Bourdieu’s Metanoia – Book (Genesis)




A new book on Bourdieu   !!??


Anyone who has seen me lecture on Bourdieu in recent years may have heard me confess that ‘I have written an embarrassing amount’ on his work; indeed, he has somewhat dominated my professional (if not personal) life. One audience member once asked me if I had perhaps got ‘too close’ to him!



I also sometimes talk about the contrast between the first and last time I met with him. The first was in 1980, La distinction had recently been published and he was in London at the French Institute in South Kensington to give a talk on its main findings and arguments. After the discussion, there was cocktail party upstairs. Here, I noticed that he stood on his own in a corner while most of the Kensington socialites went about their social business. I approached him and introduced myself as a recently graduated student in French studies. To say it was like we already knew each other would be an understatement. It soon became apparent that even though we came from different generations and cultural environments, we saw the world in much the same way. It took me years to work out why…..



The last we met was a year or so before his untimely death. I had been in Paris with him the days before. But, the final meeting was again at the French Institute in London where we both participated in a colloque on Intellectuals. This time, whenever there was a break, it was impossible to get anywhere near him to talk: he was surrounded by a crowd, much in the manner of a film or pop star.



All this by way of saying, ‘I have experienced the ‘Bourdieu phenomenon’, and have lived the way interest in his work and ideas has mushroomed over the years, and seems to continue unabated some 20 plus years after his untimely death. This piece on my new book on Bourdieu is offered in something like the same spirit as his own Sketch for a self-analysis (2007/ 2004)*.



After our meeting in London, I was invited to go to the École des hautes études en science sociales and the Collège de France in Paris as a visiting scholar for extended periods of time, which I was able to do three times over the years. But, I first encountered his work in the 1970s when I was an undergraduate studying French in London.



At that time, he was just another French sociologist on a general sociology course. There were others available for our reading: Touraine, Crozier, Boudin, Dumazdier – not to mention all the major ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sociologists. However, I could immediately see that what Bourdieu was offered went beyond many of the ‘classical’ debates we were asked to address in our assignments: direction versus control, structure versus agency, subject and object, state and society – not to mentions the so-called ‘oppositions’ between the ‘acknowledged’ founding fathers of sociology – Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Fired by reading Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (1968), I was already ‘thinking dialectically’ and looking to go beyond these rather arid debates.



During my undergraduate studies, and as part of an interest in exploring the relationship between socio-historic structures and ideas, I presented a thesis on the French non-conformist intellectuals of the 1930s and 40s – not a group with whom Bourdieu was terribly sympathetic. As part of this work, I read Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977/ 1972), and surmised from page 3 that his was an epistemological project: the intention to ‘break, ‘rupture’ and ‘refuse’ with conventional approaches in the social sciences was everywhere apparent in this work; although the dynamic needed for the kind of ‘epistemological vigilance’ expounded by Bourdieu did not really arrive ‘live’ until decades later when film of his discussions with Jean-Claude Passeron finally made it to YouTube:



What I describe underlies various important issues. Firstly, that Bourdieu had been thinking philosophically from the outset in developing his sociology. Questions of reflexivity and ‘the construction of the research object’ were therefore central to this project – questions largely passed over by many researchers in applications of his work for decades to come. It is still something of an ‘elephant in the living room’, even amongst those most sympathetic to his ideas. Secondly, it shows how lines of communication both hindered, helped and then hindered again reception of his work. Hindered since a large part of his early work was not translated until years later – much of it still has not been. Slowly texts did become available to an English speaking audience from the 1970s. But, these translations then hindered again by their quality – indeed, even the best were open to gross misinterpretation when rendered into English – and the order in which they appeared. The Craft of Sociology (itself a dubious translation of the original title Le métier de sociologue), his major statement of philosophy and method from 1968, took 23 years to appear in English!  Later, Bourdieu would appeal for a ‘socio-genesis’ in reading his work: that is, with reference to the times they were produced.



What I did gleam from my early engagement with the Outline was that Jean-Paul Sartre and Claude Lévi-strauss – both high-flying public intellectuals in France in the 1950s and 60s – personified Bourdieu’s objection to ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ paradigms. He had asserted the need to go beyond these – but how!?



I next came up face-to-face with Bourdieu’s work when I enrolled for teacher training. I found that here he was already fully recognized as that ‘cultural capital man’ who, along with Britain’s own Basil Bernstein, were key figures in the foundations of the ‘new’ sociology of education as embodied in Michael Young’s seminal edited volume, Knowledge and Control (1971). The inclusion of two papers by Bourdieu (which – note – dated back to 1966 and 1967) had been highly influential. The appearance of Reproduction (1977/ 1970 – seven years to translate note!) only accelerated Bourdieu’s standing in the education world. The mood was radical: everywhere, there were a plethora of publications which included words such as ‘ideology’, ‘resistance’, ‘capitalism’, ‘power’, ‘identity’ and ‘social class’ in their titles. Reading more widely, I noted a similar infusion of Bourdieu’s ideas into discipline areas such as Media and Cultural Studies. Richard Nice, his main translator at the time, referred to him as a ‘vulgar Marxist’. But, was he?



What became clear subsequently was that although known in an Anglo-Saxon world primarily as ‘Sociologist of Education’ or a ‘Cultural theorist’, his main perspectives were much broader than this and based around anthropology and philosophy.



No-one read – indeed, had available to them in English! – the voluminous work he had already published by the 1970s on Algeria and the Béarn. This led to a severe misreading of his work. So, whilst educationalists were happy to assimilate his ideas into the directions that educational theory and research were to take in the 1980s, these directions were neither where he was coming from nor travelling. A good example, is again the use of ‘reflexivity’ used by educationalists at this time. Much of this had taken inspiration from Donald Schön’s The Reflective Practitioner (1983). His thesis of an ‘epistemology of practice’, or ‘practice as an art’ chimed favourably with a teaching profession seeking to assert its autonomy with its commitments to ‘pupil-centred learning’, if not the radical notion of ‘de-schooling’. Yet, it is arguable that Schön’s thesis bore little resemblance to Bourdieu’s own ‘reflexivity’, with its principles of the ‘observer observed’ and ‘participant objectivation’. Nor would Bourdieu share the excesses that some educationalists – at least in the UK – moved into under the influence of designated so-called post-modernists: Lyotard, Ricoeur, Derrida, Foucault (perhaps above all) and Deleuze. For Bourdieu, post-modernism was both reactionary and dangerous. See, for more:



(Also, Grenfell, 2004, 2007 below).



As part of my teacher training, I did a long essay that tackled this whole subject/ object question in education; both between the acknowledged sociological founding fathers, educational ‘foundational disciplines’ (History, philosophy, sociology and psychology), and the type of ethnographic research that became popular in the 1980s and veered, so it seemed to me, between the ‘micro’ and the ‘macro’.



It is probably at a theoretical/ philosophical level that Bourdieu could have illuminated these debates, but educationalists were keen to operationalize ‘culture capital’ in practice according to their own ambitions. Therefore, key aspects of what Bourdieu was doing were overlooked: that education was simply one social institution that he was investigating as part of an enquiry into the nature of the French Republic; that school only contributed to the reproduction of social hierarchies – others also did; that his principle preoccupation was with symbolic power and how it was constituted, distributed and deployed in society.  In the same decade Bourdieu was publishing articles on other social institutional bodies; the Law, the Church, Fashion, Sport, Literature and culture. 



Nevertheless, my generation of newly qualified teachers were keenly aware of the way ‘cultural capital’ operated in the classroom: of how school knowledge was both presented to and demanded from pupils in forms that were incongruous with the way individuals related to language and culture in their own backgrounds. This agenda also resonated with the work of Basil Bernstein on Codes (elaborated/ restricted) and the way knowledge was ‘framed’ that allowed for and defined boundary permeability.



Lots of educational research in the 1980s nevertheless proceeded as based around pupil background (habitus) and classroom ethnographies. Some of this was overtly radical; other was more pedagogically orientated, for example, the law of two-thirds in Douglas Barnes’ research: That two-thirds of classroom action was language based; that two thirds of this was the teacher speaking; that two thirds of this was questioning – and of a closed sort at that. But, few seemed to actually consider the structure of the education field itself, at either a micro-, meso- or macro- level – or, indeed, the nature of ‘structure’ (in terms of symbolic capital for Bourdieu) itself and its homologous relations between these levels.



But, the 1980s were a rich decade for the teaching profession: there was a confidence in the air, INSET courses abounded, opportunities mushroomed. For myself, I signed up for a post-graduate Masters course in Applied Linguistics in London (teaching was delivered two evenings per week). Here, I was to encounter a now familiar opposition between the two paradigmatic options that Bourdieu had already summed up as ‘subjectivist’ and ‘objectivist’.  On the ‘objectivist’ side, there was transformatory grammar based on Chomskyan linguistics – a paradigm, which had dominated linguistics since its appearance in the 1950s (and still does actually!); and on the ‘subjectivist’ side there was socio-psycholinguistics. I say this, but the objectivist side also included such disciplines as ‘Language Variation’, ‘Sociolinguistics’ and ‘Psycholinguistics’ – and others! On the subjectivist, there was ethnomethodology, and speech-act theory.  What was clear to me was that both were all trapped inside a positivist view of the world best predicated by Popper’s version of science and theory. Reflexivity did not play much of a part here. Analysis and observation were seen as stable, and theory, in as much as it was formulated, was liable to Popper’s view of the need for ‘falsification’ as grounds for its ‘scientific’ legitimation. In terms of linguistic ethnographies, ‘participant observation’ was all the rage, and accepted as an adequate approach to the study of social discourse. When Bourdieu published Ce que parler veut dire (1982), a modified version of which came out in English as Language and Symbolic Power (1991), linguists, therefore, seemed to take offence at what he wrote about their ‘science’, and so chose to ignore him – and have pretty much continued to do so ever since.



By now I was going to Paris often and was in regular contact with Bourdieu. Luckily for me, a Frenchman – Michel Blanc, an associate of Bourdieu’s – was also Head of the Linguistics Department in London. He was able to appreciate where I was coming from and understood the continental philosophy I drew upon. My Masters thesis was on an analysis of a sociolinguistic corpus that had been collected in Orléans, France in 1968. I still remember the day when a dusty cupboard in the corridor in the University of London was opened up for me and I was confronted with literally hundreds of big reel-to-reel tapes. The project had been a major undertaking, and financed by the French government. A large team had carried out a series of open and closed language-based questionnaires with over one hundred of the population of Orléans – a sample across socio-economic categories. I set about doing my own analysis of a sample of the corpus in discussion with Michel and Bourdieu. It entailed long, time-consuming, laborious counts of such linguistic features as elision, liaison, pragmatics, and coherence, as well as the content of discussions about view of language and its operations. These, I ended up expressing in terms of linguistic capital with relation to social/ economic capital (see Grenfell, 2011) in order to depict the way variation could be traced across the social hierarchy. This was not just a ‘description’ as was the norm in sociolinguistics but attempted to show something of the dynamic of language in use, both individually and across social encounters. However, in the course of doing this work and presenting it, I came to realize how strong disciplinary orthodoxies were in academia and how much resistance there was amongst it representatives to any form of auto-critique of their constructions of the linguistic sciences. Michel Blanc was on my side. Other lecturers on the course were positively hostile to it; one even tried to sanction the Pass with Distinction that I finally achieved.



In the Orléans study, I had more or less done what became the norm in using Bourdieu in research across the social sciences: that is, a fairly conventional data collection and analysis to which Bourdieusian terms were applied by way of interpretation and discussion. However, in reading further such books as Le métier, L’Esquisse and Le sens pratique, I realized this was not enough – that there was more to ‘doing’ Bourdieusian science.



And, then, my own epiphany!



I was sat in the library of the École normale supérieure in Paris one day reading, when it suddenly came to me: ‘Bourdieu was a phenomenologist!’. I immediately went and asked him about this. ‘Yes’, he said ‘as a student I read Husserl and Merleau-Ponty all the time: also Schütz’. We then also discussed his own early Masters work (incomplete) on a phenomenological study of the affective life, and the inadequacies of phenomenological essentialism; that is, its lack of ‘the social’.



But, it is worth noting: by then, I had already been studying Bourdieu for some years – and had not really seen the importance of phenomenology in it. Such is the power of conventional thinking, how it infects and shapes what we see – what we can see – and the amount of work (personal struggle) it takes to break from it.



I took this epiphany back to my own doctoral studies which, whilst using Bourdieu, were subsequently built around a ‘social’ phenomenology of students studying to become teachers. Here, I employed a range of discourse strategies to go beyond the objectivism of ‘observation’, interviewing, transcribing and ethnographic description. At the basis of this was the dichotomy of theory and practice itself that I had first encountered in the 1970s and the nature of a theory of practice – at least as a beginning.



Bourdieu’s work and method had been discussed in articles since the earliest days. However, by the time the 1990s came around, book length discussions began to appear. Bourdieu and I would talk about these and laugh at the claims and counter claims made in his name: ‘Bourdieu needed…’, ‘Bourdieu was happy to….’, ‘Bourdieu sought…..’, ‘Bourdieu failed….’, ‘Bourdieu avoided…..’, ‘Bourdieu has met his Brutus’, etc., etc., etc. At one point later, I summed these up as ‘uses’ and ‘abuses’, as they seemed to say so much more about the writer than Bourdieu himself (see Grenfell, 2010).



For myself, it was a time of travelling back and forth between France and the UK, and having lots of fun in doing so! Indeed, working with Bourdieu and his ideas felt like rock-n’-roll: we thought we were going to change the world with this way of thinking and seeing. Of course, the whole Parisian Left Bank atmosphere of intellectualism at the time was highly intoxicating for a young researcher – Rue des écoles was my centre of gravity, Le Sorbon bar: existentialism was still in the air as well as the bohemian life style associated with it – cafés, restaurants, music, film .



Yet, as Bourdieu and his approach became more well-known to an English-speaking world, something seemed to go wrong. Before, in the absence of translation, it was satisfying to be someone bringing back and translating these ideas – ‘spreading the word’ to my own academic world. But, as commercial translations proliferated, confusion set in. It was obvious that a lot of the discussion of Bourdieu and his work was often made by individuals who had never actually attempted to ‘apply’ it in practical contexts, that is, work though what was involved in real-life situations. There again, and ironically, following on from my entreaties to use the Bourdieu’s approach, when it was adopted, it seemed to me to be used wrongly. I consequently moved from being an evangel for this way of doing research to a ’party pooper’ – an insidious position.



In response to this trend, I attempted to formulate the essential elements of doing research à la Bourdieu. I set this out as three phases and three stages:



3 Phases of Bourdieusian Method


  1. Construction of the Research Object
  2. Field Analysis
  3. Participant Objectivation



3 Levels of Field Analysis


  1. The Field and the Field of Power
  2. The Field
  3. The Habitus of those in the Field.         



(see Grenfell, 2014, chapter 13)



Of course, neither Phases nor Levels should be seen as linear; rather they are worked on co-terminously. However, they should all form part of the research operation. I found in practice, that students and researchers so easily got sucked into their disciplinary orthodoxies. There was then little attention given to ‘the construction of the research object’. ‘Participant objectivation’ was practically non-existent. And, ‘field analysis’ seemed to lead to contextualized discussion of biographical variation in the name of habitus. A clichéd version of this approach would be: ‘Yes, we construct the research object in planning our methodology, and are self-aware – so that is Phase 1 and 3 accounted for. Habitus is biography, and field is context – so, yes, we do that as well’. Here, there was/ is little attempt to get to the epistemological issues behind these terms and to see the implications they have for research method.  Bourdieu’s analytic terms were, after all, ‘epistemological matrices’, not mere metaphoric descriptors. Nor were there systematic accounts of field structural relations – what I called ‘mapping the field’. What was offered instead seemed to be a weak form of constructivism.



My conclusion, in reading countless student and research texts, is that it is very difficult the ‘apply’ Bourdieu. So, what is the alternative?



Going back to the beginning, I was struck by something once explained to me by Bourdieu: about his own epiphany. This was when, having been obliged by his teaching post to lecture on Durkheim – ‘nothing could be worse’, he stated – he saw that what was necessary was to study social phenomena in relation – that is, as a whole (see Bourdieu and Grenfell, 2019). His own epistemological view was consequently a synthesis of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, not an adoption of one or the other. Moreover, his readings of these was already heavily influenced by his philosophical background: the epigraph to the Outline from Marx’s thesis on Feuerbach is just one example of this; Le métier also with its discussions of Bachelard, Koyré, Canguilhem, and Wittgenstein – to name but a few. 



Despite this theoretical matrix, two foundational, practical contexts were immediately obvious to me in reading across his oeuvre, and I used them as a point de depart  for my PB: Agent Provocateur book (Grenfell, 2004). The first arose from his Algerian experiences: in particular, the new ‘class’ of individuals he saw in urban towns – Western dress, entrepreneurial, mobile, ‘modern’. The second was a Christmas Ball in his home village, and his observations of a group of men who were not dancing – ‘the bachelors’. In both cases, there is the somewhat naïve questions: ‘who are these individuals?’, ‘what made them?’, ‘what is their ‘suffering’?’. These may seem somewhat simplistic questions – in the same way his later work asked, ‘what is a ‘student?’, ‘what is the French Republic?’. Maybe they now seem lacking in intellectual and theoretical rigor. However, we can see from Bourdieu’s subsequent work the depth of analysis that was necessary for him to undertake in answering them: the voluminous work on Algeria, the detailed analyses in the Béarn – the use of both ethnographic and statistical methods. Also, how necessary it was for him to revisit his findings and probe them further: I am thinking of the whole Algerian works and how they were re-viewed in the Esquisse and Le sens pratique; and, similarly, how his work on the Béarnais bachelor farmers was addressed again in these books and subsequent papers (1962, 1972, 1989). As Bourdieu wrote, it took him ‘ten years to be able to see the world through the eyes of an Algerian peasant’. Again, there is the suggestion of the amount of work necessary – much of it personally challenging – in order to ‘break’ from pre-set ways of seeing the world. This effort to develop such a view is at the base of my Bourdieu’s Metanoia book.



The research methods he adopted in these earliest publications were then repeated and extended in subsequent works, often creating a presentational ‘discursive montage’. Later, Multiple Correspondence Analysis was also adopted in order to represent a ‘relational view’. Such obliged a different response from the reader – holistic rather than linear/ rationalistic. It is important to stress, however, that it is out of the above primary, foundational experiences of real life – the intensity of engagement – that Bourdieu’s concepts emerged as ‘logically necessitated’ by the data collected; that is, not rationally justified by analysis from a particular theoretical point of view.



This was a developing approach that I brought subsequently to my own empirical research projects in education, music, the fine arts, biography, literature, physical culture, philosophy, economics and politics (see indicative bibliography). This work required more than a professional engagement, it needed a critical personal involvement as well, so that the researcher is not so much some objective viewer but becomes part of the method and analysis at an exegetic level. This connection is deeply philosophical and puts into question the very relationship the researcher holds with their object of research – how they ‘view’, ‘construct’ it and the implication this has for interpretation and understanding.



At one point, Bourdieu talked to me about there being two Bourdieus: the ‘empirical’ one and the ‘scientific’ one. Empirically, he said, he was like everyone else; he was nervous, unsure, irritated. Scientifically, however, he could objectify the ‘empirical Bourdieu’ and his reactions – ‘why is Bourdieu angry?’, etc. Importantly, he also explained that in time, the ‘scientific Bourdieu’ could influence and shape the ‘empirical Bourdieu’; to give back to him the meaning of his actions; to create something like an ‘authentic subject’. Moreover, he argued, this method, this approach, was available to everyone.



This personal dimension is more important in a continental than an Anglo-Saxon philosophical tradition. In fact, it again took me a long time to acknowledge that Bourdieu arose from a Republic itself founded on the Age of Enlightenment. The mission here was somehow ‘man’s (sic) improvement – a modernist project. ‘Freedom’ – what it is, how to find it, etc. – is central to such a project, as evidenced by a range of French philosophers; most recently Jean-Paul Sartre for Bourdieu, even if this is someone he did not particularly admire. Bourdieu’s own version is to be achieved through sociology – but, his sociology.



What we can take as central from his approach, consequently, is that Bourdieu’s philosophy and method are based on an epistemology that implies an ontology – a change of ‘being’ and thus ‘seeing’ the world. ‘To see’ with Bourdieu consequently implies a certain ‘transformation’ in the seer… It is in this sense that it is never enough, therefore, to apply Bourdieu, one has to be/ see with him.



This argument is foundational to the Bourdieu’s Metanoia book. It leads the reader through Bourdieu’s oeuvre, from the earliest publications (Algeria, the Béarn) to the latest and posthumous ones. We see the developing view he takes on the world emerging from his analyses of a range of social contexts and institutions: cultural establishments, Law, Education, Religion, Sport, Fashion, Fine art, Literature, politics, economics. What arises from this breadth of this work is both common and particular to the instance. So, Bourdieu’s juxtaposition of traditional and modern society demonstrates how each are governed by a ruling ethos that shapes the way people relate to the world. However, in each case, we also see how this ethos is instantiated in a wholly individual way, depending on time and place. The implication is that in order to go beyond surface differences, one has to get behind appearances to the underlying generating structures, and both the principles that formed them and the conditions of the formation of the latter.



Clearly, to cultivate a ‘how’ to see in this way takes time, and I have written something of the time that I – in the footsteps of Bourdieu – took to penetrate beyond that common sensual view I had inherited from my own empirical and professional habitus. In one publication, and wishing to avoid the ‘you are not doing it right’ attitude/ judgment with respect to working in this way, I expressed this ‘developmental’ way of working and seeing as a series of ‘levels’ – from the en passant to the ‘way-beyond’ Bourdieu; this as a way of offering support to those working with his method. The levels are an attempt to make explicit where we each stand in any individual piece of work with respect to a continuum from a ‘basic’ to a more ‘advanced’ use of Bourdieu. By knowing where we are, we might perhaps be able to move on to the next level:



  • Level 1: Use of Key Concepts – for example, habitus, field, capital – to animate a narrative;
  • Level 2: Planning a Research Project systematically from a Bourdieusian theory of A common focus here begins with the biographical and qualitative analysis (habitus) and works up.
  • Level 3: A more Critical Approach to Research Object Construction – a sustained attempt to map the fieldand fields within fields, with greater use of quantitative methods. The focus here often begins with the field and its relationship within fields and works down to habitus.
  • Level 4: A greater consolidation of the 3 phases and the 3 levels described above with a more sustained reflexive relationship – participant objectivation – to the research.
  • Level 5: Developing a fully formed praxeological attitude to all aspects of research activity.
  • Level 6: Internalising the theory of practice at an indivdual subjective level: the epsistemology becomes an individual ontology. The empirical habitus is increasingly superceded by the scientific habitus: at this point, the carriers of the epsietomology – the key concepts – begin to fade.
  • Level 7: Emergence of Reflexive Objectivity as a singular and group consciousness – a metanoia on the world.
  • Level 8: …….



(see Grenfell and Pahl, 2019)




Of course, these levels represent those that I travelled through myself; although the later ones are, of course, on-going.



I write here of ‘levels’ but they can never, of course, be substantialised in this way – any more than Bourdieu’s own concepts can be. Rather, they are operationalized in practice. Similarly, I have here written, rather loosely perhaps, of a Bourdieusian ‘method’ but ipso facto what I state here can never be – a method that is. Rather it is a view, which implies a certain relation to the world. Some readers of Bourdieu picked up on this idea instinctively and have referred to using Bourdieu as looking at social phenomena though a ‘Bourdieusian lens’. However, even this still presupposes questions about the nature and construction of that lens.



The current book has, therefore, arisen from personal odyssey, simply sketched out in this brief ‘Genesis’ piece – perhaps one that paralleled Bourdieu’s own journey. That is why perhaps it was only towards the end of his career that he began talking about ‘reflexivity’ in personal terms; to put it crudely, ‘my work was all about me’, ‘of me objectifying the social forces that impinge upon me’. If we cannot exactly escape from them, we have the opportunity to in some ways understand them and, in such an understanding, change our relationship to them. In other words, we cannot change the world but we can change our relationship to it. Such a change requires a practical engagement, objectification, and then objectification of that objectification – endlessly.



It is in the way that the sort of science that Bourdieu offers is somewhat ‘out of time’: that is, for example, it develops an understanding but one that is only understood in the act of understanding. To see the whole in the particular and the particular in the whole: this is so with Bourdieu’s concepts such as habitus and field, etc., as any one implies all the others. Unity in multiplicity. In the book, I connect such a philosophy with Spinoza, Goethe, and Heidegger amongst others – also, the nature of language and its effects. We see Bourdieu ruminating in the light of Merleau-Ponty as to whether or not something exists if there is not a word for it. By implication, is there truly a personal world of thinking – even in its most unconscious – or is everything ultimately social? Such a question takes us further into the link between sociology and psychology for Bourdieu.



All this is expressed in language and language about language. I argue that Bourdieu’s concepts also act as a kind of epistemological mordant between the subject and the object, the concrete and the invisible, theory and practice, knowing and sensing. Ultimately, therefore, his might be understood as a sociology of the invisible in seeking to understanding the foundational moral forces that co-constitute thought and action as exemplified in the distinction between the previous, traditional world and the current late capitalistic one. In each case, we primarily are concerned with the nature of the relationship between the subject and object.



Here again, the book refers to the way Merleau-Ponty writes of this relationship as ‘a flesh’, and indeed of the ‘object’ looking back at the ‘subject’. This kind of inversion is also central to Bourdieu’s view: where the fieldlooks back at the habitus and the habitus looks back at its own objectifications in understanding the dynamic of relations – and why – as they unfold. This discussion takes us back into Kantian aesthetics, the relationships between sociology, psychology and philosophy, and such foundational phenomena as imagination, understanding, sensation, rationality – in a word, the noumenal and the phenomenal. What such resultant insights provide practically are then grasped – even torn out of, to use Bourdieu’s words – from the instance, not ultimately revealed in rational discourse. Such makes reading and writing all the more a question of epistemological vigilance in terms of exegesis and representation. Indeed, approached from orthodox, linear rationality, the ‘holistic’ view that Bourdieu’s Metanoia argues for will always repel those who find something in the data – or even an (out of context) statement made by Bourdieu – with which to object to in this way of working and challenge the authenticity of seeing the world in this way. Any Bourdieusian text hence requires an epistemological reading in keeping with its epistemological derivation. 



I have been happy to ground this book first and foremost in Bourdieu’s empirical work and the issues of analysis and explication that arose at the time of the emergence of each piece – that is, rather than get lost in theoretical speculation.  The whole does indeed lead to an exemplification ultimately of what is this metanoia and how we can also see in this way. However, having covered this material, I was left with a final summative chapter of some 45000 words in which I set out the philosophy of this metanoia and its practical implications, both personally and professionally: that is half of the length of the rest of the book. Clearly, this would not do – the publisher would never accept this. So, the chapter content got reduced to a fraction of its original size, to something more acceptable to the orthodoxy of publishing. The original – and even extended – version of this chapter is published as an appendix to the book – in this Blog



The resultant series of ‘reflections’ in chapter 9 are nevertheless intended to be no less radical. The book aims to set out what it is to see the social world – and indeed one’s personal world – through the eyes of Bourdieu. And, how to do it. It is necessarily academic and offers challenges for all those involved in the very same disciplines that Bourdieu – and myself! – have passed through. The book then concludes with a Postscript that further lists principles, refutations, and axioms directed to those who would wish to see in this way and operationalise it in practical projects and contexts.



However, there then follows an Afterword where I return to the personal  – what does all this mean to me?

I realized after many years that the reason why it seemed that Bourdieu and I already knew each at our first encounter was because we had the same habitus: Not in actual biographical detail, of course, since years and cultures separated us, but in the position we both occupied with respect to our individual social milieus – it marginality even – what gave rise to it and what were its consequences for us each personally.



Often, when I speak about Bourdieu in public, I find some in my audience can get quite emotional about what I say. Perhaps this is because they sense – with me – that Bourdieu is writing about them (us), about their (our) lives, how it is the way they (we) are, and how they (we) might change and develop from a socially defined way of living to one that is possibly best described as praxeological. The knowledge his philosophy finally results in being a kind of reflexive objectivity; those who approach the world in this way might even be seen to be praxeological agents – working under cover in the orthodox world.



The book consequently ends by addressing the opportunity Bourdieu provides to see in this way in the moment of living it  and hence actually seeing it for what it is. In the book, I call this continual unfolding of the personal social world a kind of ‘social karma’, since everything we say, think and do has immediate consequence, which in turn shapes the next thing, and the next thing after that – a kind of Sisyphus way of life. I suggest that a Bourdieu metanoia allows us to grasp that moment and see the inherent possibilities of interest and freedom enshrined within them – that we might do otherwise. In this there is a kind of ‘sociological liberation’ from the destiny of fatalist social determinism – up to a point. This is a possibility, therefore, that is offered at each instance: to see the world and ourselves in a different way.



Clearly, it is one thing to understand this, still another to operationalize it, still another to ‘miss the moment, and yet another again to notice this ‘missed moment’ and not regret it. There is, then, a continual offering up here, as well as the tragedy of the ‘lost moment’ (which never comes again); the opportunity of regret at having lost it, and willingness to do something about it – next time.



In this way, and in writing this book, I realized finally that I have used Bourdieu’s philosophy of life – in my life – to express something of my own philosophy of life. I hope the reader finds enough in it to do something likewise themselves.  





‘In Classical Greek, metanoia meant changing one’s mind about something or

someone. When personified, Metanoia was depicted as a shadowy goddess, cloaked and

sorrowful, who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring

repentance for the ‘missed moment’. This conventional portrayal continued through the

Renaissance. The elements of repentance, regret, reflection and transformation are always

present in the concept of metanoia to some degree…’






* My practice is to give references first of the English translation (where available) and then the original French.




Indicative Bibliography


Grenfell, M (2004) Pierre Bourdieu: Agent Provocateur. London: Continuum.


Grenfell, M (2006) ‘Bourdieu in the Field: from the Béarn to Algeria – a Timely Response’, French Cultural Studies, 17, 2, 223 – 40.


Grenfell, M (2007) Bourdieu, Education and Training. London: Continuum.


Grenfell, M (2010) ‘Working with habitus and field: the logic of Bourdieu’s practice’ in: E. Silva and A. Warde (Eds.) Cultural Analysis and Bourdieu’s Legacy: Settling Accounts and Developing Alternatives, London: Routledge, pp. 14-27. 


Grenfell, M (2011) Bourdieu, Language and Linguistics. London: Continuum.


Grenfell, M (ed.) (2014a) Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.


Grenfell, M (2014b) ‘Capital conversion in post-modern economies’, in A. Christoforou and M. Lainé (eds.) Re-thing Economics: Exploring the Work of Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge.


Grenfell, M (2014c) ‘Interest’ in M. Grenfell (2014a), ch.9.


 Grenfell, M (2015a) ‘Balises pour une morphologie social de l’art contemporain en Grande Bretagne’, in J. Dubois, P. Durand and Y.Winkin (eds.) Le symolique et le social. Liège: Presses universitaires de Liège, pp. 223-234.


Grenfell, M (2015b) ‘Bourdieu and physical culture’, in L. Hunter, W. Smith and E. Emerald (eds.) Pierre Bourdieu and Physical Culture. London: Routledge. 


Grenfell, M (2018) ‘Bourdieu, Bahktin and the Aesthetics of the Carnivalesque’,  Axon 2018


Grenfell, M (2019) ‘Bourdieu, language-based ethnographies, and reflexivity: In theory and practice, in Grenfell, M and Pahl, K Bourdieu, Language-based Ethnographies, and Reflexivity, pp. 149 – 172.


Grenfell, M (2023) Bourdieu: Then and Now! London: Bloomsbury.


Grenfell, M and Hardy, C (2007) Art Rules: Pierre Bourdieu and the Visual Arts. Oxford: Berg.


Grenfell, M and Hardy, C (2010) ‘Snaps! Bourdieu and the Field of Photographic Art’, International Journal of Arts in Society, 5, 1, pp. 49-62.


Grenfell, M, Bloome, D, Hardy, C, Pahl, K, Rowsell, J, Street, B (2012) Language, Ethnography and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. New York: Routledge.


Grenfell, M and Lebaron, F (2014) Bourdieu and Data Analysis. Bern: Lang.


Grenfell, M and Pahl, K (2019) Bourdieu, Language-based Ethnographies and Reflexivity. New York: Routledge.


Bourdieu, P (with M. Grenfell) (2019) Encontres 1. Canberra, Australia: Centre for Creative and Cultural Research.