Reflexive Objectivity – How to do it





These writing were originally put together for a Colloquium entitled Beyond the Fields We KnowBourdieu Field Methods and Theories – co-organised by myself for Sydney, Australia, February 2015. There are really comes: firstly, a synopsis of the main arguments; secondly, a background paper which outlines the main tenets of Bourdieu’s epistemology; and thirdly, the paper itself. The latter is preliminary sketches for a much longer piece of ‘reflexive objecvtivity’.






  • ‘New Gaze’; ‘Metanoia’ – what are these? How to see with these? How can objective science be reflexive?
  • Simply deploying Bourdieu’s terms as metaphors – habitus, field, capital, etc. – is not enough. We need to understand the nature of the resultant knowledge.
  • Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice is built on the work of historians of the philosophy of science, Bachelard, Koyré and Canguilhem; and in opposition to Sartrean subjectivity and the ‘objectivity’ of structuralism. But, deploys structure in a co-terminus way: cognitive/ phenomenological and socio-cultural. The new knowledge is constituted through a series of ‘breaks’.
  • The status of the language of science and emergent concepts is central to the approach; this is congruent with Bourdieu’s theory of language and its consequent critique of traditional linguistics and post-modernist philosophy.
  • We need to understand Bourdieu’s concepts as epistemological matrices, emerging from practice and illuminating practice – but also ‘in practice’: in constructing the research object, field analysis, and participant objectivation.
  • How do the concepts escape relativism? Kant saw Imagination, Understanding and Reason as based on a priori knowledge. Bourdieu’s critique of Kant is that this position is little more than a certain – bourgeois – gaze on the world, with undisclosed interests.
  • Positivism might be understood in the same way.
  • Central to this debate is still the relation between the subject and object (phenomenology); the scope for un-reflexive knowledge.
  • Concepts such as habitus and field need to be seen as an epistemological mordant between subject and object – in effect, they are also a priori, but this time with a new (practical) validation/ authenticity.
  • They can also be seen as recurrent – a gaze of a gaze of a gaze, etc. – when instantiated.
  • This establishes a different relationship to the social world – non-authoritarian, a-temporal, etc. – thus, with different (emancipatory) interests.
  • Bourdieu’s concepts offer a ‘language of association’ but also the means by which being can observe being. So, the gaze is ontological.
  • Reflexive Objectivity – less like ‘doing’ and more like ‘being’.



Reflexive Objectivity: How to Do It.

Preliminary Notes


In the Outline to a Theory of Practice (1977/72), Bourdieu sets out this approach in terms of a series of ‘breaks’: from empirical knowledge; from phenomenological knowledge; from structural knowledge; and from scholastic (theoretical) knowledge itself (pp.1-2). These breaks are not be seen as a series of exclusions, however; rather each theoretical position is retained and integrated into an overarching theory of practice. In effect, we need understand these breaks as implying the addition of a fourth type of theory – structural knowledge. The key to the integration of the theoretical breaks is indeed the addition of structural knowledge in relationship to the phenomenological, scientific and practical in order to indicate their essential structural nature. Indeed, we might say of such structural knowledge that it arises from practical action – that is the empirical cognitive acts of individuals in pursuit of their aims. Such an engagement involves a social context and individual agency – in Bourdieusian terms, field and habitus. However, it is important to understand it as an essential constructivist aspect of human praxis – and from birth. Several epistemological principles follow from this account:



  • 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;
  • Both the particulars and the commonalities develop ‘dispositions’ to think and act in certain ways. The extent to which such dispositions are ‘fired’ depends on patterns of resonance and dissonance set up in the range of contexts in which individuals find themselves;
  • The characteristics of orthodoxies, dispositions, and their underlying values are defined by the position particular social grouping hold in relation to other social groupings in the social space as a whole;
  • That position is also structural and relational;
  • Orthodoxies, values and dispositions express certain interests – those of   the most dominant social groupings;
  • In this way, there is a dialectical relationship between actual structures of social organisation and the structures of symbolic systems that arise from them;
  • Nothing is pre-determined; everything is pre-disposed.




And, we need to think in these terms both for the object of research, the activity of research, and those carrying it out. In other words, researchers, just as much as those whom they research, are subject to the same theory of practice. This understanding needs to be a constituent part of the process. The next section explores further the relationship between the language of research – the concepts used in analysis – and the social ‘reality’ it purports to represent. The relationship between the two is particular in the case of Bourdieu: what do these concepts mean? Where do they come from? How ‘real’ are they?




Language and Concepts

We need to remember that Bourdieu’s early work was developed in opposition of 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). Bourdieu’s 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’ 1977/72: 3). The key concepts to represent these structures are articulated through the terms field and habitus, the relationship between which he described as one of ‘ontological complicity’ (1982: 47).




Field is the ‘objective’ elements of the social environment, and is defined as:



….. 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)




Habitus, on the other hand, 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 1990/80: 53)




In line with the discussion above, 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. In a seminal paper in 1966 – Intellectual Field and Creative Project (1971/66) – Bourdieu 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, for Panofsky, 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 reinforces the point: social and mental ‘structures’ are co-terminus, are both ‘structured’ and ‘structuring’ – concrete and dynamic – stable but in flux.




A 3-Stage Methodology



1) The Construction of the Research Object

At one point, Bourdieu refers to the ‘construction of the research object’ as ‘summum of the art’ of social science research (1989: 51). As researchers, our choice of research topic is shaped by our own academic backgrounds and trajectories. To this extent, our research activity is a symbolic homology of the academic infrastructure with its various structural positions and groupings. Key concepts in the social sciences are subject to intense argument about the terms of their representation. For example, the ‘elderly’, ‘young’, immigrants’, poverty’, ‘classroom’ etc. Bourdieu warns the would-be researcher to ‘beware of words’: Beware of them because words present themselves as if they are value-neutral, whilst in effect they are socio-historical constructions, taken-for-granted as expressions of ‘common sense’, but with specialist assumptions about their meanings and imbued with logically practical implications of such meanings. In practice, words are susceptible to a kind of ‘double historicisation’: firstly, a word is used to represent a certain phenomenon at a particular point in time – one which is often constructed and presented in a way which renders as transparent the social and historical aspects of its construction; secondly, that dehistoricised form is then subject to further historicisation, as the original form is taken as the basis of fact from which further work and elaboration is operationalised. In this way, the most innocent word can carry within it a whole set of un-objectified assumptions, interests, and meanings which confuse the reality of representation with the representation of reality. To confuse ‘substantialist’ and ‘relational’ thinking: in effect, it is so easy to (miss)take constructs as things in themselves rather than as sets of relations. To do one rather than the other – without knowing about it, still less acknowledging it – is to accept a whole epistemological matrix which has direct consequences for the way that an object of research is thought about, with the implications this error entails for the methodologies employed to collect and analyse data, and for the conclusions drawn as a consequence. Bourdieu offers the example of the word ‘profession’, making the point that as soon as it is taken as an instrument, rather than an object of analysis, a whole set of consequences follows. Moreover, such assumptions are not merely an innocent oversight, since one modus operandi necessary sets itself against another in a field competing for the limited symbolic capital that can be accrued from occupying a dominant position within it. This is no less true of the scientific field. All of which raises questions about the value, power and integrity of a word itself for representing both a product and process; different factions of the academic field as an element in their struggles for dominant field positions. Many simply do not recognise the contested nature of ‘concepts’. To this extent, the ‘construction of the research object’ is often the most difficult methodological stage to undertake: firstly, because, its terms – the names of the game – are the product of history, and therefore have developed a certain ‘taken-for-granted’ orthodoxy; secondly, because a whole set of specific interests are often co-terminus with seeing the world in this way. Bourdieu argues that to break from these risks ‘relegating to the past’ a whole set of thinking, hierarchically established by the history and consequent structure of the science field itself (Bourdieu, 1996/92: 160). Jobs might literally be lost, careers ruined, etc.! What Bourdieu argues for is a combination of ‘immense theoretical ambition’ and ‘extreme empirical modesty’; the constitution of ‘socially insignificant objects’ into ‘scientific objects’; and the translation of ‘very abstract problems’ into ‘concrete scientific operations’ (1989: 51).




The construction of the research object – at least in my personal research experience – is not something that is effected once and for all, with one stroke, through a sort of inaugural theoretical act…it is a protracted and exacting task that is accomplished little by little through a whole series of rectifications and amendments…that is, by a set of practical principles that orients choices at once minute and decisive….one of the main difficulties of relational analysis is that, most of the time, social spaces can be grasped only in the form of distributions of properties among individuals or concrete institutions since the data available are attached to individuals or institutions…




And, this is as true if using ethnographic techniques as geometric data analysis. In either case, data is analysed against Bourdieu’s conceptual framework: habitus, field, etc. Indeed, the whole constitutes data analysis as set within social space. Often times, such space needs to be understood as a ‘field’, which itself is analysed in terms of various ‘levels’.




2) 3-level Field Analysis


When asked explicitly by Loïc Wacquant (1992: 104-7) to sum up this methodological approach, Bourdieu described it in terms of three distinct levels:




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.




It is possible to see how these three levels represent the various strata of interaction between habitus and field.




In level one, it is necessary to look at a field in relationship to other fields; in particular the recognised field of power. Ultimately, this is political power and government; although there are a number of mediating institutions and fields: royalty, international business, etc.




In level two, the structural topography of the field itself is considered: all those within it and the positions they hold. This positioning is expressed in terms of capital and its configurations. Capital can be expressed in terms of three forms: economic, social and cultural. Economic refers to money wealth; Social to useful or prestigious network relations; and Cultural to symbolically powerful cultural attributes derived from education, family background and possessions. They are all capital because they act to ‘buy’ positioning within the field. Capital therefore has value derived from the field as the recognised, acknowledged and attributed currency of exchange for the field so that it is able to organise itself and position those within it according to its defining principles. The generating principles of a field have a logic of practice, a common currency expressed through the medium of its capital. It defines what is and is not thinkable and what is do-able within the field by systems of recognising, or not, which give differential value according to principles of scarcity and rarity. In other words, that which is most valued is most rare and thus sought after and therefore valuable; that which is most common is of least value.




In level three, the actual individual agent within the field is analysed; their background, trajectory and positioning. This level is expressed in terms of individual features of the characteristics of individuals, but only in so far as they relate to the field, past and present. In other words, we are interested in how particular attributes, which are social in as much as they only have value in terms of the field as a whole. We are not concerned with individual idiosyncrasies. Habitus then directs and positions individuals in the field in terms of the capital configuration they possess and how this resonates, or not, with the ruling principles of logic of the field. We can then compare individuals, groups and the way structures intersect and resonate in the homologies set up in the course of the operations of this field with other fields. For educational research, this implies greater attention being given to such aspects as biography, trajectory (life and professional) and site practice with respect to the logic of practice of fields in which they occur. The structure of fields, their defining logic, derivation, and the way such logics are actualised in practice are important; especially those of official discourses, etc. Finally, it is the links between individuals (habitus), field structures, and the positionings both within and between fields which form a conceptual framework for educational research (see Grenfell, 1996 for an application of this three level analysis to the area of teacher education; and Grenfell and Hardy, 2007 to the study of art and educational aesthetics).




Of course, there is a question about whether the researcher begins with level 1, 2 or level 3. In a sense, data collection possibly presupposes an initial gathering of personal – habitus – accounts (level 3) as a way of building up an ethnography of field participants. However, it must be stressed that biographical data are not enough on their own. They also need to be analysed with respect to field positions, structures, and their underlying logic of practice. And, most importantly the relationship between field and habitus – not just the one and/ or the other. Finally, that field analysis, and its interactions with individual habitus, needs to be connected with a further analysis of the relations between the field and its position in the overall structures of fields of power. All three levels are then needed.



In order to construct such a field analysis, the issue of the traditional dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative approaches become less significant. Indeed, the researcher needs to obtain the best date analyses to undertake the construction of a relational analysis; both within and between fields. This may be Multiple Correspondence Analysis; documentary analysis; biographical studies; ethnographic case studies; etc:





3) Participant Objectivation




In a sense, the main conviction behind a Bourdieusian approach is not simply that in our normal operative state the world is not so much more complicated than we think, but that it is more complicated than we can think. The thinking tools that Bourdieu’s method provides are intended as a way of opening up that complexity in order to provide new insights. However, it would be a mistake to consider the deployment of terms like habitus, field and capital as an end in itself, or that simply expressing data analysis with these words is a sufficient route to understanding and explanation. At its extreme, such an approach can result in little more than a metaphorising of data with Bourdieusian language. The 3-level approach to data analysis outlined above is intended to be a key to avoiding such a reification of conceptual terms. However, there is a third vital ingredient for Bourdieu: Reflexivity. We find it everywhere in his writing.




The whole focus on the construction of the research object is that it is partly an attempt to break with the ‘pre-given’ of the world, especially the academic one, and to re-think language and language pedagogy in a new way. As part of this process, reflexivity is more than a pragmatic option; it is rather an epistemological necessity. What Bourdieu is proposing is to break from ‘scholastic knowledge’ itself! In other words, the scholastic world of theory about language teaching and learning needs to be seen as being just as prone as the empirical world of language classrooms to acting on the basis of presuppositions created historically; so much so that there is indeed the danger of research knowledge becoming a kind of ‘scholastic fallacy’, where what is offered in the name of scientific knowledge is, in actuality, simply the reproduction of a certain scholastic relation to the world, and one indeed imbibed with its own interests. Bourdieu writes of three presuppositions, which are key dangers in this potential ‘misrepresentation’ (see Bourdieu, 2000/ 97: 10). Firstly, there is the presupposition associated with a particular position in the social space; in other words, the particular habitus (including gender) as constituted by a particular life trajectory, and thus the cognitive structures which orientate thought and practice. Secondly, there is the orthodoxy of the particular site of the field of language pedagogy itself – its doxa – with its imperative to think (only!) in these terms, as they are the only ones acknowledged as legitimate in the field. Thirdly, there is the whole relation to the social world implied by scholastic skholè itself; in other words, to see the former as substantive, given, and an object of contemplation rather than relationally – praxeologically – and existentially dynamic. Finally, therefore, in order to break from scholastic reason itself, it is, for Bourdieu, not sufficient simply to be aware through some form of return of thought to thought itself. Such actions are for him a part of the same scholastic fantasy that believes that thought can transcend thought and, in so doing, escape from all the socio-culturally constructed presuppositions listed above. Because these presuppositions are unconscious, implied and occluded in the very nature of thought itself, it is necessary to find another means to escape from them than the type of reflexivity commonly accepted by social scientists (for example, Alvin Gouldner). For Bourdieu, the necessary alternative is through a process of ‘participant objectivation’, or the ‘objectification of the objectifying subject’:




I mean by that the one that dispossesses the knowing subject of the privilege it normally grants itself and that deploys all available instruments of objectification…in order to bring to light the presuppositions it owes to its inclusion in the object of knowledge.





Social scientists are called on to apply the same methods of analysis to themselves as to their object of research. What this means, in effect, is to see their own research field in terms of habitus, field and capital, and to objectify their own position within it. Bourdieu attempted such a procedure in books such as Homo Academicus (1988/84) and Sketch for a Self-analysis (2007/2004). However, one point is crucially clear: Although this undertaking can be attempted on an individual basis, and is partly necessitated by a personal epistemological imperative, what is even more important is that participants in a particular academic field, here language education, commit themselves to a similar process of reflexivity as a way of showing up the limits of its science. Bourdieu is perfectly aware that such an activity runs counter to the conventional underlying logic of practice of the scientific field, with its interest in asserting its own worldview in competing for a dominant position in the academic field overall. As a result of the latter, there is often a reluctance on the part of academics to recognise and acknowledge the limits of thinking that a truly reflexive process would reveal. For Bourdieu, it is the particular mission of sociology – or at least his version of sociology – to insist on this reflexive stance. Indeed, anything else is a kind of ultimate act of scholastic bad faith.







Bourdieu’s Reflexive Objectivity – How to Do It.




I have rather cheekily borrowed from Pierre Bourdieu a phrase that he used in the title of the lecture he gave in London at the Royal Anthropological Institute in December 2000: How to do it. These words did not make it through to the final published version prepared by Loïc Wacquant but I wish to reanimate them in the present context for the following reasons. At the time of writing this lecture, Bourdieu was wishing to address a theme which seems to have haunted his work, namely that of scientific reflexivity, here as participant objectivation, and yet which still seemed, and continues to seem little understood, and still less actualised in research practice. Even amongst those most loyal to Bourdieu and his approach, this aspect of his work seems overlooked or passed over in silence. Or, even worst, it is seemingly taken for granted or appropriated in theory without foundation in practice.




It is a moot and not uncontested issue as to what extent reflexivity features across Bourdieu’s oeuvre, still more whether or not it is the essence of his methodological purpose. Some even find the personal ‘revelations’ – summed up as ‘le rose-bud de Pierre Bourdieu’ in Le Nouvel Observateur at the time of his death – of his final lecture at the Collège de France, published later in the The Sketch for a Self-Analysis to be a somewhat post hoc formulation of how ‘he would wish to be read’; they do not see the empirical studies carried out in the Béarn, or Algeria and indeed in Education, as necessarily reflexive. Without wishing to get into the particularity of this debate, I would argue that issues of reflexivity – in theory and practice – not only acted as key generating principles for Bourdieu’s entire epistemological perspective, but are logically necessitated at the outset as grounding foundations to his method and science.




This because I believe a key challenge in applying, and indeed developing, Bourdieu’s method is still just ‘how to do it’. Clearly, it is not simply a question of using Multiple Correspondence Analysis – or not. Neither is it simply seeing the world through the Bourdieusian lens of Habitus, Field and Capital. Etc. I have argued before that this is a reductionist view of Bourdieu and his method and risks simply metaphorising rather than analysing data, or developing only a weakly constructivist/ determinsistic view of the world. And, I think we should also be careful about ‘correcting’ Bourdieu, or pointing out what he ‘does not do’, ‘avoids’, ‘sidesteps’, ‘ignores’; not because I believe his work is infallible or cannot be extended, but that any developments, if they are to be useful, should: firstly, understand what he in fact did do and what he claimed; and, secondly, any developments should build on this in order to ascertain ‘what it can buy us’ rather than (too easily) fall into misplaced revisionist variations of his approach.



There is frequent reference in Bourdieu later works to ‘scientific reflexivity’, ‘metanoia’, and to a ‘new gaze’ on a social world – references, which are set alongside his previous discussions on the nature of theory and practice, indeed, theory of practice. In this paper, I want to consider just what this ‘gaze’ is? In what does it consist? What form of knowledge does it give rise to? To what extent can it be said to be ‘objective’? And, what can we do with it? I believe these questions are not simply methodological but demand an understanding of understanding, to say the least, in the constitution of such knowledge: its meaningful significance and significant meaning.




In other words, I am suggesting that Bourdieu is not simply ‘good to think with’, as many seem so ready to claim for him, as part of some intellectualist guignol. Rather, Bourdieu’s intention is to set his own research practice not only against other familiar methodological techniques but also, and somewhat consequently, if carried out properly, the actual knowledge forms arising from it; as distinct, for example, from the Habermasian paradigms of hermenueutic, critical and nomothetic practice. I believe what he is arguing for is much more rigorous and potent in terms of the knowledge form itself, and thus understanding and consequent (ultimately political) action to be generated from it. Such is less a question of methodological approach, about which Bourdieu cares less, than of epistemological raison d’être. My paper is hence constructed around thoughts with respect to the questions: what is reflexive objectivity and what must we do to achieve it?




It is necessary to get to the bottom of Bourdieu’s language and its misuses. Firstly, I want to revisit the epistemological breaks that Bourdieu argues for and what that leaves us with. Secondly, I want to extend this by considering the place of Kantian philosophy in what takes place when we know something; understand it and through concepts. Thirdly, I shall then consider the nature of Bourdieu’s key concepts – habitus, field and capital. I shall do this first by considering them ‘as language’ and then as representations between subject and object. This discussion will return to Kant and argue that reflexivity is embedded in these concepts and indeed constituent a certain form of objective practice. I shall then conclude by sketching some characteristics of this reflexive stance as an ethical one.




To set the scene….We know that Bourdieu’s theory of practice was built in twin opposition to both Sartrean subjectivity and the structuralist objectivity of Levi-Strauss and Althusser. However, beyond these, he took inspiration from historians of the philosophy of science – such as Bachelard Koyré and Canguilhem – who shared an interest in breaking away positivist science as derived from Cartesian epistemology. For Bachelard, for example, the notion of epistemology was to be understood as shaped by the history of the mind, and its patterns of use. Science for him – and here we need a broad view of science as ‘knowing’ – is discontinuous and prone to paradigmatic breaks in a way later taken up by Thomas Kuhn. Basically, new theories are cast in the remnants of old theories – as part of a process of epistemological bricolage . Epistemology consequently itself needs to be seen as the history of concepts and science.




For Bourdieu, objects of research can never be seen as objects in themselves – a view which underpins substantialist science – but are understood in relation, that is, they are always set within their socio- historical environment. In effect, this is a science of movement and process rather than one of stasis; an ontology of relations rather than substance in fact. Koyré also focuses on the historical, and specifically human, circumstances that generate the scientists’ phenomenal world and serve as foundation for all scientific constitutions of meaning. Indeed, Koyré argues that science and epistemology are to be understood almost as religious belief: that the microcosm (earth) was governed by the same laws as the macrocosm (space); there is then a taste for universality in to what we aspire. For him, also, truth can only be understood in terms of its historical circumstance, and so is again essentially structural; in other words, the whole (pattern) is greater than the sum of its individual parts.




But, relations and structures are to be understood as what? We know that Bourdieu developed a very coherent set of conceptual terms: habitus, field, capital, etc. Importantly, these arose in Practice as logically necessitated by the personal relationship (already philosophical) he formed with and to data. What these concepts all share is a common structural epistemology: and that is structure as the co-incidence between the cognitive, phenomenological and the socio-anthropological. Hence, structuring and structured structures. And, here, I might add that this phrase in English does not quite capture the French equivalent: ‘les structures structurées qui se structurent en se structurant’. A key point here is not only what is being signified but how – in what concepts and language? – and their role in the process of generating knowledge. So, relations and structures are expressed in a certain sort of language.




Bourdieu was, of course, very aware that sometimes the language of research can become more real than the object it aims to represent. Indeed, language can almost create what it refers to, or might refer to. For example, Bourdieu takes up this point with to reference to Canguilhem when he suggests that language creates the form and the content of social phenomena. For instance, in terms of a phenomenology of the affective life, the topic of a Masters thesis Bourdieu apparently never completed, he writes:



‘there is a wisdom that is recorded over millenia, of symptoms which are translated into language (stomach knots, makes me feel sick) …..‘or is it that language has produced the symptoms?’. ‘It was interesting because (in my work in Algeria) there was no language of emotions to do a comparative sociology of affective lives which would employ language as a means of structuring perceptions and also bodily experiences’.




Here, language structures perception. This somewhat leads us to language and the philosophy of language, and ultimately post-modernism and the issues raised about the relationship between it in representing the world and/ or explaining it. The Philosophy of Man became, after all, the Philosophy of Language in the twentieth century.




This play-off between language and perceived experience goes to the heart of our epistemological concerns. It is tantamount to saying our thoughts not only shape what we see but in fact almost produce (and indeed limit) what we can see and think. This is not just a question of linguistic relativity with respect to the signified but of actual exegesis. In the same way that, in modern physics, if scientists look at electrons as discrete entities, they are discrete entities; if they look at them as a wave, they (somewhat mysteriously) become a wave. Maybe, therefore, enquiry into the empirical world requires us to understand the nature of consciousness itself so that we can appreciate the way it shapes what we see.




I believe these perspectives are very close to Bourdieu’s view of social space and phenomena as emergent processes. They certainly raise questions about how we conceptualise the social world and ourselves in it – empirically and as science researchers. What are these concepts and how are they expressed in language? How are concepts such as Habitus, Field and Capital – as scientific language – different from ordinary (empirical) language? To what extent and how might they be considered objective, and what part does reflexivity play in that? The most direct answer is that they emerge from a Theory of Practice.




The most explicit statement this Theory of practice and the characteristics of the knowledge outcome he intends is made at the beginning of the Outline of a Theory of Practice where he writes of a series of ‘epistemological breaks’: firstly, from empirical knowledge – the naïve state; secondly, phenomenological subjective/ sense knowledge; and thirdly, from structuralist objectivist knowledge. There is then, significantly, a final break with theoretical knowledge itself – a theory of theory – which is the true characteristic of the practical rationality and thus reflexive objectivity to which Bourdieu aspires. He states that this place is achieved by constructing the generative principles of research practice, in this case, in their moment of its accomplishment. And, this science of practices is predicated on creating the conditions of possibility of its realisation. So, what is this epistemological generative principle and what are its conditions of possibility? And, what is the relationship between the individual, the world, knowledge arising from it and the language used to express this knowledge? For Habermas:




‘individuals, when they act communicatively, go through the natural (empirical) language, make use of interpretations that are culturally transmitted and make reference to something in the objective world, in the social world, which they share and make, and each one makes reference to something in its own subjective world simultaneously’.




Here, we might even see concepts such as Habitus, Field and Capital as providing the foundations for a Bourdieusian ‘communicative competence’; a kind of Bourdieusian ‘language of association’ for those working from this perspective. Here, the individual is somewhat ‘at one’ with the collectivity. So, the suggestion is that ‘social’ world is somehow ‘objective’ – that is, communicable – and thus pertaining to a reality beyond the self, which can be accessed through it. The self and the collectivity become one and the same thing; not just empirically, but in some more ‘heightened’, emancipated realm; that is, not subjective identification. How so?




As noted, in Habermasian epistemology, three epistemological modes are presented – hermeneutic, nomothetic and critical – pertaining to substantive interests: law-giving, interpretive, and emancipatory. However, for Bourdieu, such modes do not just represent implicit epistemological interests but also define and express whole social relations to the world which have practical, ultimately political, consequences. In other words, Bourdieusian science implies a different form of relationship to the world with a different interest. Indeed, the three Habermasian modes are somewhat fused in Bourdieu own praxeological knowledge as he insists on knowledge that shares each corresponding interest: interpretative, law-bound (structural), and emancipatory. Keeping such interests discrete can never amount to communicative action or competence for Bourdieu since each imply a particular scholastic rather than practical understanding of the social world. Hence, the need for reflexivity.




Here, again, it is important to stress that Bourdieu’s theory of practice, begins in practice and ends in practice – the first empirical, the second scientific – its generative principle is therefore practice, as are its conditions of possibility. So, how to achieve this practical gaze of practice in practice expressed in practice?




Clearly, Bourdieu saw data through his own (developing) habitus to the objective conditions of their own creation: so that both need to be considered as the subject and the object of science. This is partly why he argues that researchers must not feign objectivity as some sort of ‘disinterested other’, and would do better to rely on their own subjective experience in understanding ‘the objective’. But not, it must be stressed, subjectivity as the empirical – non-reflexive – self, but ‘scientifically, by thinking in terms of structural relations and developing a language – static – to express a dynamic process. Even so, this is more ontology than epistemology. The consequent understanding is, then, embodied in theory and concepts which are themselves expressed in language: Habitus, field and capital are hence the means to do this. Such theory offers the possibility of understanding but is, of course, itself a practice, which can only be expressed in theory and lived in practice. And, once again, both need to be understood as shaped by Bourdieu’s conceptual language and sharing the substantive interests (his habitus) that partly formed them; in this case, praxeological. This position is consistent with Bourdieu’s view of language. It is, therefore, impossible to understand Bourdieu theory of practice, and his key concepts, without understanding his theory of language.




Language and concepts ….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! For him, as noted earlier, the schemes of perception which individuals hold 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 semantic relations to each other – and partly acquire their meaning in terms of difference and similarity with respect to each other in specific time and place. Sense and meaning, then, are always determined in the interplay between individual meaning and the social context in which language is being expressed. Such contexts are set within social space – often as fields – that is bounded areas of activity: for example, education, culture, politics, etc. Words form a part of such social space and fields and are ultimately used to represent their particular way of thinking. By entering a field (implying a semantic network), a word thus takes on meaning from that field and defines meaning; which itself differs according to its position within the overall field and thus semantic space. The attribution of meaning is therefore also a kind of imposition (originating from the field context) – a kind of transformation and transubstantiation where meaning is changed from one context to another: ‘the substance signified is the signifying form which is realized’ (1991: 143) in practice. In other words, what is signified and signifying is socially co-terminus for Bourdieu; the meaning necessary to a field context is realised in the particular lexical/semantic form. So, words can have one meaning in one context and another elsewhere. It is an imposition because any specific meaning can be projected onto a word – signifying signifier – prior to it being signified as a sign (word).




So, we need to see habitus and field as outside of this, to a certain extent; that is, not relative but somehow ‘scientific’.




We know the world is relational and that language also relational. The question then becomes what is the relationship between the two; and in particular the empirical and scientific world. If they both conform to the same logic, then the language of Bourdieu’s theory of practice is just as relative as any other. Absolute relativity is, of course, at the base of Post-modern philosophy and draws attention to a certain ‘nothing’ behind words. Derrida, for example, criticises any prescribing of meaning by breaking the link between linguistic signifier and signified. We might see the concept similarly is nothing more than a metaphor – an image to convey what lies beneath reality – with no representational truth. Indeed, for Derrida, to do otherwise amounts to nothing more than the philosophical intention to dominate the world through metaphor: that is, to rationalise it; to make it contingent and mastered by rationality. Derrida argues that nothing surpasses metaphor that is not itself metaphoric. Metaphor itself is hence dominated by this metaphoric process, and thus is caught within a sort of self-referential nihilistic spiral of destruction. Poetic analyse, for example, sets out to be equally descriptive and objective; thus, claiming at the same time to be both metaphoric and scientific, rational and rigorous; whilst for Derrida, all are metaphoric. Basically, metaphor cannot master language, thus cannot master a reality beyond words. In sum, language – and the concept – cannot master language – and the concept.




We might as well argue that what is needed is a concept of language which is not language itself, or indeed, a concept of practice which is not itself a practice in understanding practice. Philosophy, as theory of metaphor, will have been first a metaphor of theory. This is why it is so easy to simply metaphorise data with Bourdieu’s concepts. It follows that theory itself can be seen as a metaphor – as an act of seeing. It is therefore important to see Bourdieu’s theory from this perspective of concept as metaphor. The question is, then, does Bourdieu’s concepts escape this self-destruction?




I believe that at this point it is worth revisiting Kant on knowledge and understanding. As we know, Kant’s philosophy attempted to move away from earlier relativist views of knowledge about the external world, as dependent on sense perceptions and/or beliefs. His attempt to found an ‘objective knowledge’ out of metaphysics was aimed at giving scientific status to what otherwise might be considered individual subjective interpretation (Bourdieu’s empirical knowledge). For him, the knowable could only be grasped through the faculties of the mind. These included desire and feeling, but it is the cognitive which is particularly important in this case as it includes imagination, understanding and reason. So, Imagination represents a sense object to the mind and Understanding classifies and orders the data. Reason is then the attempt to understand in terms of these faculties and is unconditional; ideas of reason exist in and through understanding itself.




For Kant, data are ‘sensed’ by the imagination; but a priori knowledge is needed for this; for example, space and time as conditions of existence. Understanding has the power to form concepts about this experience through a priori knowledge; in this way, understanding ‘knows’ – through such concepts as substance, relation, position, etc. Or, indeed, we might add habitus, field, and capital. Thus, representation. This is the ‘transcendental aesthetic’ – literally, sense experience experienced in terms of a priori knowledge. Objects of thought may come as things themselves or representational objects, or indeed the conditions of representation. I am arguing that these conditions of representation can be understood as Bourdieu’s conditions of possibility referred to earlier. In this way, the ‘knowing subject’, for Kant, is replaced by the functioning of consciousness and defines the relation between subject and object.




Of course, Bourdieu somewhat infamously wrote that the divide between objectivity and subjectivity was the most ‘ruinous’ in the social sciences, and also claimed that his intent was to make ‘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’ (1977: 3). Reference the earlier discussion of ‘structure’. It is easy to see why concepts such as habitus and field are central to Bourdieu’s ambition to found such a science, since they mediate the relationship between subject, object and context. The subject-object relation itself rests at the base of phenomenology, the view of structure of which Bourdieu so evidently shares. In the Phenomenology of Perception, for example, Merleau-Ponty writes:




This subject-object dialogue, this drawing together, by the subject, of the meaning diffused through the object, and, by the object, of the subject’s intentions – a process which is physiognomic perception – arranges round the subject a world which speaks to him of himself, and gives his own thoughts their place in the world.




In this way, the world as constituting sense is immanent and speaks to us of ourselves; it is also an ‘embodiment’ – what Bourdieu would refer to as hexis – not simply based in mental activity. In a strange way, ‘I understand the world and it understands’ me’ (pp. 408) – an echo of Pascal, quoted by Bourdieu. This is a clearly a very subtle point: Merleau-Ponty does not intend that the world is sentient, as human. It is subject consciousness that ‘sees’ the world; but this world still ‘calls’ on the subject to know what it already knows, to be conscious of what it is already conscious of. So, this again leads us to a consideration of the nature of consciousness. To this extent, subject-object exist as a single ‘flesh’; they are intimately connected, and one only leaves off where another begins and vice versa. This is not to say that the visible blends into us, or we to it; rather ‘the seer and the visible reciprocate one another and we no longer know which sees and which is seen’ (The Visible and the Invisible, p. 139). The flesh then appears as an element – like water, air, fire and earth – rather than an actual thing: spiritual/ material, mind/ matter, idea of thing.




To return to Kant, when sense data as an object is intuited by imagination, there is a point of intuitive resonance that lies beyond the individual judgement – of right and wrong, for example – and represents the power to form judgments itself: that is, a sense of understanding that is literally beyond knowing, an empathy or identification but of universal assent. How does this come about?




If we take artistic aesthetics, the distinction between sensation and the beautiful is useful here, where the faculty of feeling replaces structure derived from concepts. The beautiful – a sub-set of sense data – is presented to understanding (in time and space) by imagination, but is not converted via conceptual categorisations because non-cognitive feeling accompanies intuition: in other words, non-cognitive feelings replace concepts. Since there is no conceptual categorisation to provide form, what is presented is the power to form conceps itself. A consciousness without anything to be conscious of; it is ‘disinterested’ – that is contemplative rather than cognitive (conceptual/ theoretical). In Kant’s philosophy of art, this is transcendental aestheticsthe disinterested pure gaze – that lies beyond sensation. However, the key point here, for Bourdieu, is that this is not a universal of pure aesthetics, but the reflection of a certain – bourgeois – relationship to the world (see Distinction, 1984): superior, detached, masterful, but empty – a kind of absence because it reflects its own position in the social world (neither one thing or another) – a kind of nothingness.




‘Objective knowledge’ in science might be seen as also sharing the same sense of ‘disinterestedness’: ‘what Bourdieu would call the aspiration of ‘knowledge without a knowing subject’ – Popperian World 3. In this case, it is less that data are presented by imagination to understanding without concepts, but that pre-existing – a priori – concepts provide the power to form. But, here, it is ‘concepts’ with a particular social provenance and relation to the world, and thus interest – positivist. In effect, it is the cognitive effect of the aesthetic side of the bourgeois power to transcend – but, this time through objective knowledge – by asserting not so much the truth but a certain truth which carries with it its own undisclosed interest and thus legitimacy and consecration; this time in the name of reason. We might even say that Knowledge without a knowing subject is akin to the pure aesthetic gaze in its claim to a transcendent objectivity, when it is nothing other than the transcendental sense of the bourgeois intellingentia, and its relative structural position in society: what Bourdieu once described as ‘thoughtless power and powerless thought’. There is an – unreflexive – interest in asserting this knowing and misrecognising its inherent relative relationship to the world.




Bourdieu wants to replace such objective knowledge with reflexive objectivitypractical rationality and praxeological knowledge. Terms like habitus, field and capital therefore need to be embodied and actualised as intense epistemological matrices. There is also an issue here with respect to ‘semantic density’; in other words, they are not just conceptual terms or descriptive metaphors but contain a kind of epistemological ‘genome’ through which sense data are apprehended and understood. In this sense, the ultimate source is not bourgeois nothingness with respect to that certain relationship to society but emancipatory knowledge which again represents a different relationship to society. Habits, field and capital might then be seen as acting as a kind of a mordant between subject and object: an a priori epistemological understanding which conveys the principle of practice instantiated in the present – as they speak to us and of us: to see oneself as habitus, field and capital at the point of seeing and of what is seen. These terms, firstly, carry the notion of contingent understanding. They also stabilise knowledge in a way, which shares many of the features of Popperian theory – predictability, generalizability, open to articulation, useful, and simple. This amounts to an ambition to form a theory of practice that aims to be distinct from both objectivist abstraction, and the intoxicating familiarity of common sense interpretation apprehended in its everyday obviousness.




So, phenomenologically, these concepts seem to define not only what we see but what we can see. The empirical state deploys empirical concepts to make sense of the world; the would-be researcher deploys their own conceptual frame in understanding the object of its research. This is why in it is so important to objectify the construction of the research object since without a reflexive reconstruction it will express a pre-existing scholastic orthodoxy (for itself) rather than the thing (in itself) in praxeological terms. AS noted above, Bourdieu argues that it is necessary to look at the object constructed for the social conditions of possibility of the ‘subject’. We know that the subject is prone to three forms of bias: the conceptual orthodoxy of their field; their own background and position within it; and the very non-empirical relation that the researcher takes up – skholè – vis-à-vis the object of investigation. There hence seem to be two prime ways of doing this. Firstly, to think conceptually of oneself in terms of habitus, field and capital, the very use of which would seem to purge the undertaking of any transcendent, substantialist objectivist (control) in favour of a genuine relational science (emancipatory). Secondly, to place oneself in the field of knowledge in terms of connections with the field of power, connections and relations to the field, and one’s individual personal relationships in terms of habitus and its position and proximity to others.




The difficulty is when the subject makes for themselves an object – in their own image. This is inevitable to a certain extent. However, if that making is carried out in terms of Bourdieusian concepts – praxelogically validated – then, as I have argued, terms such as habitus, field and capital, etc. mediate between subject and object, with a different interest: an interest with a different ethical, value-based generative principle. Consequently, instead of objectifiying an object as an object, the subject sees itself literally in it but not as a subjective mirror of individual empirical identity but an epistemological moment grounded in the same generative principles of practice. In this way, as Bourdieu states it in The Weight of the World (1993), it is less about seeing oneself in another as being ‘able to take up all possible points of view’, recognising that, faced with the same conditions, one would likely be and do the same.. This is not to be every man/ woman, and everyone to be the same but to see the structural relations and principles in exegesis – immanent – which manifest themselves in this way at this particular time and place, knowing that given the same conditions we may well act and be the same. One acknowledges and sees oneself in others and others in oneself and the mark of formative conditions; not as an object-other. Bourdieu calls this knowledge a ‘spiritual exercise’ and a sort of ‘intellectual love’ – a ‘non-violent’ method since it offers no imposition of meaning, no symbolic violence. There is no authority, and the faculty to ‘think things independently’. Clearly, this is not ultimately an individual enterprise but a collective one. It is also a kind of love because it is based on mutual recognition and regard; a high form of attention. It is also the product of Being reflecting on Being in a state of collective social identity. At this point, Bourdieu’s epistemology indeed becomes an ontology. We might call this Objective Subjectivity or Subjective Objectivity, which amount to and are the same. To articulate this level of understanding and knowledge is always a posteriori. But, mostly, it is realised in a process of instantiation. It is also a case of the past and the future literally being in the present, which is, really, the only place they can exist. This is a consciousness or reflexive refraction through Bourdieusian theory of practice and concepts such as habitus, field, and capital. The empirical habitus is scientific and the scientific habitus is empirical. The transcendental sense beyond the power to form concepts then becomes less the Bourgeois sense of nothingness – the pure objective or aesthetic gaze – but the logic of practice itself, which is nothing other than past instantiating itself in the present – a kind of sociological karma. This power to be present.




Ending…..I began this paper by drawing attention to the fact that Bourdieu never really did show us ‘how to do it’ with respect to participant objectivation. And, at this point, I somehow feel I have committed the same illusory trick. Finally, of course, it is not ‘how to do it’ at all but rather ‘how to be it’. The researcher is implicated in his theorising; the gaze is necessarily ‘personal’. For me, it is a theory that is a gaze and a gaze that is expressed in theoretical terms, but one that also furnishes us with a theory that can generate the gaze in practice – if understood in terms beyond the concepts to their generation – in and through practice. The gaze is then subject to the gaze which is subject to the gaze which is subject to the gaze as an kind of internal recurrence, but is not eternally recurrent as it is bounded by reflexive concepts of practice in practice. Basically, we always return to the same principles of practice. Time is the deciding factor here.




At the end of Arthur Miller’s biography Time Bends he writes about looking out at the field behind his house from the writing desk on which he had created so much work. He comments that he looked at the trees, the ones he had seen through so many seasons. And, at one point, a sort of chiasmic reversal takes place as he realises that it is the trees that are looking at him. This is the gaze that lies at the heart of Bourdieu: a subjectivity that does not make of itself an object. A subject that instead sees itself in the object, and the object as an expression of the subject, but this time not empirical and unreflexive but as a ‘scientific’ presence. In the same way, Bourdieu calls on all of us, to see ourselves in society but also society in ourselves; not as two separation events but as co-terminus – the individual and the collectivity – especially as researchers – God and Man. This is not simply an academic or intellectual activity but an expression of truth; a consciousness/ attention that is a higher form of love – identification of same and difference as one and the same thing. We then see social forces of what is potential, impossible and necessary – even what is good and evil. To grasp this, if only for an instant, is beyond words.