Misreading Bourdieu: Critics Who Struggle with the “Pots and Pans”

Bottero and Crossley’s (B & C) (2011) article in Cultural Sociology Worlds, Fields and Networks: Becker, Bourdieu and the Structures of Social Relations, argues that because Bourdieu dismisses the causal role for interactions his conceptual model of society is untenable as it is forced to operate linearly with structures forming dispositions and dispositions producing interactions. I have responded to their argument elsewhere (Fox, 2014), stating that Bourdieu’s idea of interactions is that they are in fact anti-dichotomously connected to structure. How the objects of the interaction relate is part of broader societal structures which are re-enacted within the exchange, which itself plays its subtle part in whether interlocutors reject, reproduce, retranslate, etc, the logic of these structures. I don’t intend to enter into that discussion again here. Instead I wish to argue how it is that such misreadings of Bourdieu have emerged in the first place.

Generally it appears to have much to do with how his critics get stuck in the cognitive divisions of dichotomies. Embedded in the structure of everyday language and its processes of mystification, such false dichotomies are highly resilient (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 178-181). Buttressed by the linguistic heritage of “positivist philosophies of science” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 15; Szerszynski, 1996: 104-139), European language is “better suited to express things than relations, states than processes” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 15). The language of things compels us towards dichotomous thinking. It pushes us to “make quite senseless conceptual distinctions which makes it seem that ‘the individual’ and ‘society’ were two separate things, like tables and chairs, and pots and pans” (Elias, 1978, cited in Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 15 note27). By virtue of the same limitations, language impels us to look on a river as a thing which is flowing or on wind as something that is blowing “as if a wind could exist which did not blow” (Elias, 1978, cited in Emirbayer, 1997: 283)”. Binary oppositions and this “process reduction” (ibid) help maintain substantialist thinking amongst social scientists. For Bourdieu such failings amount to a “commonsensical perception of social reality of which sociology must rid itself” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 15).

In interpreting Bourdieu it is important to keep an eye on his sociological objectives (something which Schinkel and Tacq (2004) illustrate brilliantly in their interpretation of Distinction through reading it as a critique of Kant). Recognising that Bourdieu’s project incorporates an attempt to bridge structure and agency, which in turn collapses related dichotomies of determination/freedom, unconscious/conscious, should be enough to keep would-be interpreters on their toes as to the transcendent implications of some of Bourdieu’s statements regarding interactions.

This is why I refer to Bourdieu’s concerns regarding structure/agency in my reply article to B & C (Fox, 2014). However, B & C (2014) in their rejoinder interpret my reference to it as my assertion of proof via Bourdieu’s sociological intentions, counter-arguing that intention is no substitute for success and that Bourdieu’s anti-dichotomous intentions are generally viewed as a failure.[1] This response entirely misses the point. In effect by failing to pay heed to the implications of the anti-dichotomous dimensions of Bourdieu it becomes all too easy to misread him and take too literally his statements (Bourdieu’s writing style is notoriously complex).

As such the authors fail to envisage Bourdieu’s approach in a manner that escapes the logical trap of reasoning through dichotomies. Instead they reproduce the academic tendency to completely sever macro from micro perspectives by failing to see that Bourdieu’s use of objective relations literally conjoins structure and interaction. This allows for the subtle contestation and/or acquiescent reproduction within everyday social exchanges of the configuration of the objective relations as ordered by field. Thus interactions and concrete social relations, in Bourdieu’s theory, do connect habitus to field: i.e. the opposite of what B & C argue.

It is interesting that most[2] from the authoritative list of critics  B & C provide in their rejoinder (Jenkins, 2000; Alexander, 1995; Bohman, 1998; King, 2000; Barnes, 2000) to reinforce their claims that Bourdieu fails in his attempts to transcend the structure/agency dichotomy also fail to address the nitty-gritty of objective relations and exhibit the same limitation of a commonsensical dichotomous framing of Bourdieu. Barnes (Barnes, 2000: 55-6) pretty much makes the same declaration of untenableness as B & C regarding the isomorphic and homologous relationship between field and habitus (p: 55-6) through failing to see how Bourdieu links structure and interaction – which is effectively also the same dichotomous mistake as B & C. Ironically others interpret Bourdieu through the dichotomies of determination/freedom and unconscious/conscious which Bourdieu worked to overcome. These two dichotomies are mutually inclusive, with the former operating as an extension of the latter. However, some critics construe habitus as the end-product of field and the immediate and unconscious producer of action, which means humans are the mere automatons of field. This misinterpretation substitutes habitus for an individual’s actions, thoughts and actual experiences (Alexander, 1995; King, 2000: 425), thereby conflating the concept as “Bourdieu’s version of the first-person phenomenological perspective” (Lizardo, 2004: 26).

These critics unwittingly reproduce in their interpretations the false notion – reinforced through language’s nominal dichotomies – that consciousness is entirely distinct from unconsciousness (for more examples of this see Burawoy, 2008; King, 2000: 424). Alexander (1995) refers to Bourdieu’s “oxymoronic” “unconscious strategy” (p. 154). This he labels as such because with Bourdieu defying a definition of strategy as purely conscious in the rational calculative manner (Bourdieu, 1977: 36; Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 94), the only other option for dichotomously mystified Alexander is its lexical opposite. However, consciousness is co-dependent on unconsciousness: for example thinking discursively requires access to an unconscious repository of language stored in the habitus. In this way, the habitus is both restrictive and enabling. It limits expectations and possibilities on the basis of what is stored and not stored within it while at the same time it is a capacity, a resource of dispositions and classificatory guides (Lizardo, 2004: 7-8), to be drawn upon in the immediacy of the moment.

B & C also refer to con artists in their rejoinder. I believe they are responding to how I link interactions to social positions, arguing that the example of con artists pretending to be someone they are not proves the work of interacting can somehow escape the underlying social conditions. I’m not too sure why they feel the need to stress this. Although position is certainly liable to dictate much of the form objective relations take in an exchange, clearly con artists are strategising, employing their practical apprehension of objective relations – they understand the classifications involved, they have some sense of their victims systems of classification, and they know how to take advantage of the associated or pertinent properties of various objects which can be tied to the roles they are mimicking. Also B & C argue as if the capacity of these con artists is somehow entirely distinct from their own social conditions and positions in social space. This reminds me of Ghassan Hage’s (1998) response to Jenkins (1992) arguments against Bourdieu’s critique of Rational Action Theory where Jenkins stated actors “sometimes” do behave in a rational calculative manner:

Jenkins’s usage of “sometimes” blurs the issues, for this should lead one, normally, to ask the question, “when?” that in tum presupposes certain conditions should prevail for agents to engage in calculative rationality. This is reasonably close to what Bourdieu would argue. (Hage, 1994: 428).

In effect, both B & C, Jenkins, and the rest of the critics mentioned here, seem to succumb to their commonsensical “pots and pans” take on the world which allows them – at least momentarily – to lose sight of how structure and agency, in Bourdieu,  appear to always be engaged in a mutual process of both determining and enabling each other.

[1] Additionally in this detour from the core of my argument they enter into an unnecessary defense of Goffman and symbolic interactionism. Bourdieu was very much engaged in a political project through his sociology, which was aimed at rupturing the concealing and subordinating effects of power. For “genuine and lasting progressive change to occur”, Bourdieu supported “a politics of fields aimed at structured power relations …supplemented by a politics of habitus paying close attention to the social production” of “political proclivities” and their underlying classifications (Wacquant, 2004: 10, emphasis in original). The politics of fields suggests a need to reduce the inequalities and advantages of privilege that linger in all field structures. This struggle must be supported by a politics of habitus which acknowledges how the habitus has internalised biases and pre-constructed categories that serve to conceal and reproduce inequalities. Therefore one can understand his concerns where methodologies do in fact overlook the role of the broader social system in how the interactive world unfolds (which the brilliant Goffman was often wont to do despite his more macro approach towards the end of his career). Being very much a symbolic struggle any failure of a methodology to address one side serves to reproduce fatalistic or voluntaristic myths.
[2] I write ‘most’ because admittedly this interpretation of Bourdieu is a work in progress. I particularly need to deal with Butler’s, who they also refer to, and Archer’s seemingly more sophisticated arguments against him.


Alexander J C (1995) Fin de Siecle Social theory: Relativism, reductionism and the problem of reason. London Verso.

Barnes B (2000) Understanding Agency: Social Theory and Responsible Action. SAGE Publications.

Bottero W, Crossley N (2011) Worlds, Fields and Networks: Becker, Bourdieu and the Structures of Social Relations. Cultural Sociology 5 (1): 99-119.

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Emirbayer M (1997) Manifesto for a Relational Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 103 (2).

Fox E (2014) Bourdieu’s Relational View of Interactions: A Reply to Bottero and Crossley. Cultural Sociology 8 (2): 204-211.

Hage G (1994) Pierre Bourdieu in the nineties: Between the church and the atelier. Theory & Society 23 (3): 419-440.

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King A (2000) Thinking with Bourdieu Against Bourdieu: A ‘Practical’ Critique of the Habitus. Sociological Theory 18 (3): 417.

Lizardo O (2004) The Cognitive Origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34 (4): 375-401.

Schinkel W, Tacq J (2004) The Saussurean Influence in Pierre Bourdieu’s Relational Sociology. International Sociology 19 (1).

Szerszynski B (1996) On Knowing what to do: Environmentalism and the Modern Problematic. In: Lash S, Szerszynski B & Wynne B (eds.) Risk, environment and modernity : towards a new ecology. London: Sage, ix, 294 p.

Wacquant L (2004) Pointers on Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics. Constellations 11 (1).


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