Book Review: Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction by Tony Schirato with Mary Roberts

Review by Andrea Lizama

Bourdieu: A critical introduction by Tony Schirato with Mary Roberts was published by Allen & Unwin in April 2018.

Tony Schirato was formerly Professor & HOD of Communication at the University of Macau. He researches and writes in the areas of critical theory, gender, cultural politics, and sport. He is currently writing a book on sport and media interactivity.

Mary Roberts is currently a Visiting Scholar at China Women’s University in Beijing.  Her areas of teaching and research include intercultural communication and education, academic writing and critical thinking.

Given the theoretical and methodological complexities of Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus, there is a wide array of revisions and interpretations of his work. In this new and highly readable revision, Schirato and Roberts offer a systematic account of Bourdieu’s full body of work, from the early years of his academic career to his last years in Paris. In order to structure Bourdieu’s theoretical general approach, but also to remark Bourdieu’s double role as a both sociologist and intellectual with a public role, the authors distinguish four different periods or stages of Bourdieu’s career. They define Bourdieu’s anthropological and ethnological work in Algeria as the first period and his work on the sociology of education as a second period. This finishes when Bourdieu made a cultural turn and focused on the field of cultural production (third period), with the fourth and final period of Bourdieu’s work focused on the neoliberal model and symbolic power.

Of particular interest to this reviewer is the way in which the authors address the different periods of Bourdieu’s career in connection to the development of his theoretical and methodological thought. The central argument of this book is that Bourdieu’s general theoretical approach cannot be separated from his career and life in a broader sense. The first two chapters of the book focus on both Bourdieu’s academic and biographical trajectories in order to demonstrate that Bourdieu’s theoretical work is embedded in his own trajectory. They note that Bourdieu – unlike many other well-recognised scholars – came from a relatively deprived family which lived in a rural town in the south of France. However, Bourdieu was successful in schooling which gave him the possibility of studying philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, before start working as a secondary school teacher and then being conscripted into the army in Algeria. Here is when the authors argue that some of Bourdieu’s main ideas and concepts, such as ‘oblate miracle’ – an expression used to describe Bourdieu’s miraculous social mobility –  and ‘cleft habitus’ –  can be firstly applied to Bourdieu’s own biography, before being applied to wider society. Tensions and contradictions were manifested across Bourdieu’s trajectory on reason of divergences between his familial and social background and his role as a prominent intellectual in France.

The following chapters (3-9) fit perfectly together and are structured in a well-ordered manner since the authors organise each chapter based on of a particular notion of Bourdieu’s work. Chapter 3 examines Bourdieu’s work on education, social reproduction and class. The following chapters examine the main concepts of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework such as Distinction (chapter 4), habitus, (chapter 5), cultural field (chapter 6), cultural capital (chapter 7) and symbolic power (chapter 8). Authors aim to provide a detailed account of each of those concepts, but they also continue to identify and evaluate developments and modifications of Bourdieu’s theoretical and methodological approaches across his trajectory. A more critical point of view is remarkable as the authors also provide an in-depth discussion of the different ways in which Bourdieu’s work was a focus of positive and negative criticism.

A good example of Bourdieu’s tendency to adjust and refine his theoretical work is evident in the way in which Bourdieu rethinks the relationships between cultural production, class and symbolic power across his career. In particular, the notion of symbolic power, one of the key concepts of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, is discussed in chapter 8. Earliest analyses of symbolic capital were carried out at the ‘sociology of education’ period in connection to the development of the cultural reproduction theory. During the ‘sociology of culture’ period Bourdieu looked at mechanisms of symbolic power in connection to acquisition of cultural capital. The notion of symbolic capital was further developed after ‘Distinction’ when Bourdieu reached a refined understanding of the process of class formation. Authors suggest that by the end of Bourdieu’s career, the notion of symbolic power was at the service of a political cause in this period, making clear his attempt to attempt to engage with social and political matters (p.85).

In a very thought-provoking way, the authors reflect that even though Bourdieu started his career as a Parisian academic, he later became a well-recognised public intellectual with influence in France, to the point where he was asked to contribute to government policy-making. Bourdieu attempted making interpretations of the world, but also had a genuine interest in changing it. From the authors’ point of view Bourdieu’s experiences in Algeria were the first turning point in this scholarly trajectory and were fundamental in forming an intention to use the social sciences and methodologies as a ‘political weapon in order to criticise all forms of oppression and domination’ (p.9). He made use of his position to intervene on issues related to the rights and injustices suffered by those groups excluded from networks of power. From this point of view, the authors argue that Bourdieu’s work needs to be considered and evaluated not only on the basis of his academic contributions and achievements, but also in the light of his attempts to influence the ‘cultural politics of the academic field’ (p. 45).

As was mentioned before, this book is successful in its attempt of providing an overview of Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus which is enjoyable to read and easily understood. By reading this book, readers can see how Bourdieu framed and reframed the key aspects of his work across his career. Readers also will be able to understand how the majority of significant contributions made by Bourdieu are grounded on his own biography and the earliest years of his career. The structure of the book facilitates the study and understanding of each of the main aspects or concepts within Bourdieu’s works. Readers can gain an in-depth understanding of the whole theoretical framework developed by Bourdieu, or they can focus on particular concepts framing Bourdieu’s work by reading individual chapters.

The authors’ concern for presenting a comprehensive overview of Bourdieu’s apparatus that enable scholars using Bourdieu’s work to its full potential is notable and well presented. However, there are some arguments discussed in this book which are still difficult to understand for those with no previous engagement with Bourdieu’s work. In chapter 9 the authors provide a specific example in order to explain the notion of reflexibility, which was effective in helping the reader to follow some of the arguments about the logic of practice. It could have been helpful if they had provided other examples at other points in the book, especially when the theoretical discussion turned complex. Chapter 1 was key to understanding what the book is about and the main arguments that the authors aimed to discuss in the book.  In the same vein, a final chapter summarising the key aspects of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework as well as the main arguments that authors discussed throughout the book may also have helped readers acquire an overall synthesis of Bourdieu’s theoretical development.

Overall this well-considered book is a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding the theoretical apparatus developed by Pierre Bourdieu. I mean here undergraduate students, early-career researchers conducting research which draws on a Bourdieusian framework, or indeed everyone and anyone with a genuine interest in Bourdieu’s work. At the same time, this book is also recommendable to those with a previous understanding of Bourdieu’s work who can find in this book another approach to it. By focusing on the connection between Bourdieu’s biography and his theoretical development, this book brings to light the main aspects of his work while both bringing and addressing some criticisms towards it. The authors’ analytical viewpoint succeeds in showing not only the undeniable contribution of Bourdieu’s work to sociology, but many of the complexities and contradictions which identify him as one of the most important public intellectual figures of the twentieth century.

Dr Andrea Lizama holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester. She also holds an MSc degree in Social Sciences awarded by University of Chile. Her doctoral research focused on school teachers’ everyday understandings of social mobility, class and inequalities. Her research interests include social mobility, inequalities, class stratification, social change, trajectories, education and identities. She tweets @AndreaLizamaL.

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