Chapter Seven: Thinking with Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu, ‘a philosopher turned anthropologist (and, later, sociologist)’, was born the ‘son of a postman in a remote peasant village in southern France’ (Callinicos, 1999a, p 288; see also Noble and Watkins, 2003, p 521). Drafted in 1955, he served as a conscript during the Algerian war of independence that had begun the previous year. While the war continued, he began working at Algiers University, carrying out the fieldwork he drew on throughout his career. Upon his return to France, Bourdieu went on to become the Chair of Sociology at the Collège de France. He wrote more than 40 books and over 400 articles (Lane, 2000).

Beyond France, social work literature has tended to neglect Bourdieu. Twenty years ago, his name did not even feature in the index of Dominelli’s (1997) Sociology for social work. This omission is surprising given that Bourdieu is one of the very few high-profile sociologists – Bauman (2000a) being a second notable exception – to have shown a keen interest in social work (see, particularly, Bourdieu et al, 2002, pp 181–255). In the UK, Houston (2002) was one of the first to explore Bourdieu’s relevance for social work, with Fram (2004) and Emirbayer and Williams (2005) pursuing a similar endeavour in the US.

Renowned for his dense prose style and the vastness of his ‘output’, Bourdieu often presents considerable challenges to his first-time readers. After discussing some of these potential barriers, the chapter will explain parts of his ‘conceptual arsenal’ (Wacquant, 1998, p 220) by dwelling on ‘habitus’, ‘field’, ‘capital’ and ‘symbolic violence’ (see also the useful contributions in Grenfell, 2012).

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