such makes it all the more pervasive and pernicious. Language therefore has a symbolic power with is, in actuality, a violence, since it institutionalises systems of dominance in line with established social structures.


However, as noted above, language is not simply a social medium. It is also a body and mental function. At one point, Bourdieu notes that ‘no-one acquires a language without acquiring a relation to language’ (1977c: 646), and that relation is an embodied one – hexis – that implicates both the cognitive and physical. Paralinguistic aspects of language – such as intonation, gesture and expression – are therefore equally important in the operation of language as a symbolic power.


As we are here researchers interested in language and literature, this view of language and linguistics would seem to have several implications for us. On the one hand, there is the critique of contemporary linguistic analysis, and what appears as the foundations of a philosophy of language and language of philosophy: the former as a conceptualisation of language and linguistic practice; the latter as establishing a series of conceptual tool for the study of philosophy its, as well as language and literature. On the other hand, there are the practical implications of the approach to the empirical study of language and literature itself. These are the issues I want to touch on briefly in the second half of this paper. However, I would like to bring to a close this part of the paper by making three critical points.


Firstly, this view of language differs remarkably from conventional approaches to language study in academic disciplines such as applied linguistics. For example, descriptive studies of language as a ‘thing in itself’ would be anathema to Bourdieu; because it does not take account of the practical reality of language. Similarly, even when the social aspects of language are studied, for instance in sociolinguistics, too much emphasis is placed on the objective tabulation of linguistic variation, rather than seeing how it arises partly as a result of individual dispositions. Social psychology, conversely, is preoccupied with the subjective thoughts and feeling of individuals, without relating these to the objective linguistic context and market.


Secondly, Bourdieu may be considered a post-structuralist, but not a post-modernist; a philosophical position he regarded as dangerous. So, he does argue that the meaning behind language is arbitrary. Moreover, that the values that it carries are socially derivative. However, he does not see sense and meaning as being infinitely deferred to a point of meaningless self-reference. He ultimately escapes from this type of nihilistic black hole by stabilising key concepts of method as a way of navigating amongst the arbitrariness social phenomena.


Thirdly, there are clearly several points to be made about the political dimension of language. For Bourdieu, language is inherently political because of the potential it has for ‘symbolic violence’. Moreover, its operation can be seen where political representation and delegation of power occurs; for example, in trade union association and political parties. Suffice it to say that ‘speaking on behalf of another’ is seen as highly suspect by Bourdieu (see Bourdieu, 1991b: part III)  


Part II

Bourdieu and Literature

In this section I want to address two important aspects to approaching literature as a research object; firstly, in terms of the consumption of literature; secondly, the actual case of the production of literature. Both of these approaches implicate ‘questions of method’, which I also consider. However, I want to begin with a few words on a background topic which is central to questions of literary consumption, production and method, namely, what I call ‘the problem of aesthetics’. 


The Problem of Aesthetics

Aesthetics can be traced back to classical philosophy; both Plato and Aristotle were concerned with art as the carrier of truth and knowledge. The father of modern aesthetics, however, was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant lived in a time that saw a division between the close fit that had until existed between the God and the world; the body and the spirit; king and country. On the one hand, writers in the Age of Enlightenment acted as the founders of modern day science and rationality. On the other, those within the Romantic tradition sought a return to the realm of the emotions and individual experience.


The first part of the Critique of Pure Reason has the title ‘The Transcendental Aesthetic’. For Kant, aesthetics is not the preserve of art but actually relates to the Greek work meaning ‘sensation’ (the opposite being ‘anaesthetic’ – without sensation). By ‘transcendental’, he means ‘a priori’, or needed for experience. It is ‘sensation’ which provides the data for the faculty of imagination. For Kant, it is the form which this data takes that is most important. What is less important is what the data actually is or what it represents. What is necessary to experience objects as such, is a priori knowledge; in this case, space and time shapes form. The ‘a priori’ element in this argument points to what lies beyond sensation, and thus gives rise to experience itself rather than being an element of existence. In other words, space and time are a priori conditions of existence. Kant contrasted such imagination faculties with understanding. Understanding is a power to form concepts; it is through concepts that understanding ‘knows’: for example, Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Place, Time, Position, Possession, Action, Passivity. Here, Kant investigates the process and constituents of how judgments of knowledge are therefore made. However, in The Critique of Judgement (1790), he examines the power of judgement itself. It is this book that forms the core of Kant’s exploration of aesthetics as we know it.


Kant’s objective is to locate a higher form of feeling which can be said, a priori, to determine experiences of pleasure and pain. Such questions of taste cannot be based on concepts since if they were, they would not be able to ‘lay claim to other people’s assent’. Kant subsequently makes a distinction between what is beautiful and what is agreeable and pleasurable. The latter is associative and comparative, and connected with simple sensual enjoyment. However, in order for judgements of the beautiful to arise, Imagination must present data (in time and space) to Understanding. This data is not now converted via concepts, because a ‘non-cognitive’ feeling accompanies the intuition by which the data of Imagination is presented to Understanding. At this point, we connect with a perception of pleasure or displeasure which serves to define the non-cognitive feeling itself and replaces concepts. Since there are no concepts to provide form, what is presented is the power to form in itself; a consciousness without anything to be conscious of. In this sense, what arises is a ‘disinterestedness’; a contemplative judgement as opposed to a cognitive (conceptual or theoretical) judgement.


For Kant, as Hume before him, the ‘problem with aesthetics’ can be reduced to this simple question: how can judgements which are essentially subjective in that they provoke feelings for individuals also relate to commonality of assent over value?. Kant argued that a judgement can only be considered to be aesthetic when it is ‘disinterested’; that is, free from any desires, needs, or interest in the actual existence of the objects apprehended which might distort that ‘pure’ appreciation. At this point, there is nothing to differentiate one person’s aesthetic response from another’s – it is shared sensibility (sensus communis). Some objects, by nature of their form and appearance, encourage a ‘free play’ between the faculties of Imagination and Understanding. Understanding is prompted to speculate when faced by the beautiful; giving rise to both pure feeling and the pleasure of thought. Thinking has sensuality which separates Understanding from Imagination, in such a way that Understanding no longer dominates Imagination. It creates feeling rather than transforming it. In Kant’s four ‘moments’ of his analysis of the beautiful, he sets out the nature of aesthetic pleasure in judgements of taste: namely, that they should be ‘disinterested’ and give an impression of finality; and, that it should demand and comply to a universal assent, which distinguishes it from judgements of mere ‘agreeableness’. This appreciation of beauty is tied to a recognition of form and design which is independent of content. In determining beauty, for Kant, much hangs in achieving universal assent, on reaching shared aesthetic agreements.


I now want to argue against the Kantian position using the perspective of Bourdieu. In the Introduction to La Distinction, Bourdieu announced his project as offering a sociological critique of Kantian aesthetics. In effect his approach is to attack this very ‘separation’ on which it is founded:


(to abolish) the opposition, which has been the basis of high aesthetics since Kant, between ‘taste of sense’ and the ‘taste of reflection’, and between facile pleasure, pleasure reduced to pleasure of the senses, and pure pleasure, pleasure reduced, which is predisposed to become a symbol of moral excellence and a measure of the capacity for sublimation which defines the truly human man.

                                                   (1984a/79: 6)


What Bourdieu argued for is a much more socio-historical reading of aesthetics. For him, an aesthetic response presupposes the possibility of a non-aesthetic response and, necessarily, such responses are by nature socially differential and differentiated – some have it and some do not. In this Aesthetics is returned to the world and the social structure of societies rather than being definable in terms of a necessary philosophical logic. Bourdieu argued that the ‘pure gaze’ itself implies a break with the ordinary attitude to the world, an ethic, ‘or rather, an ethos of elective distance from the necessities of the natural and social world’ (ibid.: 5). This break is, by definition, a mark of distinction, a claim and legitimation in the name of rarity by a certain faction of society in its assertion of justified dominance. In many ways, the aesthetic disposition is more or less defined in terms of distance from the social world. The aesthete personified is therefore nothing other than an extreme form of bourgeois denial of the social world when this is pushed to its limit.


Bourdieu’s own position argues for a fundamental dichotomy in aesthetic response between the bourgeois and the working class. It is important to understand at this point that Bourdieu was not arguing that social class structure can simply be expressed in terms of this bipolar dichotomy, or even a slightly more differentiated form of this split which included factions of both these social groups together with the aristocratic and under classes. He understood that class was in fact a multifaceted and dynamically evolving structure. Nevertheless, he did argue that much of the complexity inherent in such a structure, which by obscuring it allowed it operation, was conducted in terms of a common value currency which was indeed defined in terms of opposing social classificatory forms. In this case, what is at stake is the opposition between the refined, or tasteful, and the vulgar. There is then a kind of double play where, not only is ‘rarefied taste’ opposed to ‘everyday taste’ (for example, in the way that luxury foods are the prerogative of those who presumably can afford them in contrast to everyday eating), but those common everyday objects and actions of taste are also appropriated and aestheticised. The world is then turned upside down, so to speak. It is not enough for the bourgeois aesthete to possess what others cannot. They also take possession of common objects and actions as a sign of their complete mastery over both the vulgar and the refined, therefore twice legitimating their social elevation. This positioning is similar to the strategies of euphemism in language use outlined above.


At base, what we have here is a phenomenology of representation. The popular aesthetic (of the working class((sic.)) is based on an aesthetic ‘in itself’ rather than ‘for itself’. It allows for a naïve stance; the passions, feeling and emotions that ordinary people invest in life. ‘Pure’ taste, on the other hand is the opposite; it suspends ‘naïve’ involvement because it provides no place for the necessities of life themselves. Bourdieu sums up: ‘ Intellectuals could be said to believe in the representation –  literature, theatre, painting – more than the things represented, whereas the people chiefly expect representations and the conventions which govern them to allow them to believe ‘naively’ in the things represented’ (ibid.). Bourdieu further argued that when it comes to art, the popular aesthetic sees it as an extension of life. Nothing should get in the way of a personal identification with it and finding unity in the emotions demanded and given. Form is here subordinated to function; the purpose art has is in affirming the naïve, sensual view, including morality and agreeableness. In contrast, the detachment and disinterestedness of the pure aesthetic gaze asserts, as Kant does, form over function and, with it, an often moral ambiguity where art can be only be taken for art’s sake.


These arguments are pertinent to both the consumption and production of literary texts. They are also pertinent to the production of sociological texts. The next sections offer some preliminary remarks with respect to these areas.


Literary Consumption

In Les héritiers, in a chapter entitled ‘Games Students Play’, Bourdieu lists the literate practices of the successful students: they had read the latest avant-garde writers of the time – Camus, Malraux, Valéry, and Proust – while ‘asserting the values that are celebrated in obituaries’ (p.43). They are keen to distinguish themselves in terms of any differences, while passing over in silence the most obvious differences of attributable to their social provenance. The Homo academicus of French Higher Education in the early 1960s were:


…the son and grandson of teachers, and intended to aim for the Ecole Normale Supérieure, take the aggregation there, and become a philosophy teacher; while the winner of the first prize in Latin translation had read ‘the whole of French literature by the age of 15 years and 2 months’, and was ‘fiercely individualistic’ and ‘astonishingly precocious’. Only hesitating between research and teaching…



For Bourdieu, therefore, cultural capital, acquired in the family and then accentuated by the School, ‘guided’ literary behaviour. In Distinction (p. 116ff), the analyses offered show how the different fractions of professional groupings could be ranked according to their notional quantity of cultural capital and type of reading matter. So, higher volume of cultural capital correlates with ‘rarer’ (more distinguished and distinguishable) types of reading. For example, teachers in higher and secondary education are more likely to read philosophical, political, economic and art books than any other professional category. They were also more likely to read novels than any other grouping, except public sector executives. Adventure stories were most popular amongst public sector executives.


Behind these indices are issues of the aesthetic sense: the degree to which it is expressed differentially across social groupings, and the form of expression it takes. For the consumer of literature, it is a question of the extent to which a particular literary style resonates with an aesthetic sense which permeates the whole of an individuals’ life dispositions; including a relation of mind and body. For the literary artefact itself, there are questions of content, degrees of ambiguity, and form. In a Bourdieusian world where social and cognitive structures are homologous, and both structured and structuring, there is the need to see the ‘fit’ between the literary consumer and literary artefact as predicated on a social dynamic and provenance which implicates both of them. 


Literary Production

Kantian aesthetics did not occur at an arbitrary point in time; but rather when socio-structural shifts (in a phenomenological sense) were altering the boundaries of what was and was not ‘thinkable’. The notion of the ‘pure gaze’ was therefore, for Bourdieu, true in as far as it goes, but only as a phenomenology of the aesthetic experience of someone who is already distant from social and economic necessity – the privileged. This development implied a certain autonomy. What Bourdieu saw in the changes of the art field during the nineteenth century was a social structural shift which created a new space for art; one which possessed a degree of autonomy with regard to previous art-audience relations. Bourdieu discusses Flaubert and Manet in particular:


Flaubert in the domain of writing and Manet in painting are probably the first to have attempted to impose, at the cost of extraordinary subjective and objective difficulties, the conscious and radical affirmation of the power of the creative gaze, capable of being applied not only (through simple inversion) to base and vulgar objects…but also to insignificant objects before which the ‘creator’ is able to assert his quasi-divine power of transmutation…(This formula) lays down the autonomy of form in relation to subject matter, simultaneously assigning its fundamental norm to cultured perception.

                                                   (1993b: 265)


What Bourdieu is here describing is the separation of form and function which is a product of the autonomising of the field of artistic production. It is in that separation, that ‘art-for-art’s-sake’; that a field position analogous to the artistic process of the ‘pure gaze’, is born. There is then a mutually constituting relationship between the ‘pure gaze’ of the privileged consumer and the ‘independent creative gaze of the producer. Both implicitly assert an independence and therefore uniqueness. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the changes in social structures led to the growth in a new bourgeois class. Art up to that point had performed a social function in positioning those who consumed it, and hence those who produced it, with regard to particular social, political and moral values of traditional elites – aristocratic and religious. The new bourgeois almost ‘invented’ a new morality which set it apart from the past. In the course of these developments, artists struggled to find a means of expression which gave them independence from aesthetics of those they had previously served.


The issue here is to what extent these identifiable developments in the eighteenth century art field can be extrapolated to other contexts. And, what kind of methodological procedure to adopt. I am not the first to note that, in a way, the example of Flaubert is probably too good in that it perfectly fits Bourdieu’s thesis (see, for example, Guillory, 2000). Moreover, there is a paradox in that Bourdieu and his own work can be read off in similar terms; as a particular product of a particular point in time of the field of social sciences. Indeed, it is as if Bourdieu is inviting us to do so. The whole of his account of Flaubert in Les règles de l’art can be understood as a critique of Sartrean version of the author as set out in L’Idiot de la famille. Bourdieu’s line is really that Sartre imposed his own ‘philosophy of consciousness’ on Flaubert, thus ignoring the social factors in the creation of the artist. However, one might similarly ask whether Bourdieu is doing likewise; imposing a sociological version. This issue raises questions of what it is to know and what it is to appreciate literary work and, bluntly, is a sociological construction any different from a literary reading. How to proceed?  


Questions of method

Bourdieu offered a set of guiding principles for approaching analyses of social phenomena.


The first might be called ‘the construction of the research object’. Much of Bourdieu’s work needs to be understood as an attempt to break with the pre-given. This is as true for the example of Algeria as a nation state, as it is for the role of education, language and literacy. In each case, an accepted practice, form or concept is deconstructed in terms of the structured dynamic that Bourdieu finds in his empirical analyses. But, these analytical representations are not simply experienced as a primary everyday reality. They are also represented in language: conceptual terms, theories, rationales. There is consequently a struggle over what terms, or language, are taken to represent the object of study: Which version? And, what is included in and excluded from such terms? A crucial first responsibility of the would-be social science researcher is therefore ‘the construction of the research object’. Indeed, Bourdieu refers to the construction of the research object as ‘the summum of the art’ (1989b) of social science. He does not accept that the weight of a particular research tradition can be judged simply in terms of the importance of their objects of study; indeed, some very important objects of study have been dealt with using very poor academic approaches. His alternative is to ‘begin again’: to scrutinise the research object in terms of how its field of study represents it – What are its keys terms? What are the dominant explanatory concepts, rationales and theories? What academic traditions represent it? Moreover, whilst doing this, the research object is reconceptualised in relational terms. The question is then what are the best terms to represent this relational construction, and clearly, this is where concepts such as habitus and field are useful. Sometimes, a change in the language of representation is crucial to re-viewing a particular research object. The very language of the constructed object of research is therefore scrutinised for these embedded meanings. Making the ‘normal’ conspicuous, and examining the mundane and banal, were further important parts of the construction of a ‘scientific object’, giving rise to specific forms of questions and enquiries.


The second principle of approach pertains to field analysis, as a way of linking habitus, field, and the relation between fields (see Grenfell, 2008b: 219ff).


  1. Analyse the position of the field vis-à-vis the field of power;
  2. Map out the objective structure of relations between the positions occupied by agents who compete for the legitimate forms of specific authority of which the field is a site;
  3. Analyze the habitus of agents; the systems of dispositions they have acquired by internalizing a deterministic type of social and economic condition.


The third point of principle concerns reflexivity in any Bourdieusian method.

If the ‘construction of the research object’ is a way of making evident the assumptions, supposition, and constructions embedded in topics of research and the ways they are represented and thought about, ‘participant objectivation’ calls for a similar reflexive process to focus on the one conducting the research. This reflexivity is not merely the exaggerated form of self-awareness which has become popular in some social science research in recent decades; especially when it has post-modernist leanings. For Bourdieu, this ultra ‘self-awareness’ is little more than the illusion of the transcendence of thought by thought itself – ‘return of thought onto itself’ (2000b/1997: 10) – of the sort of assumed mental omnipotence so popular amongst neo-Kantian philosophers. What Bourdieu is interested in instead is an objectification of the social conditions of the thinking which set the limits on thought. Such an objectification of the ‘social conditions’ of thinking itself necessarily calls for the objectification the academic field, with all its practical and epistemological biases. The position of the researcher in the social space is consequently critical in understanding what can and cannot be thought in terms of the orthodoxies (doxa) of the field itself.  Moreover, researchers, by definition, have ‘free time’ to develop a different relationship to the world they are a-part. This liberates them from the exigencies of acting in certain domains of the empirical world. However, it can also lead to a type of scholastic fallacy mentioned above. Bourdieu terms such ‘free-time’skholè, and as analogous to the Kantian ‘pure gaze’ – the idea that there is a transcendent truth beyond social construction. The only way to avoid this fallacy is to adopt a reflexive approach to the social sciences. This entails, firstly, operating what he terms an objectivation of the object of study: why it was chosen and what brought it about. This objectification is particularly important where State sponsorship of research funding influenced outcomes. Secondly, there is the need to position the particular terms of the discipline used in the research; how the object of research is constructed and the limits of the terms employed. This objectification also implies an ‘epistemological reading’ of research in its own terms. Finally, there is the recognition of skholè, or leisure, inherent in scholastic fields, and its effect in terms of separating out practical from theoretical knowledge. The latter is produced in an academic space which infuses it with the symbolic values, and thus, the structures and dispositions dominant within that space (see Grenfell 2004 chapter 7 for further discussion). This form of reflexivity necessarily involves turning the tools of analysis of the research object – in this case, field, habitus, capital, etc. – back on the researchers themselves. Bourdieu argues that this is the only way of partially escaping from the social, economic, political, and philosophical determinisms, which are necessarily at work in a knowledge field.


In terms of the study of literature, a number of issues are implied.


Firstly, is the question of the way that the field of literary analysis is itself constructed: its historical antecedents, conventional methods, keys concepts, etc., and the way these construct literature as a research object. Behind this issue, must be the question of the opposition and complementarity between a literary narrative and a sociological one. Moreover, the latter might also objectify such opposition as that between conventional doxa of ‘lit. crit’ and post-structuralist approaches. This issue asserts the need to objectify the field of literary criticism itself in order to understand the ‘immanent impulses’ underlying a particular academic discourse.


Secondly, is the question of the author themselves. Following the method suggested by Bourdieu, an author needs to be set within the field of cultural production from which they arose. As in the case of Flaubert, and the 3-level field analysis set out above, this entails recreating both the literary field and its place within the overall field of power. It also involves an analysis of the biographical features of an author in terms of capital configurations constitutive their particular habitus, and the relationship between these and the field in which they operate.

However, there is an initial historicisation which goes unrecognised, and author is then subject to a second historicisation of this historisation: a double historicisation in fact. To this extent, it is necessary to read off an author both in terms of their place in the field of cultural production of their day and the field as it exists at present.


In fact, there is a kind of fourth level of analysis to be added to the list cited above: that of the actual literary objective itself. A work of literature can after all also be considered as both a ‘structured and structuring structure’. It exists with all the structural positioning, antecedents and successors which themselves can be expressed in terms of both a field at a particular time and place and the evolution of that field, with the necessary effects on the work of object itself. This issue is what Bourdieu referred to as ‘the return of the repressed’. In other words, it is possible in a Bourdieusian approach to literature to end up by leaving out the features of the artistic artefact itself and to simply concentrate of the social dynamic of the field. However, both content and form can be read against both the habitus of the author and the characteristic features of the art field at a particular point in time, and contrasted with the features of the field today.


Thirdly, is the whole issue of the place of reflexivity as part of the method, and this aspect of Bourdieu’s work has barely been taken up by researchers, preoccupied as they are to take up one of the strategies listed at the beginning of this paper. There is the need to develop an integrated, collective view of reflexivity, not one simply of proclaimed individual self-awareness, described above as ‘illusion of the transcendence of thought by thought itself’. Such reflexivity necessarily involved the sort of field recognition described in the construction of the research object, but one which extends it to an objectification of the position of the researcher themselves in that field.



In this paper, I have covered a wide range of issues connected with Bourdieu and language in general and literature in particular. In one sense, it is very important to see these issues as all part of the same epistemology, the same theory of practice. The area is fraught with paradoxes, in that we have language expressing a certain language about language, and as used in the language of literature. As noted, on more than one occasion Bourdieu warned the would-be researcher to ‘beware of words’. Part of the role of Bourdieusian language – his theoretical concepts – is to provide a vehicle for a new way of seeing the world – what he referred as metanoia, or a ‘new gaze’. These concepts were originally formed in the intensity of analyses collected in empirical settings. To this extent, they are not just a ‘useful theoretical toolkit’ but ‘epistemologically charged’ matrices which carry with them a range of theoretical perspectives – philosophies, sociologies, anthropologies – in an integrated fashion. One function they have is indeed to make the world strange and bring the mundane into analytical discourse. They offer a language which breaks with everyday language – the empirical – but also one which challenges the orthodox terms of academic discourse – the scientific. In doing so, they provide a consensual point of reference or focus for those working within this paradigm. Indeed, terms like habitus, field, and capital might similarly be considered as a language of association (what the philosopher Richard Rorty would term a ‘final’ vocabulary), which collectively offers bases for what Bourdieu referred to as the libido sciendi universel  –  itself a constitution of a ‘corporatism of the universal’ – the raison d’être of which has to be ultimately political. Yet, Bourdieusian language can also ensnare. It would be a sorry situation were Bourdieu himself to become more important, or of more interest, than the object of research itself; or, if concepts always intended to be relational were substantiated – ironically, the very opposite to Bourdieu’s intent.


Moi (2001) is quite pessimistic about the future of literary studies from a Bourdieusian perspective and quotes, as example, the enormous work she had to undertake in order to uncover sufficient biographical and cultural details surrounding Simone de Beauvoir in order to attempt a Bourdieusian type field analysis. Yet there is a necessity to institutionalise some aspects of this approach if we are going to escape the kind of the kind of idealism we often find in linguistic and literary practice. Of course, such practice is itself rife with interests, which will only be ceded after fierce opposition – no one thanks you for pointing out misrecognitions! Moreover, it may be that such a project itself will require a more modest ambition. In arguing for the acknowledgement of the social processes involved in both the construction of language, art and literature, and their analysis, Bourdieu recognised the risks involved: ‘not least of which is the apparent crudeness which can accompany the most rigorous analyses capable – and culpable – of contributing to the return of the repressed; in short, one must choose to pay a higher price for truth while accepting a lower profit of distinction’ ((1991: 34).





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Address for Correspondence:

Prof. Michael Grenfell

School of Education

Trinity College

University of Dublin

Dublin, 2


Tel: 0035318961737