Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) - Key Figures in Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)
Key Figures in Literary Theory

Pierre Bourdieu was born in Denguin, a village in the Pyrenees in southern France, and attended school at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, excelling at rugby and philosophy. Like Jacques Derrida, a fellow student at the Ecole, Bourdieu studied the phenomenology of Merleau- Ponty, Heidegger, and Husserl. His thesis was a translation of and commentary on Leibniz’s Animadversiones (1953). After a short stint in Algeria, serving in the French Army, he lectured at the University of Algiers (1959-60). He began his anthropological study of Berber culture at this time. The 1960s found him teaching at the University of Paris and the University of Lille and, from 1968, directing the Centre de Sociologie Europeene. At the Centre, Bourdieu and his colleagues conducted research on the mechanisms of social power and its maintenance.

Bourdieu’s early work in sociology focused on education and social environment. He developed the concept of HABITUS, or “socialized subjectivity,” to describe the personal adaptations and motivations, attitudes, and modes of perception that arise as a result of individuals interacting in complex modern societies. His first major work, Distinction (1979), argues that social life is marked by the levels of distinction that attach to the individual by virtue of his or her manipulation of habitus within the broader social field. Like Michel Foucault's theory of DISCURSIVE FORMATIONS, Bourdieu's theory of SOCIAL FIELD is an attempt to account for the complex interrelations and interconnections that constitute systems of social power. It posits a division in economic and cultural spheres, not unlike the Marxian base-superstructure model. Power and domination in the cultural sphere have their source in “cultural capital,” which is itself the product of the individual's ability to manipulate habitus in order to achieve social distinction. Later works, like The Field of Cultural Production, explore the sociology of aesthetics, a form of reflexive analysis that regards the work of art as embedded within social fields and the systems dependent upon them. Bourdieu's work has influenced a broad array of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, discourse theory, philosophy, and aesthetics. His work was driven by the same desire for social justice that motivated his commitment to local politics.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Bourdieu: A Critical Reader. Ed. Richard Shusterman. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

---- . Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

---- . The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Ed. Randal Johnson. New York Columbia University Press, 1993.

---- . The Logic of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.