Social Status Tends to Seal One's Fate, Says France's Master Thinker
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Social Status Tends to Seal One's Fate, Says France's Master Thinker
January 6, 2001
By EMILY EAKIN
PARIS By almost any measure, Pierre Bourdieu is France's most
influential intellectual. A professor of sociology at the Collège
de France, an exclusive government- supported think tank for the
academic A- list, he also holds an appointment at the prestigious
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, edits a leading
sociology journal and oversees a popular imprint of works of social
Mr. Bourdieu's name appears in the French press almost weekly.
Important literary journals have dedicated entire issues to his
work. His last three books have been best sellers. When he speaks
out against free-market economics or anti-immigration legislation,
it is national news. Last month, a two-and-a-half-hour documentary
about Mr. Bourdieu titled "Sociology Is a Combat Sport," had its
Nor is his influence limited to France. The International
Sociological Association named his "Distinction: A Social Critique
of the Judgment of Taste" one of the 20th century's 10 most
important works of sociology. And in American universities, his
work is enjoying a vogue of the sort not seen since the ideas of
the last big French theorist, Jacques Derrida, hit American shores
in the 1970's.
Mr. Bourdieu, in short, has "symbolic capital" in spades. The
term, one of several for which he is known, means, roughly, social
status, and in the grand theoretical schemes he has elaborated over
the last four decades, it is all-important. Human society, in Mr.
Bourdieu's view, resembles nothing so much as a fiercely
competitive contest in which status is the ultimate prize. To do
well, it helps to have economic capital (financial assets), social
capital (networks of connections, a good Rolodex) and cultural
capital (specialized skills and knowledge, an Ivy League diploma).
Of course, except for the wealthiest and best-educated, most
people have little capital of any kind at their disposal. And, Mr.
Bourdieu says, most stand little chance of obtaining any. In many
ways Mr. Bourdieu's is a dark vision featuring perpetual class
conflict, largely futile struggles for power and prestige and a
society divided between the dominators and the dominated.
"The point of my work is to show that culture and education aren't
simply hobbies or minor influences," Mr. Bourdieu said in French
during a recent interview in his office, a modest but elegant room
at the Collège de France in Paris's Latin Quarter. "They are hugely
important in the affirmation of differences between groups and
social classes and in the reproduction of those differences."
At 70, Mr. Bourdieu is a soft-spoken, gray- haired man with a
gravelly chuckle and a kindly smile. He is surprisingly unassuming
for someone whom many French regard as possibly their last great
maître penseur or "master thinker" a title previously awarded to
such sweeping philosophers of social existence as Sartre and
Everyone, he argues, comes into adult life with a predisposition
to succeed or fail, what he calls "habitus": a set of deeply
ingrained experiences that in important ways limit one's
A basketball player's ability to sink a shot during a
high-pressure game, for example, is not only a function of natural
athletic skill but also of habitus: the number of hours he has
practiced, the encouragement from his coach, his psychological
expectation of success. At a social level, habitus describes the
way people internalize class distinctions and how that makes
movement up the ladder difficult. "Habitus is not fatal," said Mr.
Bourdieu. "But unfortunately it can move only within very limited
parameters. It's like a little computer program that guides one's
Unlike other grand systematizers to whom he is indebted Foucault
and Marx prominent among them Mr. Bourdieu has tested his ideas
through detailed field work.
In more than two dozen volumes dense with charts, statistics and
often impenetrable academic prose, he has taken on one aspect of
French culture after another, from the state-subsidized
universities to the pundits who regularly turn up on the evening
news to that most celebrated if ephemeral of national attributes:
taste. In each case, he has sought to demonstrate how social
conventions and institutions, even in a democracy officially
dedicated to equal opportunity, mostly serve to maintain the status
quo with its widespread inequalities.
Admission to France's elite "grandes ecoles" (the equivalent of
Ivy League schools), for example, is determined purely on the basis
of performance on a national exam. But when Mr. Bourdieu analyzed
several classes of admitted students, he found that the
overwhelming majority were children of the upper classes. They were
both more likely to take the exam in the first place and to use the
kind of cultivated language and analytic reasoning apt to be judged
favorably by examiners.
"The French school system appears to be meritocratic but in fact
it's very conservative," Mr. Bourdieu said. "Education, which is
always presented as an instrument of liberation and universality,
is really a privilege."
Partly because of his emphasis on cultural rather than economic
factors, Mr. Bourdieu's work on education initially had few
enthusiasts in the United States.
"Many of us," said David Swartz, a sociologist at Boston
University and the author of "Culture & Power: The Sociology of
Pierre Bourdieu" (University of Chicago Press, 1997), "thought that
money the ability to pay tuition or purchase a house in a
neighborhood with a good public school was what explained unequal
attainment and performance in school.
"What Bourdieu contributed was to say cultural socialization was
the explanation. He was writing in a country where education was
tuition-free and one still found enormous class differences in
attainment and performance.'
Similarly, when "Distinction," Mr. Bourdieu's book on taste,
appeared in English in 1984, the reaction was lukewarm. His
exhaustive analysis of the class implications of everything from
potluck dinners and table etiquette to book and newspaper
preferences encountered resistance from American sociologists.
This resulted partly from a conviction that, as Douglas Holt, a
professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School, put it,
"we're not a class-based society and that status works in a crasser
way here: it's driven by money, not culture." Moreover, even
researchers interested in class had found that consumption habits
did not tend to reveal very much about class affiliation: you
cannot distinguish rich from poor on the basis of who shops at the
Gap or listens to Eminem.
Lately, however, "Distinction" has found more sympathetic readers.
"People were taking Bourdieu too literally," said Mr. Holt, who has
applied some of Mr. Bourdieu's theory in his own work. "Distinction
can happen through objects, but that's not Bourdieu's theory.
That's a simple theory of status goods. His idea is that if you own
certain pieces of difficult modern art or enjoy difficult pieces of
Bach, you have developed the cultural apparatus to enjoy these
things. You have to study how people consume rather than what they
In Mr. Bourdieu's analysis, perhaps no group comes off as badly as
intellectuals. Because they tend to be people with prestigious jobs
and educational credentials, writers, pundits and academic experts
reinforce the idea that knowledge is the exclusive possession of
the social elite, he argues.
His most withering attacks are directed at what he calls "total
intellectuals," charismatic self-promoters who abuse their special
social status and the public trust by speaking out on issues from
the war in Bosnia to peace in the Middle East on which they have
no real expertise.
In his best-selling 1996 polemic, "On Television," Mr. Bourdieu
denounced talk-show commentators as "fast thinkers" who substitute
"cultural fast food" politically sanitized sound bites and clich
s for substantive argument. And he has not hesitated to name
Which is why, in Mr. Bourdieu's own estimation, in addition to
being France's most visible thinker, he may be its most villified
as well. "I have a lot of enemies," he said.
Some detractors charge him with oversimplifying social reality.
"He sees life as a zero-sum-game, in which we're all struggling to
maximize our social position," said Michele Lamont, a sociologist
at Princeton and the author of "The Dignity of Working Men:
Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class and Immigration"
(Harvard University Press, 2000). "In my work, I found that rank is
not based on social position alone. Morality is also very important
and may act as a deterrent in the pursuit of social advantage."
Others accuse him of trying to create universal concepts out of
conditions peculiar to France. In the United States, for example,
some critics point out, intellectuals tend to have nowhere near the
same kind of public visibility or clout. Others dismiss his work as
a "sociology of the obvious." Is it news to anyone that the
education system isn't really meritocratic?, these critics ask.
But by far the most frequent complaint is that Mr. Bourdieu is a
hypocrite: How can France's most successful academic-intellectual
expect to be taken seriously as a critic of academic and
As Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known political commentator and
target of Mr. Bourdieu's attacks, put it in a recent essay, unlike
everyone else, "when he speaks, apparently it's the truth talking."
Jeannine Verdès-Leroux, a historian, gathered her objections into
an emotionally charged book titled "The Wise Man and Politics: An
Essay on the Sociological Terrorism of Pierre Bourdieu."
There is no question that Mr. Bourdieu is an exemplary product of
the social system he attacks. "He's the ultimate scholarship boy,"
said Robert Darnton, a historian at Princeton who describes Mr.
Bourdieu's work as an "inexhaustible source of insight" for his own
research on 18th-century France. "He's won every scholarship, every
prize. He began from very humble roots and now dominates the summit
of French intellectual life."
It is hard not to see in Mr. Bourdieu's own career a glaring
exception to his sociological rules. Born into a poor family in a
tiny village in rural southwestern France, he spoke Gascon, now a
moribund regional dialect, until he started elementary school. His
father was an itinerant sharecropper turned postman who never
finished high school. All in all, not circumstances conducive to an
auspicious habitus, especially for an aspiring master thinker.
Mr. Bourdieu's father was determined that his son should succeed,
and he enrolled him at the region's best high school. Eventually he
won admission to the École Normale Superieure, the traditional alma
mater of French intellectuals. But he denies that his own story
contradicts his thesis, contending that by letting in a token
number of students from the lower classes, the system maintains the
illusion of meritocracy.
Though Mr. Bourdieu graduated at the top of his class, he was
repulsed by the Parisian intellectual milieu. "A lot of what I've
done has been in reaction to the École Normale," he said. "I think
if I hadn't become a sociologist, I would have become very
anti-intellectual. I was horrified by that world."
A stint as a teacher in Algiers during Algeria's war for
independence led him to abandon philosophy for social science. His
first several books, ethnographies about the plight of Algerians
under French colonialism, were also implicit rebukes to the
"I thought that the French didn't understand a thing about what
was happening in Algeria," he said, "in large part because the
intellectuals holding forth on the issue didn't know anything about
The last thing he wanted or expected, Mr. Bourdieu insists, was to
become part of the intellectual establishment. He said he rebuffed
overtures from the College de France for three years in a row.
Finally, in 1981, he relented.
"It was a horrible trial for me," he said. "I didn't want to join
the College mostly because of this idea that I was going to become
a big deal. My father died the same year and I think I linked these
two events psychologically. I had six months of virtual total
The worst part of the ordeal, he said, was delivering his
inaugural address, a centuries-old tradition in which incoming
members present a speech in his case, also published on the front
page of Le Monde to the entire College and various dignitaries,
an audience that in Mr. Bourdieu's case included towering figures
like Levi-Strauss and Foucault as well as the mayor of Paris and
the French ministers of culture and education.
"Up until that very afternoon, he thought he wasn't going to
go,"said Loïc Wacquant, a sociologist at the University of
California at Berkeley and a close friend. "It was like Sartre
refusing the Nobel Prize. He just could not bring himself to
participate in this ritual of public consecration."
In the end Mr. Bourdieu overcame his revulsion and delivered his
address. Its subject? A sociological critique of the cultural value
placed on inaugural lectures.
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