It seems British Sociology can’t get enough of Pierre Bourdieu! The British Sociological Association (BSA) held its annual conference this year (15-17th April 2015) at Glasgow Caledonian University. There were over 700 papers crossing 12 different themes, including medicine, methodology, ethnicity and migration, social divisions, education, theory, urban studies, religion and many more. The Bourdieu Study Group were lucky to have our own sub-stream this year in the education stream. In previous years we have also had the pleasure of working with the theory stream.
A simple content analysis of the book of abstracts revealed that Bourdieu was the most mentioned theorist overall and in particular outside the theory stream – perhaps explained by the special call for Bourdieusian papers and symposiums from the education stream. In fact, the Bourdieu Study Group saw more submissions of abstracts using Bourdieu this year than over the last four years that we have been present at the BSA Annual Conference. Particularly noteworthy was the increased use of Bourdieu by postgraduate students. So why is Bourdieu so popular with early career educational researchers? Grenfell and James (1998) argue that Bourdieu’s ideas have had a notable influence in the field of education, in part due to the publication of two significant books: Les héritiers: les étudiants et la culture (1964), Eng. The Inheritors: French Students and Their Relations to Culture (1979) and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1990) with Jean-Claude Passeron (in French: La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d’enseignement (1970). It is important to note that the continuing relevance of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework is often best verified through practical application of his concepts. This in part may help to explain his popularity amongst ethnographic educational researchers.
So why is Bourdieu so popular with the British sociologists? Bourdieu is primarily a social theorist whose ideas have spread across many disciplines – not just social theory and education. This widespread use of Bourdieu’s work is reflected in the many events the Bourdieu Study Group has organised over the years, including events on the use of Bourdieu in ethnicity and migration studies, urban studies, education, social class, social theory, gender, Bourdieu as a public sociologist and special events for postgraduate students. Despite the Bourdieu Study Group being part of the British Sociological Association, our events regularly attract the attention of an international audience. Regardless of only usually having time to advertise our events to UK-based universities, at every single event we have organised, we get delegates attending from all over the world.
It was back in 2011 when the now co-convenors of the Bourdieu Study Group got together to independently organise a postgraduate and early career researcher event for UK-based research students, which consisted of discussion workshops and keynote speakers. We became inundated with requests to attend the event from students studying at international institutions, as far away as Asia and South America. It was at this point we realised that a Bourdieusian network, particularly for early career researchers and students, needed to be established – hence the foundation of the BSA Bourdieu Study Group.
So that brings us to the next question: why is Bourdieu so attractive to a new generation of sociologists? The Bourdieu Study Group will publish a forthcoming book entitled: ‘Bourdieu: the next generation: The Development of Bourdieu’s Intellectual Heritage in Contemporary UK Sociology’ this October 2015 for the BSA Sociological Futures Book series in partnership with Routledge. It will consider the ways in which Bourdieu’s intellectual heritage is being developed in UK sociology through the work of a new generation of Bourdieusian scholars. The edited book has chapters from Bourdieu Study Group members and each author has reflected on the ways in which they came across Bourdieu’s work, why it speaks to them (including a reflexive consideration of their own background), and the way in which it is thus useful in their thinking.
Sam Friedman (2015, page forthcoming) perhaps sums up what many new scholars think when they first encounter Bourdieu: ‘My mental tussles with the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu began long before I actually knew who he was.’ Throughout the years of hosting Bourdieu-related events, the collective narrative – from particularly postgraduate students – is the sense of euphoria people feel when first encountering the work of Bourdieu. These students talk about how they have been able to make sense of the world through Bourdieusian theory and the sense of frustration they had with the persisting gaps in explanations of the social world in the work of other grand theorists (Ingram et al., 2015, page forthcoming). Kristy Morrin in her chapter reflects on her working-class upbringing and how some scholars (Gordon, 2011, Silva, 2014) have referred to their past experiences as a type of ‘social haunting’. Kristy speaks about how she immediately felt some biographical affinity with Bourdieu and that through Bourdieusian insights of habitus-field disjuncture she has been able to understand why she didn’t quite “fit-in” during her first year at an elite university. Lisa McKenzie in her chapter acknowledges the difficulty of reading original Bourdieusian texts when she started at the University of Nottingham as a “mature” student. Yet despite this, Bourdieu’s conceptualisations of different capitals, and especially the relational aspect of economic and cultural capital when it came to understanding social class, made McKenzie pursue his work further and apply it to her own research on the council estate where she lived. These are just a few of the chapters.
Throughout all the chapters, each author in their own way shows the enduring and continuing relevance of Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts and the possibilities of adapting them to recently occurring conditions as well as newly arising concerns. This has required that each researcher personally draws on one of Bourdieu’s central concepts – that of reflexivity (Ingram et al., 2015, page forthcoming). And it is this process which answers the next question: why are people drawn to the theorists they are? By each author reflecting both on why they chose the particular topic they did, but also giving consideration to what it was that initially drew them towards the work of Pierre Bourdieu, meant that each author has exposed themselves by recounting childhood memories and structural conditions which led them to Bourdieu. Regardless of the variety in the backgrounds of the authors as well as members of the Bourdieu Study Group, this whole new generation feel some affinity to Bourdieu. Personally, I felt a sense of relief when I came across Bourdieu in my access course at a further education college while I continued to work at a beauty salon in an affluent area of London. Bourdieu helped me stop feeling “bad” about myself, removing me from a sense of failure as I suddenly could look at my situation from a distance. I have not come across a theorist as yet which produce this feeling to the same extent. Perhaps Bourdieusian scholars are a little narcissistic?
It would be wrong to assume that Bourdieu simply appeals to those who want to understand the inequalities many of us are facing in society. Indeed, the study of elites was a major topic of investigation in Bourdieu’s work. At the 2015 BSA Annual Conference there were many papers from scholars looking at the elite reproduction in international contexts, such as Rebecca Ye and Erik Nylander’s presentation of ‘transnational institutional matching’ on the flow of elites from Singapore to Oxbridge. There was also the pecha kucha panel (Mike Savage, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Andrew Miles, Lisa McKenzie and Helene Snee) presenting on some of the findings from the Great British Class Survey (GBCS). The survey was completed by 161,000 people living in Britain. The full class survey was based on a theory developed by Pierre Bourdieu in 1984. This has also meant that Bourdieu’s concepts have received widespread public attention in which he has been discussed in the main-stream press.
Professor Mike Savage on BBC One Show talking about Bourdieu.
We should also remember that Bourdieu’s exposure to the public is nothing new. He was a renowned public intellectual in France as well as France’s foremost sociologist in the 1990s. Bourdieu’s book: The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society (1999), when published in France in 1993, topped the best-seller list.
Returning to the joke of Bourdieusian narcissism, it is also interesting to think about the presentation given by French sociologist Fabien Truong at the 2015 BSA Annual Conference. Having worked several years as a sociology teacher in a French high school, Truong taught sociology to children from deprived backgrounds. During this time he conducted a longitudinal study on young people’s trajectories as well as explored their thoughts on Bourdieu’s ideas. Truong found that when these young people had achieved some type of social mobility, Bourdieu’s concepts and work were drawn upon as a means to understand the hysteresis that they experienced when there was a disruption between the relationship of the young people’s habitus and field. However, there was a different reaction toward Bourdieu from the young people who went on to occupy low socio-economic positions in French society. These young people felt that they did not “make-it” as they once asserted to Truong in the class room that they would. Bourdieu’s ideas produced a sense of structural determinism in which they proclaimed Bourdieu to be: ‘right’, ‘that they never stood a chance of making-it’. To them, Bourdieu was the representation of the “inevitable”.
So can we say that perhaps Bourdieu’s appeal is from people who have experienced some sense of hysteresis? I’m not quite sure. What I am sure about is that Bourdieu’s ideas are here to stay and it seems that this will not be declining any time during the near future. It appears that Bourdieu is becoming more popular than ever before with British sociologists. The Bourdieu Study Group’s forthcoming event: ‘Capital: In All Its Forms’ recently sold out in less than 24 hours.
The last question is then: should British sociology be concerned with the popularity of a French sociologist over British ones – as some people have argued? Personally, I think such concerns are illogical. The founding fathers of Sociology Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim were German and French respectively. What would contemporary sociology look like if these founding fathers were excluded from British sociology for not being “British”? Many British sociologists have gained international recognition through their application of Bourdieu’s ideas to their own research. Therefore, it seems that the use of Bourdieu is reflecting the nature of sociology in the UK.
Some photographs of Bourdieu related papers at the 2015 BSA Annual Conference