The Philosophical Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

I’m at an interesting workshop being given by Loic Wacquant on the practical application of Bourdieu’s social theory. An aspect that has really stood out to me so far is Wacquant’s presentation of Bourdieu’s work as a philosophical sociology.

The point is partly biographical, with Bourdieu’s transition into social research being a response to his national service in Algeria. As Wacquant puts it, “What happens if a philosopher of science stops philosophy of science and goes to do empirical research?” His commitment to social research represents an “emotional coping mechanism” in response to what he witnessed in Algeria, leaving him unable to be content with what he saw as the apolitical quietism of the philosopher. This biographical movement shaped his intellectual trajectory because it left him drawing on classical sociology and anthropology as intellectual tools to inform the practice of social research, as opposed to a conceptual fund to be drawn upon in preparation for research. The result was, argues Wacquant, a disregard for the dichotomies and dualisms which loom so large in doctoral pedagogy.

The intellectual consequences of this are what fascinate me though. This is how Wacquant describes the approach that follows from this, uniting the incredible range of his empirical concerns through a shared meta-theoretical impulse:

Take a classical question of philosophy (e.g. where do categories of judgement come from?) and historicise it, by finding a particular setting where that question is raised in terms of the character of that setting and answer it in terms of the character of that setting.

I find this a compelling idea. This is a wonderfully succinct and compelling expression of how the interface between sociology and philosophy can be conceived. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, as someone who came close to doing a philosophy phd before moving into sociology and in some ways has never felt entirely at home on either side of that divide.

It also contrasts with Margaret Archer’s interpretation of the same question. In an interview I did with her recently, in which we discussed her time working with Bourdieu in Paris, she suggests that what unites his corpus is fundamentally methodological: he was a theorist who used empirical research to test and refine the core categories of his thought, a cluster of concepts ultimately centred around the notion of ‘habitus’.

Regardless of which interpretation is accurate, I like the conception of theorising that Wacquant is offering. Bourdieu was both a philosophical sociologist (though Wacquant does not use this term) while also being an “anti-theoretical theorist”. He argues that people often deploy Bourdieu without using his ideas. If you can strip out the Bourdieusian language from a given paper without effecting the argument then his ideas have been used as a theoretical idiom rather than as conceptual tools. As he puts it, “if nothing has been lost by removing them then nothing has been gained by using them.”

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