Reflecting in/ on Field Theory in Practice

Reflecting in/ on Field Theory in Practice

Michael Grenfell

University of Southampton, UK



The ideas of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu are now used in several disciple areas and on many diverse projects. As a result, his methods and concepts are employed in a very wide range of uses. In this article, I want to return us to issues of method; in particular, the strength and integrity of the concepts offered by him and what it is to use them. I do this by considering their provenance and issues of language between theory and practice in working with them. The paper reflects on field theory in practice and indeed what reflexivity means within it and in its terms.



For those of us who have worked with Bourdieu and his methods – for some decades now – one of the key aspects that this endeavor has had to face is the way that the prominence of his ideas has grown throughout that time, and with that a proliferation of adaptations and ‘extensions’ of them. Of course, in many ways, this is to be celebrated and attests to the value of the work. However, I want to revisit the original context of his ideas, how they arose and the implications these have for our own work with them in terms of reflexivity and method.



Bourdieu first came to the attention of scholars in what he often referred to as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’, English-speaking academic world as somewhat of a ‘vulgar Marxist’ cultural critic and as a sociologist of education’ (see Bredo and Feinberg, 1979; DiMaggio, 1979; Young, 1971). For the former, his work on museums and photography formed part of a reassessment of cultural norms and practices, and the values underpinning them. For the latter, he was the ‘cultural capital’ man who, along with British based sociologists such as Basil Bernstein, showed up how clashes between the cultures of school and home actively led to differences of academic achievement which, ultimately, contributed to the reproduction of social classes. In this early period at least, the two constituencies were often distinct despite sharing a concern with the nature and operations of culture as each defined it (and let us remember that Bourdieu’s own use of the term is particular – see Bourdieiu, 1971a). Both read Bourdieu with little reference to his voluminous work on Algeria carried out in the 1950s and early 60s. If we had done so, we may have understood better the ways that culture for him was not just an adjunct of society but synonymous with it, and what that meant in terms of research method and practice.



Certainly, the significance of this early work in shaping the later work is now appreciated much more with a number of readers on Bourdieu and his work appearing in recent years (for example, Grenfell, 2004). It did not help at the time that so little of the earlier work was translated into English – much of it is still not – or, that when it did appear (for example, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 1977/72), it did so with significant cuts from the empirical data that were used in the original to substantiate the arguments presented. With a more comprehensive reading of these, such extended texts as Distinction (1984/79), The Logic of Practice (1990/80), Homo Academicus (1988/84) and The State Nobility (1996/89) might have been less shocking, as might the range of topics Bourdieu was covering – economics, politics, philosophy, gender, art, literature, religion, fashion, media, etc. Of course, the former are each large tomes and they took some time to digest, and in relation to each other – even once the translation arrived. The Sociologist’s Craft – a major statement of the methodological approach Bourdieu was adopting – did not appear until 1991, even though it was first published in France in 1968.



I make these points, not to be a bibliographic pedant but to raise issues about what Bourdieu himself referred to as ‘the social conditions of production’ of cultural artifacts and, thus, how they are received and interpreted – ultimately used. He warned about dangers of the ‘international circulation of ideas’ (1999) and, in interviews I did with him (Bourdieu and Grenfell, 1995), quoted J. B Thompson approvingly that English-speaking academics sometimes catch French ideas like ‘French flu’ – from which they most certainly need curing! Elsewhere, he pleads for a ‘sociogenetic’ reading of his work (1993); one which builds in contextual elements of provenance and construction.


This line of argument clearly risks discarding any application or extension of Bourdieu’s ideas as ‘inauthentic’ if not built on both a comprehensive reading of his entire oeuvre AND the intellectual French tradition from which it emerged. Clearly, such a position would be foolish and unwarranted. Nevertheless, there is something to be said about Bourdieu’s own relationship to theory and practice, how one evolved from the other, and how analytical concepts emerged from this work which may help us in guiding our own; especially with respect to that most elusive of dimensions – reflexivity.



It is commonly recognized that Bourdieu underwent somewhat of an intellectual epiphany when faced with the shock of being transported into the Colonial war then playing out in Algeria in the 1950s; and from which his first publication emerged (1958). This experience clearly meant that Bourdieu the philosopher had to ‘make sense’ of a practical reality of what was occurring at that time and place. However, the kind of epistemological epiphany on which his entire work is based came a little while later:



When I came back from Algeria, I was an assistant at the Sorbonne and Aron said to me, ‘You are a Normalien, you can teach Durkheim’. And, for me, that was terrible – to have to teach Durkheim. Nothing could be worse! I had read Durkheim as a student – The Rules of Method. Then, I had to read it again to teach it and it began to interest me because it could help me with my empirical work on Algeria. Mauss even more. Then, I went on to Weber. I taught Weber and I found the notion of field which I had confusingly in my mind while teaching it…It irritated me a lot and I could not see the logic. And, then, one day, I started to make a scheme on the blackboard and I said to myself, ‘Well, it’s obvious, it is necessary to study people ‘in relations’ …. I was doing structuralist studies of parenthood, the Kabyle house. So, I was reading a pre-structuralist text with a structuralist way of thinking.

(1995: 4-5)


At another moment in the interview, Bourdieu makes the statement that he has only managed to produce the ‘works of his youth’ (ibid.: 32). The point I would make is that this epistemological epiphany can be read backwards and forward. Back to his own biography and intellectual training and forward to the rest of his academic career. We see that the early book on Algeria makes very little use of the sort of concepts, which were to become synonymous with Bourdieu; although it may be possible to see them in germinal form. Habitus, for example, is referred to as habitat (itself a phenomenological concept developed by Husserl). But, it was not until 1966, that the concept of Field was employed explicitly (1971/66) as a principal tool of analysis and later still that the relationship between field and habitus (objectivity and subjectivity) was set out (see Bourdieu, 1991a/ 68). In fact, I am not sure those of us that were using Bourdieu and his methods in the 1980s and 90s, or indeed reading texts from him at this time, saw it necessarily as work in Field Theory per se; yet, his final leçons at the Collège de France were indeed badged indeed as Further Explorations in Field Theory. Along the way, of course, a whole other arsenal of Bourdieusian concepts had been developed and deployed (see Grenfell, 2014 for an elucidation of the most basic).



Again, I make these points not as an example of intellectual archeology but with a sense that they seem crucial to our current use of Bourdieu and his ideas in our own practice. How so? I will make three major points. Firstly, what we have with Bourdieu is a single epistemological vision that he spent the rest of his life articulating. It is one thing to see it in ‘a flash’, another to unpack it across time. Secondly, this relationship between theory and practice in field work raises issues about our own relation to and work with it. Thirdly, and somewhat autologically implied by the above, is the question of reflexivity: what is it? How does it feature in Bourdieu’s work and what role might it have in our own?


Before turning specifically to reflexivity, I would make some points about research methodology and the analytic concepts themselves.





In other contexts, I have set out what I considered the essential ‘phases’ and ‘levels’ of a Bourdieusian methodology (Grenfell, 2014, Grenfell and Lebaron, 2014). In terms of phases, they go as follows:



  • Construction of the Research Object
  • Field Analysis
  • Participant Objectivation.



The first of these – the Construction of the Research Object – is perhaps the most critical and radical of the entire undertaking, as it is here that the object of research is ‘rethought’ as against the orthodoxy of the field in order to break with the historic assumptions embedded within its representations; rethought that is in Bourdieusian terms. It obviously attests to the power of the approach that it is now adopted in such a wide range of academic fields. However, there is a danger – through natural processes of elective affinities – that those within these fields take what they like and discard the rest; this risks undermining the potential a Bourdieusian perspective has to uncover aspects of discipline areas not yet seen. In other words, without a radical view of the construction of the research object, the researcher simply reproduces their own dispositional views and relations to it.



Subsequent ‘Field analysis’ then involves work at three levels:



  • The field in relation to the field of power
  • The field itself.
  • The habitus of those holding positions within the field.



There is then ‘particpant objectivation’, about which more below.



I set these phases and levels out in this way, not to ‘police’ what is done in terms of Bourdieusian method but to encourage a certain conformism in key aspects to adopting the approach. Otherwise, it seems to me, it is so easy simply to pick and choose what suits, pass over difficult elements, and reconstruct the method in one’s own image in the name of celebrating diversity and development. It is not so much that any Bourdieusian orientated study must include all of these; it is just that, anyone utilizing this theory and practice will hardly be doing justice to it without at least considering each of these phases and levels in some depth.



A similar point might be made about use of the concepts themselves: they need to be understood in terms of these phases and levels as well as being used to work within them. There is frequent use in some research of the term ‘seeing the world through a Bourdieusian lens’. But, what does that mean? It is all too easy to metaphorise data; in other words, simply employ terms such as habitus, field and capital in order to discuss research findings. Such can lead to a weak form of constructivism, where biographical incident is interpreted in terms of what is and is not valued in various contexts. Here, there is little attempt to undertake a ‘field analysis’ per se in terms of structure – positioning and the quantities of various forms of capital leading to hierarchies of salience within. Such research is done in a descriptive, qualitatively narrative based way. There are other common ‘abuses’ and ‘misuses’ (see Grenfell, 2010). We should also be careful about ‘correcting’ Bourdieu, or pointing out what he ‘does not do’, ‘avoids’, ‘sidesteps’, ‘ignores’. We do certainly need to build on what he did but, firstly, we must be clear about exactly what he claimed and, indeed, what he did and did not do – and why. Any subsequent developments then need to build on such an understanding in order to ascertain ‘what it can buy us’ – rather, that is, than (too easily) fall into misplaced revisionist variations of his approach. Not to do so threatens both the potential and the integrity of the analytic concepts and indeed approach more generally.



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 (see Grenfell, 2014 parts I and II). Objects of research for him 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 – ‘existential analytics’ (see Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1993). But, relations and structures in terms of what?



Bourdieu’s conceptual terms – habitus, field, capital, etc. – were developed as part of a practical engagement with the object of research and the data collected in its terms. Such concepts arose for him as logically necessitated by this relationship, which also needs to be seen as personal in the first instance (for example based on Bourdieu’s own philosophical and empirical biography) before leading to the formulation of scientific claims on its behalf. All of Bourdieu’s later comments on reflexivity point in this direction.



What the emerging concepts do all share is a common structural epistemology: structure as the co-incidence between the cognitive, phenomenological and the socio-anthropological (see Grenfell and Lebaron, 2014: Part I). Hence, the vivid dialectic of structuring and structured structures as set out in the Outline of Theory of Practice (op. Cit.). I might add that this phrase in English does not quite capture the dynamic of 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 the role of the latter in the process of generating knowledge: relations and structures are expressed in a certain sort of language for Bourdieu which means we must understand the relationship between signifier and signified within his method.





It is to note that when asked what advice he would give to a young researcher, amongst Bourdieu’s first statements was the warning to ‘beware of words’ (1989: 54). He then makes the point that sometimes the language of research can become more real than the object it aims to represent; this is why there is a need to focus on the language of representation in the constructing of the research object, as it is here that historical misrecognitions are hidden. Indeed, language can almost create what it refers to, or might refer to; that is both the form and the content of social phenomena. Bourdieu draws attention to this way that language shapes experience in terms of the phenomenology of the affective life – the topic of a Masters thesis he apparently never completed:



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.

(Bourdieu: 2008: 352)



Here, language actually structures perception a little like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This feature somewhat leads us to questions of language, the philosophy of language, and ultimately post-modernist issues about the relationship between language in representing the world and/ or explaining it.



The play-off between language (conceptual terms) and perceived experience – in research itself – must therefore go 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 – so, on what are they based? This is not just a question of linguistic relativity with respect to the signified but of actual exegesis and what is claimed in its name. In the same way that, in contemporary physics, if scientists look at electrons as discrete entities, they are discrete entities, and if they look at them as a wave, they (somewhat mysteriously) become a wave, maybe our enquiry into the empirical world requires us to understand the nature of our own conscious viewpoint itself and the language we use to express it, in order for us to appreciate the way it shapes what we (can) 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. We do, therefore, need to understand the epistemological status of the concepts we have – habitus, field and capital, etc. – beneath the language used to express them; what they allow us to see – and not see.



The most direct response to this ambition is set out in the Theory of Practice itself, and the characteristics of the knowledge outcome intended is made at the beginning of the Outline of a Theory of Practice where Bourdieu 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. It is this final element that enshrines principles of reflexivity, which were not fully articulated until later in Bourdieu’s intellectual trajectory. This place, Bourdieu argues, is achieved by constructing the generative principles of research practice; in this case, in their moment of its accomplishment. 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? Such questions imply a need to understand the relationship between the individual, the world, knowledge arising from it and the language used to express this knowledge? Once again, the language we use – the concepts – is clearly crucial in communicating our answers such questions. 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.

(Habermas, 1987a: 499-500)



However, for Bourdieu, such can never arise from ordinary, empirical language; only from special scientific concepts, themselves generated out of practical exegesis. As such, concepts like habitus, field and capital can be seen as providing the foundations for a kind of Bourdieusian ‘communicative competence’ – a ‘language of association’ (linking subjects, the subject and the object, and the objects themselves) for those working from this perspective. Here, the individual is seen as being somewhat ‘at one’ with the collectivity. The ‘social’ world is ‘objective’ – that is, communicable – and thus pertaining to a reality beyond the empirical self, but which can be accessed through it. At such points, the self and the collectivity become one and the same thing; not just empirically, but in some more ‘heightened’, emancipated realm beyond everyday subjective identification. It follows that the power of such language – the way it is used and the valued outcome of its deployment – carries with it the potential to both change relations to the empirical world and how we act as a result. Epistemological principles underlying these relations are hence critical in ascertaining certain forms of scientific knowledge and their effects.



In Habermasian epistemology, three epistemological modes are presented – hermeneutic, nomothetic and critical – pertaining to substantive interests (see Grenfell, 2014: 151-168 for a Bourdieusian interpretation of such): law-giving, interpretive, and emancipatory (Habermas, 1987b). Given the above, however, such modes do not simply represent discrete, implicit epistemological interests – ways of knowing – but also need to be defined and expressed in terms of whole social relations to the world, which have practical, ultimately political, consequences. Bourdieusian science, therefore, implies a different form of relationship to the world and thus with a different interest. Such can be expressed as praxeological knowledge, which might be understood as a fusion of the three Habermasian modes and sharing each of their corresponding interests – interpretative, law-bound (structural) and emancipatory. This is why Bourdieu insists on maintaining epistemological vigilance. Keeping these interests discrete can never amount to Habermasian communicative action or competence for him, since each imply a particular scholastic rather than practical understanding of (and thus relation to) the social world. This distinction needs to be objectified in presenting scientific knowledge as part of a reflexive undertaking in its constitution. Indeed, reflexivity then becomes a principal pre-requisite condition of the possibility of Bourdieusian science. Before looking at the way reflexivity is operationalised in Bourdieu’s method, it is first necessary to examine further elements of practice, the subject-object relationship and the way these play out between the researcher and the object of research.





It is again 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 do we achieve this reflexive practical gaze of practice in practice expressed practically? The short answer is by not simply employing these concepts research but going beyond them and turning them on the research product and researcher as well; and not as some post hoc adjunct but as a central part of the entire research process.



As noted above, Bourdieu clearly saw empirical data through his own (developing) habitus to the objective conditions of their own creation: both needing 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’ (Bourdieu, 2000). 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. This way of acting is more an ontology than epistemology as it acts both on the object of research and the objectifying subject. The fact that this theory of practice is embodied in the concepts – habitus, field and capital – means that these then need to be regarded as active epistemological matrices capable of affecting ontology and consequent understanding in terms of the phenomenological relationship to the social world – ultimately, both scientifically and empirically. Bourdieusian language (concepts) is then epistemologically charged and can provide the possibility of understanding of (empirical) practice as practice in practice finally to be lived in (emancipatory) practice:



The science of this mode of knowledge finds its foundation in a theory of practice as practice, meaning an activity founded in cognitive operations, which mobilize a mode of knowing, which is not that of theory and concept… (but) a sort of ineffable practicipation in an object known (in practice).

(Bourdieu, 1992: 433 my translation and brackets)



Such a position is also consistent with Bourdieu’s theory of language per se. 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, 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 instantiated at specific times and places. 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 spaces – often as fields – that are 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’ (1991b: 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). This is true both empirically and scientifically, which is why Bourdieusian concepts take on the epistemological power of their provenance, which can then be further re-actualised in research practice, with the corresponding effects.

Such analytic concepts as habitus and field therefore have an epistemological status outside of their empirical norm, upon which they act in order to generate knowledge that is somewhat snatched from the assumptions of everyday reality and is, as such, scientific. It is, therefore, easy to see why they are central to Bourdieu’s ambition to found such a praxeological science, since they mediate the relationship between subject, object and context.



Of course, Bourdieu somewhat infamously wrote that the divide between objectivity and subjectivity was the most ‘ruinous’ in the social sciences. But, what is it to get beyond them, to this ‘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). 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.                                                                                                                                                          (Merleau-Ponty, 1962/ 45:132)



In this way, subject is always immanent in an object and indeed vice versa. Indeed, the world as constituting sense is immanent and speaks to us of ourselves. But, who is this self? – our empirical or scientific selves? Whatever the answer to this question, a further one arises concerning what we understand each – empirical and scientific – to be and the relationship between them. At base, both involve an ‘embodiment’ – what Bourdieu would refer to as hexis – not simply based in mental activity, but one where the objective also creates the subjective in the process of incorporation. The former gives meaning to the latter on the basis of what is perceived – and can be perceived. ‘I understand the world and it understands’ me’, Bourdieu quotes approvingly from Pascal (2000c: 408). This is a clearly a very subtle point: Merleau-Ponty above (and with him Bourdieu) 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 (a kind of interpolation in Foucaudian terms). Such again leads us to a consideration of the nature consciousness as reflexivity in the relationships between the two.


This viewpoint hence sees the subject-object dyad existing as a single ‘flesh’, so to speak: 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’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1968/ 64: 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. Such goes to the heart of modern metaphysics and the relationship between knowledge and impressions as initiated by Kant (Kant, 1956/ 1788, 1961/1781, 1987/ 1790 – see Grenfell and Hardy, 2007: 36-39 for summary).



For 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. If we take artistic aesthetics, for example, the distinction between ‘sensation’ and ‘the beautiful’ is useful here, where the faculty of feeling replaces structure derived from concepts (expressed in language). 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 experienced is the power to form concepts itself – which is very close to consciousness – a consciousness without anything to be conscious of. Hence, it is ‘disinterested’ (beyond value) – that is, contemplative rather than cognitive (conceptual/ theoretical). In Kant’s philosophy of art, therefore, this is transcendental aestheticsthe disinterested pure gaze – that lies beyond sensation. However, the key point here is that for Bourdieu, this realm cannot be one of universal pure aesthetics but is 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 detached position in the social world (neither one thing or another) – a kind of nothingness. ‘Objective knowledge’ in science can be seen as also sharing the same ambition of ‘disinterestedness’ – ‘knowledge for knowledge sake’: what Bourdieu would call the aspiration of ‘knowledge without a knowing subject’ – a 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 – (theoretical) concepts (expressed in language) provide the power to form understanding within particular cognitive (theoretical) structures. Here, it is ‘concepts’ with a particular scientific disciplinary provenance and relation to the world, and thus interest. Such would be scientific objectivity within the positivist paradigm. In effect, this knowledge – and thus relationship – might even be understood as the cognitive/ intellectual effect of the aesthetic side of the bourgeois power to transcend – but, this time in the expression of objective knowledge – by asserting not so much the truth but a certain kind of truth (objectivist) which carries with it its own undisclosed interest (control) 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, which, in effect, can be understood as nothing other than the transcendental sense of the bourgeois intelligentsia, and its relative structural relationship to the world; what Bourdieu once described as ‘thoughtless power and powerless thought’ (1991b: 98). Such knowledge is criticised by Bourdieu since it is un-reflexive and so does not disclose its interest in asserting a certain way of knowing the world, and thus misrecognises its inherent relative positing with respect to it. Reflexivity is therefore a necessary part of the endeavor in order to escape this trap – what might be more politely termed the scholastic fantasy.





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. It might seem that reflexivity does not feature explicitly from the early and mid-period. 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 – or his final lecture at the Collège de France, published later in the Sketch for a Self-Analysis (2007/2004) to be a somewhat post hoc formulation of how ‘he would wish to be read’ (Lamont, 2012). They do not see the empirical studies carried out in the Béarn, or Algeria and indeed in Education, as necessarily reflexive. Even Homo Academicus can only be read as Bourdieu reflecting on his own professional field in retrospect. At the same time, reflexivity was clearly an inherent part of Bourdieu’s initial research endeavours in the way he brought his own habitus – both professional and personal – to the objects of his studies. Moreover, the original French version of Outline had a chapter on ‘the observer observed’ (pp. 225-234) and, from the leçons given in Paris from the mid-1980s, we see an explicit awareness of the need for a ‘sociology of sociology’ as a way of breaking out of the box in which contemporary sociologists have shut themselves (Bourdieu, 2016: 1116). By the last decade of his career, of course, reflexivity was clearly central to Bourdieu’s concerns (see Bourdieu, 1990c, 1992b and 2004). Finally, he extended the reflexive element of his work as an attempt to objectify the social forces that acted upon him (Bourdieu, 2007/2004; Eakin, 2001); offering the method as of use equally to a general and academic public (for example, Bourdieu, 2000). At base of such reflexivity is the epistemological epiphany I described at the outset. The outcome of this vision can itself be expressed as the ontological separation he made between his own empirical subject and scientific subject:



The scientific habitus can be independent in relation to the habitus. Basically, there are two subjects. There is the empirical subject. Myself, when I go to a meeting, I am like everyone. I am nervous. I am angry. I say, ‘this guy is an idiot, why does he say that? I agree with the other one’. Like everyone. When I analyse that, it is not the same subject. It is a subject that objectifies that, who understands why Bourdieu is angry. It is another subject which is very difficult to maintain in life. In everyday life, one becomes an empirical subject once again…but it is possible to create a kind of torn out subject…and the more it is collective and reflexive, the more it is separate from the empirical subject…I have learnt with age and experience that the knowing subject can change the naive subject a little. There are things that one understand better and suffer from less.

(1995, op. Cit.: 38-39)



In sum, Bourdieu wants to replace empirical and objective knowledge as alluded to above with a form of reflexive objectivitypractical rationality and praxeological knowledge; and, concepts such as habitus, field and capital are the means to do this. 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 a sense, the ultimate source behind such concepts is not bourgeois nothingness alluded to above with respect to that certain relationship to society but emancipatory knowledge, which again represents a different relationship to society. Here, habitus, field and capital might even be seen as acting as a kind of epistemological mordant between subject and object (the empirical and scientific subject): 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 hence carry the notion of contingent understanding, but not tentativeness or conjecture. Rather they lead a form of radical doubt on the part of the researcher; a kind of Rortyan final vocabulary (Rorty, 1980) as a pragmatic expression of the best we can do at any one particular time. They also stabilise knowledge in a way, which shares many of the features of Popperian theory – predictability, generalizability, open to articulation, useful, and simple. Such 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.





To sum up, phenomenologically, Bourdieusian 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. As noted, this is why 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. We know that the objectifying 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 (Bourdieu, 2000c: 10). There seem to be two prime ways of doing this. Firstly, there is the need 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, the need 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.



Source of Bias


  1. Position in Social Space (Habitus/ Cognitive Structures)
  2. Orthodoxy of the Field Site (language)
  3. Skholè – Scholastic Fantasy (Relations to the world – Substantialist/Relational



Reflexive View

  1. Fields in relation to the field of power – my connection/ connecting.
  2. My relationship to the doxa in the field; held in institution. What am I connected to? Doxa of the discipline – Aims. Position in field.
  3. My habitus and that of other people in the site context;


Their habitus and mine; personal relationships/ networks. My position and proximity.



This is what Bourdieu means by participant objectivation and it is something, which is logically predicated from the very instant of his epistemological vision even if it only gained prominence in the last decade of his career. It has to be, because his epistemology of practice is too comprehensive to leave the researcher on the outside of it. Indeed, not to include the researcher in it is an act of intellectual bad faith, even if it requires them to vacate the position they have acquired in undertaking the research and disarming themselves of the intellectual weapons they have employed to gain it. Why? Because ‘the truth is that truth is at stake’ (Bourdieu, 1990b: 195). Moreover, such is not accomplished without a cost. Indeed, ‘one must choose to pay a higher price for truth while accepting a lower profit of distinction’ (1991: 34). This can be read as a warning for all of us who adopt a Bourdieusian approach simply because of the symbolic capital it can confer in terms of implied distinction within the academic field. Ultimately, his philosophy is corrosive: both professionally and personally – if taken to its logical conclusion.



Clearly, such a reflexive approach cannot ultimately be only an individual enterprise but necessitates a collective commitment; others have pointed out the necessity of a collective response (see Deer, 2014), what Shirato and Webb (2003) refer to as a field ‘meta-literacy’. There is a paradox because Bourdieu was so scathing about other forms of reflexivity – with their illusion of being able to ‘transcend thought by the power of thought itself’. Rather, for him, it is a question of transcending both empirical and conventional scholastic thinking by the power of his theory of practice and the epistemological vision it makes available. No wonder he referred to it as a metanoia.



The difficulty is when the subject makes for themselves an object – in their own image – and thus with all the implied assumptions of view. 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. can mediate between subject and object in a way that constitutes a different interest: an interest with a different ethical, value-based generative principle. Basically, such offers, and indeed allows, a different – emancipatory – view of the world. Consequently, instead of a subject objectifiying an object as an object, the subject sees itself literally in it but not as a subjective mirror of individual empirical identity but at an epistemological moment grounded in the same generative principles as their scientific practice. In this way, as Bourdieu states it in The Weight of the World (1993: 609), 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 and individual, 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 as the outcome of particular formative conditions; not as a separate object-other. Bourdieu calls this knowledge a ‘spiritual exercise’(ibid.: 612) and a sort of ‘intellectual love’ (ibid.) – a ‘non-violent’ method since it offers no imposition of meaning, no symbolic violence. There is here no authority, and the faculty to ‘think things independently’.



It is also a kind of love because it is based on mutual recognition and regard; a high form of attention. It is the product of Being reflecting on Being in a state of collective social identity. At this point, Bourdieu’s epistemology does indeed become 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 at a point 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 logical essence of practice itself, which is nothing other than the past (a sociological history) instantiating itself in the present (a historical sociology) – a kind of sociological karma. This power to be present – this process – is ‘grasped’ at the point of and in becoming rather than in the thing itself formed.



Finally, therefore, reflexivity is less concerned with ‘how to do it’ than ‘how to be it’. The researcher is implicated in his theorising; the gaze is necessarily ‘personal’ but with the potential for praxeological science. It might be seen as 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 in a post-modernist way 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 (1987/95) 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 un-reflexive 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 – he reminds us at the end of Pascalian Meditations that ‘society is God’ (2000c: 245), meaning that such 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 the social forces of what is potential, impossible and necessary – even what is good and bad in the world. To grasp this, if only for an instant, is certainly beyond the words we use but can guide what we do as a result.





In this article, I have attempted to show how Bourdieu’s theory of practice was instantiated by a particular epistemological vision, which he then took the rest of life to articulate. I have discussed the way in which his conceptual map emerged and why, and the philosophy of practice behind it. As they are expressed in language, I have focused on issue of signification and signified in drawing distinction between the very thoughts and the words used in them, and what the same entails within a Bourdieusian methodological framework as a particular gaze, or metanoia. Getting beyond words, in a sense, or at least using them within a praxeological attitude leads us to the nature and use of reflexivity within this method; which in turn returns us to issues of subject-object and the conditions of possibility for reflexive objectivity. Finally, as with Bourdieu, it is worth stressing that this is an unfolding journey – both practically and philosophically. Indeed, we might even see using Bourdieu as characteristic of certain ‘levels’ of understanding and use:



  • Level 1: Use of Key Concepts to animate Narrative;
  • Level 2: Planning a Research Project from a Bourdieusian ‘Lens’. Common focus on the biographical and qualitative analysis.
  • Level 3: More Critical Approach to Research Object Construction – a sustained attempt to map the field and fields within fields. Greater use of Quantitative methods.
  • Level 4: Consolidation of the above – more refined sense of Reflexivity.
  • Level 5: Praxeological
  • Level 6…….

It goes without saying that these should not be read as linear or hierarchical but as potentia – and can be realised temporarally at any one instant in conducting research. I leave this paper there in this realm of both personal and professional reflexivity with the question of where it leads us next?






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