Getting Beyond Bourdieu in the Sociology of Morality

In recent years morality and ethics have returned to the mainstream of Sociology after a long period relegated to the periphery of the discipline. In this interview, following from her recent paper in The Sociological ReviewLéna Pellandini-Simányi, Assistant Professor at Eötvös Loránd University, puts these trends in context and offers a nuanced critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s enormously influential approach to understanding moral questions.

What are ethics and morality?

It depends who you ask… According to the standard philosophical distinction, morality – associated with the Kantian categorical imperative – refers to abstract rules of what is right to do, whereas ethics – a term used originally by Aristotle – refers to a more practical, everyday conduct of a good life. This distinction is reflected in contemporary use as well. Habermas, for example, refers to questions of justice (to be decided in an open speech situation) as moral questions, as opposed to ethical questions, which concern the content of a good life (and which should be decided through introspection). Other authors, like Foucault, appropriated a different aspect of this distinction and use the term ‘morality’ for abstract, external rules as opposed to ‘ethics’ which is a more reflexive, agentic search for a personal definition of a good life. My own use draws on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘strong evaluations’, which uses ethics and morality interchangeably and defines them in opposition to preferences. Preferences describe desires, or simply what we feel like doing. In contrast, we experience moral/ethical standards as external to our own desires, as principles that we should follow, even if don’t particularly feel like doing what they ask us to do.

How have sociologists tended to approach them?

Again, it depends on the sociologist… Sociologists of a Marxist orientation tended to see them as ideologies: ideas that make people see hierarchy as natural and that make them willingly accept subordination. Durkheimian sociology also saw them as instrumental, yet to a different aim: maintaining the cohesion of society. Weber, in some of his polemical writings, among which I include The Protestant Ethic, treated them as autonomous factors that explain, rather than which can be explained by social processes. Values were also central in Parsons’ work. But as sociology got increasingly compartmentalized into sub-disciplines, the study of ethics and values, which once used to be a central element of understanding society, moved to a rather peripheral, specialized field called value sociology. In fact, it was in anthropology rather than in sociology that ethics and morality remained central concepts.

In recent years this trend seems to be changing and ethics and morality are becoming more mainstream sociological topics again, even in critical sociology. There are many causes of this shift. In European sociology, one of them is that critical sociology has become less self-assured about the normative basis on which it critiques the conduct of the ‘blind masses’ and it became interested in the normative operations of people themselves. Boltanski and Thévenot’s pragmatic sociology is one line of inquiry inspired by this concern. Many scholars of material culture studies and sociology of consumption have been motived by a similar concern in their turn to the moral issues that drive everyday life. Another cause has been the rise of recognition theory, both as an alternative to critiques focusing on inequality and as a new ontology according to which people’s identity (and happiness) depends on how others value them. These theories too place a large emphasis on what people subjectively value, as opposed to many previous theories where this question did not even arise because they assumed that people, consciously or unconsciously, are only interested in power and material possessions.

How did Bourdieu understand ethics and morality?

He saw them, first, as part of the habitus, and as such, as shaped by objective social position. Second, and this is the problematic part that I focused on, he saw them as covert means by which people unconsciously advance and legitimize their claims to power. This is why he considered it a naïve enterprise to look at lay normative understandings of ethics. He held that what we should be really looking at are the power struggles that ultimately explain ethics. This position became more nuanced after his political turn in the 1990s and particularly in the Pascalian Meditations, in which he attacked theories that treated ethics as merely ‘tricks intended to perpetuate hegemony’. In that book he even suggested that recognition is the essence of a meaningful human life. The problem, however, is that he did not explain how these points can be reconciled with his previous work. So when we read Bourdieu, on the one hand he gives a sophisticated theoretical and methodological apparatus that tells us how to unmask the power struggles behind ethics, and on the other hand he warns us that ethics is not all about power.

Why do you think his account has been so influential?

Because it’s great. For me, Bourdieu’s analysis of the reproduction and legitimatization of inequalities and the functioning of fields is the most illuminating of all sociological accounts. Unmasking evaluative judgements as means in covert power struggles is a central element of this account. For example, he shows how the evaluation criteria of students in the French education system, and the whole discourse of ‘innate talent’, reflects the dominant values and thus transforms social privilege into seemingly well-earned and legitimate superiority. This is an excellent description, and it would be nice to see it becoming even more influential, for instance on education policy.

The problem, however, is that albeit there are many empirical cases in which what looks like ethics is in fact a covert strategy in power struggles, there are also cases in which it isn’t. Yet if we use the standard Bourdieusian analysis, all empirical cases will appear as if they would be about power. This is not because Bourdieu happened to study cases in which ethics masked power struggles. Rather, because his argument of ethics as power-driven was built on a tautological, and therefore empirically unfalsifiable reasoning. The core of that reasoning is Bourdieu’s definition of power, which includes symbolic power: power based on esteem. The problem with this definition is that it fails to acknowledge that ethics, and normative positions generally, automatically create esteem, which is the basis of ‘symbolic power’. For instance, if I think that one should be brave, I will look up at people who are brave and value coward people less. This means that in this case ethics is not caused by power, but the contrary: symbolic power (esteem) is the side-effect of ethics. It is only due to this definition that merges power and ethics-driven action that Bourdieu is able to show that all ethics are instrumental to acquiring or naturalizing power.

Should we reject Bourdieu’s account of ethics and morality entirely?

Not at all. What I hoped to do in the article is to open up a way to an analysis that is able to acknowledge ethics in its own right alongside, rather than instead of, an analysis of ethics as ideology. The underlying, even more exciting question, that the article merely scratches the surface of, is how ethics and power are related. I think that Bourdieu’s work, particularly his theory of fields and the habitus are very useful for addressing this question, but only is we are able to resolve the tautology that I just mentioned because it blurs the line between ethics and power. So I see my critique of Bourdieu as something of a correction or an addition to the original Bourdieusian frame, rather than as its rejection.

Is it important that Sociology addresses questions pertaining to them?

Questions of ‘What should I do?’ are central to everyday life. Don’t think of big questions of life and death, just simply mundane choices that have a normative element: Should I visit my mum (that I really should, it has been three weeks) or chill out with my friends? Should I buy eggs laid by chickens who could run around free, or by ones raised in a battery farm that I don’t even dare to imagine? I think sociology cannot not study a phenomenon that is so omnipresent in people’s lives and in all forms of social interactions. The tricky question is how to do it in a way that does not reduce ethics neither to ideology, nor to individual preferences, but is sensitive to the social, institutional and even technological conditions that allow or foreclose certain ethics.

Léna Pellandini-Simányi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communication at Eötvös Loránd University.

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