A System of Schemes: Bourdieus Social Space and Symbolic Power

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Pierre Bourdieu was born in the south of France to a farmer, yet by the end of his life had become a very influential thinker. Throughout his career his scholarship took a critical approach to the academy and the public mechanisms that facilitated or, more importantly excluded most people from, mobility. Appelrouth and Edles state, “Bourdieu makes clear that education and cultural tastes are central to creating differences between social classes and to the reproduction of those class differences” (2011: 446).

Through the theoretical mechanism of “habitus,” the organic intellectual Bourdieu would forge a path synthesizing a great deal of social theory. Armed with access to the academic ancestry of Ecole Normale Superieure, which includes such thinkers as Foucault, Sartre and Althusser, much synthesis resulted from an arguable hotbed of dialectically informed theoretical breadth (A&E, 2011: 445). Bourdieu flourished from roots to rhetoric—then regarded as a social theorist—from the farm to the academy.

Habitus forms a proverbial Rosetta stone in Bourdieu’s sociological world. The perceived world of each individual hinges on the tacit and explicit observations we each make. This construction of the perceived is then blended in the process of shared meaning and parameters agreed upon through time. Social demarcations are rooted in enculturation. Symbolic relationships of social order harvested throughout the transmission of history. Habitus is, as Bourdieu defines, “the mental structures through which they apprehend the social world, are essentially the product of the internalization of the structures of that world” (1989: 18). The constraints and goals, Bourdieu might argue, are developed through these imagined, yet codified social structures. These demarcations make up the scholars masks of social realities, and add a cognitive (micro) element to the construction or “social genesis” of eventual collective enterprise (1989:18). Perhaps habitus serves as a type of irrigation between levels of analysis, or more specifically offers a synthetic approximation between self and structure.

The idea of social space follows the collective tendencies of group dynamics. These dynamics are what shape the constraints that guide interaction and form demarcations of, more often than not, invisible social forces. Bourdieu describes the genesis of structure:

On the one hand, the objective structures that the sociologist constructs, in the objectivist moment, by setting aside the subjective representations of the agents form the basis from these representations and constitute the structural constraints that bear upon interactions; but, on the other hand, these representations must also be taken into consideration particularly if one wants to account for the daily struggles, individual and collective, which purport to transform or to preserve these structures. (1989: 15)

He then goes on to elucidate, “the objectivist and the subjectivist, stand in a dialectical relationship” (1977; 1989:15). There is, however, a limit to this bottom up approach from the micro to the macro. Bourdieu states, “subjectivism inclines one to reduce structures to visible interactions, objectivism tends to deduce actions and interactions from the structure” (1989: 17). There seems to be a key cog in this complex mechanism of building social structures missing from where it all takes place—in physical spaces.

Groups occupy space. The social world Bourdieu defines, “presents itself, objectively, as a symbolic system which is organized according to the logic of difference, of differential distance” (1989: 20). These differences are endowed with varying amounts of symbolic capital—power that transcends the subjective and facilitates the objective capacity to turn into material truth. Bourdieu defines symbolic capital as, “the power granted to those who have obtained sufficient recognition to be in a position to impose recognition” (1989: 23). While symbolic perception may be theoretical in nature, collective efficacy has the physical capacity to make inclusion and/or exclusion an objective reality.

So a concept that suffuses class, history and space is useful in contextualizing a particular world-view. On the other hand creating a sense of context breeds a type of verstehen, or empathetic understanding, that facilitates thinking sociologically. So piecing together enculturation, history, and space, both geographical and class-position is useful in building a case or context for people, places, and things. Habitus as a concept can then be conceived more completely, “[as] both a system of schemes of perception and appreciation of practices” (Bourdieu, 1989, 19). This micro level mechanism then unlocks one aspect of collective performativity as a field of thought on which mechanisms of structure can be plotted and grown more organically.

Edward Green
Graduate Student
Kansas State University


Appelrouth, Scott & Laura Desfor Edles. 2011. Sociological Theory in the
Contemporary Era: Text and Readings. Sage: Los Angeles/London/New Delhi/ Singapore/ Washington DC.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of Practice. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1989. “Social Space and Symbolic Power.” Sociological Theory,
7(1) 14-25.

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