Pierre Bourdieu, one of the "master thinkers" shaping French intellectual life, died in Paris on Wednesday, following a struggle with cancer. A professor at the Collège de France, Mr. Bourdieu was among the leading sociologists of his generation. His models of "habitus" and "cultural capital" sought to account for how relations of hierarchy and domination are reproduced within the various "fields" making up a society.
In the United States, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste remains his best-known work among scholars. However, Mr. Bourdieu won a sizable nonacademic audience here for his essays against free-market policy, many of which are found in the collection Acts of Resistance. And in Homo Academicus and other writings, Mr. Bourdieu applied his sociological methods to the analysis of the intelligentsia. The picture that emerged was seldom flattering. Beneath his statistical tables and often convoluted prose, Mr. Bourdieu often seemed to be concealing (just barely) the gifts of a satirist.
The co-author with Mr. Bourdieu of An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Loic Wacquant is a professor of sociology at the University of California in Berkeley. In a telephone interview on the day after Mr. Bourdieu's death, Mr. Wacquant spoke from Paris about the thinker's life, work, and legacy.
Q. It's hard for Americans to grasp the extent of Bourdieu's prominence in France. Analogies are sometimes made to Jean-Paul Sartre. Although that comparison is fairly inappropriate, Bourdieu did occupy an absolutely central position in recent years. How would you characterize his role?
A. Le Monde, the major national daily, postponed publication of its editions today in order to put news of his death on the front page. The prime minister and various parties of the left have expressed their condolences. He was very keen to bring the fruits of his scientific work [in sociology] to bear on urgent issues. He has been a public figure in public debates over the past seven or eight years in France, but also throughout Europe, especially in Germany, where he is almost better known than in France. He spoke against this new ideological view of the world called neoliberalism -- the market solution for everything. He brought his analyses of the worlds of science, of art, of the media, of education to show the need to protect these areas from the devastating and anti-democratic effects of the coming reign of the commodity. He wanted to give the broadest possible range of people the instruments to think for themselves, the critical tools to get through the crust of preconceived ideas and discourses, so they could collectively engage in enlightened civic debate. I think he was very much a propounder of a new Enlightenment. He was committed to reason, to science, to the role they should play in contemporary societies.
Q. Your description of his work is very much in keeping with Bourdieu's insistence that his activity was social science, not philosophy. He had some very hard words for the French tradition of the omnicompetent intellectual. How do you understand the relation between his sense of scientific rigor and his political activity in the 1990s?
A. It was a change of form, but the content was always there. If you go back to his earliest work on the transformation of the Algerian peasantry under colonialism and markets and the nationalist war [published in the early 1960s], there could be no more burning issue at the time to work on. But if you read the work, it is a very rigorous, cold analysis of the transformation of that society. From the very beginning, his approach was to use the coolest, most methodical approach to reframe the hottest, most burning matters of the day. You see it in his later work on education. People were on the barricades in May 1968 with his book The Inheritors [an analysis of French student life] in their hands. His rigorous analysis of the transformation of the educational system gave them instruments for understanding their own life and society. What changed in the 1990s was the form in which he expressed the civic dimension of his work. He had a very keen sense that we lived in a pivotal conjuncture, that many of the institutions of social justice and social protection, embodied in the welfare state, could be destroyed in a few years. He began to write in a different vein, in a more direct form, to influence public debates over retirement funds, media, education, and so on.
Q. Without reducing his thought to his biography, was there some personal source for that mixture of cool rationality and political passion?
A. He had a unique social trajectory. He came from a peasant background, from a very small and isolated village, as far from the centers of intellectual power as you could imagine. He had a very thick accent from the south of France, he was the first in his family to finish high school. And yet he had an extraordinary success in the educational system. In his earlier incarnation, he was going to be a philosopher, the next Sartre in a sense. But because of his background, he was also not suited to the academic world; he was not a fish in water. The encounter with the Algerian war was decisive. It led him away from philosophy, away from the self-enclosed world of the mind, to sociology as a discipline that is fully engaged in empirical research. It required systematic involvement with the world -- counting and observing, doing interviews -- rather than flying above it, as philosophers do. And in the '60s, you have to understand, sociology was a dead discipline in France; it was a pariah. It was status degradation to go from being a philosopher to doing social science. But he was committed to the application of science to society. The combination of mastery of the philosophical traditions with the techniques of fieldwork and statistical analysis put him in a unique position.
Q. An important element of Bourdieu's work -- and the part that really drew blood -- was his sociological analysis of intellectuals.
A. For him, analysis of the inclinations and pitfalls making up academic life was an absolutely necessary thing. If you don't know what determines you -- how you are being shaped to think in a certain way because of your professional interests, your proclivities, your membership in a certain discipline, and so forth -- if you are blinded already by all these biases, what chance do you have to produce rigorous analyses of anything? That work made him controversial, and he was vigorously opposed by some of his peers, who did not want to be under the microscope. He demanded of academics that they be autonomous and rigorous, and at the same time engaged, that they bring back to the society the results of their labors -- and that they do so on the basis of intellectual rigor, not on the search for personal visibility or media fame.
Q. What was Bourdieu doing in the final phase of his work?
A. Perhaps the saddest thing is that he leaves us in the middle of a mass of new projects. He had just published in France, a couple of months ago, a book called The Science of Science and Reflexivity -- a sociological analysis of the world of science, including a very rigorous critique of the whole field of "science studies" that has blossomed over the past decade or so. Three more books will be coming out over the next few weeks. The first is a compendium of his political writings, about five hundred pages, called Interventions 1961-2001. The second, fittingly, is a bibliography of his work, which runs to 45 books and 500 articles. And, finally, there is the book that Bourdieu finished just before falling ill, called The Ball of the Bachelors. It's a set of ethnological essays about his home village. It starts with a vivid description of a Friday-night ball in which he notices that all of the men are standing around, not dancing, because they are "unmarriable." He goes on from this humble incident to make analyses of marital relations, the transformation of the family, the symbolic devaluation of peasants, and so on. These men had been neighbors and friends he grew up with. The book is beautiful, very intimate, but also a remarkable study in ethnography.
Q. Any posthumous writings his readers can expect?
There is an unfinished manuscript on Manet that he worked on for years.
He shows that the revolution Manet's painting brought to the artistic
world is the same as that which Flaubert represents in literature.
It is in some way a very fitting topic for Bourdieu. He did for the
social sciences what Manet and Flaubert did in their fields. I think
it is going to take us 30 to 50 years to draw out fully the implications
of his work.