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Pierre Felix Bourdieu
The People's Intellectual, The Distinctor, The Everyman's Meditator, Pierre Mon Dieu, The Class Act
I was born in the town of Denguin, located in Béarn in the southwest region of France. Mom and Dad were simple folk and didn't even speak French at home—they spoke Occitan, a language of southern France. I, however, refused to use Occitan vocabulary. Gee, that almost makes me sound snobby…
My parents were just simple peasants, so for the rest of my life I had a beef with the elite classes—even when I made it to the top as a professor at the Collège de France (which is like Yale + Princeton, but better and in French). Based partly on these early experiences, I later wrote about all of the class-based insults thrown at the little people in my book The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society.
Just one year after I started teaching, I was forced into the French Army, where I insisted on working alongside the people rather than exploiting my access to a more powerful position. I had to fight in Algeria—those were the nasty days of the French occupation (1958–1962).
When the war ended, I decided there was work to do in that beaten-down African country, so I stayed behind and served up a little education to the Algerians. From there, I taught at a series of universities in France, until I became director of the Centre de Sociologie Européene, which is as big a deal as it sounds. It was there that I started a brainy philosophical journal and wrote some of my greatest hits. (Total publications: 45 books and 500 articles, not to brag.)
This gig lasted the rest of my life, and along that great journey, I was awarded numerous impressive awards—but I always kept it real. People have called me a modernist, a postmodernist, a post-structuralist—you name it. But I'm just fighting the good fight. Though I was in the academy my whole life, I always remained a stalwart outsider to it.
Just because I went to the very elite École Normale Supérieure (ENS), that doesn't mean I'm not one of you… even though I'm not, really. Before getting into that chic institution of learning, I attended a lycée in Paris. At ENS, I studied philosophy under the tutelage of the great Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, who inspired some of my thinking on the great divide between the haves and the have-nots in education, a divide that continuously beat down the working class, making sure they would never get out of their rut.
As you will soon learn, I firmly believe that the French education system keeps the elite elite and the poor poor. Education is just another a form of cultural capital that just serves to empower the upper classes. These fancy folks flaunt their education in the same way they get all showy with their money and power. It's all part of a vicious cycle that allows the cream of the crop access to education, starting right away with primary school.
Being part of the dominant (bourgeois) class is fantastic because then your teachers already assume you are smarter and better than others. My argument is that the advantages of elite education and elite upbringing are part of a false, manufactured system that reinforces the boundaries between classes and prevents the working class from ever moving up the old status ladder.
I'd like to describe my politics by way of pointing out the enemy: globalization. That's what stirs me to political action. I also fight for the people who have no voice, and in France that usually means striking railroad workers and people like that. People from capitalist countries (ahem, the Unites States) may criticize socialism, but let's face it: socialism ideally means better access to higher education, job security, and some of the cushy benefits of a welfare state.
But as far as politics is concerned, I should note that I was never one of these public intellectuals like Sartre who courted the media like a celebrity. Nor did I eagerly come out fighting for a good cause like Foucault. Instead, I stayed focused and tried to the fight against oppressive French government policies (yes, even socialists need to be reminded).
I didn't really get ramped up about politics until the 1980s. You could have searched for me high and low on the cobblestoned streets of Paris during the famous student protests of 1968, but you wouldn't have found me: I wasn't there. I long thought of sociology and politics as two different animals. But one day, I woke up to the realization that there are, indeed, connections between these two fields.
I suddenly saw politics all around me. Hadn't I been political by teaching sociology to Algerians, for example? I realized then that I really couldn't stand Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, because their capitalist greed was infecting Western Europe. I also realized that the beauties of socialism had given way to private-sector sleaze. All people were concerned about was profit, which meant that old people were neglected, there were massive layoffs, factories closed—and that was just the beginning.
One of the high points of my political activism phase was the trial of José Bové in 2000. Bless this humble sheep farmer and warrior of the anti-globalization movement: he had had the chutzpah to attack a McDonald's—to him, the embodiment of globalization, a monster assaulting French culture with its hormone-injected beef and "8 billion served" attitude. I sat in the front row of his trial, naturally.
My answer is brief: religion is not my thing in any practical sense. I do address religious issues in my work—but never directly. To me, religion is part of the symbolic economy's rich pageantry—in other words, religion is another meaning system, another cultural practice. But that's about it.
Writing really long sentences