Jeremy Lane’s Comments on the Bourdieu and Language Debate: A Brief Reply, Bridget Fowler

Author Information: Bridget Fowler, University of Glasgow,

Fowler, Bridget. “Jeremy Lane’s Comments on the Bourdieu and Language Debate: A Brief Reply.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 1 (2013): 1-4.

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Lane’s basic argument might be best summed up as the claim that Bourdieu reserves for sociology a monopoly of critical reason and hence the potential for any resistance. The corollary of this, for Lane, is that Bourdieu believes that ordinary men and women are trapped by both embodied complicity and a logic of improvisational practice that together consign them to a fatalistic adjustment to the world. More pertinently, he charges Bourdieu with having such a low opinion of practical reason as to be aligned dangerously with those sociologists who have become entangled with conservative thinkers: he is perhaps alluding to Parsons’ structural-functionalism or to Nisbet’s disputable claims that Durkheim is the bearer of anti-revolutionary conservative thought: that of de Maistre and de Bonald in France, or Burke in Britain. In brief, Lane is effectively arguing that there is a profound homology between Bourdieu and Burke’s denigration of the “swinish multitude”. This is an extraordinary claim given that Bourdieu consistently upbraided those “present-day structuralist readers of Marx” who believed that dominated agents were merely the bearers of social structures (1990, 41), given, too, that he spoke, as the winner of the Ernst Bloch Prize, about coupling social realism with “civic utopianism” (Bourdieu, 1998a), and given that his last major book (2000) ends by invoking the margin of liberty which allows a break with the mechanisms of social reproduction. 

I do not find all of Bourdieu’s position-taking convincing — in particular I have argued against his rejection of any possibility of popular art, which he saw as based on a populist delusion (see Grignon and Passeron 1989, Fowler 2012). Nevertheless, he is neither a proponent of feudal hierarchy, as Burke was, nor an anti-democratic vanguardist Leninist, as Verdès-Leroux (1998) has argued. Admittedly, Bourdieu’s ethics do not emerge fully early on: in these works he often regards ethical avowals as hiding power-interests. But he does reveal his Enlightenment ethical stance later, most notably in the Postscript to The Rules of Art (1996a) and in Pascalian Meditations (2000). We should note here not just his view that eliminating human suffering is the criterion of the good (Eagleton and Bourdieu 1992), but his specific concern for democracy — see e.g. Bourdieu (2005), Wacquant (2005). If he were an elitist, like Michels and Pareto, or merely a new Machiavellian, why would he express these concerns?

As Lane starkly cites him, Bourdieu’s stance is that social science — uniquely placed to tell us “how things really are” — has to “wrench scientific reason from the embrace of practical reason” (Bourdieu 1992, 247; cited, italicised in Lane 2013, 62). In my view, this is because otherwise mere “good intentions” — or worse, a wish-fulfilling view of social reality — might become substitutes for the hard labour of penetrating to deeper social structures: those “structuring structures” that underlie misrecognised appearances (universalism, meritocracy etc.). Hence he has to give epistemological primacy to sociology (Bourdieu et al. 1991, Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Feyerabend notwithstanding, Bourdieu’s argument that the theories that win scientific status within any given field do so only if they are compliant with specific methodological principles is aligned with mainstream philosophy of social science. Bourdieu’s own injunctions in this respect are best captured in The Weight of the World (1999; see especially Understanding, 607-626), Participant Objectivation (2003) and Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004).

Crucially, in Homo Academicus (1988, xvi-xxvi) it is not just practicing the craft of sociology which he thinks is important, but its scientific claims, which come from offering theoretical propositions and from “getting your hands dirty in the empirical kitchen” (as he describes it elsewhere). It goes without saying that scientifically-based statements have a higher legitimacy than other forms of validation. In other words, practical reason may frequently make good sense, but it is not based on the hard-won conquest of an autonomous field. Although its entry qualifications are lower than is the case for physics, sociology claims to constitute such a field by virtue of its distinctive method (Bourdieu et al. 1991, Bourdieu 2004). Even more risky, unarmed by either adequate theoretical awareness or rigorous method, Bourdieu regards thinkers on modernity as prey to various forms of illusory belief, narcissism or postmodern relativism (1988, xiii). It is necessary to go beyond the lures of both objectivism and subjectivism in their various forms — Saussurean structuralism, rational action economics etc. — as the precondition for this theoretical starting-point (Bourdieu 1990).

Jeremy Lane raises a particular question about the young female immigrant of Moroccan origin, claimed by Bourdieu to be perpetrating a “half-baked demystification” (Bourdieu et al. 1999, 616). Is Bourdieu simply guilty here of a form of sociological condescension or even masculinist contempt?  On first reading this is indeed deeply disturbing and Lane is right to draw attention to the unexpectedly harsh tone of Bourdieu’s critical unmasking of her self-diagnosis. Her analysis revolves around the idea — quite often expressed by female immigrants and first generation British/French citizens — that they are caught in a pincers “between two worlds”. But his apparently belittling derision of the Moroccan woman would indeed be a surprising paradox given his own illumination of the specific mechanisms of masculine domination (2001). It strikes a dissonant note with the first part of this section on Understanding — which concerns the spiritual joy of self-expression (Bourdieu et al. 1999, 614). It stands at odds with AbdelMalek Sayad’s adjacent view that the interviewer serves to aid the respondent by allowing them an opportunity to present in full what they had long reflected on (Bourdieu et al. 1999, 561).

Yet however maladroit Bourdieu’s development of his argument here, he surely has a point. The trope of being “between two worlds” and the pleasures of skilful manipulation of a literary style may well have allowed the actor to misrecognise other social currents. This is a fortiori true of possession of the dominant language, as Bourdieu has shown so forcefully, given its speakers’ frequent unawareness of the symbolic power conferred on them. It is also true of the privileges of those who are born into the dominant class, obscure particularly to the younger generation, faced with the frightening openness of the future (Bourdieu 1996b). In brief, students or young professionals, even with a very high level of education, may not know they will derive benefits from it. Despite their grasp of various capitals, their lingering uncertainty as to their futures is precisely why their likely trajectories are expressed in terms of probability theories. The Moroccan migrant may well be blinkered to the other social determinants that constrain her.

Rereading Bourdieu more closely, his sanctions are mainly directed at the interviewer.  For s/he had failed to question the respondent as she should do, so seduced had she been by the literary flair exhibited by this racialised outsider. S/he thus leaves buried a whole set of questions about the respondent’s circumstances, not least her economic advantages or disadvantages:

She manages paradoxically to have the interviewer forget what is at the heart of the highly-stylised vision of her life that she is putting forward, namely, her literary studies, which allow her to offer to the interviewer a double gratification: a discourse that closely fulfills the interviewer’s conception of a disadvantaged group; and a formal accomplishment that eliminates any obstacle relating to social and cultural difference. […] She thus excludes de facto any investigation of the objective facts of her trajectory other than those which enter into the project of self-portraiture as she conceives it (Bourdieu et al. 1999, 616- 617).

It is as though a psychoanalyst’s patient had taken control of an interview leading it where s/he wanted it to go irrespective of the fruitlessness of direction taken.  Sociological interviews, he remarks quite reasonably, should not become sidetracked into mere self-congratulatory “mutual confirmation of identities” (Bourdieu et al. 1999, 617).

Jeremy Lane has fruitfully alerted us to extremely important issues in interpreting Bourdieu, particularly on democratic politics. These raise similar questions about Bourdieu as did Rancière in his The Philosopher and His Poor (2004, 165-202).  There are, it is true, points at which Bourdieu’s pessimism seems to extend less to the action of the elite than to that of the dominated. Mired as they are in doxa — including the new doxa of the “bankers’ realism” — he writes with great pathos of their de facto elimination from many of the institutional forms of contemporary professionalised politics. But he points not to quiescence, but to the long tradition of collectively-forged ideas within groups, to which Durkheim had alluded (Bourdieu in Wacquant, 2005, 56-57). Moreover, against the view that Bourdieu was prescriptively exclusionist until the right conditions for democracy had emerged, he backed the self-management of current social movements favouring grass-roots participation (see e.g. Acts of Resistance 1998b).  As Lane acknowledges, he also looked forward, further, to those conditions for “a decisive contribution to the construction of a genuine democracy” (Bourdieu in Wacquant 2005, 62).

I am convinced that he did see hysteresis — the discrepancy between the precarised, exploitative work and people’s expectations — as likely to be in the long-run destabilizing. This discrepancy has been particularly painful for those newly-armed from the educational process, but only with devalued degrees. More optimistically, for him the exercise of reflexivity is available to everyone, not merely to sociologists. It thus potentially reinforces a different political ethic, operating in the interest of a lasting social transformation.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Homo Academicus. Cambridge: Polity, 1988.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity, 1990.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Rules of Art, Cambridge: Polity, 1996a.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The State Nobility, Cambridge: Polity, 1996b.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “A Reasoned Utopia and Economic Fatalism.” New Left Review 227 (1998a): 125-30.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Acts of Resistance. Cambridge: Polity, 1998b.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Pascalian Meditations, Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Masculine Domination, Cambridge: Polity, 2001.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Participant Objectivation.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 9, no. 2 (2003): 281-294.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of Science and Reflexivity. Cambridge: Polity, 2004.

Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Mystery of Ministry.” In Bourdieu and Democratic Politics edited by Loïc Wacquant, 55-63. Cambridge, Polity, 2005.

Bourdieu, Pierre, J.-C. Chamboredon and Jean Claude Passeron. The Craft of Sociology: Epistemological Preliminaries. Berlin: de Gruyte. 1991.

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Fowler, Bridget. “Pierre Bourdieu, Social Transformation and 1960s British Drama.” Theory, Culture and Society 29, no. 3 (2012): 3-24.

Grignon, C, Passeron, J.-C. Le Savant et le Populaire, Paris: Le Seuil, 1989.

Lane, Jeremy F. “Bourdieu’s Theory of Linguistic Exchange: Realistic Description or Exclusionary Prescription?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2, no. 12 (2013): 60-65.

Rancière, Jacques. The Philosopher and His Poor. Translated and edited by Andrew Parker. Translated by Corinne Oster and John Drury. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2004.

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Wacquant, Loïc. “Pointers on Pierre Bourdieu and Democratic Politics.” In Bourdieu and Democratic Politics, edited by Loïc Wacquant, 10-28. Cambridge: Polity, 2005.

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2 replies

  1. Dear Bridget,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my earlier post. I won’t attempt a full response to your comments here but let me just respond to your first remark:

    “Lane’s basic argument might be best summed up as the claim that Bourdieu reserves for sociology a monopoly of critical reason and hence the potential for any resistance.”

    This is not just my argument; it is Bourdieu’s repeated assertion that sociology does, or at least should possess a ‘monopoly of truth’ about the social world. My question is, at its base, a very simple one: how can this claim that sociology should be accorded such a ‘monopoly of truth’ be reconciled with democracy? From this claim to ‘monopoly’, Bourdieu’s characterisation of ‘practical reason’ and even ‘the democratic order’ as ‘contaminations’ of ‘the scientific order’ necessarily follow. You seem perfectly happy with this. I am deeply troubled by it. I am also troubled by your attempts to defend Bourdieu on this point and would simply ask you to think rather harder about how you can reconcile either your or Bourdieu’s remarks on these issues with an understanding of democracy. Finally, I would repeat that this is not a matter of Bourdieu’s or indeed your intentions, both of which I assume to be unimpeachable; rather it is a matter of the problematic in which he works.

    All the best,


  1. Bourdieu, Science and Democracy: A Reply to Bridget Fowler and David Inglis, Jeremy F. Lane « Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective

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