Power Relations and the Socially Constructed Self: What does this say about “belief”? Part IV: Pierre Bourdieu

The battle over Endor as an example of a 3D competition
The battle over Endor as an example of a 3D competition

This is the third in a series, in which I will present a partial summary of systems for three theorists and then apply them to a question in the final post: the relationship between social indoctrination and personal belief.

To read the previous post, regarding Michel Foucault, read here.

To jump to the first post and read from the beginning, read here.

This post focuses on Pierre Bourdieu:

Bourdieu’s social theory describes a model consisting of a collection of “fields” interacting with an individual’s “habitus.” Social fields (religious, political, media, educational, art, etc.) are relatively autonomous, although they are related and do interact with one another. Fields in the same physical and social space are relatively homologous in structure and subjects can move across the border between them with ease.

The structure of a field can be imagined as a soccer field, in which individuals and institutions compete, according to that field’s social structure (the “rules of the game”), over the accumulation and production of capital. The structure of a field can also be imagined as spherical (three-dimensional), like a magnetic field, in that its structure is hierarchical and class-based, so that the competition takes place between those of higher and lower social rank. That hierarchical competition over capital takes place on three basic levels: through everyday consumption and accumulation of capital among subjects; through specialists who produce capital (art, media, religion, etc.) and through state power.

subject’s class is determined by the amount of capital accumulated. Capital takes three basic forms: economic (money or land, for example); prestige (a title, nobility, degree, rank, etc.); and social networksSubjects who cross the border from one field to another will remain the same class rank (as this is determined by accumulation of capital), but capital generally transfers from one field to another without fail (for instance, a preacher who enters political field from the religious field retains authority, while a layperson lacks authority in both fields).

The subject, in this model, is defined by the “habitus,” the layered, physical inculcation (embodiment) of a field’s structure over time. Embodied structures determine future interactions with fields, limiting possibilities and making a subject more adequately adapted to some fields than others (“like a fish in water,” as Bourdieu says). Opportunities for change (such as social mobility or changes to the structure of a field, for instance) are limited and slow-moving, based on the continual interaction between “subjective hopes” (limited by embodied structures) and “objective chances” (limited by the “rules of the game”). Bourdieu explains that the probability of success for change ranges from the individual who fits well in a field and can therefore influence small changes through social interactions, to the frustrated individual suffering from a “Quixote effect,” who is helpless within a given field, due to his inability to interact productively in a social situation.

Social meaning within fields is determined by language categories produced by the ranked specialists of any field who define the parameters of normalcy for that field. The categories are structured as binary oppositions to generate social opposition through language use (“orthodoxy” vs. “heresy”, for example). In other words, that field’s “orthodoxy” sets the parameters for acceptable speech and behavior through language use that defines those parameters of habit.

Because social meanings are determined by language categories based on “inclusion” and “exclusion” (for example, “sacred/profane” or “orthodoxy”/”heresy”), specialists in a given field dictate meaning for all lower classes within the given field. For instance, in the medieval period, the Catholic Church could categorize all smaller religious movements with terms like “profane,” “magic,” “witchcraft,” “Satanic” and the like (categories that retain their viability for some modern religious communities for the same reason). Prior to the Reformation, the Catholic Church held the highest class standing in the religious field in the West. Its specialists could frame behavior in the socially constructed world according to the categories of inclusion/exclusion, by which the practices of minority religions (such as Jews, Muslims, Christian mystics, Reformers or dualists, for example) were devalued and forced into a standing of limited social mobility and acceptance. In early Christianity, apostolic fathers called opponents “heretics” in contradistinction to their own developing “orthodoxy”, even excommunicating allies for political gain. Today, there are still struggles over authority within the porous religious field, in which individuals wield politicalfinancial and religious capital in discussions about “right” religion and “right” morality, using binary language categories to universalize their own perspectives and condemn as invalid (“heretical”) the positions of their opponents.

Symbolic violence,” the method by which capital is presented as though it were the real conditions of existence (such as categorizing Christian folk healers as witches or Jews as Satanists, for instance), results in oppressed communities losing the ability to express their own social reality outside the language categories defined by their oppressors. In this way, folk healers in a community defined as “witches” by Church authority might no longer be able to see themselves as “Christian”.

However, the taxonomy of meaning for one field may produce words with meanings that change within another field, setting up more opportunities for competition over meaning. This is the conflict of “heterodoxy”, in which meaning is a form of capital over which various fields may struggle in competition. All fields are therefore subsumed by the “meta-field” of the State, which has the power to “consecrate” official meanings of words as legal distinctions that effectively universalize that meaning as though it has always been as such, “normalizing” the perspective. By defining language use through law, a particular perspective is then “consecrated” as “natural.” Some social meanings then become part of the “doxa,” the unconsciously accepted social mores that can never be questioned.

Jump to the next post.


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