In The Bourdieu Paradigm: The Origins and Evolution of an Intellectual Social ProjectDerek Robbins explores the intellectual and social background informing the development of the theoretical perspective, or theory-as-method, of Pierre Bourdieu. Given the increasing application of Bourdieu’s theoretical tools across the social sciences, this book is a timely addition to scholarship, writes Ross Goldstone

The Bourdieu Paradigm: The Origins and Evolution of an Intellectual Social Project. Derek Robbins. Manchester University Press. 2019.

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In The Bourdieu Paradigm: The Origins and Evolution of an Intellectual Social Project, Derek Robbins explores the intellectual and social background informing the development of the theoretical perspective, or theory-as-method, of Pierre Bourdieu. Attention is given in the book to three European phenomenological thinkers: Alfred Schutz, Aron Gurwitsch and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is due to Robbins’s conviction that ‘Bourdieu is properly understood as an intellectual whose sociological production was informed by a phenomenological orientation’ (1). Robbins also aims to give a ‘representation of the milieu from which Bourdieu’s work originated’ and to turn Bourdieu upon himself, to appreciate how all intellectual and social productions are the result of the social conditions within which they originated (11). In this way, Robbins contributes to the Bourdieu Paradigm by discussing it on its own terms.

This book is published in an academic context in which the theoretical tools of Bourdieu are gaining increasing traction, particularly in the UK where Robbins and I are currently based. The work begins by tracing the development of Bourdieu’s intellectual project from its origins in the 1960s through to its end in the 1990s, providing an account of the key (co)authored texts during each decade and their contribution to his evolving intellectual project. To speak, however, of the ‘end’ of this intellectual project would be unfaithful to the continued application and development of Bourdieu’s work since his death, particularly in recent years, in both theoretical and empirical terms. By chronologising his intellectual project and foregrounding this with the philosophical debates emergent in twentieth-century Europe, Robbins allows the reader to appreciate two fundamental tensions which occupied Bourdieu throughout his life: (1) the disjuncture between everyday and academic discourse; and (2) the relation between structure and action.

In this review, the utility of the book in helping scholars and the public alike to navigate contemporary social and political concerns will be considered. In introducing the book and its account of Bourdieu’s intellectual trajectory, Robbins does indeed posit that it will engage and be of relevance to ‘contemporary uncertainty, particularly in Western democracies, about the authority and validity of specialist knowledge, scientific reason, monopolized by a minority ‘‘liberal elite’’, in comparison with the everyday experiences and opinions of the majority of citizens. On the international stage, it relates to the authority of universalist conceptions of human rights and of structures of governance in comparison with societal practices in culturally different contexts’ (1).

To understand this, we must begin, as does Robbins in his discussion of Bourdieu’s theoretical perspective (in Part Two, Chapter Five), with Bourdieu’s experiences of military service in Algeria. This experience, Robbins explains, sensitised Bourdieu to ‘the epistemological problems associated with undertaking anthropological research as a colonizer within a colonial situation’ (136) as well as the chasm between lived experience of societies and the Western bodies of theory applied to them. For Bourdieu, sociology should not be narcissistic, but should instead recognise ‘that it does not possess validity independent of the social conditions within which it is produced and disseminated’ (133). By appreciating this, functional objectivity is attained. In a well-selected quote, he explains: ‘sociological analysis of the underdeveloped countries suggests the need to develop a non-Keynesian economic theory that would be to Keynesian economics, valid for the west, what non-Euclidean geometrics are to Euclidean geometry’ (126).

Credit: Strifu (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The point being made here is a need to appreciate the relevance of sociality, or the different social conditions that inform different societal cultures. This is because the scientific field, of which sociology is included, is a partially autonomous microcosm, or field, of the larger macrocosm: the social conditions which encompass it (205). Given that sociologists, and indeed all ‘scientists, are fundamentally shaped by the societal conditions from which they have emerged’, Robbins draws upon Bourdieu effectively to suggest his relevance to inter-cultural and comparative understanding and, in many ways, respect. This is demonstrated in his account of Homo Academicus, which was a sociological self-analysis of the French academic field. In explaining the reasoning for translating a study of French society to an international audience, Bourdieu recommends its use: ‘to lay the foundations of a self-analysis, either by concentrating on the invariants of the genus homo academicus, or, better still, by educating himself with what he may discover about himself through the objectification’ (202-203, my emphasis).

Robbins advances this explanation by explaining that ‘Bourdieu regards the publication of the translation as potentially instrumental in enabling a socio-intellectual encounter rather than as a means to impose one social reality on another which, in his terms, would be a process of symbolic violence’ (202). Thus, Bourdieu seems to have been suggesting the use of his theoretical tools as a template, as thinking tools, rather than as a straitjacket to be imposed on a different social context. Only through appreciating the variance in a new context can the dynamic of that context be understood.

It is the constant reflection on Bourdieu’s approach to sociological practice and knowledge, or his epistemological position, where Robbins is able to explore whether Bourdieu offers a global paradigm for advancing inter-cultural understanding. Indeed, returning to the opening pages, here Robbins asserts that the book has a wider relevance to contemporary international dilemmas surrounding ‘universalist conceptions’, of which he mentions ‘human rights and […] structures of governance’ (1). Through appreciating Bourdieu’s epistemological positioning and approach to sociological practice, which recognises that it too is not independent of the social conditions within which it is produced (132), Robbins is able to suggest a future area of exploration in Bourdieusian scholarship. It is only through a ‘reflexive scientificity’, or an auto-analysis (214), that the conditions which have informed thinking, including both the theoretical and the everyday, can be understood.

Whilst the book is an interesting read for those engaged with Bourdieu and the development of his ideas, it suffers from the use of cumbersome language at times and sections of the book, particularly Part One, would benefit from including greater detail of the philosophical positions discussed. Furthermore, at times the use of primary texts to structure chapters reads as overly descriptive and biographical which, although an aim of the book, might be a shortcoming for some.

Nevertheless, The Bourdieu Paradigm is a helpful contribution to existing writing on Bourdieu, particularly in its ability to conduct an analysis of the origins of his theoretical perspective. Given the increasing application of Bourdieu’s theoretical tools across contemporary social scientific research, both in the United Kingdom and internationally, this book is a timely addition to scholarship, allowing researchers to reflect on the development of this sociological theory and providing insights into potential new directions.

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Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.


About the author

Ross Goldstone – Cardiff University
Ross Goldstone is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, where he is studying the relationship between social class and further education participation and experience. His current interests are in educational inequality and the sociology of education, in addition to wider debates around social class, and the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu and their application in educational research. He tweets at @GoldstoneRoss

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