Pierre Bourdieu-Basic Biography

The collapse of French colonialism and the repercussions thereof caused significant changes in the intellectual landscape of said country. The birthplace of Durkheim and a flourishing field for Marxist thought; due to the conflicts of the 60s and 70s the social fields produced disillusioned men and women. Wars often change the shape of societies, leading to questioning of once dearly held beliefs. It is therefore perhaps fitting that Pierre Bourdieu got his start in sociology and anthropology during the French-Algerian war. Originally a philosophy teacher, he was drafted and assigned to Algeria as a guard, then various desk jobs. Through it all, he was treated to the effects of his nation's war to keep its colonial possessions first-hand. France's efforts on that end were particularly influential on Bourdieu, as he saw the native cultures of the people he studied, in particular the Kabyles, being uprooted and destroyed by the French (Calhoun, "Pierre Bourdieu and Social Transformations: Lesson from Algeria", pg. 1405, Legacies). This clash of cultures, almost Marxian in scope with the bourgeoisie French's attempts to render the Algerians a proletariatian class in a greater socioeconomic structure, helped form the foundations of Bourdieu's theories. He stayed on with the University of Algiers after the conclusion of the war, saying "I thought of myself as a philosopher and it took me a very long time to admit to myself that I had become an ethnologist." (Bourdieu, pg. 7, "In other words: essays towards a reflexive sociology")

Using a definition of social structure that Durkheim, Marx and Levi-Strausse used, Bourdieu came up with a basic sociological vocabulary: Habitus, capital, and the social field. All of which tied into practice theory, which was attempting to find a middle ground between the structuralist approach and the individualistic approach.

The habitus was a development from Bourdieu's own philosophical background, a further development of Aristotle's hexis (Aristotle, 5.1, Metaphysics), which translates roughly as "dispositions". Habitus is a collection and organization of dispositions built over life through experience, forming a worldview based upon this information and a basis for decision-making. It is also related to the body, which Bourdieu based his theory on by observing the differences in body language between Kabyle men and women.

Capital refers to assets that individuals have that they use to compete for social status. Sharing Weber's view that social stratification was not based just on economics or ideologies, Bourdieu used capital as a simple way to measure social competition and power in society. Capital comes in several "flavors", including cultural, economic, symbolic and social. Like economic capital in Marxist thought, the other forms of capital are all instruments of power and influence, and help drive social stratification.

The social field refers to any social structure wherein competition for status takes place. Habitus is a measure of competency in the competition, and capital the assets one has to compete with. He further described the participants in these different fields as "actors" and "agents", their habituses influencing their cues but not forcing them. Due to the specific fields of play the individuals take part in, their own actions and practices would help to support those fields in order to maintain the relevance of their forms of capital.

The basic concepts of his sociological thought were described in his first book, Sociologie de L'Algerie, published in 1958. He returned to France in 1960 as a self-taught anthropologist, where he took up a teaching job at the University of Paris. He studied sociology and anthropology in the meantime, further refining his theories and expanding on them in a full series of books. During this time he married Marie-Claire Brisard, with whom he would have three children. In 1964 he took a professorship at the École pratique des Hautes Etudes, and in 1968 became the director of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, where he undertook such projects as studying the maintaining of power by a dominant culture through the transmission of said culture. It is no surprise then that one of his major focuses was education, the means by which cultural capital is distributed. And among his many criticisms were those pointed at the French academics for failing to properly distribute cultural capital fairly: Instead of promoting social mobility, the French education system "was reproducing social inequality"(Wolfreys, "Pierre Bourdieu: voice of resistance", Issue 94 of "International Socialist Journal" April 2002). The son of a postmaster in a rural French commune, Bourdieu keenly felt that education was one of the most important aspects by which class stratification could be positively changed. However, he had little patience with non-objective conceptions of modernity and advancement.

Other targets of his criticism that followed in the 1970s and 80s were his fellow sociologists whom he felt were more interested in maintaining their fields through the established logic of their practices than in conducting objective science. His criticisms were defined by him not as things to get publicity, but as something an objective intellectual should do. Though there was no shortage of criticism directed at Bourdieu's work, he was perfectly willing to fire right back with witty, scathing replies, to neo-liberals for what he saw as potentially fascist leanings and abandonment of true Marxist ideals; to pure individualist-schooled anthropologists who ignored the influence of social structures. He always considered himself "left of the left" (Grass and Bourdieu, "The Progressive Restoration", Issue 14 of "New Left Review" Mar/Apr 2002), and was not afraid to take shots at anyone in power. This was in stark contrast to many intellectuals who began to attack any French academic who embraced Marxist ideas during the 1970s. (Wolfreys, "Pierre Bourdieu: voice of resistance", Issue 94 of "INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL" April 2002).

The 1980s was a difficult time for France. The Socialist party's failure to deliver on promises and increasing financial problems led to significant unemployment. When the number of unemployed hit 3 million in the early 90s, France's intellectuals and students took to the streets with striking workers. Bourdieu supported them in the press, on television and with books such as The Weight of the World which showcased essays and interviews about the consequences of an improperly controlled economy. His later years were spent critiquing art (a form of cultural production), continuing his attacks on neo-liberalism, and even a book on masculinity in society which at first criticized feminists for not doing enough, but ended in praise of love (Bourdieu, Masculine Dominion: Notes Towards An Intersectional Analysis of Gender, Culture and Class). Bourdieu died in 2002 of lung cancer. He was 71 years old.