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On Pierre Bourdieu Part 4: Symbolic Capital

Bourdieu uses the concept of capital in some ways that are familiar, for example, social capital, cultural capital, and economic capital. Other usages are less familiar. First, according to David Swartz in Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, the word capital means something like money which is both a medium of exchange and a store of value. It also means power, in two senses: the ability to exert influence on one or more people; and something like electric power, a source of energy.

Second, Bourdieu uses the term “symbolic power”, for me an unfamiliar concept. This idea is tangled up with the Marxism Bourdieu absorbed as a student, which is centered around materialism. Bourdieu thinks that human society has both a materialist and symbolic dimensions. Ch. 4, page 65 et seq.; p. 74. Religion is an example of a symbolic dimension. It’s a human-made structure that enables people to grasp part of their world. Other symbolic systems mentioned by Swartz are language, art, myth, and science.

Bourdieu says that the various forms of capital can be exchanged for each other. For example, economic capital can be exchanged for social capital, as when David Koch gives a pot of money to NPR and reaps kudos from liberals.

The various forms of capital are all the result of labor. Cultural capital is the result of learning and training, for example. Social capital arises from the give and take of aid and service among social groups, often over a long period of time. Symbolic power is also the result of labor. For example, rich people can hire people to generate symbolic power for them. Swartz writes:

Bourdieu …[proposes] a theory of intellectuals that emphasizes the specific symbolic interests that shape cultural production. Bourdieu assigns a particularly important—though not exclusive—role to the arenas of symbolic specialization and their representatives in developing the material out of which the symbolic dimension of class struggle is carved. He conceptualizes these arenas as social-cultural markets or fields of force in which specialists struggle over definitions of what is to be considered as legitimate modes of expression. P. 84.

According to Swartz, Bourdieu claims that symbolic systems simultaneously perform three functions: cognition, communication, and social differentiation. P. 82-3. First, they provide a structure for understanding the world. Second, they form the communal understandings that enable people to communicate with each other. Third, they act as instruments of domination by providing a structure that categorizes humans and organizes those categories into hierarchies of social value.

Bourdieu thinks that symbolic systems work by establishing a group of paired oppositions, and placing people into one or the other. As an example, Swartz quotes Bourdieu as follows:

All agents in a given social formation share a set of basic perceptual schemes, which receive the beginnings of objectification in the pairs of antagonistic adjectives commonly used to classify and qualify persons or objects in the most varied areas of practice. The network of oppositions between high (sublime, elevated, pure) and low (vulgar, low, modest), spiritual and material, fine (refined, elegant) and coarse (heavy, fat, crude, brutal), light (subtle, lively, sharp, adroit) and heavy (slow, thick, blunt, laborious, clumsy), free and forced, broad and narrow, or, in another dimension, between unique (rare, different, distinguished, exclusive, novel) and common (ordinary, banal, commonplace, trivial, routine), brilliant (intelligent) and dull (obscure, grey, mediocre), is the matrix of all the commonplaces which find such ready acceptance because behind them lies the whole social order. P. 84-5.

Because uses the same symbolic systems these categories seem natural and just, and people mostly can figure out where they stand on each axis of differentiation. To the extent that people actually accept the axes and their positions on them, they are conditioned to accept their place.

Bourdieu thinks that these differentiating paired oppositions are arbitrary in the sense that they do not reflect social reality. That raises some interesting points. Why do we think some books are better than others? Why is a Harlequin romance novel better or worse than Pride and Prejudice? There are differences in tone and skill, but there are a number of correspondence. One answer is that liking Jane Austen is a cultural marker, and so is liking Harlequin romances. One is high, the other low; one is unique, the other common.

On the other hand, the language of science is ponderous and heavy, and that is considered good. Scientific writing would be useless in political persuasion, as Frank Luntz has proven. No one would read either Austen or Harlequin romances if they were written in scientific language.

In other words, these distinctions are probably not arbitrary in the sense of random, but are instead assigned roles that cement social differentiation. Whether or not they are arbitrary, they are powerful tools for asserting dominance. Swartz writes:

Bourdieu understands ideology, or “symbolic violence,” as the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms. Symbolic systems exercise symbolic power “only through the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it. In using the term “symbolic violence” Bourdieu stresses how the dominated accept as legitimate their own condition of domination. P. 89; cites omitted.

Bourdieu says that the exercise of power, including economic power, requires justification; it must be seen as legitimate or it will eventually fail. Symbolic capital provides that justification. It’s hard to imagine that economic power can be delegitimized, but of course it can. We just have to work at it.

On Pierre Bourdieu Part 3: Habitus

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says that Bourdieu extends concepts from economics to sociology. Bourdieu writes about various forms of capital the individual might have, and the interests that drive the individual in the pursuit of capital and its use. Capital comes in material forms, as economic resources, as well as symbolic forms, as social capital, cultural capital, religious capital. Bourdieu says that these are recognized as capital when they are “…objects of struggle as valued resources.” P. 43.

Interests are “… defined practically as whatever motivates or drives action toward consequences that matter“. P. 71. Swartz says that for Bourdieu seems the critical interests are obtaining power and wealth, which probably explains the use of economic models. Elsewhere Swartz says that Bourdieu’s framework seems less useful for analyzing the working class or the underclass. P. 82. That makes sense, because the concerns of a large part of society don’t involve gaining wealth and power; other concerns are dominant, such as maintaining their existence.

The use of economic modeling raises the specter of rational actor theory and other axioms of neoliberal theory. Bourdier explicitly disavows rational actor theory. He insists that most human action is pre-reflective, dispositional and tacit, rather than consciously planned and strategized to assure optimal outcomes. The definition of interest is similarly vague. These definitions are more like descriptions. They leave open a space at the center of the theory that serves to remind us that as individuals we are largely inscrutable to others, and perhaps even to ourselves. It also leaves a space for surprise, for the generation of new behaviors by the self. The point of sociological inquiry is to discern regularities in behavior that are invisible even to ourselves, using various forms of observations and different kinds of statistics.

Bourdieu says that just because a scientist can formulate a rule that describes the behavior of a group doesn’t mean that individuals are following a rule. Rather, he says that we follow a practical and informal knowledge that helps us predict which behavior might produce the desired results. Again, that leaves from for individual agency.

Bourdieu says that people form ideas of the way society works and the way they fit into society beginning at a very early age from their families, their friends and their surroundings including people and events. These experiences are internalized, and become the basis through which people understand the world and their own potential. This practical sense of position and possibility is called habitus. Habitus is “the product of class situations, not their cause.”

Habitus, then, represents a sort of deep-structuring cultural matrix that generates self-fulfilling prophecies according to different class opportunities. And Bourdieu’s “cultural” explanation of unequal educational attainment differs from the blaming-the-victim version of culture-of-poverty arguments in emphasizing individuals’ adaptation to limited opportunities rather than the cultural origins of deviant behavior. It shows how structural disadvantages can be internalized into relatively durable dispositions that can be transmitted intergenerationally through socialization and produce forms of self-defeating behavior. P. 104.

This unconscious socialization of the individual turns into an acceptance of the power structures confronted by the individual. It seems natural, so that neither the dominated nor the dominant feel cheated or privileged. It affects the sense of possibilities and establishes the limits of aspiration, and thus limits the scope of actions that seem plausible to each individual. In other words, it cements class relations.

As I was reading, I got the impression that Bourdieu used habitus to make predictions about how people would behave. I don’t think that’s right. Instead, it appears that the point of the concept is to describe how people come to accept the status quo. They learn from experience what results are likely from particular actions, and they internalize the results of those experiences as the world they live in, the world that sets the parameters for the success or failure of their actions. Kids learn beginning at birth what actions produce favorable outcomes, and which produce bad outcomes. They aren’t thinking, these are concrete experiences, not processed by a thinking mind. The learning is pre-reflective, that is, people aren’t even aware that they are learning, because they aren’t able to think about or to understand what is happening. They only see that it is happening, and they think that’s the way things are and will be.

Changing one’s habitus is difficult. Swartz says that change occurs only when the strategies are applied in new situations and they produce unexpected results. In such cases there can be a gradual adjustment to the new circumstances. Action requires some use of capital, mostly social, cultural or economic. People are reluctant to make use of their capital unless they think there is a reasonable chance of success, won’t make such use if the outcome is uncertain. That assessment arises from habitus, which limits the exposure to new situations. As an example, Swartz cites the results of changes in the French education system after WWII. Middle class people were more likely to take advantage than members of the working class who were inclined to “know their place”.

So far I haven’t seen discussion of things done strictly for pleasure. For example, in the discussions of cultural and social capital, there is no mention of the fact that both can be enjoyed purely on their own, without regard to the possible gain of wealth or power. Similarly, there is no discussion of religious behavior as personally rewarding, and there is no discussion of altruism. This is an interesting gap, in part because personal pleasure is an important concern to the Frankfurt School. I wonder whether the omission will be cured later in the book, or whether maybe this is a result of the use of the economic model of competition for scarce resources that frames Bourdieu’s thinking.