Émile was the literary writer who had the most significant influence on me. His book J'Accuse, an account of the Dreyfus Trial, showed me that literary folks can use their power for social good. Plus, Émile and I both love Flaubert—can't get enough of that Sentimental Education.
Émile and I both love to look at Flaubert's novel through a literary-sociological lens. We think about things like the characters' clothing, furniture, and so on. I even wrote a piece called "Flaubert's Point of View" on just this topic.
By far, this German political economist had the biggest influence on my ideas about cultural capital and symbolic power. As you know, I'm all about the idea that we live in a web of practices, all of which have symbolic meaning. Weber's whole idea about the sociology of religion helped me finetune my ideas on cultural practice.
You may be asking what on earth I mean by all of this, so I'll be direct. Weber inspired my ideas about all the forms of invisible domination and all the hierarchies that dictate our behavior in society. Although society is complex, it's safe to say that for the most part, people are either in the dominant class or in the subordinate class, with very little movement between the two.
I hate to be a downer—especially to Americans, who don't think class exists, and who subscribe to this whole "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality—but if Weber taught me one thing, it's that all of these institutions that are supposed to "help" the people—churches, schools, government—actually perpetuate inequality.
So Karl's basic shtick was understanding people in terms of economic capital and access to and control of the means of production. I took his whole idea about capital and came up with my own theory of "cultural capital," which situated our understanding of class and status into the larger framework of culture. I wanted to figure out all of the ways people signify their status. Do they drive a Prius? A $700 Linus bicycle? Do they take public trans?
Marx was also my muse for the idea of "cultural deprivation," which—as it sounds—is about how people at higher levels of culture think they are better than the lower classes and therefore deserve to have all of the privileges they have. I almost called it "The Blame Game Theory of Social Status," but "cultural deprivation" sounds so much more dramatic.
Ethnologist, linguist, structural anthropologist—it's amazing that this guy had time to go to the bathroom. He did have time to influence me, though. So, between Marx and Lévi-Strauss, I cooked up my own stew of ideas that combined Marx's historical materialism (which means that economics determines everything) and Lévi-Strauss's ethnology, which I sort of tweaked for my own purposes.
First of all, I rejected Claude's idea that the anthropologist must remain lofty and remote from his subject. That's the whole idea of the white scientist out in the jungle, studying natives from behind his mosquito net. I say that smacks of snobbery, so I turned that approach on its head by studying the cultures around me—cultures I was very much a part of: Algeria, rural France, and the education industrial complex in France.
I just love this French phenomenologist—he really got me into studying ideas relating to the body. After all, we aren't just social beings; we're bodies, and our bodies are an integral part of how we display our cultural capital.
Merleau-Ponty looked at philosophy and said, "Hey—these aren't just abstract idea blobs floating in space; these are ideas that are located in human minds that are in human bodies. They're inside people who have individual perspectives on the world."
(He said it in French, though.)
That means that philosophy is a human product shaped by a person's life, culture, and environment.
This Austrian-British thinker and I had more in common than both of us being sort of hunky. Way back in 1985, an interviewer said to me, "You often quote Wittgenstein—why is that?"
To which I responded: "Wittgenstein is probably the philosopher who has helped me most at moments of difficulty. He's a kind of savior for times of great intellectual distress—as when you have to question such evident things as 'obeying a rule'. Or when you have to describe such simple (and, by the same token, practically ineffable) things as putting a practice into practice" (source).
Wittgenstein is sort of like my intellectual security blanket. I've just never been one of those maniacally ambitious philosophers (ahem, Sartre). I think a lot of philosophers' ideas are just elitist theories—these guys don't want to tarnish themselves with actual out-in-the-field research.