A dealing with gift exchange, parallel cousin marriage, and

A French
sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)
sought to develop a theory of practice that would bridge what he perceived to
be a fundamental distinction in the social sciences between theory and praxis. Conducting
ethnographic fieldwork in Kabyle, Algeria during the Algerian War (1954-1962),
Bourdieu was confronted with a variety of theoretical and practical problems,
leading him to reconsider the role of the fieldworker as an outside observer. Beginning
with Outline of a Theory of Practice
(19??), he sketched out a framework that would examine social reality through a
dialectical relation between the objective and the subjective. Through this
account of how human action should be understood through practice, he has come to
be regarded as a mediator between the subjective and the objective,
phenomenology and structuralism, the individual and society, and the micro and
the macro.


alluded to in the title, the Outline of a
Theory of Practice outlines the failures of theories preceding his, in
which he critiques their failure to explain human action. Identifying the gaps
in the subjective and objective frameworks, he analyzes the interrelationship
between the structural and practical levels. Bourdieu’s purpose is twofold: to
understand society and social relations; and to understand the relationship
between the historical pattern of social relations (as structures) with the
actual actions and interactions of real people (as their agency). These theoretical
points emerge through examples from his fieldwork dealing with gift exchange,
parallel cousin marriage, and honor codes.

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Critiques – Objective Limits of Objectivism


identify where an intervention is needed, the limits of the objectivist and
subjectivist methods are set up.


frames objectivism as analyses of the social world in terms of the object
relations that structure human conduct; that is, human action is rule-governed.

Bourdieu argues that social life cannot be understood as applying a set of rules.

The idea that “social action is orderly if governed by socially shared
rules” is inaccurate, as rules can’t determine social action; those rules
and the situations in which they apply (or do not apply) always require active interpretion.  Agents engage in an “art of necessary
improvisation” which is that active interpretation. Thus norms and rules
should be understood as providing interpretive resources for strategic action.

What matters in practice is not the official rules, but the strategies agents employ
to advance their own interests. The objectivist method, by focusing on rules,
lacks a necessary component of the social experience: the temporal. It is the immediate temporality that structures the
practice. Bourdieu proposes to substitute strategy for the rule, so that
external constraints can be accounted for as fluid as opposed to static.

Essentially, this is a reintroduction of time. Like blows in a fist-fight, the
use of strategy instead of ruleassumes an arranged improvisation of common
dispositions, which allows for asserting a certain amount of agency within the
constraints of the conditions of possibility. Perhaps the strongest example
presented by Bourdieu indicating the necessity of the temporal is of gifts and
reciprocity; they rely on a temporal structure that is not accounted for in
this method.


as phenomenological knowledge, sets out to make explicit the truth of primary
experience of the social world; however, it does not reflect on itself, and thereby
excludes the question of the conditions of its own possibility. It ignores the
material and social conditions which give rise to beliefs.


Thus, objectivism
fails because of a superimposition of a set of rules on a social situation that
does not account for the origin of those rules, or for their immediate
production; subjectivism fails because it takes for granted that which is
subjectively produced without accounting for the objective system of production
which is the condition for the production of any action in a social situation. Bourdieu
comes to the conclusion that objectivism and subjectivism are misrepresentations
of the reality of social life which can only be overcome by theory that
contends with praxis. Bourdieu understands human action as that which is comprised
of and conducted through practices; because these actions are positioned to a
real outcome, they are never abstract. These theories fail precisely because
they do not regard human action as a practical matter.




Structures and the Habitus


was not concerned with actual practice but with the process of producing a
practice. He explicates strategy/practice through the concepts of field,
habitus, and capital.


agents interact (discussions, negotiations, conflicts) with respect to social space
(arena of practice). Social fields are the macro concept (structure). Social
fields are based on a historically generated system of shared meaning. Social
fields can rangle from art, science, and sports, to careers, business, and
academia. Agents and institutions interact with each other in accordance with
field-specific rules. The rules are tacit and thus must be internalized. Internalization
of field-specific rules enables the agent to anticipate future tendencies and
opportunities. Fields are places of power relations where practices of agents
are not arbitrary; the limits of social mobility within a social field (doxa)
determine what agents can or cannot do. The goal is to maximize capital in
order to enter and move on social fields, by strategies within the rules that
confine the game.


field values a particular type of resource (capital): economic, cultural,
social, and symbolic. Economic capital is related to a person’s fortune and
reveunes; cultural capital can exist in an objectivized form, institutionalized
form, or an incorporated/embodied form; social capital is the entirety of a
person’s social relations; and symbolic capital is related to honor and
recognition. On a social field, economic, social, and cultural capital is
converted to symbolic capital. Besides the right to enter a social field, the
capital structure also determines an agent’s position on the field or social
space in general. The agent’s position on the social field determines their
language, lifestyle, and so, mediated by their respective habitus.


habitus is conceived of as “a system of durable, transposable
dispositions; structured structures predisposed to function as structuring
structures.” The habitus both guides and is the source of strategy: the
unconscious practice that aims at achieving objectives by reinvesting the
appropriate types and amounts of capital on a social field. It is the organized
production of practices (the organized ways of doing things) that are both
regulated and regular being based in rules. The habitus comes to have a
structuring function even though it is not itself a structure. It is a system
of dispositions, tendencies, propensities, and inclinations. Dispositions are
deemed to be “practical sense,” or, the way humans act in any given situation.

The key to humans being active agents is that although they are not wholly
conscious of their own agency, each agent is a producer and reproducer of
objective meaning. Agency thus is “the micro.” The habitus
contributes to the production, and reproduction of the existing social order
“invisibly”, without individuals’ conscious awareness, even though
the habitus exists only through those individuals own actions. The habitus is
produced by the material conditions of existence in a society (structures), of
the social class (doxa), and internalized rules. It gives rise not only to
objectivist structure but also to subjectivist action; the dialectic
relationship between structure and agency is manifested in the habitus. To sum
it up, habitus is both opus operatum
and modus operandi – both the result of practices and modes of practice.




theory of practice is a framework where “practice” replaces other
units of analyses such as “meaning” and “social structure.”
It essentially is an explanation of how power is developed, kept, and
transferred within society. The theory contains three main elements: field,
capital, and habitus. The interplay of these elements leads to strategy, or
practice, which is our unconscious behavior that is in conformity with our
interests and that aims at achieving our objectives by investing capital and
fighting for capital. Practice is the result of social structures on a
particular field (structure; macro) where certain rules apply and also of ones
habitus (agency, micro), which is the embodied history that is manifested in
our system of thinking, feeling behaving, and perceiving. The habitus assures
the collective belief in the rules of the social game (illusio) and that actors
act in accordance with their position on the field (doxa), which depends on
their relative amount and structure of economic, cultural, (and social)
capital. Bourdieu’s theory is an attempt at reconciliation between structure
and agency, or macro and micro.