Study Guide

Pierre Bourdieu Buzzwords


Now, neoliberalism wasn't one of my own buzzwords, but it's still important to understand it if you're going to get my whole deal. When I became a more politically engaged citizen, I started to get really—let's say—skeptical of globalization. Basically, neoliberalism is this idea that free trade between countries is just dandy, and that privatization is best for the people.

Yeah, right. It's only good for the people who own the means of production, to use an old Marxist gem.

Neoliberalism helps globalization by getting rid of all sorts of pesky rules in the economic system and by putting power into big business so that the government doesn't have to deal with things like, say, health care. If these ideas light your fuse, check out my article "The Essence of Neoliberalism." As I say, neoliberalism is all about abstractions and math, not about people. The people get poorer and poorer as "stockholders, financial operators, industrialists, conservative [and] social-democratic politicians" live high on the hog.

Class Distinction

Okay, so let's assume for the sake of argument that there are three classes—upper, middle, and lower. Now let's assume that these three levels represent three different financial situations (how much "economic capital" each class possesses). Beyond money, though, how do these classes define themselves? How do they demonstrate what they represent and what they don't represent? Well, they do it through cultural capital.

Cultural Capital

This comprises all of the things not under the umbrella of economic capital. Cultural capital is the way people show their class. It's basically another word for lifestyle, and it includes the things you buy and wear, the way you decorate your house, what you talk about, what you eat, what you watch on TV and listen to on your iPod, where you go to school, where you vacation, and so on.

In my book Distinctions, I was looking at class in 1960s-1970s France, so the exact "distinctions" have changed, but the concept remains more or less the same. Do you eat quinoa and farm-to-table heirloom carrots, or do you go to Burger King and eat while you drive? Are you into Bikram yoga or mud wrestling? Are you reading my book or Archie's comics? You get the point…

Your education is one of the most dramatic examples of cultural capital because the upper classes seem to always get the best educations. So, for you Americans, going to Harvard is the ultimate in cultural capital. Who cares if you actually learn anything there or if you fritter your education away by partying and tweeting and listening to The Lumineers in your dorm room? You'll get the degree—and then voilà—that means you now have some big-time cultural capital. You will always be better than everyone else.

With that diploma, you have access to good jobs, wealth, power—oh, and your kids will probably get to go to Harvard, too, because you'll donate a big chunk of change to the university's Annual Giving Campaign, and your kids will be legacies.

The Field Theory

Let's say society consists of several fields— as in areas or subjects. For example, we have the field of education (you can tell this is one of my preoccupations). So how do you enter the field of education? (We're talking France here, so pay attention.) The answer is: exams. Exams are the gatekeepers—they make sure the riffraff stays out of the field of education.

Fields are different social areas, all of which involve certain practices and qualifications for admission. They usually involve being smart enough, rich enough, and powerful enough—but why be cynical? I'll tell you why: because these fields are often dominated by invisible powers (usually white men who own everything) that monitor the whole "who's in/who's out" distinction.


This is a pet buzzword of mine, but I didn't make it up, and critics before me have used it, too. It's still important to my work, though, so here goes.

As one smarty-pants has described it: "Habitus marks the site of a socially inscribed subjectivity: a space that defines a person's sense of place in the world; a space that influences a person's sense of value in the fields or markets that define all aspects of exchange and interaction" (source).

Give me a chance to break this down: habitus is the social world in which you live, and it includes all of the ways in which the social world makes you who you are, who you believe you are, and who others believe you are. That's where all that "subjectivity" stuff comes in.

Society values us based on "how we talk, how we deport ourselves, how we dress, how we look at the world" (source). Your habitus is the world you grew up in and live in, and it's also what that world says about you.