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Pierre Bourdieu's sociological theory of culture
Brigit Fowler

Pierre Bourdieu is currently the Professor of Sociology at the Collège de France, Paris. He is someone who has experienced in his own life a double transition from a pre-capitalist world to a capitalist one: initially, in his move from Denguin, in the peasant Béarn area of the Pyrenees, to metropolitan Paris, and once again, after his return from the rural South of Algeria, where after being drafted with the Army he became a self-taught anthropologist.
Thus Bourdieu is well-placed to argue that the fundamental element of modernity is the historical shift towards the greater significance of the economy within the whole society. From being a "thing in itself" the economy becomes a "thing for itself". In particular, the gift exchange of goods and labour, which had once been totally organised around reciprocity, is largely replaced. What is substituted for it, of course, is the production and circulation of commodities, but also the enclosure of a sacred island of Art, where an inversion of commodity values emerge, in such a way that high sales no longer count as an acceptable measure of aesthetic value:
The denial of economic interest ... finds its favourite refuge in the domain of art and culture, the site of [a] pure [form of] consumption, of money, of course, but also of time convertible into money. The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by the denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy (1977).
Bourdieu himself is particularly concerned with the fate of art in late capitalist society, arguing that the sociological study of culture is the sociology of religion of our time. Adorno and the theorists of the Frankfurt School saw painters such as Kandinsky as adopting a language of form which was out of reach of the commercial "culture industry", not least because of the epiphanies offered within their works and their two-dimensional grasp of social realities. But Bourdieu forcefully proposes a disturbing, new, demystifying stance. He asks whether the avant-garde might not have become set in an entirely different context once the structures of the modern art market had been established. Thus when the leading exponents of the various modernisms became highly-valued in the art market and their works came to be used to prove that their owners had "a spiritual soul", a fundamental "misrecognition" occurred.
Increasingly, a hagiographic approach to "the artist as saint" has emerged. With it, any attempt to introduce a scientific study of art and its social relations are denounced as reductionist. But such an approach, taken seriously, means looking once again at the evolution of artistic autonomy within capitalist modernity and especially at the split phenomena of "the appearance of cultural production specially designed for the market and, partly in reaction against that, a production of pure works destined for symbolic appropriation" (1996:140). The underlying principle of difference between the two has become the opposition of "pure art" to popular taste, where the popular has become negatively associated with the "commercial". In fact "pure art" is less other-worldly, that is, disinterested and non-market-oriented than it appears, and the routine organisation of art operates to ensure that there are actually two "modes of ageing" and two economic logics functioning, one based on a long-run time perspective with risky undertakings, organised around objects that have a long life ("art"), and the other, with the aid of multiple reproduction, organised around low-risk undertakings with a short-run life (the "commercial" portrait or Boots landscape) (1996:142-6).
Bourdieu's relentlessly empirical investigations into the taste for modernist works as symbolic goods show that its public are not just drawn from other artists, but principally from those patrician families who have "old money", often bankers, liberal professionals and higher education teachers (1984). Thus, once aesthetically certified by a leading critic and authenticated by the artists' signature, the works of the contemporary avant-garde have moved into the arms of power. "Legitimate taste" ("good" taste) is far from randomly scattered: it is the possession of an "aristocracy of culture". Moreover, artistic reputations no longer have to wait for posthumous recognition (as with Manet) or middle age (as with Degas, Monet and other members of the impressionist Batignolles Group). Certainly, the reverse world of bohemia, established by the first "heroic modernists", was premised on the ascetic disavowal of the market and a self-denying pursuit of artistic values alone (1996). Thus Flaubert, for example, could be recognised as truly epoch-making in his refusal to make a "pyramid structure" - to present a cumulative narrative order - and in his insistence on a perspectivist treatment in his novels (e.g. Madame Bovary). Equally, Manet and Redon refused to use a painting to "say something" and aimed to "liberate themselves from the writer", that is, from any "gloss or exegesis" (1996:136-7).
Such ascetic withdrawal is now no longer an adequate description of contemporary artists. Instead, the longer-term investment of their experimental effort is increasingly a guarantee of the art-market's eventual recognition, a recognition which often now comes to the young and which ensures rewards considerably greater than those the commercial market hands out to the mass of illustrators and designers "selling their souls" in standardised activities1. The self-presentation of the artist as devoid of monetary interests is meanwhile preserved by the convenient alchemy of the art-dealer. For the gallery-owner (or dealer), by concerning him/herself uniquely with the vulgar world of money, frees the creative figure from its grips and thus arranges the transmutation of the artistic philosopher's stone into gold. In this respect, the artist is aided by the School, in the role of the critic. The critic provides explanations of the nature of his/her art to a whole professional field which thus consecrates and authorises her (1996:169).
There is also another reason for the changed role of the arts in contemporary society. This concerns their emergence within the field of education, both as the mechanisms for selecting the "best brains" and more indirectly as the means by which the dominant social classes arranges their social inheritance. Bourdieu (1968, with Passeron) saw the post-war bourgeoisie as distinguished from other classes by its acquisition of state credentials in the form of educational success ("meritocracy"). The notion of meritocracy was and is one of the most brilliant rationales of good fortune for the successful few, just as the kharma doctrine served to create a perfect theological justification for the hierarchical pre-eminence of the Brahmin few. Moreover, the canon of great artists and writers could be incorporated into such a state-certified education by means of the mechanisms of critical discrimination (via representation in the National Gallery, Oxford anthologies, etc.). Yet the secret of such disproportionate success in school for the sons and daughters of the dominant class was that they alone possessed, via family visits to museums and libraries, a domestic culture that trained them to penetrate the academic mysteries of the school curriculum. Thus Bourdieu's The State Nobility showed that only 32 % students of the great grandes écoles (the topmost rung of French higher education) came from the subordinate classes, while earlier research on the universities revealed that in 1964 only 6% of the children of workers (or peasants) were enrolled.

Bourdieu's Theory of Practice
Bourdieu is becoming synonymous with a "holy trinity" of concepts: habitus, capital and field. There are dangers in stripping these from their conceptual moorings in his other, wider, theories, but I will risk these to show how these "trademark" ideas operate. I will then apply them especially to the art-world, and show how a Bourdieusian perspective refuses a charismatic theory of the isolated artist and resists the interpretation of pure disinterestedness on the part of both public and artists. I shall suggest that Bourdieu represents a powerful analysis of the high culture of modernism but that his social theory also contains certain problematic omissions.
Bourdieu aims to avoid the oppositions based on privilege and prejudice that resonate through the linked dualism of the "individual genius" and the "masses", noting how the deskilling of the subordinate classes has been accompanied by the "hyperskilling" of the genius, how the subordinate classes' incomprehension of high culture has been similar to that of colonised natives awed by colonial power, and how the dominant classes' racist fears of the masses has echoed the irrationality and childishness which was once attributed to "primitives" by the colonising Western powers.
In contrast, for Bourdieu, all action, including artistic work, is modelled on craft action. To put it another way: practice is strategic action. Within this strategic action or agency, everyone is capable of improvisation, just as the clarinettist's jazz solo both obeys certain rules but also - as the fruition of long experience - may go beyond even the virtuoso performances of other great improvisers. Such rules, which guide improvisation, are implicit in your habitus - or loosely, your "world-view" - that is your way of perceiving, emotionally responding to and evaluating the world. Your class habitus (sometimes referred to as "habitus" as such) is the product of your family's experience over generations. For example, a gradually-declining aristocracy is on a social journey or trajectory over decades that produces a certain kind of habitus, made up by a strange mixture of pessimism and condescension. Bourdieu writes of the resentments endemic in many habituses, as in the scrimping and saving of the upwardly socially-mobile, petit-bourgeois parents who have literally "made themselves small" and "done everything" for their children (1984).
The mistake in reading Bourdieu is to assume that he is concerned with habitus as a product of class experience alone. Certainly, for him, each agent's habitus is formed by their class, but also by their gender and their own occupational field. We can reasonably talk of a working-class habitus but also of a farming habitus, a military, scientific or an artistic habitus.
The habitus itself has to be thought of as like an old house - its own order or logic has an aesthetic resemblance to a well lived-in, much-adapted interior. In the case of both class and gender, the marks that these create are the consequence of centuries, or even millennia, of naturalising social differentiation. The differences feed into each other, so that the working-class feed off their sense of being the last bastion of masculinity against the effeminate bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie pride themselves on abandoning a dehumanising patriarchy. What is more the "structuring structures" of the habitus discipline both mind and body: for Bourdieu, there is no cause for a split. So the military body grows ramrod stiff, the painter learns an "automatic" way of handling his paint and the sound of the gears tell the driver "without thinking about it" when to change. The artistic habitus, in other word, is bred into the bone.

Capital and doxa
For Bourdieu, artists and other agents possess certain capitals, of which there are four basic types: first, economic capital - stocks and shares but also the surplus present in very high salaries - second, social capital - the network or influential patrons that you can use to support your actions; third, cultural capital - including the knowledge of the artistic field and its history, which in turn serves to distinguish the naïve painter from the professional, and including also scholarly capital of a formal type (a postgraduate degree, the award of a Rome visiting scholarship etc.); finally, symbolic capital: your reputation or honour, as an artist who is loyal to fellow-artists and so on.
These capitals can be (and often are) distributed around a kin-group, their specific structure and volume distinguishing the "great family" of the dominants from the others: One of the properties of the dominants is to have families particularly extended (the great have great families) and strongly integrated. They are united not just through the effects of the habitus, but also by the solidarity of their interests. They are united at once by capital and for capital: economic capital certainly, symbolic capital (the name) and above all, perhaps, social capital (which one knows is both the condition for and the consequence of the successful direction of capital on the part of the members of this domestic unit).
Bourdieu calls "doxa" the taken-for-granted assumptions or orthodoxies of an epoch which are deeper in the level of consciousness than mere ideologies, but are also productive of conscious struggles and new forms. "Heresiarchs", as Bourdieu calls them, include painters like Courbet and Manet, as well as political figures and philosophers like Pascal and Spinoza. They rupture the doxa (or break with conventions). Bourdieu writes particularly powerfully of Flaubert and of his decision to write well and flout mediocrity while choosing, as his subject for tragic love, characters coming from the middle class provincial obscurity of Yvetot. Heterodoxy distills in its most consecrated forms the lived experience of groups who are not of the subordinate classes, but nor are they of the dominant fraction of the dominant class. Instead they derive from that part of the ruling class which has cultural capital but not much economic capital.
Bourdieu has himself let loose some debunking arguments which have deeply upset art historians and philosophers of aesthetics. First, he claims that art critics have a model of a "fresh eye" which is opposed to the academic "eye", but is still itself thought of as a naturalised essence (that is, they presume that those competencies in colour, line etc which are actually the result of early upbringing or training are instead an innate gift of nature) (1996: 284-312). Critics suffer from what we might call a poverty of ahistoricism: in particular, they are unprepared to understand the artist in terms of his/her positions and position-takings within the art field. What is more, when the rhetoric of art-criticism is analysed closely, the terms chosen are all those that loosely link in to aristocratic discourse - the paintings are noble, distinctive, refined, subtle, etc. Such terms are convenient. They are at once sufficiently autonomous to continue to have some currency in creating an ethos of rarity but sufficiently loose to be compatible with any aesthetics (see 1984, conclusion).
Secondly, Bourdieu argues - like Foucault on the invention of the homosexual - that the West saw the invention of the artist in the mid-nineteenth century. This figure was characteristically bohemian, emphasising with a Christ-like devotion the sacrifices necessary for art. The artist provoked a sense of awe and respect for disinterestedness, initially within the progressive intelligentsia of the Left bank, and then more generally among the bourgeoisie. Bourdieu's work undercuts this, although his latest work does concede that certain artists - like Manet - can be regarded as "heroic" in their inauguration of a new world of art based on "symbolic revolution". He insists, on the other hand, that, unlike the academic world where the artist is a civil servant of art, the world of the bohemian artist is a world of anomic (unregulated) competing cults. The artist, however is not entirely given up to the other-worldliness of the artistic life. In fact artists who are productive are those whose hours and ethic of work resembles that of other professionals.
Artists, thus argues Bourdieu, are usually distant from the models of disinterested devotion that the bohemian ideal suggests: "One soon learns in conversation with [gallery-owners] that with a few illustrious exceptions ..., painters ... are deeply self-interested, calculating, obsessed with money and ready to do anything to succeed" (1980:266). In terms of their action in their own field, the saint-like hero of bohemia possesses unexpected reserves of anger and even physical violence in defending their stake in the game. His example is of the French surrealists' circle where force - even broken arms - was the outcome of struggles over competing issues.
Second, Bourdieu argues that becoming "recognised" requires a certain artistic career. Geographically, it has been virtually impossible for provincial artists or even those who have come from the country to the city to make their mark. Provincial artists have been doomed instead to abandon their projects, and to become merely regional painters or writers. Moreover, only those painters or writers who had families ready to give them allowances in the difficult periods before getting established were likely to be successful. Here Bourdieu is at his most challenging. He is arguing in effect that the whole history of modernism has been one in which only those avant-garde artists who were centrally located and who had the time to spend on their experiments were the ones who won out.
The Rules of Art (1996) bring out the tragic contradictions of art in our period. For Bourdieu shows us that the only effective field of struggle is within the "restricted" field of art, cut off from the "expanded" field where specialised knowledge is not required to decode the relevant imagery. Within the restricted field, collective movements help to consecrate the reputation of individual artists, whose positions, in turn, are that much more defensible the better-secured are their own artistic habitus. Bourdieu suggests that Manet, for example, had an extensive knowledge of art history on which his own works fed; Duchamp had a superb feel for the game, partly because several generations of his family were painters. And, lest he be seen to be simplistically anti-artist, he notes that the symbolic revolutions established by Baudelaire or Manet are in some respects as fundamental as a political revolution. They change permanently the way that we see and classify the world.
Yet the dangers inherent in historical revolutions also apply to such symbolic revolutions. The achievement of mass recognition by an artist is a double-sided victory for it sets in motion a process of routine co-optation - by means of cheap reproductions, profitable "bio-pics", personality cults and hyperbolic "criticism". The most transgressive figures can thus be tailored ultimately to the needs of the museum, gallery/ market system and the curriculum. Here the lowest common denominator that draw them together is the artists' mutual concern for aesthetic form, whatever differences exist in terms of meaning or the political ends their works serve. Through a form of reception that forces them to submit to the aesthetic attitude - the supremacy of style - they inadvertently come to underline the dominant class's hold on power2. Bourdieu's writings in fact disclose a skeletal theory of art which does not always need to serve the purposes of such hegemonic domination, allowing us to go beyond a vulgar critique of pure art. His theory is an attempt to create a sociological aesthetic which might give back to art its concern with ethical and political interests, which wishes to flee the museum and restructure the role of the art-world within everyday life.
We begin to see, too, why there is no such thing as popular art in Bourdieu's theory. First because the modern artist, bereft of the orthodoxy of the Academic artist, needs the defence of his/her critic, not to speak of a reputable dealer. Second, because the institution of permanent revolution requires the crucial ingredient of the right place (especially presence in the great metropolises of modernity) and also the time when young to experiment. The conditions for these are self-assurance and the financial support that historically has been available only to the sons and daughters of the dominant class (not least the minor aristocracy) by means of an allowance.
We also note that for Bourdieu some arts might be legitimisable (eg cinema or photography or jazz). However, compared with other more securely-consecrated forms they don't bring their potential haute bourgeois public enough returns (in terms of "cultural capital") to reward them for their investment of time and effort. Such art-forms are doomed to be taken seriously only by a tiny "deviant" minority like the junior executives or technicians who make up the members of camera clubs. Photography, therefore, is consigned for ever to the outer circle of hell in the form of the mere middlebrow.
I think that Bourdieu overlooked the potential for "consecration" within photography - it might be said that the popular character of photography did delay its legitimation but that it has now acquired its own canon of great photographers, its own critics and historians and its own educational base in art-schools. However, there is considerable backing to many of Bourdieu's theories, not least in the various British reports of the Arts Council. For example, Moulin's empirical work on the contemporary French art-market (1967), in the Centre de Sociologie Européene, has shown very acutely, by means of interviews with painters, collectors and curators, the precise ways in which critics' aesthetic values are used to bolster exchange values and the paradoxes for the painters of having clients buy their works who are out of sympathy with their views. She indicates the widespread painters' concern for alternative ways of putting their work in the public domain. Gamboni (1989) has shown how being taken up by a wealthy and aristocratic group of clients, as Odilon Redon was, can coincide with a fundamental change of style. This included, in his case, a total change from monochrome symbolist or metaphysical etchings to oil-paintings, suffused with light, and from sombre greys to intense, bright colours. Sapiro's study (1996) of French writing in the period of the Nazi occupation has revealed that many of the organisations of the so-called autonomous literary field, such as the Académie Francaise , the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, the Prix Renaudot and the Prix Goncourt, pandered unheroically to the Vichy regime or its German masters, thus displaying in the event the weakness of their humanist rhetoric.

But Bourdieu's theory does have certain problematic elements, following on the poor predictive quality of his research on photography. Let me isolate these briefly. First the concepts of "doxa" or "illusio" tend to suggest that there are no possibilities of moving outside the "game" and beyond the forms of knowledge that prevail within it, knowledge which depends crucially on your location in relation to power. However, unlike Foucault, Bourdieu does suggest that there is a possibility of lived experience which may clash with ideology: moreover, in the case of (social) science, this takes the form of procedures for testing reality which are non discourse-dependent. It is true that despite this there are still certain types of doxa or taken-for granted assumptions which are ineradicable in a given period because they are opaque, even to social scientists. However, every historian would agree that this is the case to some degree.
Secondly, Bourdieu writes very disparagingly of the "fragile" nature of the alliance between artists and workers, and expects it to dissolve when the artists themselves gain recognition. But in some circumstances, this "fragile" alliance does hold, at least temporarily (eg the Russian and Cuban Revolutions). Artists do suffer exile or even die for their beliefs - I think of Neruda confronted by the Chilean junta, of Lorca in the Spanish Civil War, or Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn, and others who could have sometimes taken easier ways out. The question here, it seems to me, is to deepen and make more precise our historical sociology of such testing-points. Under what conditions do groups of artists - like Quakers and some early trade-union groups - offer resistance or seriously undertake the risks of "martyrdom" ? (Fowler, 1997)
Further, I should refer to Bourdieu's disturbing views about artists' "interest in disinterestedness", which has led one critic to accuse him of having a narrow and unacceptably determinist position, which lacks any room for altruism (Alexander, 1995). My inclination is to follow Bourdieu here: he points even to medieval monks having occasionally come to blows, such was the intensity of their belief in their religion (1998c: 78). Yet he is also aware that monastic communities could reveal considerable levels of disinterestedness. The brothers scourged themselves with consciences more subtle and vigilant than most. The same should be noted of artists, who, after all, deliberately avoid economic capital at the outset of their adult careers. They might quite reasonably want the degree of material comforts which are necessary for work, without being held to pursue economic interests single-mindedly. The problem here is not Bourdieu's theory but rather an "invention" of "the artist" which projects on them idealised human qualities, transforming them into figures devoid of practical needs (Bourdieu 1998 c: 85-8).
My view would also be that Bourdieu does incur some costs in broadening out the idea of "capital" to include social and cultural capital. Economic capital is necessarily zero sum - the more surplus value the employer has, the less the worker has. But it is not clear to me that "cultural" (or "informational") "capital" are necessarily either zero-sum or hierarchical in all societies. These could, without internal contradiction, be more democratised. Equally, artists' symbolic "capital" in the form of reputations does not necessarily have to be exploitative of others, although it may be competitively-based.
It is often said that Bourdieu might be accurate in writing of the centrality of high culture or the aesthetic in France, but in France alone. However I disagree with this view: many of the same phenomena appear in Scotland. I cannot agree with Halle's criticism (taken to be implied by his American study) that Bourdieu has overstressed the significance of the drive for symbolic power in such areas as the possession of abstract art. Nor is it sufficient to show, against Bourdieu, that popular artistic works exist (Shusterman cites the case of rap, 1992), for there have to be sponsors to champion new genres/ groups/ independent cultural producers, and, as Raymond Williams has argued, such sponsors are often unprepared to defend works that the general public likes because they have themselves developed "mandarin" tastes. Yet the modern period has also had a small minority of critics who have sometimes canonised popularly-successful producers, as did Williams himself with Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Thomas Hardy and Tressell. In some contexts, works have been unshackled or recycled from a purely formalist optic and the artist has become the visionary of his/ her time, expressing ethical/ political issues in the form of images - as Blake managed to criticise slavery, and even in the era of modernism, Manet achieved in his lithographs of dead Communards or Grosz pulled off in his satirical cartoons of post World War I inequality.
Distinction and The Rules of Art sum up the deliberate disenchantment of art by Bourdieu. By this more scientific exploration of the art-world and its links with the school and the field of power, we can all become more aware of the ways in which educational outcomes are linked to class experience and of the complex nature of the interests which drive agents. But there is nothing biological, akin to genes, that leads to such interests invariably being preserved and passed on, despite the impressive dignity of the dominants which is imparted by their knowledge of poetry and art. A reflexive sociology shows also the possibility for resistance and transformation. Bourdieu in fact has high standards for artists, as emerges unambiguously in his work with the installation artist, Hans Haacke3.
At the end of The Rules of Art Bourdieu argues for an Internationale of Artists and Intellectuals (344-5), who will aim to advance the project of the Enlightenment and who will need to own their means of cultural production to do so. Recently, he has restated this:
I would like writers, artists, philosophers and scientists to be able to make their voices heard directly in all the areas of public life in which they are competent. I think that everyone would have a lot to gain if the logic of intellectual life, that of argument and refutation, were extended to public life.
And, in his acceptance speech for the Bloch Prize, he argues for a "reasoned utopia" and against the "bankers' fatalism" which is the ideology of our time. Rational utopianism is defined as being both against "pure wishful thinking (which) has always brought discredit on utopia" and against "philistine platitudes concerned essentially with facts ... intellectuals and all others who really care about the good of humanity, should re-establish a utopian thought with scientific backing ..." (Bourdieu,1998b: 128).

1 Bourdieu's theories neglect the crossovers between the fine and applied arts. Subsequent to the period of his research, these have certainly become more frequent with artists plundering the "expanded field" of comics, cartoons, graffiti etc. and vice versa. Some recuperation of the popular was always an element of the restricted field (see Varnedoe and Gopnick, 1990).
2 Acts of Resistance notes in its critique of the Bundesbank's President, Mr. Tietmayer, that while he is anxious to bury the expensive welfare state and remove labour movement "rigidities", he, like M. Trichet, the Governor of the Banque de France, no doubt reads poetry and sponsors the arts (Bourdieu 1998b: 46).
3 Free Exchange, Polity, 1995. Haacke has also revealed the anomalies in the changed location of the most celebrated modernists' works, both through showing the changing ownership of their paintings as they come into possession of the more conservative professions and corporate heads and through revealing the discrepancies between the directors' view of how art museums should be run and those of the general public.

Selected Works by Pierre Bourdieu:
Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, 1977.
The Production of Belief, Media, Culture and Society, 1980, 2, 261-93
Distinction, Routledge, 1984.
The Rules of Art, Polity, 1996.
The State Nobility, Polity, 1997.
Acts of Resistance, Polity, 1998a.
A Reasoned Utopia and Economic Fatalism New Left Review, 227, Jan – Feb,1998b, 125-130
Practical Reason, 1998c.
Works by other writers:
Jeffrey Alexander: Fin de Siècle Social Theory, Verso, 1995.
Bridget Fowler, Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory, Sage, 1997.
Raymonde Moulin, La Marché de la Peinture en France, Minuit, 1967.
G isèle Sapiro, La Raison Littéraire: Le Champs Littéraire dans l'Occupation (1940-4), Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, nos. 111-2, Mars 1996, Seuil.
Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics, Blackwell, 1992.
K.Varnedoe and A. Gopnik, High and Low, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1990.
Raymond Williams, The Politics of Modernism, Verso, 1989