Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu by David L. Swartz (University of Chicago Press, 2013).
The multi-faceted work of Pierre Bourdieu, clearly one of the greatest post-World War II sociologists, has inspired much research in a wide variety of areas, such as culture, taste, education, theory, and stratification. Largely neglected, however, is the underlying political analysis in Bourdieu’s sociology, his political project for sociology, and his own political activism. Yet the analysis of power, particularly in its cultural forms, stands at the heart of Bourdieu’s sociology. Bourdieu challenges the commonly held view that symbolic power is simply “symbolic.” His sociology sensitizes us to the more subtle and influential ways that cultural resources and symbolic categories and classifications interweave prevailing power arrangements into everyday life practices. Indeed cultural resources and processes help constitute and maintain social hierarchies. And these form the bedrock of political life.
Moreover, Bourdieu offers not only a sociology of politics but also a politics of sociology. He assigns to sociology as science a critical debunking role of existing relations of domination. Sociology is not only science; it is also a form of political engagement, or in his words “scholarship with commitment” for a more just and democratic life.
This interconnected vision for sociology as science and sociology as political engagement is not well understood nor is the way this vision found formulation, elaboration, and modification in Bourdieu’s own life, work, and political engagements. I wrote Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (University of Chicago Press, 2103) to explain this vision and evaluate its potential for contributing to a better understanding of and a more democratic ordering of political life.
I argue in Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals that Bourdieu’s sociology should be read as both a sociology of politics and a politics of sociology. Though not known for his political sociology, Bourdieu’s analysis of power in the form of domination stands at the heart of his sociology. He offers conceptual tools for analyzing three types of power: power vested in particular resources (capitals), power concentrated in specific spheres of struggle over forms of capital (fields), and power as practical, taken-for- granted acceptance of existing social hierarchies (symbolic power, violence, and capital). His concepts of symbolic power, violence, and capital, together with his concept of habitus, stress the active role that symbolic forms play in both constituting and maintaining social hierarchies. They call for looking at expressions of power that radiate through interpersonal relations and presentations of self as well as in organizational structures. They also point to an intimate and complex relationship between symbolic and material factors in the operation of power. Bourdieu identifies a wide variety of resources (capitals) beyond sheer economic interests that function as power resources. In so doing, he invites political sociologists to consider all valued resources, including cultural and social as well as material and coercive, that may function as forms of power even though they present otherwise.
Individuals and groups struggle over the very definition and distribution of these capitals in distinct power arenas Bourdieu calls fields. He sees concentrations of various forms of capital in particular areas of struggle, such as the field of power, the political field, and the state. His concept of field offers a conceptual language that encourages examination of inter-relationships across levels of analysis and analytical units that usually are fragmented for specialized focus in empirical research. Key in Bourdieu’s sociology is how power resources (capitals) and the field struggles over them become legitimated (misrecognized) as something other than power relations. The struggle for symbolic power in the political field for gaining access to state power is particularly salient. In addition, he examines critically how leadership representation and delegated authority dispossess individuals of their effective voice in political life. His analysis of the state as an ensemble of bureaucratic fields in which actors struggle for regulatory power (statist capital) and attempt to monopolize legitimate classifications in society holds potential for more refined analyses than offered in state-centric views that stress only material and coercive powers.
Finally, Bourdieu offers not only a sociology of politics but also a politics of sociology. Sociology as science can challenge a key foundation of power relations – their legitimation – and thereby open up the possibility for social transformation. One finds in his work a vision for what he thinks the practice of social science can do for democratic life and a critical role he assigns to social scientists as public intellectuals.