Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire as post-Bourdieusian social theorists

In an interesting chapter Frederic Vandenberghe explores the role of the individual in Bourdieu’s Sociology, as well as the critiques which Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire make of it. His intention is to respond to a sociology he sees as hegemonic by developing a post-Bourdieusian theory of the social world that is not anti-Bourdieusian. His project, as I understand it, derives from a sense that Bourdieu’s sheer influence is distortive, polarising debate in a way that steers it away from concern with better or worse sociology to more or less accurate interpretations of the master.

How accurate is Vandenberghe’s account of Bourdieu’s influence? His 536,230 citations certainly offer quantitative evidence of this influence, but the claim that Bourdieu’s sociology is hegemonic seems more contentious to me. Nonetheless, he’s surely correct that the combination of its influence, diffusion and systematicity make it a force to be reckoned with. Or rather a force that must be reckoned with, a reference point that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Both Archer and Lahire were deeply influenced by Bourdieu. My interview with her in here explores his influence on her thinking, as well as her time working with him as a post-doc in the early 60s. While, as Vandenberghe puts it, Lahire’s sociology is so “thoroughly Bourdieusian that he could well be considered the heterodox successor to the master (Loïc Wacquant being the official one)”. Both have worked at the intersection of sociology and psychology in recent years, with Lahire taking inspiration from Durkheim while Archer has looked to American pragmatism for intellectual resources. Vandenberghe argues that their work represents a social psychology of a new kind: orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. Their shared unit of analysis is the life, understood biographically, as a movement through the world constituted through choices. But the dissimilarity arises because Archer’s focus concerns how future projects shape present actions, whereas Lahire explains the present and the future in terms of past “dispositions and their activation in particular contexts in the present”. As he puts it, “His actors are pushed by their dispositions, while hers are pulled forward by their projects”.

From Vandenberghe’s exposition, it seems that Lahire’s critique of the concept of habitus resembles Archer’s in some ways: he “accuses Bourdieu of abusively generalising a particular model that only holds in exceptional situation (such as traditional societies and total institutions)”. But he make the same critique of the concept of field, “accusing Bourdieu of transforming a regional model into a general theory of the social world”. Instead he offers an account of the individual as “like a crumpled sheet or a rumpled rag”, with social space in all its dimensions unevenly folded up inside of them. Not unlike Archer, he sees what Bourdieu regarded as a marginal condition (the cleavage of the habitus) to instead be a general characteristic, at least under certain social and cultural conditions.

His exposition of Archer is excellent, rather unsurprisingly as one of the theorists most deeply conversant with her body of work as a whole. The slight exception to this is the latent teleology he reads into the concept of reflexivity, ignoring the extent to which we all practice each of these modes to varying degrees in everyday life. Oddly, he offers precisely this recognition as a suggestion of how her account of reflexivity can be improved, with his accusation of a “kind of disguised personality test” being an incisive critique of how her work on reflexivity is chronically misread, even by its advocates.

I agree with him however that Archer downplays the role of cultural structures, seeing them as something which “structures the situation from outside, not from inside in the form of subconscious schemes of perception, judgement and interpretation that prestructure the world and canalize action, excluding some options even before the actor becomes conscious of the situation”. His suggestion that we investigate empirically how the relative balance of reflexivity and disposition operates in particular action situations is one I find extremely plausible, perhaps demanding that we need methods other than the interview, as well as overcoming the relative neglect of situated embodied action within Archer’s work.

It’s an interesting chapter which I highly recommend. It’s left me wanting to return to my PhD, as well as investigating Lahire in greater depth. It strikes me that I’ve actually done something akin to what Vandenberghe advocates, synthesising Archer and Lahire, without actually having read Lahire. My curiosity demands that I establish whether or not this is the case.

4 responses to “Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire as post-Bourdieusian social theorists”

  1. The Plural Actor is definitely one of the best contemporary theory books I’ve read. I am constantly recommending it to folk as while it makes very similar criticisms of Bourdieu as many others have made, the way Lahire goes about it and the solutions he proposes is in a very Bourdieusian language. Rather than reading like a critique of Bourdieu by using a different theoretical tradition and its concepts, it reads like a critique arising from turning Bourdieu back in on himself. It is a shame so little of Lahire’s work has been translated as from the research of his he mentions in The Plural Actor it seems that in building his critique he has returned to many of the same areas of research that Bourdieu covered. His article “How to Keep a Critical Tradition Alive: A Tribute to Pierre Bourdieu” is also definitely worth a read and outlines his approach to Bourdieu’s work:
    “The best way to make the most of a scientific work is to further develop the issues that are barely sketched in it; to carry out empirical investigations in order to work out the yet unanswered questions; and eventually to go beyond what has been written or said. This process implies the effort – and indeed, this is all about intellectual risk and effort – to keep on imaging and creating beyond what Bourdieu actually thought or worded, thereby adopting his attitude when he invented a new way of doing sociology and thinking the social world, both with and against other scholars of his time.
    However, for a few decades now, some sociologists (especially the French) have just continuously applied ‘his theory’ to new areas, or pretended to investigate an issue while merely switching on the text-producing machine ‘a la maniere de Bourdieu’. Many sociological works do and will resemble such unintentional pastiches.
    In order to keep a specific scientific thought alive, one must be ready to regularly take part in various discussions or even reviews about that very thought. Yet, hardly ever do sociologists devote themselves to this critical exercise. Indeed, practices rather seem to fall into the logics of coterie and clan gathering. This ought to be a subject of scientific indignation unanimously shared by all who are utterly convinced of the importance of social science.” (Lahire, 2008: 598)

  2. Thanks I’m definitely going to read this now – it’s the biographical studies I’d love to read though! Any ideas of translations in progress for them?

  3. No idea sadly. If there isn’t one already, there really should be a body setup to provide funds to help translate sociology texts. I regularly check if there is anything due to be published in English by him as well as Boltanski & Thevenot but there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon at the moment. Along with the Plural Actor there are the four translated articles I know of:

    Lahire B (2002) How to keep a critical tradition alive: a tribute to Pierre Bourdieu. Review of International Political Economy 9(4): 595–600.

    Lahire B (2003) From the habitus to an individual heritage of dispositions. Towards a sociology at the level of the individual. Poetics 31(5–6): 329–355.

    Lahire B (2008) The individual and the mixing of genres: Cultural dissonance and self-distinction. Poetics 36(2–3): 166–188.

    Lahire B (2010) The Double Life of Writers. New Literary History 41(2): 443–465.

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