New book — Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals by David L. Swartz


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.



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