A Bourdieu debate…

Posted on January 8, 2008


There are a fascinating couple of posts over on the Volumizer blog about Bourdieu’s conception of capital.  Both the posts are highly critical – the first on capital generally as a concept in Bourdieu’s work and the second on cultural capital as a particular concept.  Whilst the writing is clearly concerned with the effect of a Bourdieu-inspired response to education, a subject I’m not qualified to pronounce on although I am aware of the debate, I find the criticism of Bourdieu as an enemy of the left (based on his use of the term ‘capital’) problematic.

Bourdieu is concerned with the dominance of power through legitimation, the role assigned to ideology for Marx or hegemony for the Italian Marxist, Gramsci.  However, Bourdieu criticizes these views for neglecting the symbolic dimensions of class relations, or for relegating these to the superstructure of a economically overdetermined system.  The Marxist model is critiqued by Bourdieu on the basis of its specificity – it is the growth of education and cultural markets in advanced societies that has undermined the power of the Marxist model.  To overcome this problem, Bourdieu proposes a political economy of symbolic goods that forms a chiastic structure with the economic field; this division between economic and symbolic power is then replicated within all areas of struggle for power in society and, as society is struggle for Bourdieu, it is this chiastic structure that overdetermines the social world.  

Ultimately, Bourdieu is clear that all fields of struggle are subsumed into the field of power and that this field is dominated by the struggle for economic capital.  The problem comes when commentators misuse Bourdieu, as I suspect may be happening within the ‘educational left’ that the Volumizer critiques.  Whilst it might be exciting and socially more comfortable to think that adressing cultural issues alone can change society, it is a mistake of the left to read Bourdieu as providing a competing system to Marx or of avoiding the key issue of inequality.  To use Bourdieu as intended is to unmask the symbolic means by which social inequalities are reproduced in society and to shine a light on the mis-recognised relations of capital that structure it.

Posted in: bourdieu, Theory