Bourdieu, Ethnography and Reflexivity








This paper offers something by way of introducing Bourdieu in terms of who he was and what he accomplished. Such biographical detail is essential in understanding the nature of his theory and method, and provide some of the grounding themes with respect to reflexivity in developing both. His own formative scholarly disciplines will be presented along with the empirical ethnographies he undertook – and, perhaps more importantly, why. These empirical details will the basis of an account of his salient key concepts, which he used throughout his research and became focused tools of analysis for him. The paper will show how, given what these were, on what they were based, and how employed, reflexivity was and is always implicated in the approach. In particular, I shall undertake an initial discussion of the place and role of language within reflexivity, as he understood it as an active ingredient of his conducting research. Language ethnography is therefore a particular focus. Clearly, however, issues are pertinent to forms of ethnography besides language-based ones, so I shall make passing reference to these areas whilst also focusing on language-specific issues in ethnographic work. Finally, I shall make a preliminary formulation of participant objectivation, a term which most succinctly encapsulates his reflexive stance within ethnographic studies.


Bourdieu and Biography



The need for reflexivity in scientific research is predicated on the appreciation that personal bias can enter into the process which skews the results. Of course, this does raise further questions about to what extent it is possible to escape such bias – and it may indeed ‘to an extent’ – and, if so, how. One obvious bias is the biography of the researcher, as it is pretty evident that a particular socio-cultural and professional trajectory instills a certain way of seeing the world that sets limits on what is and is not perceived. A lot of the rest of the book is about unpacking these statements. In this section, I launch an enterprise by considering the biography of Pierre Bourdieu – not simply out of fascination with personal histories but as a prelude to establishing what he did, why, and the way that reflexivity featured in it.




Pierre Bourdieu was born in 1930 in Denguin, a small village in the French Hautes Pyrénées region of south-west France. His family background was quite humble and consisted of little more than traditional peasant life: in fact, his father was an itinerant crop sharer cum post-office worker, and he spoke Gascon rather than French for the first years of his life before going to boarding school in the local town of Pau. Why this is significant is because already life experience set up a series of dispositional structures, which were to shape the rest of his life. Bourdieu talks about the way local town pupils made fun of his rural accent and the way he dressed – the offspring of town-based families came to school each day but spent the rest of the time at home, they wore their own clothes, and possessed the trappings of city life, whilst Bourdieu wore a smock and had to ‘live-in’ the school for most of the week, including weekends. There is no judgement here to be made on what is right or wrong; rather, the point is that the experience opened up for Bourdieu a personal clivage in terms of socio-cultural positioning, what he later referred to as a cleft habitus. Such would clearly be felt at a deeply emotional and psychological level; a social suffering which was later to become central to his professional concerns. Before we tease out the relative constituents of the psychological, sociological and philosophical, it is probably important to ask whether of not this earlier dispositional division opened up further in his educational life – and the answer would be, yes’!




After further studies in Pau, Bourdieu went on to the lycée Louis le Grand in Paris. Again, it is important to draw attention to what this would have represented for a young Bourdieu in that this lycée symbolised ‘the’ training school for one of the most celebrated French Grandes Écoles – the equivalent to the English Oxford and Cambridge universities. So, he subsequently passed the entrance concours for the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), the most prestigious university institution based in Paris, to which most modern and contemporary intellectuals would have gone. Even with this statement, it is necessary to point out that the French intellectual tradition is unique and has given the world many of its most influential thinkers. Dating back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment, intellectualism in France therefore has a more celebrated and secure history, in a way that probably does not exist in an Anglo-saxon world. It is not a pejorative term to refer to someone as ‘an intellectual’ but more common-place and seen as a way to honour French republican culture. What would have this meant to Bourdieu? The simple answer is ‘a lot’, as he would now have been on the ‘royal road’ to entering intellectual elite of the country, which he did, subsequently be coronated (sic.) as the leading exponent in his field when in 1981 he was inaugurated as Chair of Sociology in the Collège de France – that most august of sixteenth century French institutions being made up of just 52 professors dedicated not just to ‘truth’ but ‘free research’ in pursuit of it.

Bourdieu graduated from the ENS with a degree in Philosophy – a must for a young Intellectual – in 1955, but the experience was once again multifaceted. On the one hand, the academic route he had taken assured him of a secure, if not brilliant, future within the French intellectual field. Yet, on the other hand, in later life, he commented again of feeling out of place, and not just socially but intellectually as well although, of course, as noted before the two should never be seen as somehow separate.




Later, I shall need to look into the sort of intellectual ideas Bourdieu was exploring in his formative years as providing a grounding to the way his thinking developed. For the moment, we note that the sort of intellectual climate that Bourdieu was imbibing itself can be characterized by certain traditions. As noted, contemporary view of modern man and rational thinking can be traced back to the Enlightenment and beyond. The great French Revolution of 1789 had brought matters to a head – or seemingly – when the Church and Monarchy was rejected in favour of secularity and Republican principles. But, the old authorities were reluctant to lie down and stay dead and, as well as continuing fierce resistance to the modern French state, the experiences of the socio-economic crises in the 1930s and war and collaboration in the 1940s, meant that reactionary thinking was still alive, well and kicking. Bourdieu would have needed to find a laic route through French philosophy, augmented with his reading of continental metaphysical philosophy. The philosopher, author and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre – also an ex-pupil of the ENS – was the intellectual star of the day with his brand of French Existentialism, which insisted on individual freedom as a basis of humanism. The other great intellectual of the 1950s was Claude Lévi-Strauss who also had studied Philosophy at University in Paris and was nominated to the Collège de France in 1959. However, Lévi-Strauss undertook fieldwork studies of traditional cultures developing a contemporary brand of structural anthropology which emphasized the underlying ‘rules’ of socio-cultural behavior. Such figures in the intellectual field would have been significant for Bourdieu when he went to Algeria on military service in 1955. The effects of experiencing a full-blown colonial war at first-hand was to have an epiphanic impact on Bourdieu as he struggled to make sense of what was going on around him. Besides, everyday acts of terror, Bourdieu saw the destruction of traditional Algerian rural culture as Berbers were moved off their land to groupement encampments. Religions were opposed as were local customs and modern attitudes. A keen photographers, Bourdieu took literally thousands of photographs, made field notes, and drew sketches in order to record what he saw on the ground. It is this, more than anything else, which moved Bourdieu away from pure philosophy to a more applied version of it – in particular, at least at first – in anthropology. This gave rise to an ethnographic regard that stayed with Bourdieu for the rest of his life. The next section goes into more detail on its results.




Bourdieu’s Ethnographies


In the last section, we saw something of Bourdieu’s empirical biography as he progressed from the son of a French rural worker to become one of the leading thinkers amongst the Parisian intelligentsia. We make these points not out some kind of en passant interest in who he was, but as features which are central to the sort of issues we will be highlighting later on in the book. We noted that Bourdieu trained as a philosopher and only embraced anthropology of the day out of some sort of practical necessity to explore and understand the surroundings into which he was thrust. And, then, a certain sort of anthropology commanding a particular place within the French academic tradition of the 1950s. Anthropology more generally can be defined as the study of human societies, in particular with respect to indigenous cultural practices: it is a kind of human sociology, and its roots go back to the seventeenth century and beyond where ‘man’ became an object of study. Later nineteenth century versions took in Darwinian evolutionism as traditional cultures and non-Western societies became the focus of explorers and anthropologists such as Richard Burton, Edward Burnett Tylor, Franz Boaz, Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. Before we look at Bourdieu’s ‘anthropology’, it is worth noting, and despite the influence it had on him, that he rarely used the term; and the descriptor ‘ethnology’ is a more frequent term employed about his work. Normally, ethnology is a branch of anthropology that compares and analyses the characteristics of different people and the relationships between them. In theory at least, it is distinct from ethnography per se, which is more concerned with the direct study of single groups in contact with cultures. In practice, of course, it would not be unusual for researchers to be undertaking both ethnography and ethnology within a broader anthropological umbrella, and each of these terms have various delineations between its active members. And, then there is sociology.




Once again, sociology is a term used for an activity that goes well back into the annals of history: and its antecedents can be found in Greek philosophy, Confucianism and medieval Arab writings. In modern times, it seems to have been used first by the French essayist Emmanuel_Joseph Sieyès in 1760, although is was another Frenchman August Comte (1798-1857) who is attributed with being the founding father of sociology per se when he adopted the term in place of ‘social physics’ to describe the study of society. It is not a coincidence that Comte very much grew out of both the Enlightenment and revolutionary periods, and sociology was first seen as rationalist integration of history, psychology and economics. Most significantly, it presented itself as a ‘science’ with the ambition to formulate rules about society in the same way as one might in the natural sciences. Other founding fathers of sociology would be the German Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920). Bourdieu drew on these writers in his own sociological explorations, as well as another Frenchman Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). It is important to note that when Bourdieu was embracing sociology in the 1950s, it was not the popular discipline it became in the 1960s and beyond. In fact, it was not even taught that much at university and was mostly preoccupied with the social statistics of trends produced by INSEE. This gave Bourdieu space to fashion his own brand of sociology – La sociologie – which is best understood as being very distinct from its Anglo-saxon counterpart, despite sharing many of the same concerns and indeed thematic language. As we have noted, Bourdieu’s sociology need to be seen as a hybrid of anthropology and philosophy before anything, and linked to an Enlightenment project that forms a core to the modern French intellectual tradition. In approaching ‘Bourdieu ethnographies’, we can therefore expect a high degree of philosophical insight in how they are interpreted, as well as extensive anthropological exemplification drawn from empirical data. That is exactly what we find.




Above, I noted how Bourdieu was a keen photographer, and it is worth keeping this fact in find when approaching his ethnographic studies; in that, with somewhat of an anthropological eye, his research project often seems to arise from a single observation. With Algeria, it was his noticing that despite the country commanding so much of the attention of French society and politicians, few seem to know or understand exactly what it was. In education, it was his view that again despite considerable discussion about education in post-war France, no-one seemed to know much about the constitutional make-up of students of the day. But, it is perhaps in the Béarn that his photographer’s eye is most apparent. It is a Christmas dance near to his home village in the Pyrénées. Everyone is celebrating and enjoying themselves centered around music and the dance floor. Children are laughing and running around. But, then Bourdieu notices a group of men gathered together in a place set back from the others. Although they watch, they do not dance. They all seem about the same age, of the same awkward mine, and are caught standing as if outside the festivities. After what seems a respectable amount of time, they make their excuses and go off to drink and play dominoes in a nearby café. One can almost imagine Bourdieu asking: Who are these men? Why do they not join in? What are they experiencing? These seem to be almost naïve questions. However, to answer them, Bourdieu involves the most sophisticated methods he can in order to get to the heart of their evident ‘social suffering’. The results of his analyses appeared in 1962 in a journal entitled Études Rurales (1962b) under the article title Bachelorhood and the Peasant Condition. Indeed, it is a long article – one that took up half of the available space of the journal; something that would be unheard of these days. But, then Bourdieu returns to this study ten years later and reworks the analyses in the light of further reflections and work elsewhere (1972a) for an article entitled Matrimonial Strategies in the System of Reproduction Strategies. And, then, once again in 1989 for a further article, Reproduction Forbidden: The Symbolic Dimension of Economic Domination (1989c). In these articles, we see Bourdieu employing every methodological technique available to him, including interviews, statistical analyses, photos, maps and ethnographical narrative. We also see the empirical work necessarily prerequisite to his methodological formulations. The study is multifaceted. In terms of language, he notes how domination – by the outside elite of the peasant life style – is affected in the very language with which the peasant speaks of himself with its associations of clumsiness, heaviness and ignorance of the urban world. There is also a mixture of French and the local Béarnais dialect, which plays itself out in actual speech and accent depending on geographical locale – the Village, Commune, Bourg, and Hammeaux. Bourdieu is therefore able to show linguistic differentiation between standard and local varieties of speech in terms of social positioning. He also shows how women tend to be more linguistically sensitive – and therefore ‘correct’ – than men. But, what of the men he observed at the dance. It turns out they are all bachelors, rendered ‘unmarriable’ by dent of their position of succession within the family vis-à-vis siblings. Before 1914, marriages were in effect governed by strict formal rules. Faced with the changing world, however, such regulation decreased. A wider range of strategies were therefore needed in order to assure successful marriage and inheritance. Two principles operated: first, one which prioritized the rights of elder children so that the inheritance would not be split; secondly, the distinction between socially ascending and descending marriages. The classic ‘bachelor’ of the dance floor was consequently the younger child of both large and poor families but for different reasons. In one case, marriage would entail undesirable dowry payments; in the other, fragmentation of inheritance. The conclusion being that marriage and celibacy was not simply an individual but a collective decision; one which was socially prescribed and managed, in this case normally by the grandmother.




Even with this early study, there are various features which are key to understanding Bourdieu’s ethnography. Firstly, is simply the motive for undertaking an ethnographic study in the first – what observation leads one to this kind of ‘intervention’. Secondly, is the range and integration of techniques employed. Thirdly, is the way explanation and consequent theory emerges and is logically necessitated by the data. Related to this point, fourthly, is a significant distinction between ‘rule’ and ‘strategy’: Bourdieu showed that consciously recognized rules were not enough, a strategic orientation was also necessary in playing for advantage in the social space. (This point represents a significant departure from the line taken by the anthropology of Lévi-Strauss, which, as we have noted, was so popular at the time, since for the latter, objective rules were the basis of socio-cultural knowledge systems.) Fifthy, is the development of a new way of looking at the world – what Bourdieu would later call a ‘new gaze’ or metanoia. In other words, his method was able to show up the misrecognized principles of action underlying the apparent surface actions and behaviours of those involved. Sixthly, finally, and perhaps particularly important in our present context, is just what this new gaze meant and in fact did to the one making it. In a later volume collecting together the various article on the bachelors’ ball (2008), Bourdieu writes of the ‘emotional’ and ‘intellectual transformation’ – even ‘conversion’ – that was necessary on his part in breaking with his own native ‘empirical’ view; creating, as a result, a world that, although more realistic, was more distant and therefore less comfortable. Moreover, such a move impacted not only at a personal emotional level, but entailed a discipline shift – from philosophy to ethnology, from ethnology to sociology, which itself had implications for his standing socially (p. 2).




A similar pattern of approach can be observed in his work on Algeria. There is the same recourse to a range of techniques and methods in constructing his ethnographic studies (1963, 1964); the same imperative to rework the analyses at periodic intervals after their initial publication (1977b, 1990c). Mostly, perhaps, is the need not to take Algeria as a pre-given. In fact, the first line of the first page of his first publication on Algeria (1958) states that ‘it does not exist’, of course, as a single ‘cultural unity’ (p.5). Rather, it is a social construct created for the benefit of those who had colonized the country. What he offers instead is a kind of socio-cultural topography of the terrain delineated by the borders known as Algeria. This includes its four principal peoples – the Kabyles, the Shawia, the Mozabites, and the Arab-speaking people. What he find on the ground, of course, is that each of these have their own languages, cultures and, with them, ways of seeing the world. This involves religions and traditional beliefs, which affect the way they orientate themselves in economic exchanges. He shows how economic exchanges are symbolic and based on honour that prefigures an entirely different orientation to the future when compared to capitalistic systems. There are not social classes as we know them, therefore, but traditional clans and castes makes up the Algerian socio-economic infrastructure. At his most Lévi-straussian, he also sketches out the Kabyle house, arguing that in its very design, their relationship to the world and universe is reproduced (1979: 140-141) according to homologous oppositions of fire/water, cooked/raw, high/low, light/dark, animal/human, night/day, male/female, etc. Language again features, and Bourdieu notes the way that French and Arab languages are used for ‘different worlds’: when Arab is used there is within it an entire ‘vision’ of the world, including God and destiny; whilst French is the language of protest and counter claim (1977c: 94-95). He also notes the wide-spread ‘destructuration’ that the French operated there, which resulted in inhabitants being moved off of their land and, with it, away from their traditional farming economies, to live in encampment collectivities (2012:105). Photos taken by Bourdieu show the juxtaposition of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Algerians: traditionally garbed inhabitants riding modern motorcycles (2012: 31) and ‘modern men’ selling their good from mobile shops (2012: 160). Needless to say, such changes had profound socio-political repercussions, with some groups ready to embrace the modern capitalist world, and others wishing to continue with past beliefs. Attitudes to revolution, independence, and a new Algeria could all be identified with particular social strata, which only showed up fundamental differences in aspiration and rationale; all of which augured badly for a future peaceful country – as was shown to be true. Colonialism, it seemed, came at a huge cost, the removal of the colonial leaders of which did not resolve consequent problems. Bourdieu writes on the ‘domination effect’ (Ref), that even when ruling cultures withdraw, their pernicious effects remain. These were formative ethnographies for Bourdieu – rich, dense and tightly argued. Once again, however, the biggest insights seemed to be personal and methodological. As he later remarked, it took him ten years – at least ! – to be able to see the world through the eyes of an Algerian peasant (2000). This is a salutary statement and again raises questions of reflexivity and method when we come to look at the world through an ethnographic eye.




It is worth pausing at this point to note that these studies in the Béarn and Algeria represent Bourdieu at his most ethnographic: this is Bourdieu ‘in the field, surrounded by the intensity of first-hand empirical experience; this is where his philosophical eye met real world events and the need to make sense of them; this is where his own background and biography was brought to play as part of his scholastic endeavours. Such implicate issues of theory and practice, the world and the individual, and consequently the limits of scientific knowledge. It also very much puts a focus on the individual and their own relations to the objects of study. These issues will be explored further below. For the moment, it is important to appreciate the way Bourdieu ‘ethnographic’ understanding and approach were subsequently taken forward into further ‘field works’. In 1964, he took over the directorship of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne from Raymond Aron, which legitimated a full-blown embracing of sociology, or at least his version of it. Of course, the epistemological ‘conversion’ had already taken place; all that was now needed was the time and resources to take it forward. Two areas were of immediate attention – education and culture – which in many ways can be regarded as aspects of the same thing.




Bourdieu’s early work on education offers a kind of social topography of the student population, in a similar way as he had with Algeria, again with a commitment to find out just who they were (1979b/64, 1964b). These studies were largely based on ethnographic interview and questionnaire, and provide a scope of the provenance and cultural practice of French students. It is important to place such work in the context of post-War France, where education was seen as central to the building of the modern Nation state. Education was also considered a critical aspect of defending and implementing French Republican values of equality, liberty and fraternity. It was therefore a scathing attack on such presumptions when Bourdieu’s subsequent analyses argued that it was education which acted most centrally in the preservation through reproduction of the French social elite (1977a); in other words, the Jacobin ambition of the ‘democratic school’ was an illusion (1966). Subsequent major studies on Education targeted the field of Higher Education institutions (1988a/ 84) and the role of the Grandes Écoles (1996/1989) within it. The latter, in particular, entitled ‘the State Nobility’ seemed to suggest that nothing had changed from pre-revolutionary times in terms of the preservation of social dominance, and the so-called meritocratic education system was deeply implicated in ensuring it should remain so.




If education in France was one of the pillars in the founding of the modern French state, culture was the other. Culture of course is central to education as well, and often carried in language – literature, theatre, poetry and, indeed, learning per se. Indeed, Bourdieu developed the concept of cultural capital in schooling to explain why it was that pupils differentiated themselves in the process of schooling; the answer being that some entered education already steeped in the prerequisite ‘culture of learning’, which gave them a substantial advantage. But, culture was more than a backdrop to the French state. The Republic – and indeed Empire – had always glorified French culture. Catholic intellectuals in the 1930s saw culture as the mean for the ‘personality to blossom’, a sentiment taken on board in the 1950s and 60s when successive governments implemented policies aimed as raising the cultural awareness of its citizens; for example, André Malraux’s Maisons de la Culture. Bourdieu’s early work on culture followed similar paths to that on Algeria and Education, with a major study of museum attendance (1990b/1966). He also focused on photography as a ‘middle brow art’ (1990a/65). This work grew in various directions, eventually culminating with the publication of his magnum opus – La distinction – in 1979, which offers a voluminous account of French cultured taste.




It is important to see these works as a two-way evolution: firstly, in the scope of Bourdieu work, and secondly in methodology. Along with these major works, the publication of Questions de Sociologie in 1980 (1993a), and various other papers, demonstrate the range of topics Bourdieu’s eye was including: Art, Literature, fashion, Linguistics, Sport, Religion, Law, Television and the Media, Economics, Politics, Music. Many of these can be read as blueprints for larger studies, only some of which were ever completed; for example, later extensive treatments of Manet (2013) and Flaubert (1996b). And, all the time, methodology – The Craft of Sociology (1991b/68), The Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977b/72) – the latter of which included further re-workings from his Algeria analyses, and again in The Logic of Practice (1990c/80). His last major ethnographic study, however, appeared in 1993 with the publication of The Weight of the World (1999a) which is made up of several first-hand accounts – gathered in interview – of various French men and women with a focus on their quality of life. What emerges is a picture of social suffering, largely as a result of neoliberal economic policy, amongst large sections of the French populations.




By now it is possible to regard Bourdieu’s work not in terms of sociological texts per se but, rather, as ethnographies of France in the latter part of the twentieth century. Each of the areas covered, of course, repay detailed investigation. However, in the context of this chapter, we are heading to a preliminary discussion of Bourdieu’s reflexivity, and for that we need to know more about his theory and method.



Theory, Practice and Methodology


Clearly, a fully comprehensive account of the range of philosophical and sociological sources, which Bourdieu drew upon is beyond the scope of this book. That being stated, in this section we want to show something of the theoretical perspectives developed by Bourdieu in the course of his empirical, ethnographic studies.




Of course, sociology was a development of philosophy, and applied philosophy of sorts. By the time that Bourdieu was engaging with it, and as well as those previously mentioned, three so-called ‘founding fathers’ can be identified: Marx (1818-1881), Weber (1864-1920) and Durkheim (1858-1917). Each of these. Of course, came from very different traditions and backgrounds, each maintained very different preoccupations. Yet, they all share a concern to explain the relationship between the human individual and the social collectivity. For Marx, it was all about the economic ‘infrastructure’ shaping individuals agent’s thoughts and actions. For Weber, ideas themselves could have a constituting effect on such an infrastructure: the protestant work ethic on the development of capitalism, for example. Whilst Durkheim too was concerned with the way various social structures could display different forms of social cohesions – mechanical and organic solidarity, for example – and could even effect such social phenomena as suicide rates.




As noted, Bourdieu was not that impressed with sociology at the outset and even declared himself horrified at having been asked as assistant to Raymond Aron to teach it on his return from Algeria. He would also have been knowledgeable of French philosophy such as the existentialism Jean-Paul Sartre, which he describes as a ‘weak form of humanism’, as well as the philosophers of the history of science – Bachelard, Canguilhem and Koyré; in addition to the anthropology of Marcel Mauss, Lévi-strauss and others. And, all this would have been set against a background of continental philosophy: Kant, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, etc. If Bourdieu underwent a kind of empirical epiphany in Algeria, he experienced a similar theoretical one when he returned to Paris to teach:




I had read Durkheim as a student – The Rules of Method. Then, I had to read it again to teach it and it began to interest me because it could help me with my empirical work on Algeria. Mauss even more. Then, I went on to Weber. I taught Weber and I found the notion of field which I had confusingly in my mind while teaching it…It irritated me a lot and I could not see the logic. And, then, one day, I started to make a scheme on the blackboard and I said to myself, ‘Well, it’s obvious, it is necessary to study people ‘in relations’ …. I was doing structuralist studies of parenthood, the Kabyle house. So, I was reading a pre-structuralist text with a structuralist way of thinking.

(1995: 4-5)




What did this amount to?

Bourdieu came to see the study of cultures as being made up of two principal traditions: the structuralist one, which sees it as an instrument of communication and knowledge – a structured structure (consensual signs, etc.); and the functionalist one, which sees it as an ideological force – structuring structure (political power, social order). The anthropology of Lévi-strauss, with his focus on totems, myths, etc. would be an exemplar of the first; whilst the concern with collective systems that we find in both Marx and Durkheim would be examples of the second. To view cultures in this way – structurally – is useful for Bourdieu since in structure we find the essence of relations and relationships – to the world, things, thoughts, and each other:




  • That the primary cognitive act (i.e. that of a newborn child) takes place in a social environment and is essentially structural as it sets up intentional (what phenomenologists refer to as intensional) relations between the social agent and the environment;
  • That environment includes both material and ideational structures;
  • That the primary cognitive act therefore needs to be understood in terms of a search for social-psychic equilibrium, or control over Self, Objects and Others;
  • That such an act – and subsequent acts – do not establish themselves in a value neutral vacuum, but in an environment saturated with values and ways of seeing the world;
  • That such values and such ways constitute a pre-set orthodoxy into which agents are inducted;
  • That such values and orthodoxies are dynamic and constantly evolving. However, their underlying logic of practice remains the same: they represent a certain way of seeing the world on the part of particular social factions of society;
  • That way of seeing the world conditions and shapes the primary cognitive act in a dynamic relationship with individuals involved. In this way, individuals can be particular all whilst sharing commonalities with those immediately in their social environment;




Structural relationship are therefore actualized within both the individual and the collectivity, and dialectically between both. Ethnographical research then becomes not simply the account of cultures but, ‘the science of dialectical relations between objective structures…and the subjective dispositions within which these structures are actualized and which tend to reproduce them’ (1977a: 3). The goal of this undertaking is then to recover the principles through which such structures are generated; in other words, the ‘logic of practice’ of particular cultural behaviours. In the above quote, Bourdieu employs the terms ‘subjective and objective’, the dichotomy of which he describes as ‘most fundamental and ruinous in the social science’ (1990c/80: 25); that is, to see both in practice as co-terminous, mutually constituting, and dialectical. If the ‘objective’ so far has been referred to as series of salient cultural trends in his ethnographic studies, it is equally necessary to see these as made up of individual subjectivities. In this, another of Bourdieu’s influences – namely, the phenomenology of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty – becomes evident with its focus of the distinction between everything we know of the world (noema) and individual instantiations of aspects of it at any one time and place (noesis).




If all this represents a revolutionary epistemology, it is little wonder that Bourdieu presents the account in terms of a series of ‘breaks’ or ‘ruptures’ with established ways of knowing and doing: the empirical, the objective, the hermeneutic (1977b/72). Even so, Bourdieu still required a series of conceptual tools in order to represent these levels of human exegesis. The two most basic are habitus and field. If habitus is concerned with the subjective, field can be seen as the site of objectivity:




Habitus is:



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)




Whilst field is:



….. 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)


There are a series of points to be made with respect to the integrity and use of such concepts.



Firstly, although, they emerge from the same epistemological needs and vision, they are developed. For example, the concept of habitus was already employed in the Béarn, field was not explicitly used until into 1966 when Bourdieu saw the way that ideas and actions could be shaped by a certain way of thinking within a specific socially bounded space. In this original case, it was the way Gothic architecture was fashioned by a scholastic training, but the concepts of field was immediately brought to bear on such social locales as education, culture and media, etc. Not everything within social space is a field, but many are, especially in terms of socially sanctioned forms of life.

Secondly, such concepts are consistent with each other and according to their range of applications; indeed, one of Bourdieu’s major research questions would be the extent to which all fields behave constitutionally the same.

Thirdly, they do need to be treated as co-implicated: we cannot think about habitus without thinking about field and vice versa. This itself requires inclusion of both within any research topic and dialectical thinking.

Fourthly, such concepts are not simply heuristic devices or metaphors, and it is so easy to equate habitus with agency and field with context. We hope, on the basis of the above, that it is clear that they are each and together highly charged epistemological matrices: with all that they imply in terms of breaks and ruptures with conventional ways of thinking and doing things. Moreover, they arise from saturation with empirical data; they are then logically necessitated by what goes on within them.

Fifthly, habitus and field are not the only key concepts that Bourdieu uses; there are many others: hexis, interest, capital, hysteresis (see Grenfell, 2012). Again, it is important to note that each of these concepts arose as necessitated by the data. For example, capital, as a sort of field currency, emerged as part of Bourdieu’s account of what was valued in education and how some pupils arrived with obvious cultural advantages (cultural capital) in terms of what is symbolically significant (symbolic capital) within the field. These forms of capital were distinct from straight money wealth (economic capital), but still acted as a way of ‘buying’ position (prestige) within the field. Next, Bourdieu was to see that it was not just what anyone knew but who they knew which was significant in social trajectories (social capital). Language also acted as linguistic capital and was valued as such within the various fields – more of less depending on their complexion – as a definition of individual worth.




A lot of Bourdieu’s later ethnographies can be understood as ‘further explorations in field theory’, which inevitably entailed the quantities and forms of capital held by individuals and groups and how these were expressed and used within field manoeuvres. But, finally, what of reflexivity as part of such endeavours?




Bourdieu and Reflexivity


Clearly, reflexivity is a major focus for this book, and there is a lot to write about it. Besides the chapter here in this part 1, the whole of part III is based around a reflexive consideration of reflexivity in the light of the empirical case examples we give in part II. In these parts, we wish to apply, exemplify and extend Bourdieu’s reflexivity with respect to language ethnographies. This section, therefore, needs to be read as an introduction to this later, more advanced discussion.




The first point we need to make about Bourdieu’s reflexivity is that it is both present and absent in his early weeks: present in the sense of logically implied by the kind of epistemological vision he was beginning to articulate; and absent to the extent to which it is not referred to in explicit terms. This later case would not be true in work in the 1990s, where issues of reflexivity are given a lead in a range of publications: An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (1992), Science and Science of Reflexivity (2004/2001), Participant Objectivation (2003), etc. Even the 1968 text The Craft of Sociology (1991c/1968) does not seem to make reference to it by name. At the same time, it is clearly implied strongly by what can be found in the text and, at a similar time (1966), there is a filmed dialogue between Bourdieu and one of his key collaborators Jean-Claude Passeron concerning ‘la vigilance épistémologique’. The core of this discussion is indeed issues arising from the subject-object dichotomy referred to above. What is implied is the very ‘construction of the research object’ (which is openly discussed in Craft) that the researcher forms in the course of undertaking their research.




The degree to which the significance of reflexivity was playing itself out as a strand of his work is noticeable from the way an entire section of the original French version of The Outline of a Theory of Practice (1972) is dedicated to ‘the observer observed’ (pp. 225-234). Here, Bourdieu acknowledges that a researcher is already a ‘dominated’ member of the ‘dominant’ since undertaking such work presupposes a certain lack of practical/ empirical exigencies with respect to the world. It is both a privileged and intellectualist stance. However, acknowledging such a relationship between the research and the research is not simply a methodological nicety, but central to the robustness of the resultant science. In other words, to forget the social conditions of the construction of knowledge is to forget possible social conditions that can be founded in the name of the sort of sociology he is wishing to establish. Briefly, it is a form of scholastic fallacy.




Such a position is perfectly conducive with Bourdieu’s entire theory of practice, and the language by which it is expressed is central to it. Since Saussure (REF), the distinction between a language sign (word) and what was signified was acknowledged. In other words, a single word could never capture the entire practical use to which it is put. A similar relation exists between theory and practice for Bourdieu. He writes of a sense of ‘unease’ when writing about and describing something he first ‘mastered’ in practice (1977b/ 72: 223) since it risks, ‘giving a false ‘understanding’ both of the ‘understanding’ which such a concept makes possible, and the practical ‘understanding’ which does not need concepts’. Such is to confuse the things of logic with the logic of things, for Bourdieu, as what is incarnated in a object of research is the relation that the researcher has to it – often derived from an academic field discipline – rather than the objective thing itself. To fall for this, especially in a field like sociology, which both should and does know better, is a kind of act of ultimate intellectual bad faith. This is why researchers need to be careful of ‘rules’ and ‘models’, which render ‘static’ social process which are by definition ‘ex-static’.




All language and theory is, for Bourdieu, nothing more than the ‘totality’ of actions which they instantiate – all the more reason, therefore, to employ a theory of practice which is formed in and for practice rather than a straight formalist theory. The ethnographic aspiration of ‘participant observation’ needs, consequently, to be regarded with high suspicion; indeed, these two words are tantamount to being a contradiction in terms. Little wonder, furthermore, that increasingly in Bourdieu’s work there is reference to the necessity of a ‘sociology of sociology’ (2016/1986: 1116) at the risk of moving too easily from a ‘concept of reality’ to the ‘reality of the concept’. The whole point of ‘field theory’ is to avoid such a slippage.




Society, for Bourdieu, of which sociology is a part, contains innumerable ‘traps’; this slippage being one of the most common in social science research. Reflexivity, as manifested within his ‘theory of practice’, is one way to escape the trap. Bourdieu writes that there are three principal presuppositions, or biases, commonly actualised in such a trap. Firstly, is the view taken as a result of a particular position within the social space, including social trajectory, gender and the effects these have of relations to objects. Secondly, is the orthodoxy of the particular field space; for example, most academic disciplines have a normalized way of viewing their subjects and, indeed, sanction what can and cannot be a legitimate topic and form of enquiry. Thirdly, as noted above, is simply a certain ‘ease’, or leisure – skholè – implied by being in a position to take a non-imperative relation to this aspect of the world. Real field players are too consumed by the game to be able to research it. To practice reflexivity means, for Bourdieu, a way to ‘break’ from these biases in a manner which parallels Bachelard’s epistemological ‘rupture’. If the object is to objectify the social conditions of the production of knowledge, then the only way to do this within Bourdieu’s perspective is by researchers ‘turning the instruments of knowledge that they produce against themselves, and especially against the social universes in which they produce them’ (2000/1997: 118). By doing so, researchers create the possibility of escaping the social and economic determinisms of thought production, as well as historical determinism. More over, by doing this, the researcher is not simply acknowledging the limits of knowledge as constructed within the ‘subject’, but establishing the social possibilities of true science by bringing to light the limits of objectification. The aim is to renounce both the absolutionist objectivism and subjective relativism. Indeed, for Bourdieu, ‘the conditions of possibility of scientific knowledge’ and ‘scientific objectivism’ are one and the same thing. How one might do this, what happens as a result, and how we should interpret the outcome in terms of this ambition. We need to understand what all this meant for Bourdieu himself; for example, in the way he worked withy theory and practice, and, indeed, how and where he objectified his own academic space and research activity within it. Finally, however, a few further preliminary thoughts on what Bourdieu called ‘participant objectivation’.




Participant Objectivation


Participant objectivation is, then, quite distinct from the normalized feature of ‘participant observation’ found as part of the ethnographer’s methodological training. What is and how does anyone do it? Clearly, Bourdieu is wishing to distance himself from the kind of self-observing-self approach that can be found in various research traditions: sometimes phenomenological, sometimes post-modern. For him, this approach is both narcissistic and impossible: the pretense, having acknowledge bias, of being able to transcend thought by the power of though itself. At the same time, Bourdieu insists that without reflexivity researchers are always prone to import their own primary – pre-reflexive – selves into the object of research, and then pass the whole thing off as science. In effect, it is the product of a particular empirical habitus presented in the form of an objectivity rooted in a kind of ‘academic transcendence’ grounded in the post-Kantian metaphysical tradition (see Bourdieu, 2003). For Bourdieu, researchers need to ‘disarm’ themselves of the power, which leads them into this epistemological ‘fall’. We saw above how Bourdieu listed the presuppositions which can so easily slip into a research project – almost like a Trojan Horse: of the researchers social provenance and trajectory, of the orthodoxies of the academic field, of the distance created by being ‘out of the game’. All these need to be objectified as specific value-laded relations for Bourdieu as part of the ‘objectivation of the knowing subject’. But, this is not simply a process of once-only acknowledgement. Rather, it is a procedure that goes to the heart of the relationship between the researcher and the research, and the way that knowledge and understanding of the subterranean feature (generating structures) of data are rendered manifest. As opposed to the notion that a eresearcher can affect a separate, non-involved relationship to the object of research, one that gives them an ‘objective eye’. Bourdieu wishes to exactly draw on the primary experience of the researcher and their previous experience in the research field. There is then a three-way partnership: the researcher and their empirical habitus; their previous scientific experience; and the current object of investigation. By way of exemplification, Bourdieu discusses the way his insights into the marriage patterns in the Béarn came about as a result of him holding up his primary experience of life in the area next to his investigations in Algeria, clarifications about which then led back into analyses of the Béarnais peasant. By this too-and-fro method precisely the sort of theory of practice is built up which we have elucidated above. The researcher is then intimately involved; indeed, their primary ‘empirical’ habitus is slowly dissolved in the formation of a new reflexive ‘scientific’ habitus. It is when this occurs, not only at the individual, personal level, but at the field level that there is a genuine paradigmatic shift within the critical community. In other words, this is not just, or not only, a personal foundation but holds the possibility of a collective one as well. In later works, for example the Sketch for a Self-analysis, Bourdieu shows how this is brought about and accomplished, and, moreover, what are its consequences.






This paper has covered a lot of ground. As well as introducing Bourdieu I have explored the context of his early work and how it shaped his later studies. Issues of theory and practice have been to the fore and, with them, further questions about the relationship between primary data and analysis undertaken by the researcher. I noted the importance of language in elucidating this relationship, and the range of concepts developed by Bourdieu in field work in the Béarn, Algeria and education. I have drawn attention to the dangers of the academic discourse in skewing interpretation and introduced Bourdieu’s take on reflexivity as central to the whole process.