Study Guide

Pierre Bourdieu Introduction

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Pierre Bourdieu Introduction

Here's Pierre Bourdieu's thing: if luck has shined upon you and allowed you to have a first-class education, half a brain, and even a half-baked commitment to critiquing the social world, you have an obligation to use those smarts to take a long, hard look at the world around you and call out some of the B.S. Got it?

As a big-time French smarty, Bourdieu was well aware of all of his privileges, but that didn't mean he was fixing to be the next Jean-Paul Sartre. But the rest of France thought differently, and they decided he was the next big thing. The French love their intellectuals, but ol' Pierre didn't do it old-school style—though he did go to the École Normale Superieure, just like every other major French thinker, including Sartre.

Rather than sit around navel-gazing and novel-gazing, Bourdieu took on heavy social issues like the oppressive French occupation of Algeria, the rights of striking French railroad workers, and the government's tendency to covet power and authority at the expense of the people, including disenfranchised immigrants. He also had strong words to say about globalization. He was a real fist-raising kind of guy.

By training, Bourdieu was a sociologist, but the significance of his thinking can't be contained within that discipline. Anthropologists, philosophers, educators, political scientists, and cultural critics all love his work. Even literary critics like his work, and they use it to study issues like class, high and low culture, good and bad taste, and so on.

Lit crit people usually turn to Distinctions: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste when they want to get on the Bourdieu train. Even though Bourdieu does not discuss any particular works of literature in Distinctions, he does talk about the importance of literature as a form of cultural capital, and he praises its ability to energize the people.

What is this whole "cultural capital" thing, anyway? It's Bourdieu's most important idea, that's what. Cultural capital is everything you can and can't buy that shows the world who you are. Like, if you go to folk rock shows, eat kale, wear hemp shoes, and sport an overly stylized lumberjack beard, what does that say about you to others? Well, the ironic message you're trying to send is your cultural capital: you're saying that you see through the Man, you care about the environment, and that your taste isn't dictated by pop culture. That puts you in a certain class, and it's your cultural capital that puts you there.

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