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Logic of Practice: Examining the work of Bourdieu on practice and theory

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There exists a dichotomous divide in social theory which seeks to explain the actions of individuals either as a result of pre-defined rules and structures (structuralism) or as an exposition of their own choice-laden actions (subjectivism). Bourdieu (1990b) examined this divide in the context of the diametrically opposing paradigms offered by Levi-Strauss and Sartre, the ideas of which he viewed holistically as the logic of theory that underpins the practice of Sociology. By outlining his critique of these theories, Bourdieu tried to overcome the dichotomies and in doing so posited his logic of practice- referring to the logic of the actions of social agents and how they are meant to be examined. This essay aims to illustrate his ideas on said nature of social theory and the underpinning logic of its development and then juxtaposes this with his logic of practice.

Bourdieu (1990b) believed that the continued existence of the dualities of explanation in social theory implied the importance of both, however he felt that both had shortcomings which detracted from their ability to effectively explain social phenomena according to their own singular paradigm. He posited that structuralism viewed the world according to self-defined ‘objective’ rules and schema that interpret individuals’ actions along commonly observed practices. This however is problematic as the rules by which these practices come to be observed, recorded, and defined are themselves constructs of the observer, thereby creating a distance between the observer and the object being observed, hence not truly objective. This phenomenon of distancing is examined within the context of the work on linguistics done by Saussure, which had great influence upon various fields of social theory. Saussure (Bourdieu 1990b) argued that while speech was the material consequence of communication, it was the existence of language as a set of objective categorizations by which communication could be deciphered. While he noted that in terms of chronology, speech begat language as the rules of language and its evolution are products of the speech-actions of individuals, ultimately logical primacy would belong to language as it could outlive the individuals using it and would also allow for the encoding and decoding of speech by individuals who previously had no knowledge of the specific language. Bourdieu (1990b) however argues that this viewpoint itself defeats the purpose of communication. By assigning a logical metric of examining the phenomenon of communication, Saussure ends up analysing communication along theoretical paradigms that are presupposed by him and proceeds as if individuals “were asking themselves the questions he asks himself about them” (Bourdieu, 1990b, p. 16). Communication would thus be a phenomenon that has ‘meaning’ insofar as it can be categorically observed through language rather than anything else that the participants of communication might have intended.

Subjectivism on the other hand places the motivations of the individual at the center of social phenomena. Bourdieu (1990b) examined the works of Sartre which posited that the individual’s independent will to conceive of the conditions of reality is what creates the social world. Examining this within the notion of social class, Sartre posited that individuals belonging to the working class create their perceptions of what it means to belong to the working class by examining themselves “in terms of the world which oppresses them” (Sartre, cited in Bourdieu, 1990a, p. 22), hence focusing on the lack of their material resources, etc. This process of creation is dual natured; on one level it is the individual making manifest their will and exerting that will onto others, on another level it is the willed manifestations of the group shaping the behaviour of the individual. Bourdieu (1990b) however criticises this Sartrean philosophy by exposing its underlying premise; that humans are both the subjects and the objects of their own study. In doing so, Sartre is essentially examining the nature of individuals through the manifestations of his own consciousness, affected by his own preconceptions as to the nature of social agents. This is further contextualized within the ideas of Elster who examined the premise of “coherent and complete attitudes at any point in time” (Bourdieu, 1990b, p. 144) of the rational actor as the basis for how this will of the individual materializes and argued that rationality, which posits the motivations of individuals to be centered on the accrual of economic capital, is itself a metric that has been defined by social researchers. Bourdieu then examines the drive of this rational actor towards accruing profit as a deterministic outlook of subjectivism which commits the same error as structuralism of essentially examining the social world by way of presuppositions. Furthermore, due to its emphasis on understanding social practices as a result of individuals’ wills, there is an implication that social actions have some form of rationale underpinning their existence. The idea that an action is only wholly understood when some form of meaning can be distilled from it, rather than simply performed for the sake of being performed, is itself representative of the projection of the observer’s bias upon the object, thereby again creating the problem of distance (Bourdieu, 1990b).

While the criticisms thus far represented the specific ways in which different logical aspects of social theory were problematic, collectively, Bourdieu (1990b) offered critique of the logic underpinning social theory holistically as well. Firstly, he examined the nature of conducting social research according to the previously discussed methodologies as an enterprise which spawns specific conduct that becomes established practice. Considering that these conducts are informed by the previously discussed problems of each type of social theory, the conduct itself is derivative of the problem but over time establishes itself as the norm of social research, thereby entrenching the aspects of its skewered study. However, Bourdieu (1990b) argued that the most important aspect of social theory which invariably separates it from a true examination of social practices was the abandonment of its temporal nature. The logic underpinning the theories of social research and the resulting ways in which it was practiced, focuses on reconstructing the phenomena of study after their occurrence. In actuality, an important facet of social practices is the idea that they respond to matters in a time-sensitive fashion. For example, Bourdieu (1990b) examined the nature of a physical fight; the actions undertaken by the participants are based on reflexive attitudes which at best can only get a sense of the other’s impending actions a few moments before they are made. The decision to engage in blows rather than any other alternative is itself indicative of the fact that actions needed to be taken in an appropriate time frame rather than meticulously thought out in advance. Social research would have the benefit of examining this physical fight and extrapolate the most efficient means of engaging in it and whether a physical fight itself is the best recourse for it is not bound by time. In doing so however, it would reach conclusions as to the nature of the practice and the underlying thought processes of the social agents that as discussed previously assign the observer’s own logical metric upon the events but also, fail to properly identify the logic of the social agent by abandoning the temporal metric.

It is in light of all these criticisms that Bourdieu sought to establish what he believed to be the true logic underpinning social practices. It is here where an examination of his ideas related to the different forms of capital, fields, and habitus are relevant in establishing said logic of practice.

While capital, particularly as regarded by rational choice theorists, was seen as primarily economic, Bourdieu brought relevance to the notion of different forms of capital namely cultural, social, and symbolic (Hilgers and Mangez, 2014). Cattani, Ferriani and Allison (2014) argued that Bourdieu put central importance on symbolic capital as a source of power. Wacquant (2006), when examining these forms of capital in Bourdieu’s work, posited that symbolic capital are any effects of the former mentioned forms of capital without being thought of as belonging to them (such as honour, prestige, etc). Bourdieu’s (1990a) examination of the practices involving social research offer a relevant illustration of this symbolic capital. He argued that the pursuit of knowledge is supplemented by the underlying motivations of individuals carrying out the research, spanning incentives such as gaining recognition amongst one’s peers and contests of establishing intellectual superiority, all of which dually serve to advance the position of individuals within their respective endeavours and provide the ability to maintain their dominance. An individual researcher who has gained recognition off of their work and manoeuvring their social space, is better positioned in terms of having visibility to further posit additional work and have it gain a higher level of attention as a result of the previously accrued recognition.

This expands the discussion into his thoughts on the concept of fields i.e. a system of relations in which a social agent occupies a certain position and how the relationship between these agents is defined (Hilgers and Mangez, 2014). Hilgers and Mangez (2014) examined Bourdieu’s ideas in detail and illustrated his belief that the social world is full of relatively autonomous social fields, each dedicated to a specific activity which come to be structured in relation to those activities in the context of exertions by specific institutions and social agents within the particular field. These actions serve to define the rules of operation inherent to that field and subsequently dictate the relationship between its participant agents. There exist many different types of fields with rules dictating their functioning; the field of politics where political agents operate in service to citizens from whom they derive their legitimacy to govern, and the scientific field where the notion of competition equips agents with the sole means of judging the merits of a competitor’s work being a few examples. Bourdieu (Hilgers and Mangez, 2014) believed however, that once relative autonomy has been established, the field actualizes its structuration by the will of specific elites who have gained enough specific forms of symbolic capital to dictate the metric for legitimate actions, and the continued operation of the field according to this yardstick further establishes its autonomy and the power of those controlling the capital within them. Examining this phenomenon in the context of religion, Bourdieu (Hilgers and Mangez, 2014) argued that monotheistic religious practices became dominant as a result of a collective of religious practitioners who were able to monopolize the socially recognized knowledge of these practices and subsequently control who had access to it. Due to functioning in this manner, the field of religion grew increasingly autonomous which furthered the monopolization aspect as these elites regulated the access that individuals in the field would have to this knowledge and thus the positions of social agents within the field came to be defined.

In outlining how a social agent acts within any given field, Bourdieu (1990b) put forward the idea of habitus. While its epistemological roots precede Bourdieu’s own ideas (Hilgers and Mangez, 2014), the habitus as Bourdieu saw it was a system of lasting dispositions within the individual that are developed through a subjective internalization of external structures, and the continued internalization of these structures leads to them becoming structured ways of regulating actions themselves. While theoretically free, the habitus acts by implicitly imposing limitations on the choices available to social agents as the choices that they are most likely to make are a result of the deeply ingrained ideas and habits they have cultivated through habitus. Bourdieu (1984) examined the phenomenon of habitus in the context of French peoples’ views on pieces of art. He argued that citizens belonging to the upper classes were taught from an early age how to engage with and appreciate pieces of art by the structures within that field which were already in place and these people had access to as a consequence of their social class. While this type of teaching may seem mechanical at first, continued exposure led these members of the upper class to internalize the skills and values necessary for appreciating this art, to the point where it seemed this skill was “natural” (p. 5). Members of the working class were observed to lack this skill as they did not have access to this field and hence never cultivated the habitus required for the fine art “game” (p. 29).

Reconstructed, the logic of practice is thus what Bourdieu believed to be a more accurate representation of the various components underlying how individuals actualize the behaviour that is the examined phenomena of social research. An illustrative example of all its components would be Bourdieu’s (1990b) examination of the system of marriage in Béarn, particularly how various social agents maneuvered the system to either maintain or advance their social position. The institution of marriage in Béarn was a field structured around the maintenance/advancement of material and symbolic capital (for example, marrying into an upper-class family to increase material wealth and social status). The objective of a family was to maintain or advance its position by way of ensuring the survival and growth of its patrimonial structure. The laws of inheritance favoured males as inheritance would fall to the first-born son, however the laws were later revised to also allow female beneficiaries. This meant that the position of social agents was to an extent pre-defined by birth (upper class or lower-class families, male or female) but as a tactic to maintain the patrimony, females would be allowed to inherit assets failing the existence of male beneficiaries. Thus, the choices available to social agents were heavily influenced by their birth, social class, and the structure of the field, however there was room for them to manoeuvre by using different tactics to advance their material and symbolic capital.

In conclusion, the premise for Bourdieu’s works was the examination and desire to overcome one of the main antinomies of social research: the divide between the theories of objectivism and subjectivism. He believed that these theories of the actions of individuals fail because they tend to insert their own metrics of examination while abandoning the characteristics of the objects of study, and at the same time failed to recognize that theorizing about human action is itself a form of practical human action (Bourdieu, 1990b). In light of this perceived failure to treat human action as a practical matter, Bourdieu posited his own alternative to this logic of theory by examining the true logic underpinning these practices. He argued that individuals operate within relatively autonomous social fields, access to which is determined by a range of factors both socially constructed and decided through birth. By acquiring a “feel for the game” (Bourdieu, 1990b, p. 34) through the process of habitus, individuals come to learn their position within the field and more importantly learn how to manoeuvre within it by amassing not just economic, but also other forms of capital that are highly valued by those in power within that field.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). In other words. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press Cambridge.

Cattani, G., Ferriani, S. and Allison, P. (2014). Insiders, Outsiders and the Struggle for Consecration in Cultural Fields: A Core-Periphery Perspective. American Sociological Review, 78(3), pp.417-447.

Hilgers, M. and Mangez, E. (2014). Bourdieu's Theory of Social Fields.

Waquant, L. (2006). CHAPTER 16: PIERRE BOURDIEU. In: R. Stones, ed., Key Contemporary Thinkers, London and New York. Macmillan.