Reviewed by Allen Roberts (Department of World Arts and Cultures and African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles.)
Published on H-AfrArts (July, 2005)
There and Back Again
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was an astoundingly prolific writer, and although his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) and perhaps his Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984) may be well known to Anglophone scholars, a great many other books, articles, and interviews (and especially those that have not been translated from the French) are unlikely to be familiar to the casual intellectual. Instead, as Deborah Reed-Danahay herself admits, although one may have "'stumbled on' Bourdieu's work at various points" (p. 5) and know of the key concepts of his writing such as "habitus," "cultural capital," and "symbolic violence" (p. 46), the man's oeuvre and, indeed, the man himself, remain little-known to most of us. Retrospections such as Locating Bourdieu are helpful then, especially when they review his work but also provide Bourdieu's biography, his own bibliography (although Reed-Danahay's is not definitive), and suggestions of pertinent overviews by other authors.
As Reed-Danahay informs us in her very first sentence, "Bourdieu was, as a writer, a provocateur" (p. 1). He loved to argue, and "he viewed the academic field â?¦ as a game in which conflict and struggle over symbolic capital were de rigueur" (p. 1). Significant contemporaries such as Clifford Geertz were his adversaries. One of the topoi of Bourdieu's writing was social class, and his own feeling of being "out of place" as a person of very humble rural origins who nonetheless found himself soaring in the highest flights of French academe. Indeed, many aspects of Bourdieu's concept of habitus ("inculcated dispositions and cultural capital--including values, beliefs, tastes, etc." [p.11]) were derived from the "there" of his upbringing. Bourdieu was exceptional in his own estimation as well as that of his peers, for having done so well to "rupture" (p. 47) and therefore transcend whatever limitations may be implied by his own rustic habitus as understood within urbane French culture. However, Bourdieu returned to this originary "place" over and over to seek a measure of security while emphasizing his accomplishments, but also as a vantage point from which to turn his baleful eye upon those born to privilege, and especially those who benefit most from the French elitist education that made him so acutely uncomfortable. Such an idiosyncratic positioning underscored how "Bourdieu seemed to prefer being in a position of marginality, adopting the stance of the 'professional stranger'" (p. 3, citing Michael Agar). The same topos helps explain the odd, almost stultifying determinism of "habitus," as Bourdieu developed the concept from the foundation of Durkheim's sense of "collective consciousness" (p. 42). Indeed, habitus seems to imply a nearly inescapable "there and back again" circularity with regard to social and intellectual topographies.
As these assertions already suggest, Reed-Danahay stresses that Bourdieu's writing was "to a large extent a form of autoethnography" (p. 4), but she also uses her exploration of this much-admired savant's corpus as an occasion to present her own autoethnography as a student of French education and rural culture (she presently teaches anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington). Reed-Danahay has had close encounters with many great French scholars including Bourdieu himself, and her account of the chess-like game of a foreign graduate student's introduction from one scholar to another is quite fascinating. That she follows these stories with a first glance of Bourdieu's concept of "point of view" as "a form of 'position-taking' in a social field" (p. 13) suggests how readers may approach the subjectivities of Reed-Danahay's own account of Bourdieu.
Two particular research sites preoccupied Bourdieu: the rural southwestern France of his childhood, and the rural Algeria of the Berber peoples glossed as Kabylia. Over the years, Bourdieu compared and contrasted these two societies in many productive ways, but as Reed-Danahay points out, his "silences" on aspects of life on the ground could be astonishing. Religion did not engage him in either case, despite the strong place of Roman Catholicism in rural France and of Islam in all of Algeria (p. 18). Similarly, French education may have been of signal importance to Bourdieu, for "if you want to understand systems of power in modern societies you must look to the educational system" (p. 38). Indeed, according to Bourdieu (writing with Jean-Claude Passeron), the educational system selects those "meant" to succeed while teaching other children "to fail in school and internalize those failures as having been caused by their own shortcomings"; and this is the "symbolic violence" of the system against which Bourdieu struggled his entire life (p. 49). Yet despite how central such anguish was to his sense of himself and to his professional life, Bourdieu virtually ignored the effects of education in his Algerian studies through what Reed-Danahay suggests was his sense of "French notions of center and margin (with Algeria positioned as more 'traditional' and pristine)" (p. 39).
Among Bourdieu's passions were the arts, and his considerations of photography have been especially influential. The "rigid, full-frontal posture and solemn expression among those posing in rural photographs" in France suggested to Bourdieu that here was a "society that holds up the sentiment of honor, of dignity and responsibility" (p. 88). Similarly, "among the Kabyles, a man of honor is he who faces you, who holds his head high, who looks others straight in the face, unmasking his own face" (ibid). In such circumstances, "class habitus determined what an amateur photographer would consider an appropriate subject for a photograph, as well as the bodily postures the subject of a photograph would take" (p. 106). In turn, analysis of such photographs might reveal the "bodily habitus and embodied dispositions" that Bourdieu also termed "bodily hexis (gestures and postures)" (pp. 90, 92). As Reed-Danahay makes clear throughout her text, one should not look to Bourdieu for recognition, let alone an exaltation of human agency! Instead, Bourdieu sought to explore "the tension between structure and agency" and "the 'myth' of individualism" (p. 92).
These and other rather gloomy perspectives ("love and domination," say, or "habitus and emotion") are well elucidated by Reed-Danahay, and her "location" of Bourdieu will be useful to those who wish to gain more of a sense of the man's work than their past "stumbling on" texts and buzzwords has allowed. At the same time, one wonders what Bourdieu's legacy will be, since his tilting against the "-isms" of his day can read as quite dÃ©passÃ© in our post-post times. Reed-Danahay writes with admirably accessible prose, and Bourdieu's complex and daunting ideas are presented with as little jargon as possible. The book has a repetitive feel to it, however, and it is not easy to determine to what degree this is because Bourdieu came around and around to the same sorts of ideas throughout his career, or because Reed-Denahay stresses a few themes over-much. That this reviewer was sent a copy of Locating Bourdieu that is missing pages 51 through 82 did not help his evaluation, and leaves him to wonder what value Indiana University Press places on reviews of its books.
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Allen Roberts. Review of Reed-Danahay, Deborah, Locating Bourdieu.
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Copyright © 2005 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.