In Defence of Bourdieu | Critical Commentary on Dylan Riley’s “Bourdieu’s Class Theory” in new journal: Catalyst by Jacobin Magazine

This article will be a critical commentary, hopefully also comically polemical, on an article by Dylan Riley, professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, written in the new journal Catalyst in Spring 2017. First, a note about this new journal’s supposed aims and the irony immediately apparent when compared to the title of Riley’s article, which is obviously mean to be pejorative. From Catalyst’s “About” page:


Discussion of capitalism is not off the table any longer. Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy launches with the aim of doing everything it can to promote and deepen this conversation. Our focus is, as our title suggests, to develop a theory and strategy with capitalism as its target — both in the North and in the Global South. It is an ambitious agenda, but this is a time for thinking big.


And from the opening abstract of Riley’s article, summarising his main idea for why Bourdieusian research is currently so popular in US academia, we read:


Bourdieu’s sociology is popular because of the specific conditions in US academia today. In this context, where intellectuals win rewards by pursuing a strategy of distinction, where they lack much organizational connection to popular movements, and where their material interests lie in a defense of their privileges, Bourdieu’s sociology is highly attractive. It effectively resonates with academics’ lived experience and serves to articulate their most fundamental political interests.


First of all, we could claim that any research programme is popular or not, at any time, because of the specific conditions in that field of academia. Of course, Riley is going on to say what these conditions are, but making this claim first is pointless because it applies to any academic discipline.

Now where Riley claims “intellectuals win rewards by pursuing a strategy of distinction” he does not really explain this claim further in the article so I can only attempt to offer somewhat speculative explanations. Who offers these rewards if not professors like yourself Mr Riley? I recall your colleague Michael Burawoy, whose work I have been somewhat influenced by, especially his 2004 presidential address which implicitly defended the privileges of academics, was also influenced by Bourdieu, is he also to blame for its current paradigmatic position?

What is this “strategy of distinction” you refer to if not the need for all academics to make a name for themselves, stand out from the crowd (and it is extremely crowded) of the academic labour supply? If it is this, then why would there be such a common paradigm? If students really aim to stand out, then why not attempt to make newer, more radical theories, as is the goal of Catalyst as it appears in the “About” page: “an ambitious agenda, but this is a time for thinking big.” (And a time for appearing distinct.)

Riley then claims that intellectuals lack much organisational connection to popular movements as a reason for the popularity of Bourdieusian research, again without explaining this much further or exactly why this is a problem. I would say it isn’t a problem as this kind of thinking is populist and patronising towards those in such popular movements. Do the popular movements need academics to lead or influence them? I shall argue definitely not elsewhere. Do academics need to have organisational connections to popular movements for the validity of their arguments? Of course not, unless it is that which they are trying to study and make claims about, which Bourdieusian research usually does not. Indeed, if Bourdieusian scholars wish to make claims about the tastes, economic privileges and leisure time usage of different social classes, then it does need to gather empirical data about individuals from those classes- which it does as even a rudimentary literature search would discover.

After this Riley claims another reason for the popularity of Bourdieusian research is that academics’ material interests lie in a self-defense of their privileges, which is obvious. What honest academic today can say that much of their work also includes a defense of the privileges of the ivory tower, with its tenure track positions and intellectual autonomy against the encroachment of normal capital social relations which is often called “the marketisation of higher education”? Is it a defense of those privileges in-itself, or just what all workers, whatever their position, do? What is more important is how workers argue for their privileges. Where for example, employees in the transport industry make their case for better pay and/or less hours, they defend their material interests and privilege, at least compared to other workers exerting similar effort for worse conditions, based on the fact that they are essential for the economy at large- when the trains don’t run, the entire economy begins to collapse. Intellectuals argue based on the benefits of their work for society, which is usually for sociologists, the benefit of social justice and therefore, in particular with Bourdieusian research, to promote social mobility.

I will examine these initial claims further as this article continues as a commentary of Riley’s article. The article as it appears in the version I am accessing currently is archived here ( The archiving hasn’t worked perfectly however so the full article is also available on the Catalyst journal website here ( I include a link to the archived article because I feel it may be changed in future, particularly as there are a few typos and formatting errors which may be addressed and the editor may take the opportunity to iron out other mistakes without mentioning so. Considering the insincerity of Catalyst’s aims in their “About” page, I would not place this behaviour outside the realm of possibility. Especially considering the initial statement that “Discussion of capitalism is not off the table any longer”, which does a great disservice to all the great journals these academics have ignored over the past few decades and is obviously self-serving. Nevertheless, it’s only everyone else who is defending their own material self-interests and trying to make themselves seem distinct… right Mr Riley?


What explains the enormous popularity of Bourdieu’s critical theory in US academia and particularly in sociology? This paper considers two answers. One is that Bourdieu offers a compelling macrosociological account of contemporary society similar in scale to those of Marx, Weber, or Durkheim. However, a close examination shows that Bourdieu fails in this task. His work offers neither an empirically supported class analysis nor an account of social reproduction or social change. Thus, I conclude that Bourdieu’s popularity cannot be a result of the power of his explanations.


Bourdieu’s theory, whether it ended as its own theory, was originally meant to complement and expand upon Marxist theory of reproduction. We can most clearly see what Bourdieu was aiming for in “The Forms of Capital” (1986) when he states:

It is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduces capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognized by economic theory. Economic theory has allowed to be foisted upon it a definition of the economy of practices which is the historical invention of capitalism; and by reducing the universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange, which is objectively and subjectively oriented toward the maximization of profit, i.e., (economically) self-interested, it has implicitly defined the other forms of exchange as noneconomic, and therefore disinterested.

Perhaps I am going too much by my own theories (my book is still in progress) and my own understanding of Bourdieu, as I admittedly haven’t read his entire oeuvre, but it seems to be that Bourdieu is attempting to explain reproduction and the broader superstructural social relations in a way that does not deny the material basis of them, as in Marxist theory. As I understand it, Bourdieu’s theories allow us to understand the ambiguities of class reproduction and how social mobility is possible, what it means and the interests it serves. So, I would claim not that Bourdieu is attempting to create a grand sociological theory, like Marx, Weber or Durkheim, but create theoretical tools which help to connect the micro-sociological (exchanges between individuals) and macro-sociological (the structure of society) in a way that is rooted in Marxist theory, hence the usage of terminology like capital and class. However, as I have mentioned, I have not read all of Bourdieu and I also do not completely agree with all Bourdieusian theory as much as I understand it, but as I will show throughout this commentary, I understand it better than Mr Riley and think that he unfairly disparages those intellectuals who have taken Bourdieusian theory into their research and/or developed it further.


There is, however, a second answer: that Bourdieu’s sociology is popular because of the specific social conditions in US academia today. In this context, where intellectuals win rewards by pursuing a strategy of distinction, where they lack much organizational connection to popular movements, and where their material interests lie in a defense of their privileges, Bourdieu’s sociology is highly attractive. It effectively resonates with academics’ lived experience and serves to articulate their most fundamental political interests.


We have already begun to comment on this part of the abstract, but regarding the last sentence, we see Riley repeats himself in other words. Firstly, if social theory resonates with one’s lived experience, that is not an argument against the theory. If a theory is verifiable, it should resonate with the experiences of all sorts of people. Secondly, what else but material self-interest is anyone’s “most fundamental political interests”? Maybe all academics should ignore their own interests and throw themselves on the fire of some martyrdom project for social justice? I’ll let Riley and his colleagues go first.


Pierre Bourdieu was a universal intellectual whose work ranges from highly abstract, quasi-philosophical explorations to survey research, and whose enormous influence is comparable to that of Sartre or Foucault. Born in 1930 in a small provincial town in southwestern France where his father was the local postman, he made his way to the pinnacle of the French academic establishment, the École Normale Supérieur (ENS), receiving the agrégation in philosophy in 1955. Unlike many other normaliens of his generation, Bourdieu did not join the Communist Party, although his close collaborator Jean-Claude Passeron did form part of a heterodox communist cell organized by Michel Foucault, and Bourdieu was clearly influenced by Althusserian Marxism in this period.

Bourdieu broke with Aron in 1968 in response to the latter’s conservative condemnation of the student protests of that year. During the later sixties and early seventies, Bourdieu laid the foundations for his dominant position in French sociology, publishing a huge variety of works touching on substantive theoretical and methodological questions. In 1975 he founded the Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, which became a factory for Bourdieu’s own work and that of his students. By the late seventies and early eighties, his major mature works had appeared: La Distinction: critique sociale du judgement, Homo academicus, La noblesse état, and Les règles de l’art, among many others.


The initial biographical overview of Bourdieu is fine apart from needless disparaging comments, like calling his more abstract works only “quasi-philosophical”, which has no meaning other than for pejorative use. A key point missing from this is that Bourdieu’s upbringing and unusual upwards social mobility, from working-class son to petit-bourgeois intellectual- obviously one of the largest influences on his thought. If Riley wishes to condemn Bourdieusian scholars today for finding too much to relate to in their work, why not accuse Bourdieu of this? Why is this more self-evident than the idea that today’s scholars identify with their own work?

Further, in the final sentence of what is written so far, Riley says his major mature works had appeared by the late 70s and early 80s, yet Bourdieu was writing throughout the 90s and even into the early 00s before his death. Even so, Bourdieu is dead and Bourdieusian research continues. To condemn it based on these earlier works is ignorant of the developments and discussions put forth by contemporary scholars. At least in British sociology, these battles still go on and at some point, researchers must decide whether concepts are worth keeping or need updating, or it’s time to come up with alternative paradigms altogether. Perhaps, what we might call “Orthodox-Bourdieusian” research is flawed, however, that’s not what I see British sociologists doing- indeed, it’s not what I am doing but I would be lying to deny that I have been so influenced by Bourdieu’s work, just as I am influenced by Marx, Weber or even my university tutors to whom I owe a great deal of thanks.


During the 1990s Bourdieu radicalized, becoming the organic intellectual of the gauche de la gauche, in which capacity he produced La misère du monde, a massive series of interviews documenting the ravages of neoliberalism on the lives of everyday people. Given this intellectual and political profile, it is quite understandable that Bourdieu would be an unavoidable point of reference for the contemporary intellectual Left: a brilliant and indefatigable sociologist who combines the intellectual sophistication of Lévi-Strauss or Jean-Paul Sartre with the empirical rigor of Anglo-American survey research and ethnography while also carrying on the venerable French tradition of the engaged intellectual, especially toward the end of his life. Indeed, the social theory that he has singlehandedly created is to the contemporary intellectual Left what neo-Marxism was to the students of the 1960s.


I am not sure what Riley means when he claims that Bourdieu became the “organic intellectual of the gauche de la gauche” but it’s funny that he uses a term usually meant to be pejorative while writing in a journal that has “capitalism as its target”. If there is anything that is left of the modern left, it is those who actually want humanity to transcend capitalism rather than just sticking a happy face on it, like the “left-liberals”, “socialists” and social democrats the modern left is mostly inhabited by. My problems with such leftists are beyond the scope of this article however, and it’s already going to be extremely long as you can no doubt tell by now. I’m also uncertain about whether Bourdieu would claim to have single-handedly created his theories or why Riley separates them from Neo-Marxism because as a part of the Critical Theory tradition, it is firmly Neo-Marxist.

Another note about Catalyst’s aims against capitalism “both in the North and in the Global South”: what is this but yet another theory of imperialism? Another easy way for leftists to hold the most radical opinions about things so far away from their small window of power? How long before we see radicals condemning the actions of the local ruling classes as the actions of “the Global North” (Imperialists) while ignoring the atrocities of some distant ruling class as part of their fight for “national liberation”, “against Imperialism”, against “the Global North”, such as we see regularly when radicals congratulate the rulers of Palestine (Global South I shall presume) for their terrible actions against the Israelis (Global North Imperialists, never mind the fact that those usually being exploded are part of the Israeli working-class, class analysis is secondary to analyses of Imperialism).


Bourdieu’s Sociology Considered as a Macrosociological Theory

Before delving into the analysis, it is necessary to introduce Bourdieu’s basic terminology. Although it may seem abstract, it is, unfortunately, indispensable for understanding his work. There are four central concepts in Bourdieu’s sociology: capital, habitus, fields, and symbolic power.

Capital refers to resources. Bourdieu identifies three main varieties: economic (understood basically as income and ownership), social (basically understood as connections), and cultural (informal education, cultural objects, and credentials). These can be measured in two dimensions: quantity and structure. Thus, particular agents may possess more or less total amounts of capital, and this capital may be structured in different proportions. Accordingly, although two “agents” may have the same total overall amount of capital, one might have a greater proportion of cultural capital and the other of economic capital. Generally, the volume and structure of capital determines one’s “position in social space” or class position. The primary class division in Bourdieu’s scheme is between those with high and low total capital,: but within each of these classes there is a further difference between those with a greater proportion of either economic or cultural capital. The concept of capital is thus supposed to provide a map of the main social divisions in contemporary society.


This glossing over of the central concepts might explain why Riley misunderstands them and thus Bourdieu’s overall theory of practice. Firstly, it’s important to note that one cannot think with capital, habitus, fields and doxa (another essential concept of Bourdieu’s which Riley somehow misses) independently of each other. Another unfair point Riley makes is how the primary class division in Bourdieu’s scheme is between those with high and low total capital, which ignores the wealth of contemporary Bourdieusian research available, particularly concerning how Bourdieu’s theory still makes sense despite the high availability of easy-to-access cultural capital in today’s world- for example, higher education.

One of the most important points about Bourdieusian capitals is that they are exchangeable and convertible and reflective of each other. Moreover, economic capital is still considered the most powerful type in terms of determining one’s class position. Indeed, part of how the other forms of capital are measured as such, is not simply by comparing it between classes (a point I will return to later), rather the proof of some form of capitals existence as a high volume is evident by how well it can be converted into economic capital.

Economic capital is, as Riley says, money, property rights or assets, and all of the usual things we might think of when we think about “capital”. Social capital is, basically understood, social connections. However, important to note, is the potential access to other forms of capital it provides- i.e. it’s convertibility. For example, a graduate who gets a job they didn’t know about through their contacts met at university is considered to have converted the social capital of such a contact into the economic capital of improved job prospects. There is also institutionalised, or socially reified, social capital which is usually what we know as fame but we might also consider it the mobilisation of institutionalised social capital in exchange for cultural capital when a prospective student is granted a place at a major university because of their surname.

There are more examples beyond the scope of this article, and it is worth noting that indeed some of these examples seem like cronyism. They are, and nepotism is another form of social capital being exchanged which is problematic. It is problematic insofar as all people may have an innate disposition towards nepotism due to kin-selection theory. This theory in evolutionary psychology posits that organisms which prefer to behave in ways that benefit closer related beings have an advantage in regard to biological “fitness”.

Perhaps Bourdieu’s most significant contribution to sociological theory is the idea of cultural capital. This is posited as coming in 3 forms- embodied, objectified and institutionalised. Importantly, cultural capital cannot be transferred instantaneously like with economic capitals. Moreover, it can be acquired without any conscious effort by its holder, indeed it can even be acquired unconsciously. In my own theory (book in progress), I aim to look develop this concept with reference to social psychological literature as I believe it is one of the weaker points of Bourdieusian theory.

For the sake of brevity, I will include just a few examples of cultural capital rather than delving into its centrality in Bourdieu’s work. One example of embodied cultural capital is language, which can be converted into economic capital through its mobilisation in job markets- English usually being the most valuable form of this type. An easy example of institutionalised cultural capital is an academic qualification. It is “institutionalised” because it has its value guaranteed by some socially legitimate governing body whereas the cultural capital of an autodidact is simply embodied cultural capital as it can be called into question at any time. Objectified cultural capital includes objects like books, which can be converted to embodied cultural capital through the process of learning. Some types of disposition which are embodied by an individual’s habitus act as cultural capital because they tend towards the accumulation of other forms of capital. To explain this, we need to bring in the concept of habitus.


Habitus is a set of preconscious dispositions, including tastes, a sense of the self, bodily stances, and, crucially, skills or “practical mastery.” The habitus is established primarily in the family, but in “differentiated” societies the school also plays a key role. In general, habitus produces patterns of behavior that reproduce the social agent in the position he or she currently occupies. More specifically, habitus translates different class positions, specified by different forms of capital, into observable behavior.


It’s fair to say that the concept of habitus is difficult to understand initially and even in the past couple of years, Loïc Wacquant, one of Bourdieu’s lasting Pleiades has felt the need to clarify it (see “A Concise Genealogy and Anatomy of Habitus” (2016) in The Sociological Review). So here I will just add to Riley’s much too simple definition of it here. The habitus, while a generative mechanism for behaviour cannot act alone, but always in relation to a field through the mobilisation of capitals available to it. The habitus is constantly in a state of revision according to the field it currently inhabits but tends towards equilibrium and stability. Habitus is simultaneously structured by the field it inhabits and exerts a structuring influence on that field. The resistance between field and habitus, which Wacquant calls its “inertia”, is related to the durability of habitus structures because they frame how novel field structures structure the habitus.

If this is beginning to seem confusing, you are not alone as this concept took me a while to understand which is partly why I feel it was disingenuous for Riley to put forth such a limiting over-simplified definition of habitus. One analogous concept I have found to draw upon in explaining habitus, especially the idea of primary and secondary habitus, comes from developmental psychology. Earlier experiences are more structuring of habitus and form the primary habitus in a similar way to how there exist sensitive periods in early childhood wherein children are more susceptible to environmental influences. Further, and often missed even by contemporary researchers, as leading Bourdieusian scholar Will Atkinson notes, is the fact that the habitus is rarely coherent and unified. The illusion of coherence often arises due to the fact that a habitus will tend towards stability and being congruent with the field it is structured most like. This malleability of habitus is something I am currently writing about in another series on this website about my own cleft habitus- the result of having a largely working-class habitus which has experienced rapid changes in the field it inhabits thanks to the transformative experience of higher education.


Fields are agonistic social games in which agents struggle with one another over some socially defined stake, such as profit or prestige. Although there are an unspecified number of such fields, the economic field, the political field, and the field of cultural production are among the most important. Bourdieu sees social reality as made up fundamentally of fields, and social action as action in fields. The consequences of the general use of this metaphor are profound, and I examine them in detail in the subsequent section.


Finally, fields are not substantive places but always exist in relation to habitus and capitals. Fields come to exist as researchers create them. They are created with the limitations of an individual’s agency in mind. If a habitus is congruent or comfortably structured by the field it inhabits, we might say that the individual with that habitus has a feel for the game, where the game is the competition for capitals within that field. This competition may be out of complete necessity but when broadly considered along with Bourdieu’s other concepts like cultural capital, retain their explanatory power. Yes indeed, not everyone acts out of pure material self-interest, but where these interests arise is due to the structuring influences of habitus, which result from the structuring of habitus itself by fields it is exposed to in earlier socialisation. Fields are constructed by considering the pertinent properties (that is the usual roles and distribution of capital in its various forms) of a set of agents and/or institutions.


The final pillar of Bourdieu’s sociology is the concept of symbolic power. Symbolic power derives from the misrecognition of historically contingent social relations, especially the rules that govern particular fields, as if they were given by nature. This misrecognition of the arbitrary character of the rules that govern fields is a crucial element in Bourdieu’s theory of reproduction.


Symbolic power arises because of doxa, the beliefs which usually accompany a class position and can often act as a form of cultural capital insofar as they can be converted into other forms. Symbolic power is admittedly one of Bourdieu’s concepts I am least familiar with and is why I am surprised to see it labelled as one of the four pillars of Bourdieu’s sociology. Utilising the concept of doxa however, we can see how the concept might lead to Riley’s definition of symbolic power and we can also compare it to other social theory definitions of “ideology”, or the Marxist idea of “false consciousness”.

Power itself is an already muddy concept but if we borrow from Riley here where he mentions “misrecognition” we can see the parallels. Symbolic power as the power to obfuscate real social relations, causing misrecognition of one’s own interests or social position, continues to be useful in explaining why individuals in a lower class social position might sometimes behave in ways that are materially against their own interests but can even explain patterns of social mobility. For example, we might be familiar with the idea many working-class people might hold about certain types of “highbrow” cultural capital as “not for the likes of me”, thus potentially denying themselves access to capital which might help them because of its convertibility to other capitals, as explained earlier. It can also have a negative effect as some research shows, whereby middle-class graduates refuse lower level positions of employment out of a sense of entitlement, a doxa which acts as negative cultural capital because it inhibits their ability to start a career from a lower position (get economic capital) and start accumulating it. This doxa, orthodox belief in middle-class habituses because usually middle-class habituses find navigating the field of graduate employment markets easy, prevents them from being able to mobilise their cultural capital of their degree.


To summarize, Bourdieu’s general conceptual scheme is this: one’s resources (capital) produce a character structure (habitus) that generates particular sorts of behavior in the contexts of particular social games (fields). These contexts are then stably reproduced, because the process that links capital, habitus, and field together is systematically distorted by lay understandings that serve to legitimate the existing unequal distribution of resources (symbolic power). Bourdieu uses these concepts to develop an account of stratification, an account of social reproduction, and an account of social change. His ambition is then to develop a social theory of the same range and power as the classical social theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. Does he succeed?

Capital and Habitus: a New Theory of Class?

One of Bourdieu’s fundamental claims is that habitus, understood as a system of dispositions, appreciations, and practical mastery, is the product of class position, and more specifically the product of the volume and structure of capital that agents possess. The habitus is a preconscious framework or “generative mechanism” that operates in an analogous way in a wide variety of different contexts and therefore shapes a huge variety of behaviors. Habitus provides the basic frameworks of cultural tastes; it embodies a fund of tacit knowledge and even shapes orientations to the body. As Bourdieu writes, “Habitus produces individual and collective practices, thus history, that conforms to the schemas engendered by history.” His claim therefore is that there is a close connection between this deep and powerful schema and class position. Accordingly, it should be possible to demonstrate that different habitus are the result of different “volumes” and “structures of capital” possessed by agents in specific fields.


Bourdieu does elaborate that habitus is the product of class position as it relates to the volume and structure of capital an agent possesses, however it cannot be taken alone. One cannot think with habitus without considering fields, capitals, doxa and practice. Indeed, it’s strange then that Riley calls these concepts “pillars” of Bourdieu’s theory and goes on to try and critique them rather separately- if you remove one pillar then of course the entire theory comes crumbling down. Here it might be helpful to introduce the overall Bourdieusian theory then- practice, that is what agent’s do, how they compete in fields, is a product of a dialectical relationship between an agent’s habitus and the capitals available to them, and the field in which they are embedded. Bourdieu even wrote a handy mathematical formula which has continued to confuse theorists over the years:

Practice = ( Habitus x Capitals ) + Field

Where doxa comes in is a little more complicated as they are both part of habitus and capital, depending on their (usually) limiting effects on practice, which explains their tight constitution in the general Bourdieusian formula. Still, where is class? Does it need explicit presentation or are we missing the point of Bourdieu’s theory of practice? Further, does theory need to be as simple as sociologists so often seem to aim to make it? If it is elitist to believe that theory should not be simplified just to make it more accessible (and I am certainly not against accessibility) because then academics forget the inherent elitism of the academy, one of the reasons for its success and why it has historically been granted such autonomy from the real economy. (A discussion on academia, the role and position of academics in contemporary society is beyond the scope of this commentary but forthcoming.)

What is class to any sociologist if not regularities in the lives of individuals, which is to say their practices, what they do? Traditional theories of social class, originating with Marxist theories about the working class and the ruling class are obviously making a distinction between those who work and those who don’t. More recent theories of class look at the types of work that people do as the main way that society is stratified today, which still includes those who don’t work. Both are descriptions of groups based upon their practices.

Where Marx saw the reproduction of social class, that is the practices of workers, as being reproduced because workers have no other choice due to material constraints which arise due to the economic mode of production- capitalism- Bourdieu is interested in seeing how modern society, with its much greater specialisation and so greater variation in practices of different groups, is reproduced.

To understand how taste is related to practices and its mobilisation as a form of capital in the reproduction of society, we must look further into Bourdieu’s arguments indeed but before continuing I should like to comment on the unfairness of Riley’s article. La Distinction may well be considered Bourdieu’s masterpiece, but it is not his most mature work so not reflective of his final theories. Further, today’s Bourdieusian research, while obviously taking a lot from Bourdieu’s work, has continued to develop theoretically, taking heed of new empirical data as all decent scientific theories should, so to base his critique largely on this old work and mostly ignoring contemporary research is at best disingenuous, and at worst malicious.


Bourdieu’s attempt to explain habitus as a result of class is thus vitiated by a basic conceptual weakness. He does not explain how his indicators of “class” connect to his theoretical class map. Thus, his scheme of the space of social positions contains a series of seemingly irrelevant (from the point of view of class analysis) social differences. This creates a serious problem for his work on class and tastes because, in the absence of a clear concept of class, any difference in taste along any social dimension recorded in his surveys becomes evidence of a class difference in habitus. Paradoxically, then, for a book often considered a classic of sociological theory, La Distinction suffers from a common error of empiricist social research: the concepts and indicators Bourdieu uses collapse into one another, so that any array of evidence would seem to be compatible with his argument. Bourdieu’s theory of class and habitus, then, lacks empirical content in the technical sense that it is unclear what evidence is imaginably incompatible or inconsistent with his account. The claim that class position determines habitus is thus quite similar to the statement Karl Popper famously cited as an example of a nonempirical statement: “It will rain or not rain here tomorrow.” By being compatible with all conceivable evidence, Bourdieu’s account undermines its explanatory status.

At times Bourdieu seems to try to solve this problem by resorting to the tautological claim that habitus is in fact an indicator of class rather than an outcome of it. There is a conceptual warrant for this claim in much of his work. Bourdieu often discusses habitus as an internalization of class position and, in his work on capital, speaks of habitus as an embodied form of capital. In this case, presumably, differences in taste would themselves be an indicator of “class habitus.” Thus Gorski states that “in Bourdieu’s view, social position [class] influences individual disposition [habitus], and vice versa [!], ad infinitum, if not in wholly determinate or ineluctable fashion.” But this would obviously presume the “classness” of habitus, which is precisely what Bourdieu’s analysis is supposed to demonstrate. To define habitus as an “embodiment” of class is to undermine the explanatory agenda of attempting to demonstrate a relationship between them.


Here again, bringing up even older studies Riley does an injustice to all those researchers who have continued to develop Bourdieusian theory. If we go by my earlier explanations, which follow from a fair engagement with the contemporary literature, then we can see that class is evident in the usually homologous practices of individuals which are members of that class, which are a result of the structure of relations between their habitus and the fields they inhabit. These relations both relate structurally to each other as the habitus is in a constant state of revision as it adjusts to the field in which it operates, and it operates by moving within this field or into others, thus continually restructuring the habitus.

Thus, the existence of class habitus becomes evident when we see that there is a persistent strategy employed by a person within various fields- class is in their practices. This also explains why Bourdieu does not offer a “theoretical class map” as the point of his theory is to gather empirical data and look for homogeneities across individual practices which can be theorised as evidence of the existence of each class. Another problem, although arguably a strength and empirically justified, is how this formulation of class does not posit them as completely distinct. Like with habitus, class practices are not necessarily coherent and stable but also constantly revised as they adapt to new conditions, which can include access to more capitals or changes in fields.

Individuals aren’t born in isolation, they usually inherit the social conditions of their parents. As they grow up, through learning and socialisation, they come to embody the practices of their parents and peers in the educational system, which are usually of the same class. This is what Bourdieu means when he claims that class habitus is inherited. Claims about the embodiment of class in habitus, thus reproducing class overall, cannot be explained without reference to Bourdieu’s other conceptual tools- capitals, doxa and fields. Riley again by commenting only on the relationship between class and habitus, as though they can be studied in isolation, shows either confusion or insincerity.


In explaining this pattern, Bourdieu states that the “capacity to think as beautiful or better as susceptible to an aesthetic transformation … is strongly tied to cultural capital inherited or scholastically acquired” (my emphasis). Note the symptomatic slippage between “inheritance” and “scholastic acquisition.” It cannot be sufficiently stressed that only the first of these interpretations is consistent with Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as determined (in part) by “cultural capital.” This is because class habitus is not something acquired in a secondary educational process. Indeed, in an earlier work Bourdieu specifically rejects the notion that the habitus can be fundamentally altered in education; schools, according to him, largely transmit preexisting differences in the “primary habitus” created by early socialization. Therefore, “scholastically acquired cultural capital” is not really cultural capital at all: it is simply schooling. Bourdieu’s evidence from the photographs, then, although among the strongest pieces of data in La distinction, is hardly decisive since it is compatible with two entirely different, and indeed fundamentally opposed, explanations of the pattern of responses. It is quite possible that Bourdieu’s survey evidence is profoundly at odds with the theory of habitus, because what the evidence may show is the importance of pedagogy rather than class background.


Here Riley continues to make the mistake of writing as though La Distinction is the epitome of Bourdieusian research. Cultural capital in the form of symbolic and practical mastery which can be utilised for better employment prospects later in life is indeed scholastically acquired, but the scholastic setting is also somewhat determined by class. This weak counter-claim assumes that all education is equal, which we know to be far from the case. In fact, what’s more likely is that we see what happens in reality, that children from certain class backgrounds are more likely to have a certain quality of education, both due to access to better schooling and through family socialisation, which reflects that class background and so the child scholastically acquires a quantity of cultural capital which reflects that class position. There are exceptions to the usual rule (exceptions only exist in relation to rules of course) however Bourdieusian theory has explanations for these varying trajectories which no one can deny happens, but they further support the overall theory rather than refute it.

This is not the first time Bourdieusian scholars have been forced to defend their work’s legitimacy in the field of sociology, a field in which sociologist academics compete for the capital of research grants by mastering the rules of the research game. In 2012 Will Atkinson explains the reproduction thesis again and as it currently standards, in response to an attack on an anachronism of Bourdieu’s theory by John Goldthorpe. Although this focused on explaining the class differences in symbolic and practical mastery as reproduced by inheritance of those masteries as forms of capital, the thesis is also useful to help us understand class differences in tastes.

For those individuals in the dominant classes, at home symbolic mastery is inherited via the parents’ unconscious reproduction of symbolic mastery in everyday life. This symbolic mastery then seems to act as an innate disposition towards symbolic mastery, the most valued in the education system, and so acts as a form of capital to be accumulated, and which can later be converted and exchanged- for better employment prospects for example. Parents inculcate the values of valuing their symbolic mastery and this disposition towards accumulating this mastery as cultural capital appears to workers in the education system as an innate talent and/or drive for academic pursuits, which in education is further re-affirmed as valuable. Later, for successful individuals in the dominant class background able to mobilise their education as cultural capital to position themselves high up in class hierarchy, their valuing of the mastery they acquired exerts structural influence on the fields they dominate about which type of mastery is privileged, thus reproducing the entire structure.

Conversely, for the dominated classes symbolic mastery isn’t fostered at home as parents don’t have the symbolic mastery for them to inherit through imitation. They enter the education system without valuing this form of mastery and so cannot mobilise the disposition towards symbolic mastery as a capital for them to accumulate. Of course, there is more to this about the reproduction of class and capital in the education system, especially if we also consider how doxa, that is belief, about the education system supports or sets-up-to-fail individuals from certain class backgrounds, and the complicating matter of social mobility, but these are beyond the scope of this article and we are getting away from this point about tastes.

Riley, in a sense, is correct to point that Bourdieu’s analysis highlights the importance of pedagogy but wrong to assert that this is “rather than class background”. As noted earlier, differences in pedagogy are often classed and this important point helps with explaining how differences in symbolic mastery between classes are reproduced. These differences in symbolic mastery in part arise from difference in the type of cultural products children are exposed to, and in part, from the various dispositions inculcated by parents through primary pedagogic work. In simpler terms, children from the dominated classes are less likely to be exposed to cultural products which may require a deeper aesthetic analysis to enjoy and so are not likely to be taught such methods. Further, their parents are also unlikely to have these skills to transfer, skills which are valued in the education system, so can be mobilised as a form of embodied cultural capital, which they can convert into the institutionalised cultural capital of educational attainment, which can later be mobilised for conversion to economic capital in the form of better employment prospects.


Furthermore, the entire notion of a coherent habitus, determined by class or otherwise, is not well supported by Bourdieu’s evidence. To recall, the habitus cannot be indicated by differences in one particular domain of tastes. Since it is a “generative mechanism,” it should produce similar differences across a wide variety of domains. In support of this point, Bourdieu presents evidence not only on tastes but also on the frequencies of various activities: “Do-It-Yourself,” “Photography,” “Records,” “Painting,” “Musical Instrument,” “Louvre and Modern Art Gallery,” “Light Music,” and “News.” Bourdieu’s evidence here demonstrates some intriguing differences. Thus, while 63 percent of the working class reported “Do-It-Yourself” activities often, only 40 percent of the upper class did so. Similarly, while 16 percent of the educators and artistic producers reported painting, only 4 percent of the working-class respondents did so.


Indeed, the entire notion of a coherent habitus is not supported by Bourdieu’s evidence, but such a claim is not made. Bourdieu once described the study Riley evaluates here as “a work of youth” and as we see from later research, this earlier work was lacking indeed however, far from completely useless. The overall ideas about class practices as they follow from the inculcation of symbolic mastery, how it can be mobilised as a cultural capital, convertible to other forms as explained earlier, is still useful in explaining empirical data which Riley falsely makes it appear incompatible with.

Since the 90s, the emphasis on culture as a vehicle of class reproduction was being challenged, especially in light of evidence that members of the (continuing the use in this article of the very simplified dominated versus dominating class dichotomy) dominant classes consumed both “high” and “lowbrow” culture. For a while, research even suggested that the openness of the dominant classes to consumption of lowbrow culture was a sign that cultural preferences are increasingly redundant to class analysis. However, this research did not consider how symbolic mastery was not simply a disposition towards consumption of cultural products which might require a deeper level of aesthetic understanding for enjoyment, but is a kind of skillset which those who possessed it could use to interpret all sorts of cultural products, including lowbrow ones. What really separated the dominant and dominated classes what not what they consumed, but how they consumed it. This argument is returned to further down.

Another issue that isn’t really touched upon here concerning the role of culture in the reproduction of class, is the feeling of belonging or rather, feeling that one does not belong, which is inculcated and embodied in habitus. I would agree that this is one of the more contentious claims in Bourdieusian research that would also require it’s own article but the jist of the claim is simple. Members of the dominated class are not exposed to “highbrow” cultural products, social surroundings indicative of higher class position, or even the types of mannerisms associated with them. This can lead to a resistance bordering on self-sabotage as a person who is socially mobile has a habitus which does not fit well with their new field, Bourdieu’s “hysteresis effect”, or the development of a “cleft habitus”- both of which are discussed later in this article.

Understanding feeling of belonging with social positions helps explain what is meant by embodied cultural capital and habitus. For a simple example, we can look at how languages and dialects are embodied by habitus through socialisation but can be mobilised as a form of capital to, in the case of language, access better employment opportunities (economic capital), or in the case of dialects, make new friendships (social capital) which could be mobilised for other forms of capital later. This form of capital deserves a fuller explanation which is beyond the scope of this article but hopefully this brief outline introduces the idea enough to help the reader understand the kind of thinking Bourdieusian scholars are engaging in when thinking with the conceptual tools of capital and habitus.


This brief discussion of Bourdieu’s evidence suggests that it is insufficient to support his claim that there existed distinctive “class habitus” in France in the 1960s and 1970s. On some very specific items there were differences, but these may have had as much to do with access to education, free time, and resources as the deep, generative schema of “class habitus.” Indeed, Bourdieu shows little evidence of a consistent and transposable habitus of any sort operating similarly across different cultural activities. Instead, certain sorts of activities and tastes seem relevant to class, others much less so.


Here Riley repeats his moot point when considered with the rest of Bourdieusian theory, about how class differences may have to do with access to education, free time, and resources. Again, we should consider that differences in access to education are the product of class differences and note now how Riley brings in concepts of “free time” and “resources”. We cannot be sure about what Riley means by “resources” but can only assume that he would be alluding to other things that Bourdieusian scholars would consider other forms of capital. Regarding “free time”, we have different ways to consider this but the most significant would be how free time can be used to invest in other forms of capital, such as learning activities which increase the amount of capital we have to mobilise for exchange to other forms of capital. Further, when considering the dominated classes, we can see that their economic position, one of the most significant indicators of class, is reflected in their lack of free time due to it being taken up by work.

Free time and the capacity to invest it in other forms of capital is one of the more complex issues within Bourdieusian theory which is developed in my upcoming book. One complicating example is when we consider how cash injections such as university loans enable members of dominated class to have the “free time”, due to not having to work out of necessity due to economic position, in order to invest in the cultural capital of a university education. However, even with this help, due to not having the dispositions towards symbolic mastery, privileged in the field of education, they may fail to invest this free time and successfully convert it into the cultural capital of educational attainment. Further complicating this situation is how the university field allows ample opportunity to convert already held cultural capital to social capital in the form of social connections. Perhaps one of the most complex matters, often overlooked to the point of sheer denial in my opinion, is the issue of “luck” or “randomness”, or the effects of being in a certain place at a certain time and even the unpredictability of genetic inheritance.

In addition to these kinds of problems, my own research synthesises social psychological theories about the limitations of our ability to self-regulate and employ willpower to reach our goals, with Bourdieusian theory about investment of time and different forms of capital, to explain more ways in which the hereditary transfer of capital is obfuscated. One of the most important developments is that basically, our capacity to will freely acts like a muscle, which gets stronger with exercise and atrophies from disuse. Different socialisation experiences due to social class lead to this “free will capacity” also being differentiated according to social class. These differences explain differences in the ability across classes to mobilise or accumulate the different forms of capital, and those differences effectively act similarly as forms of capital due to the way they are convertible and exchangeable for other forms. Just as with other forms of capital, their distributions, which we know as social class, are primarily reproduced through the institutions of family and education. The social and political implications of this are then discussed for policy-makers and anyone interested in understanding social inequalities.


The discussion up to this point has presumed that Bourdieu’s main project in La distinction and his related studies was to show that habitus was rooted in class differences. But he simultaneously puts forward a second, very different account. After the first half of the book lays out the theory of habitus and attempts to document it, chapter six opens with the disconcerting claim that “the different social classes differ not so much in the extent to which they acknowledge culture as in the extent to which they know it.” This difference between knowledge (connaissance) and acknowledgment (reconnaissance) forms the basis for the “cultural goodwill” that Bourdieu holds to be characteristic of the petit-bourgeoisie. Basically, his argument here is that a wide range of middlebrow tastes are oriented to the search for substitutes for legitimate high culture. This leads to a particularly high rate of consumption of “pretentious” cultural objects, objects that pretend to be something other than they are: kitchenettes as opposed to kitchens, stamp collections as opposed to art collections, decorated corners as opposed to rooms.

Bourdieu continues this style of analysis when he argues that the working-class habitus is marked by an “acceptance of domination,” evidenced not only by “the absence of luxury goods” but also by “the presence of numerous cheap substitutes for these rare goods, ‘sparkling white wine’ for champagne, imitation leather for real leather, reproductions for paintings.” These, according to Bourdieu, are “indices of a dispossession at the second power, which accepts the definition of the goods worthy of being possessed.”

These passages have provoked intense criticism as being “patronizing” and for running against considerable evidence of the cultural autonomy of the working class. What has been less noticed is how profoundly at odds Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural good will is with his previous account of class habitus. In fact, all of his writings on culture are marked by two formally incompatible claims: on the one hand, that each class, or more broadly, social group, has its own habitus and therefore its own schemas of perception and appreciation (tastes); on the other, that the petit-bourgeoisie and working class are dominated by the schemas and perceptions of the dominant class. Evidently, however, in order to be culturally dominated, the petit-bourgeoisie and the working class must share at least some elements of the habitus of the dominant class, since one of the key elements of habitus is precisely those “categories of perception and appreciation” through which particular cultural objects come to be acknowledged as legitimate. If different classes really had different habitus, as is suggested in Bourdieu’s first position, there could be no relations of cultural dominance among them. Each class would simply inhabit a parallel symbolic universe with its own “values.” Conversely, if relations of cultural domination exist among classes, they must share broadly the same habitus. To assert both arguments simultaneously is incoherent.


Returning to our argument about how class differences in cultural consumption are due to how products, rather than what products are consumed, Riley continues hammering away with his misunderstanding of habitus which is immediately apparent to anyone who has spent any considerable time with the contemporary literature. Riley speaks about habitus as though Bourdieu claimed that habitus is something essential to the classes which possess them, rather than something which arises due to regularities in the experiences of members of those classes. This is precisely the kind of error Bourdieu aimed to combat, as it reifies class practices, turning them into the natural result of being a member of that class rather than something which is socially determined.

As for the arguments about the acceptance through misrecognition of domination, is this really so controversial a claim? Keep in mind Bourdieu is part of the Critical Theory tradition, a main aim of which is to understand why capitalism persists, why social revolutions predicted by many scholars throughout history, particularly in the post-war period, did not happen. Freud posited eros and thanatos, Althusser argued about state ideological apparatuses, Foucault said we live in a “disciplinarian society”, Gramsci re-highlighted that the social order was legitimised through coercion shrouded in the language of consent, Žižek rants on about ideology and so on and so on, Bourdieu claims that workers misrecognise the objective fact of their exploitation- a fact which I would have thought would not be controversial to the editors of Catalyst as apparent anti-capitalists.

This might seem patronising to someone thinking unscientifically in moral terms, only looking at the arguments in their face. It is completely understandable that these arguments often seem patronising at first, but that is to ignore the arguments about the source of domination and place blame for lowbrow tastes on those members of that dominated. Important here is not the way that sociologist might seem to be peering down upon those classes from their ivory tower possibly with a sense of superiority because they see past this domination, but the point about the source of this domination and how it is reproduced. Indeed, this is something Bourdieu and many other scholars, myself included, have struggled with. This awareness comes with its own psychic costs, such as the sense of guilt that comes with being embarrassed about the tastes, or rather lack of symbolic mastery, from friends or family of a lower class that might come with upwards social mobility. This topic is something I will be writing in further detail about in my other series “The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus”.

Finally, Riley contradicts himself multiple times by arguing that Bourdieu offers no conception of class and later conflates class habitus with social class. He complains that if different classes have different habituses then each would have different more distinct values. Class is exhibited in practices which are the result of the interaction of habitus and capitals in a field. It is entirely possible for someone to have a habitus which we would usually expect to find of one who exhibits dominated class practices, because they may have access to capitals which make allow them to exhibit dominant class practices. If anything is incoherent in this argument as it appears here, it is Riley’s assertion that “if relations of cultural domination exist among classes, they must share broadly the same habitus” as it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of Bourdieu’s overall theory of practice.


Bourdieu’s account of the connection between habitus and class, to summarize, suffers from three basic problems. First, since Bourdieu offers no clear conceptualization of class, it is unclear how the differences of taste he finds relate to class differences in any sense. Second, even accepting that the occupational categories he uses do represent classes in some way, the patterns he finds are incompatible with the theory of habitus. Bourdieu presents no evidence that his respondents possess a “generative mechanism” that can be seen operating in widely different domains of culture. In fact, his evidence points in the opposite direction: that some very specific forms of cultural practice are strongly linked to some occupational groups while others are not. Third, Bourdieu is in fact implicitly working with two incompatible models of the relationship between culture and class, one that conceives of habitus as stratified by class and another that conceives of them as shared across classes. Thus, in one basic sense, Bourdieu’s sociology does not succeed as a macrosociological theory because he fails to link underlying social-structural divisions to observable behavior.


First, Bourdieu refuses to offer distinct concepts of class, because it is a relational concept which comes up following data analysis which shows homogeneities in the types of practices of different groups which follow from their access to capitals, their habitus as dispositions towards how they mobilise those capitals and play the game of the field they inhabit, and what field they inhabit as conceptualised by the researcher. Second, habitus is not class but influences class practices. Some individuals may exhibit overall class practices that are the result of different habituses as they interact with available capitals in a particular field. Third, habitus is simultaneously produced by class and contributes to it. Riley’s final claim about Bourdieu’s sociology failing to link underlying social-structural divisions to observable behaviour is just an unwarranted assertion ignorant of the many empirical studies which link Bourdieusian theory with research practice, which any student that knows how to perform even a cursory literature review would find in abundance. As a professor of sociology at a highly influential institution, why has it taken so long for Riley to come out against this popular research paradigm, and why does he fail to consider the contemporary evidence or acknowledge that the studies he cites are considered largely defunct even by Bourdieusian scholars?


Misrecognition and the School System: Bourdieu’s Account of Reproduction

I now turn to evaluating Bourdieu’s work along the second dimension: his account of social reproduction. Bourdieu, of course, acknowledges the pervasive class inequality of modern capitalism. This imposes a problem very familiar to the tradition of western Marxism. Given the obvious inequalities and injustices of contemporary capitalism, how is it possible that such societies can stably reproduce themselves over time? Bourdieu’s answer to this undeniably real puzzle is symbolic power, which can be best grasped as, in Mara Loveman’s words, “the ability to make appear as natural, inevitable, and thus apolitical that which is a product of historical struggle.” Bourdieu’s account of symbolic power closely parallels the French Marxist Louis Althusser’s theory of ideology. Bourdieu, like Althusser, claims that the misrecognition of the social world is a precondition for action; therefore, a false, imaginary, or incorrect understanding of the social world is the universal default condition of actors in capitalist society. Furthermore, like Althusser, he emphasizes that this condition of universal misrecognition is reinforced through the education system. Therefore, the school is the central institutional mechanism of social reproduction under capitalism. To consider this account of social reproduction, it is necessary first to get a general sense of why Bourdieu thinks misrecognition is universal.

Bourdieu sees misrecognition as universal because, as noted earlier, he sees society as made up of a set of competitive games called fields. Each field, just like a game, has its own rules and stakes. Thus, for example, the field of the economy is defined by a competitive struggle among firms for profits. But there is also a field of cultural production, an intellectual field, and a field of political power. Each such field has stakes analogous to profits, such as intellectual prestige or political power. The ubiquity of fields undergirds the ubiquity of misrecognition; in order to be a player in a game, one cannot constantly question the rules of the game by pointing out their arbitrary and historically constructed quality. To question the rules of the game would mean no longer to play but rather to observe. In Bourdieu’s conception, players in games misrecognize the arbitrary character of the rules that govern their action in that they take them as unquestionable givens. To summarize, if to be a social actor is to be like a player in a game, and to be a player in a game requires submission to the arbitrary rules of the game, then action implies misrecognition. Granted, there are ambiguous elements to this explanation of misrecognition. (Does playing basketball really require that one suppress the realization that the rules of the game are an arbitrary product of history?) But the truly fundamental question is different: Are agonistic games (fields) a good metaphor for social life in general? It is striking how rarely this question has been posed, given the enormous amount of energy scholars have devoted to defining fields, clarifying ambiguities in Bourdieu’s usage of the term, and deploying the notion in empirical work. The ludic metaphor that underlies the idea of the field and its corollary of universal misrecognition remains an unexamined assumption within much of the literature on Bourdieu and influenced by him.

One general problem with the ludic or field view of the social is that there are many zones of social life that are not configured like games. One of these is the world of labor, in the sense of material transformation and creation. Even in the most exploitative and alienated conditions, labor involves a collective effort at transformation and is therefore oriented toward a project, not toward “stance-taking” or “distinction” in a field. Furthermore, it is not clear why participation in the labor process would require misrecognition as submission to the rules of the game, as in Bourdieu’s fields. Indeed, effective labor processes, as both Marx and Weber clearly understood, require constant, reflexive monitoring of the consequences of various courses of action.


As explained earlier, fields are not substantial but constructed in a relational manner by the researcher in each new study. Each field has its own rules which usually regulate the competition for capitals in its various forms. Also, important to keep in mind is Bourdieu’s Marxist influences underlying his theory, which aims to make clear social relations which are mystified by human institutions. Where the Enlightenment thinkers were aiming to show the unfair arbitrariness of the institution of inheritance by birth, Bourdieu aimed to show that capital is still unfairly transferred by inheritance, but in even greater mystified forms.

Applying the ludic metaphor of fields, as Riley calls it, to labour is an especially ambiguous endeavour most of the time. Going by the definition of labour as “material transformation and creation” is even more confusing and seemingly non-committal. Assuming what Riley meant was work, we can still apply the ludic metaphor to a workplace as a field. As I have argued in my last series about working in fastfood, one can come to understand the rules of the game but still play it. Workers, myself included in my example of working at foodchain, objectively suspend belief by engaging in those games on a practical level, and what they are thinking in that very moment is irrelevant.

This is where my own theories about misrecognition and domination start to clash somewhat with Bourdieu and are again beyond the scope of this article (I have written elsewhere about misrecognition in the field of work) but where we agree about how this happens is a fundamental point about habitus as a weapon against the usual assumptions about value-rationality or cynical reason in economics. Fields are constructed considering habituses which, as dispositions towards the generation of certain behaviours, do not necessarily produce action in the, for lack of a better word, objective best interests of the individual. Of course effective labour processes require constant, reflexive monitoring of the consequences of various courses of action but this has nothing to do with Bourdieu’s point. The disposition of an individual’s habitus within the constructed field a workplace may be limited to competing simply for the security of constant work hours, or it may be inclined to distinction and career progression, or it may be inclined to gaining skills in order to mobilise a transfer out of the field entirely as it exists in relation to a larger field. Really, we cannot disparage the entire notion of the field in the manner put forth by Riley without giving it some specificity and understanding that the ambiguity of the concept is intentional.


Another key type of action which would seem to escape the field metaphor is social movements, especially revolutionary social movements, which are often explicitly oriented to identifying and challenging previously unacknowledged rules of the social game. Just as in the case of labor, social action here would seem to require a break with misrecognition rather than submission to it.


Riley further shows his misunderstanding about fields not being objective substantial things, but social constructions which are identified by the researcher in order to answer a certain question. With that in mind, it becomes relatively easy to understand how social movements can be constructed as fields with individuals mobilising capitals, having their habitus influence their movement within the field, structuring the field and having it structure their habitus in return. If we consider, like Riley, the labour movement requires a break with misrecognition rather than submission to it, it does not negate that the social movement is another separate field with its own rules that those involved in it, suspend belief about in order to engage with it.

Just as with a workplace, workers might recognise the game they play, they practically suspend this belief at the very moment they continue to work. Similarly, social movements have their own rules, roles and positions, and capitals. It is nonsensical in Bourdieusian terms to say that one has broken with misrecognition of the rules of the game of a field when they simply switch to another field.


A final type of social interaction outside of the field metaphor is interaction oriented to communication. Again, this sort of social structure cannot be understood as a field of competition in the Bourdieusian sense because mutual understanding is a result of mutual and sympathetic interpretation, not agonistic distinction.


I have no idea what point Riley was trying to make here. What is the field of “interaction oriented to communication”?


Bourdieu offers, in addition to the general idea of misrecognition, a more specific and institutionally rooted theory of reproduction focusing on the education system. He posits a fundamental transformation in modern society from a mode of “family reproduction” to one of “school reproduction.” In the family mode of reproduction, resources and property are passed down through the family. In the school mode of reproduction, they are at least partially invested in an education that then provides the inheritor with a certificate. Bourdieu argues that this second mode provides much greater legitimacy to the dominant classes than the family mode, and that this legitimacy increases to the extent that the education system itself becomes increasingly autonomous from the direct control of the dominant economic class. As Bourdieu and Passeron put the argument:

Nothing is better designed than the examination to inspire universal recognition of the legitimacy of academic verdicts and of the social hierarchies they legitimate, since it leads the self-eliminated to count themselves among those who fail, while enabling those elected from among a small number of eligible candidates to see in their election the proof of a merit or “gift” which would have caused them to be preferred to all comers in any circumstances.

Schooling and examinations thus translate class inequalities into inequalities of merit, legitimating these inequalities both in the eyes of the dominant and subordinate classes. According to Bourdieu, to a large extent the dominant class of contemporary class of contemporary is a credentialed elite. To recall, this is also Althusser’s argument: that the school ISA is the key institution in reproducing capitalism.


Riley misunderstands that the idea of the education system as a fundamental locus of social reproduction is not in addition to the general idea of misrecognition, but a part of it. The education system is, as I explained earlier, one of the new forms of mystification of the hereditary transfers of capital, the distribution of which being the main characteristic of social hierarchy. The education system privileges symbolic mastery, which behaves as a form of cultural capital in its convertibility to other forms, and is usually inherited via indirect hereditary mechanisms of early socialisation in the family unit. The symbolic power of this capital transfer being seen as legitimate, due to it mystifying truth of it being a hereditary transfer, is a new kind of naturalisation of social hierarchy. In the past, hierarchy was considered legitimated due to, for example, the God-give natural rights of dominaters to dominate, today hierarchy is legitimated by credentials. Also, note that Althusser’s argument is similar but not the same as Bourdieu’s.


It is beyond the scope of this article to fully engage with the debates about the role of schooling in capitalist reproduction. Two points are worth making, however. The first is that Bourdieu’s account of reproduction through schooling is heavily dependent on the French case. The French school system, with its enormous prestige and relatively high degree of autonomy from the business class, is closely associated with the particular dynamics of French social development, characterized as it has been since at least 1789 by a powerful and centralized state staffed by a highly educated bureaucratic cadre and a relatively lackluster industrial capitalism. Thus, although it may be true that credentials play an absolutely crucial role in legitimating capitalist social relations in France given this particular pattern of development, there is little reason to see this as a general phenomenon. However, capitalist reproduction certainly is a general phenomenon, rendering doubtful an invocation of the school system as an adequate explanation for capitalist reproduction as such. US capitalism, both the leading and archetypical case, stands as the disconfirming instance. There has been little correlation, even at the highest levels, between winning out in competition, the sine qua non for capitalist success, and educational attainment among business owners/entrepreneurs. Indeed, the culture of the US capitalist class has tended to be dismissive of formal university training compared to practical industrial experience; but this has had little negative consequence for capital’s legitimacy in the US.


I don’t recall reading Bourdieu making a universal claim about how the education system is the only legitimising force which assists in the reproduction of capitalist relations, but even so, I doubt many Bourdieusian scholars today would take such a stance. The main point about the role of education in reproducing capitalist social relations remains, that education can act as a form of cultural capital which can be exchanged for other forms. Simply the legitimacy of private property relations, the essential capitalist relation, as an orthodoxy transmitted by the most basic general education, whether through school or just as it is learned in daily life in every field, can help in explaining the reproduction of other social relations.

Furthermore, today the US might be the leading case, but it is arguably far from the archetypical one from a European perspective. We could make arguments about how nationalism legitimises capital and how it is inculcated from an early age as a doxa manifested in bizarre rituals like flag worship. We could argue about how other beliefs about the legitimacy of inheritance with reference to the hard-work of ancestors, or the effects of religious beliefs which naturalise class position, are also doxa which act to legitimise capital, but these are also beyond the scope of this article. My point here is simply that I agree that the education isn’t the sufficient explanation of social reproduction Riley claims Bourdieusians claim it is, but it is a part of it.


The second problem with Bourdieu’s account of reproduction is more analytical. Although the question of social reproduction really has meaning only in the context of a theory of capitalism as intrinsically conflict-ridden, unequal, and unstable, Bourdieu has never theorized capitalism. In fact, the term capitalism, in contrast to capital, appears almost nowhere in his work. This lacuna weakens his account of reproduction, because he fails to see that there are very good material reasons for direct producers to support capitalists independently of the education system or misrecognition. Because capitalist profits are the condition for economic growth and employment, it is possible for it to be in the material interests of individual workers or groups of workers to support profits and, a fortiori, capitalist property relations. As a consequence, capitalism, much more than other systems of production, possesses a potential “material basis of consent” — independently of any other mechanisms.


This criticism only appears valid if we neglect to recognise Bourdieu’s Marxist influences underlying his theory and again ignore the point of habitus as part of the motivating force behind a person’s social action. I would have thought it went without saying that workers have material reasons to support capitalism considering that for the majority the alternative has historically been to starve. This topic in revolutionary theory, which the writers at Catalyst conveniently ignore, has gone on since Marx. What kind of revolutionary consciousness does this journal aim to bestow upon its readers?

Many workers know the truth of exploitation but see no other alternative, or believe their dominated position is legitimate, or see opportunities for social mobility out of the dominated group. This kind of discussion has not simply centred on the question of why workers do not see the truth of exploitation, rather it is why they consent to it, and the answer of material interest is the most obvious one and this kind of rhetoric by so-called “revolutionary theorists” like those of Catalyst has often just been patronising and insulting. Historically it has also led to consistent opportunism by “revolutionary” leftist groups whereby workers aren’t considered intelligent enough to make sense of their own predicament so they must follow this class of intellectuals or professional revolutionaries to the realisation of their true interests, as they see it.

I see the inherent paradox in my own theories here too however, but mine differs in where I see the point of misrecognition occuring and how it can be overcome towards revolution. Where these intellectual wannabe-leaders of revolution aim to build a collective, conscious of each other mobilised towards class conflict, I see that the pursuit of self-interest of individuals, which are objectively part of a collective, eventually leading to class conflict. Further, revolutionary situations are the result of pursuing those interests to their logical conclusions while refusing concessions and conciliations. Workers misrecognise that the pursuit of their own self-interest is in itself revolutionary, since the continuation of capitalist relations is against their own self-interests overall. A full discussion of these ideas is also way beyond the scope of this article.


Finally, Bourdieu’s neglect of electoral democracy as a potential mechanism of social reproduction is also noteworthy. Democracy, to begin with, in the basic Schumpeterian sense of an institutional system for establishing an alternation of political elites, is almost completely absent from Bourdieu’s work. In his monumental lecture course Sur l’État, Bourdieu mentions democracy in passing in his discussion of public opinion, in his very brief summary of the work of Barrington Moore, and as an ideology of American imperialism. In other work, he develops the idea of the political field, and a sophisticated account of the relationship between party leaders and followers. But even in his seminal article on political representation, where one might expect a discussion of party systems, voting, and parliaments, there is almost no analysis of these issues; instead, his discussion turns upon the idea that the represented are expropriated of their means of political representation. Indeed, even a highly sympathetic observer admits that his work hasmostly [sic] ignored the standard topics of political sociology, limiting his impact in this field.

This neglect of democracy is particularly surprising because elections would seem far more directly related to the legitimation of political authority than the school system; indeed, elections are a key example of the lengthening of the “chains of legitimization” he understands as crucial to the stability of modern political order. Elections institute a quasi-fictive political equality that masks real inequalities and makes states appear as the expression of a nation constituted of formally equal citizens. In elections individuals do not appear as members of social classes or other interest groups. Thus, elections establish a highly individualized relationship to the state, creating fundamental problems for collective movements aiming to transcend or transform state power and capitalism. Class interests in electoral democracies are delegated to representatives of those interests and neither classes nor masses in general bring direct political pressure to bear on the state.


It is fair to say that Bourdieu neglected political sociology as he obviously focused on the education system. As some research has suggested, Bourdieu’s neglect of political sociology was a reflection of his own personal disengagement from the field of politics which in itself, reveals other views on Bourdieu’s ideas for the role of the sociologist. I am not an expert on Bourdieu’s politics or political sociology but the possibilities of theoretical synthesis with even Riley’s ideas as they appear here are fairly visible.

Firstly, the idea that the represented are expropriated their means of political representation follows from his formulation of misrecognition. Individuals are imbued with doxa about the legitimacy and normalcy of voting via education which leads to their misrecognition of the real rules of the game of the field of politics. This misrecognition is in practice to suspend belief, by the actual act of voting, in the idea that elections are constitutive of anything more than, as Riley puts it, “a quasi-fictive political equality that maskes real inequalities”. I would go further in claiming that this also applies to many of the social movements which Riley holds in too high regards.

In addition, I have my own suspicions that perhaps Bourdieu was all too aware of the dangers of this logic in its potential application to his own field of the academy. Bourdieu approached this line of thought in his Sketch For A Self-Analysis, which as truly as Riley claims, includes a defense of the privileged autonomy of the academy. However, this defense came with a persistent anxiety, not only because Bourdieu must have known that his analyses of the legitimacy of education could easily be applied to his own discredit, but because of the sense of living in two worlds that Bourdieu, as an incredibly socially mobile individual, struggled with throughout his life. This sense led to his other theories of cleft habitus which are discussed further in my other series “The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus”. Indeed, I too have a lingering sense of anxiety about my dual-position and oscillating sense of being a class traitor, which is simultaneously reinforced by my acknowledgement of my own agentic influence on my social trajectory and diminished by my awareness of the influence of social structure and the complication of chance.


The constraints that the field metaphor places on a theory of transformation are best demonstrated by examining Bourdieu’s political sociology, where he extensively deploys it. His central claim about politics is that oppositions among political representatives explain far more about their views than their relations to their electoral or social bases do. To understand any specific political position, therefore, “It is at least as necessary to know the universe of stances offered by the field as it is the demands of the laity (the ‘base’) of whom those responsible for taking these positions are the declared representatives: the taking of a position, the word says it marvelously, is an act which has no meaning except relationally, in and by difference, the distinctive gap.” It is thus the differential positions in the field of politics that account for what politicians struggle over. There is an obvious truth to this approach to modern politics, although it is hardly original to Bourdieu.


This goes against Riley’s previous complaint about Bourdieu’s neglect of political sociology as he also extensively employs his theoretical tools in this separate discipline. Further, I thought part of his general claim against Bourdieu’s theory was it tries to be distinct but then here it is claimed to be unoriginal. Which would you prefer Mr Riley? Should Bourdieu have made a distinct but wrong claim about the rules of the field of politics or managed to synthesise his own theory with other, already well formulated and not completely controversial ideas about it?


Without the mechanism of collective action, Bourdieu is left with two options to explain change, both of which he employs. The first is to invoke the concept of differentiation: “In my elaboration of the notion of field, I have insisted on the process that Durkheim, Weber and Marx described, that is to say, as societies advance in time, they differentiate themselves into special and autonomous universes — that is one of the only tendential laws on which, I think, we can agree.” Leaving aside the absurd notion that Marx and Weber thought differentiation was a “tendential law” requiring no further elaboration, what is striking about this claim is its empty Comtean hubris. In the place of an explanation Bourdieu invokes an agentless master process unfolding “as societies advance in time.” This account of social change is no account at all.


As explained earlier with Bourdieu’s equation of the theory of practice, social practices are the product of habitus and capitals and the field it inhabits. Habitus and field both reciprocally produce each other through history and, here importantly, fields are produced and effected by the action of other individuals in that field. Thus, if anything, Bourdieu’s theory of practice does not lack a mechanism of collective action, collective action is the only type of action possible.

On the point about Bourdieu’s comments on differentiation as a tendential law I cannot comment but I will about the idea of Bourdieu’s sociology invoking an agentless master process unfolding “as societies advance in time”. First of all, one of the fundamentals of Bourdieu’s theory is an attempt to reconcile the traditional structure versus agency dichotomy inherent in other sociologies. Riley’s weak assertion that Bourdieu makes such an invocation could just as lazily be thrown at Marx, who could be said to invoke the master process of the material base of society, or Weber, who conversely invokes culture (and religion) as the underlying master process which produces history.

Finally, Bourdieu’s sociological work did not aim at discovering just the mechanisms of social change, rather, as with other theorists in the Critical Theory tradition, it wanted to discover the mechanisms of social stability or lack of change- still an investigation of social change however.


Bourdieu’s second account of change shifts in the other direction from the macro dynamics of differentiation, to agents engaged in a competitive field. In this account, which Bourdieu calls the “hysteresis effect,” social change occurs because actors pursue strategies that are maladapted to the current state of the field in which they are acting. The best example of this second sort of argument is Bourdieu’s analysis of the 1968 crisis. He argues that the crisis was the product of the overproduction of academic degree holders after about 1960, who developed unrealistic career expectations because demographic expansion was driving down the value of their credentials, even though their career expectations were aligned to a previous state of the academic field. The French degree holders thus were in the grips of a form of false consciousness. They thought their degrees entitled them to certain positions that would have been available to them in a previous state of the field, but these positions were becoming scarce as more people entered higher education. As a consequence, the degree holders found their degrees to be worth much less than they had expected. This disappointment led them to form an alliance with nonacademic intellectuals and the working class against the educational establishment. The various leftist movements that swept France in this period were the result of a misrecognition in which agents in “homologous” positions in social space (degree holders, nonacademic intellectuals, and the working class) came to understand themselves as similar.

There is both a general theoretical problem with this argument and a serious empirical weakness. The theoretical problem is that it still leaves unexplained why conditions in the field changed — the explosion in the number of degree holders. In the first place, Bourdieu offers no account of why the three sets of actors suddenly found themselves in a “homologous” position. To say that they all experienced relative deprivation at the same time begs the question. The student unrest of 1968 was after all part of a worldwide movement against capitalism and the state that remains outside of Bourdieu’s explanatory framework. It is at least interesting to note that the revolts of the late sixties occurred precisely at the turning point in the world economy from long boom to long downturn, but in Bourdieu’s analysis such broader structural factors make no appearance.


A full critique of Bourdieu’s analysis of Mai 68 is beyond the scope of this article but some clarifications which show Riley’s criticism here to be lacking are appropriate. First, Bourdieu’s analysis was mainly of the student protests in France so accusing Bourdieu of failing to link them with the worldwide movement throughout that year seems unfair. Also, Bourdieu’s comments about the changing field and the homologous social position of all those involved with the movement is part of his analysis of broader structural factors. It is important when reading Bourdieu to keep in mind his method, which was largely the product of his trajectory from philosopher to ethnologist, and commitment to theory as method. In much of his analyses, these broader structural considerations are not massively important to analyse particular practices in a field, because his work implied a certain level of interpretation in the Weberian sense. To those disillusioned French graduates of Mai 68, the global economic downturn might be why, as Bourdieu posits, that their subjective career expectations do not match the objective conditions of the field, but for this partial (and sociological analyses are always necessarily partial) analysis, it is somewhat besides the point.

As Riley goes on to argue, I would agree that Bourdieu’s analysis fails to adequately explain why those academics of that era turned left-wing when similar occurences elsewhere caused an apparently opposite shift. However, I would reiterate that Bourdieu’s analysis was, and never claimed to be more than, partial. Going further, perhaps with new theories that learn from Bourdieu’s sociology, or are developments of it, the importance of doxa might be the key to these differences but overall, the failure of some of Bourdieu’s analyses does not negate the utility of his theoretical outlook and reflexive method. In this article I am not trying to say Bourdieu’s sociology was perfect but it certainly retains enough utility that I think it would be foolish to ignore it, as Riley’s article seems to imply.


Many social theories gain their plausibility because they project onto a macro scale the microsocial worlds of their producers and consumers. This is particularly so with the Bourdieu’s notions of “field” and “symbolic power.” It would be entirely incorrect to conclude that because these concepts are a restrictive metaphor they are therefore universally inapplicable; this would reverse Bourdieu’s own dogmatism. On the contrary, the idea of field is highly applicable to academic life. Academics are in the business of stance-taking and distinction. Their cultural products do gain meaning in polemical opposition to others. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of Bourdieu’s most successful analyses focus on how political stances among intellectuals are often thinly veiled translations of their position in the field of cultural production.

Thus, one of the main things Bourdieu’s work offers to elite academics is a generalization of their lived experience. From the perspective of Bourdieu’s sociology, their social world can appear as a microcosm of society as a whole. Indeed, the notion that social life is constituted as a “field,” far from requiring a critical break with lived experience, is basically the common sense of how the world works for the professoriate. It is therefore hard to imagine a sociological theory whose social ontology is more perfectly aligned with the lifeworld of the chattering classes.


I’m not sure what dogmatism of Bourdieu’s Riley is referring to, but I would agree that the idea of a field is highly applicable to academic life. Again however, this criticism here relies on a misunderstanding about the concept of fields. If Bourdieu was dogmatic about anything, it was dogmatism against dogmatism, for reflexivity. As mentioned earlier, Bourdieu moved from philosophy to ethnology early in his career and this was a huge influence on his entire outlook and method. Bourdieu saw his work as an academic not only in the sense of playing a game as his field theory explained, but also as an almost ethnographic study of the world of the academic in which he was not above his own criticisms of the field.

It seems here Riley also disagrees about how engaging in a scientific work is a kind of social action too, and that although sociologists do make the social it’s object through the application of the scientific gaze, they are engaging in social action which can also be the object of study. There is no way to truly get outside the object, acquire some sort of transcendental perspective. This thinking is key to Bourdieu’s method and why he championed the idea of reflexivity and was somewhat hostile to the philosophers of the milieu he once shared. Bourdieu abhorred the arrogance of those intellectuals who he saw as thinking themselves above the world, looking down upon it from their ivory tower, and was not unaware of his own paradoxical position- he actually confessed about the anxiety stemming from this which plagued him throughout his life.

This immediately leads us to comment on the next section of Riley’s article in which he accuses Bourdieusian scholars of seeing themselves as some sort of vanguard. As I have just elaborated, Bourdieu was well aware of how his own social position conditioned his thoughts and how reflexivity was always temporal. Breaks in practice with reflective thought are not what Bourdieu meant by reflexivity as simply as Riley posits here. As explained in his theory about how habitus generates dispositions towards certain aesthetic judgements, symbolic or practical reason, reflexivity can only be temporary and forced by the imposition of a field which the habitus is not suited for action in.

As soon as the moment of reflexivity is over, one returns to playing the rules of the game under another illusio. Perhaps this aspect of Bourdieu’s theory is weak in that it implies perhaps that no one can ever be fully reflexive because we are always constrained by the field in which we act because alternatively action is impossible, which is obviously incorrect. The point of Bourdieu’s assertions and prescriptions here applied to himself as much as other students who would do well not to misrecognise that after the point of reflection, which in itself is conditioned by their habitus, they return to practising perhaps simply with in another logic. There is no escape from fields or habitus and perhaps what Bourdieu wants sociologists to cultivate is a disposition towards this as a kind of self-awareness and regular reappraisal what work they engage in as it relates to the wider world, so they do not remain simply, as Brubaker accuses them of only being, sociologists.


Bourdieu’s sociology, from this perspective, can be thought of as a kind of secularized radical Protestantism, promising a form of intellectual rebirth through practices of discipline designed to create a new sociological habitus. Like the Calvinist ethic Weber described, Bourdieu’s sociology requires a constant examination of the self, a process glossed under the term “reflexivity.” Culturally, this sociology belongs to a range of other practices highly characteristic of the contemporary intelligentsia: yoga, fad diets, exercise monitors, and so on.


I’m not sure if Riley is arguing here that sociologists should not aspire to be self-reflective. Comparing the practice of constant examination of the self to cultural fashions is laughably illogical considering Riley’s own complaint about these practices is that they imply the opposite, engaging in such practices implies a lack of “self-reflection”, which is not the same as reflexivity because the latter requires an analysis of the logic of the field. Looking at the logic of the field and our own dispositions towards certain practices, if we take the example of doing yoga, we might see a habitus disposition towards health fads as it relates to a middle class obsession with health, and the privileging of that practice within the field due to its current pseudo-novelty. This also would not necessarily lead to stopping that practice as we might come up with reasons to continue it, but at least then we could argue we have done that action more freely. The idea of being aware of our own intentions increasing how freely that action is taken is a central thread of argument in my book “The Social Determinants of Freedom” and I argue about how reflexivity increases our freedom more in depth there.


Why would academics look for this? There is no reason to think that Bourdieusian sociologists are any more careerist than others; indeed, if anything, the opposite is probably true. The sorts of intellectuals who are drawn to Bourdieu tend to want to use their knowledge to better the world. But, particularly in the United States, they lack any plausible political vehicle for linking their studies to social change. There is no organizational connection between social theory and political practice: excluding, of course, the vast sea of intellectually empty and crypto-technocratic “policy-relevant” social science churned out by the truckload in American academia. One hypothesis to explain the attraction of Bourdieu’s work is that it turns the potentially radical energy of social critique inward, thereby creating a form of political engagement that promises the attainable goal of accumulating “symbolic power” in lieu of confronting real exploitation and domination. The appeal is best indicated, again, by Brubaker’s gloss: the point of Bourdieu’s texts “is not simply to interpret the world; it is to change the world, by changing the way in which we — in the first instance, other social scientists — see it.” This pale recapitulation of Marx’s (uncited, naturally) eleventh thesis on Feuerbach is an effective summation of Bourdieu’s appeal. In him we have a thinker who mobilizes vast intellectual resources in the pursuit of a militant project to transform sociological consciousness in place of transforming society.


Has Mr Riley, as a sociologist, forgotten the lack of respect most hold for his own field? In the neoliberal world, the market is philosophy-king and the economists are the dominant sources of policy. Riley in his comments here also implies that scientific work is not in itself a form of social action and his disparagement of research aimed towards policy-making is pointless posturing. As explained near the start of this article, sociologists as academics are not outside the need to defend their privileged position safe from market forces which would find the unproductive work of sociologists pointless.

Riley’s comments about the goals of Bourdieusian sociology as accumulating “symbolic power” “in lieu of confronting real exploitation and domination” is also ridiculous. What does Riley propose as an alternative, and how does this solution go against what Bourdieusian sociologists propose. Like any critical sociology, it is pointless unless used in practice and Bourdieu heavily criticised those who would, like the philosophers he once was, stand outside the real world in the realm of pure theory, not engaging and applying it in the everyday struggles of fields- this is part of what he meant by reflexivity.

I am not sure who Riley accuses of palely recapitulating Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach (Brubaker or Bourdieu?) without citation, but for anyone with a basic knowledge of sociology and/or its history it’s an obvious reference. Assuming it is Bourdieu this blithe accusation is levelled at, consistent with other times in the article that Riley has accused Bourdieu of not adequately acknowledging his intellectual debts, we should all keep in mind that all scientific works owe a massive debt to all past thinkers. Bourdieu even goes further than this implicitly in his theory by implying that much of it is the result of his experience which was outside of his control.

Moreover, Bourdieu’s encouragement of this through reflexivity shows that he does not want “to transform sociological consciousness in place of transforming society” and this kind of assertion implies precisely the opposite of that goal. Again, Bourdieu did not think it was possible to separate theory and practice, as much as the philosophers tried to do, like Marx accused them of doing and which Bourdieu condemned them for doing in his early career. In changing our theories, we change our practice. In changing our practices, we change our theories. To believe one can change theories without it effecting our practices shows that one was never really engaging in anything more than the practice of abstract theorising.


But the striking thing about Bourdieu’s political writings, however, is how limited they are. In the absence of any theory of capitalism, his political positions amount basically to a defense of existing arrangements against the encroachment of market logic. His fundamental political value is autonomy, particularly the autonomy of sociology, rather than freedom or equality. The intellectual foundations of this politics are rather conservative. Nowhere is this stated more clearly than at the end of La noblesse état:

It is clear that whatever their grounds or motives, these struggles among the dominants necessarily add to the field of power a bit of that universal — reason, disinterestedness, civic-mindedness, etc. — that, originating as it does in previous struggles, is always a symbolically effective weapon in the struggles of the moment. And, while taking care not to pronounce judgments on the comparative merits of one or another regime that are often identified with “political philosophy,” we may advance the notion that progress in the differentiation of forms of power is constituted by so many protective acts against tyranny, understood after the manner of Pascal, as the infringement of one order upon the rights of another, or more precisely, as the intrusion of the forms of power associated with one field in the functioning of another.

Bourdieu here appears to embrace a vision of society run by a plural, interlocking set of elites engaged in struggle with one another and as a result constantly forced to articulate their particular interests in general terms. This argument strongly recalls the notion of a mixed constitution: a political vision running from Aristotle to Weber and beyond. At the end of the day, then, Bourdieu’s sociology, in some contrast to his explicit political writing, leads to the endorsement of hoary elitist liberalism, providing an honorable perch for the sociologist as the modest sage of the good society. What it does not contain, of course, is a critique, or even analysis, of capitalism as a system of class relations.


Indeed, Bourdieu’s argument here might seem like the advocation of pluralism if we agree he is condoning the actions described. However, I think the point he is making here is how universalising statements can be mobilised as a form of symbolic power in order to mobilise those effected by it. He then goes on to point out how these mobilisations are often done by different interest groups according to their own self interests. This is a descriptive rather than prescriptive passage which may well be hoary to Riley but he says nothing of whether it is correct or how this would necessarily lead to the endorsement of any form of capitalism.


The appeal of Bourdieu’s sociology, in short, is due neither to its explanatory power nor to its ability to generate new problems and questions. There are very few explanations in his corpus, and the main ones that do exist are implausible. To account for Bourdieu’s ascendancy, one must look therefore to the “logic of practice” rather than the “logic of theory.” Bourdieu’s sociology simultaneously resonates with the lived experience of elite academics, offers a form of ersatz radicalism focused on self-transformation, and provides the sociologist with a sense of having an elevated social role. This is not to imply that the Bourdieusian mentality is wholly negative. Perhaps the best analogy is to the role of Protestantism prior to the French Revolution. Before an actual political movement aimed at establishing modern citizenship emerged, the struggle for it took the form of an attempt to remake the self through practices of discipline. Bourdieu’s sociology may be similar in this sense. Perhaps it is the placeholder for whatever truly radical critical theory will come after. In any case a radical, self-conscious movement to subject the entire of society to truly human control will signal not the fulfillment but the end of Bourdieusian sociology.


Overall, as argued throughout this article, Riley’s denial of the utility and explanatory power of Bourdieusian sociology lie largely in his misreadings. Riley accuses Bourdieusian sociologists of considering themselves to have an inflated sense of their social position, which would easily be countered by the practice of reflexivity and is especially ironic considering Riley’s own position. Bourdieu’s sociology might not be as radical as it first seems but it isn’t opposed to any self-conscious movement to free humanity, which is certainly an implicit aim throughout Bourdieu’s sociology, a part of most critical sociologies. Bourdieu, like other figures of the Enlightenment, like Riley clearly expresses a desire for here, sees humanity practising under the will of forces beyond its control, sees this as wrong, and wants emancipation. This might not be the final truly radical theory which practised leads to the truly human community but it is at least a solid step towards it.


I didn’t begin writing this article with the intention of it being such a thorough, even if it is still not thorough enough, deposition of Riley’s article. I hope that the polemical style comes across as fitting with the usual combative yet genial tone of many journals I enjoy, rather than arrogant. I have tried to not overstep the bounds of my knowledge, as in the parts about political sociology, but would be happy to correct and amend any mistakes in this article as I am alerted to them. In fact, I invite such criticisms as an example of the reflexivity that all intellectuals, if I can be so bold as to call myself one, should aspire to.

I haven’t included references throughout the work because much of it was done without thinking of explicit points in works I could point to so here I will expand upon some of the sources of my Bourdieusian education, and particularly some works that I think any reader curious about my thinking within this article may benefit from reading. First of all, I think one of the most important works which helps understand both the theory of practice and the rationale with which Bourdieu investigates class is “The Forms of Capital” (1986) available here. I was reading “The Logic of Practice” (1992 [1980]) when Bourdieu’s theory of practice seemed to “click” most significantly for me, particularly when trying to understand the idea of embodiment and Bourdieu’s positions on gendered practices but of course, to understand Bourdieu, most of all one should read Bourdieu. Some other books I have found immensely useful for understanding Bourdieusian research in practice have been “Theory as Method in Research: On Bourdieu, Social Theory and Education” (2015) by Mark Murphy and Cristina Costa, “Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain” by Lisa McKenzie, “Bourdieu: The Next Generation. The Development of Bourdieu’s Intellectual Heritage in Contemporary UK Sociology” (2016) by Jenny Thatcher, Nicola Ingram, Ciaran Burke and Jessie Abrahams. A few articles I also found particularly helpful (that I can remember) are “Globalization, The New Economy, and the Commodification of Language and Identity” (2003) by Heller, M. in Journal of Sociolingustics, “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment” (2013) by Savage, M. in Sociology, “A Concise Genealogy and Anatomy of Habitus” (2016) by Wacquant, L. in The Sociological Review, “Habitus Clivé and the Emotional Imprint of Social Mobility” (2016) by Friedman, S. in The Sociological Review, “Reproduction Revisited: Comprehending Complex Educational Trajectories” (2012) by Atkinson, W. in The Sociological Review.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of Bourdieu | Critical Commentary on Dylan Riley’s “Bourdieu’s Class Theory” in new journal: Catalyst by Jacobin Magazine

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