Pierre Bourdieu on social transformation, with particular reference to political and symbolic revolutions

Theory and Society 49 (3):439-463 (2020)
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Abstract

This article challenges what is now the orthodoxy concerning the heritage of Bourdieu (1930–2002): namely, the judgement that his distinctive sociological innovation has been his theory of social reproduction, and that he has failed to provide a necessary theory of social change. Yet Bourdieu consistently claimed to offer a theory of social transformation as well as accounting for continuities of power. Indeed, he provides two substantive keys for an understanding of historical transformation—first, a theory of prophets (religious or secular) as the authors of heresies or “symbolic revolutions” that dispel current doxa; second, a theory of the “corporatism of the universal”: the role of intellectuals or other educated professionals in pursuit of social justice and other universalistic goals. Moreover, Bourdieu fuses his theories of “symbolic revolutions” with a materialist analysis of their social preconditions, including a fresh account of social crises. Crises—war, famine, recession, and especially the intensified precarity of the educated—have, for him, a profound impact, both within differentiated fields and across fields. Conflicts that become effectivelysynchronizedacross fields acquire great resonance within the wider field of power, particularly due to hysteresis or “maladjusted habitus.” Indeed, the appearance of crises, together with new prophetic heresies, leads the subordinate classes to question the taken-for-granted order of things and to orchestrate their resistance. Alongside his corpus of published writings, this article draws widely on Bourdieu’s posthumously published lectures. These cast a distinctive new light on how his well-known conceptual instruments can aid us in the study of historical change. They also expand on how social science itself might be used to facilitate progressive social movements.

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