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A view on Bourdieu's legacy: Sens pratique v. hysteresis. (Note on the Discipline/Note Sociologique).

1. Introduction

Bourdieu's last publications (1) before his recent death in January have been the object of considerable attention and controversy (Alexander, 2000; Callon, 1999; Critique, 1995; Grignon, 1996; Grumberg & Schweisguth, 1996; Hamel, 1997 & 1998; Magazine Litteraire, 1998; Lahire, 1999; Martucelli, 1999; Mayer, 1995; Mongin & Roman, 1998; Pinto, 1998; Sciences Humaines, 2000; Verdes-Leroux, 1998). The controversy has not always been about Bourdieu's sociological work as such. Rather, it has been about the conciliation between, on one hand, the content of his sociology and, on the other hand, his numerous interventions in the French public and political debate in the past ten years,(2) and Bourdieu's explicit ambition to embrace the standpoint of the French "intellectuel."(3)

The object of this note is not to nourish the French controversy about Bourdieu as an intellectuel, albeit some of the arguments developed below might shed a new light on the controversy itself. Rather, it aims at highlighting and exploring what, at first sight, seems to be an important shift in the epistemological orientation of Bourdieu' s work or, more precisely, a tension between two distinct positions that he has simultaneously taken about the construction of sociological knowledge and its usefulness for lay people. Bourdieu has certainly been one of the most convincing advocates of the break between sociology and common sense (Bourdieu, Chamboderon & Passeron, 1991). For him the hallmark of ordinary knowledgeability is a sens pratique (Bourdieu, 1980) that is markedly different from sociologists' scholastic posture. While constantly re-affirming the break between sociological knowledge and common sense, Bourdieu's last publications exhibit empirical and methodological characteristics which put into que stion the overarching dichotomy between lay people's sens pratique and sociologists' scholastic posture.

2. Sens Pratique and Scholastic Posture

Common sense and social science, for Bourdieu, refer to two radically different kinds of knowledgeability, or modes of relating to the world, namely the practical and the theoretical modes respectively. Lay people's senspratique involves an immediate competence in making sense of the world, but a competence which is, as it were, oblivious to itself (1980: 37), insofar as it does not contain the knowledge of the practices it generates (1980: 175). The practical mode of relating to the social world is a relation of "placid ignorance" [docte ignorance] (1980: 37). Senspratique is based on the correspondence between the objective structures of society and the internalised structures of the habitus, which implies that "the 'choices' of the habitus are accomplished without consciousness of constraint" (Bourdieu 1991: 51).

In contrast, social scientists' theoretical or scholastic mode involves a distance via-a-vis the immediate intelligibility of the world (Bourdieu, Chamboderon & Passeron, 1991). Theoretical knowledge "owes a number of its most essential properties to the fact that the conditions under which it is produced are not that of practice" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 70). The sociologist must adopt a theoretical or scholastic posture when studying social processes, this posture being fundamentally different from the logic of the agents actually involved in these processes (Ibid. : 69). The sociologist's posture is a disposition to regard his or her experience and practice as an object about which one talks and thinks (Bourdieu, 1997: 74).

In his Meditations Pascaliennes (1997), Bourdieu reaffirms that the scholastic disposition is, in his view, the exclusive posture of those who have access to academic and scientific fields. Although the scholastic posture is a "universal anthropological possibility" (Ibid.: 27), which means that scholars and scientists do not in principle have the monopoly of the scholastic posture, the conditions for its development can mainly be found, for Bourdieu, in scientific and intellectual fields. Bourdieu also makes it clear that habitus is "one principle of production of practices among others" (Bourdieu, 1990: 108). Yet he asserts that it is only in exceptional circumstances that habitus "may be superseded [...] by other principles, such as rational and conscious computation" (Ibid.). Lay people's knowledgeability, thus, corresponds almost always to the non-reflexive sens pratique.

Bourdieu has never abandoned the notion of sens pratique that he developed in his early work in order to characterise ordinary knowledgeability. Neither has he put into question the fundamental break he sees between lay people's and social scientists' knowledgeabilities. For him, treating lay people as if they were able to embrace the scholastic, theoretical or reflexive mode of relating to the world is a case of "scholastic fallacy or illusion" (2000: 19, 256). The latter is a form of ethnocentrism (1997: 65) that "induces to think that agents involved in action, in practice, in life, think, know and see as someone who has the leisure to think thinks, knows and sees, as the scientists whose mode of thought presupposes leisure both in its genesis and its functioning, or at least distance and freedom from the urgency of practice, the practical bracketing of the necessities of practice" (Bourdieu, 1990: 112).

The break between common sense and sociological knowledge accounts for the pessimism that Bourdieu used to express as to the potential usefulness of sociology for lay people. In his view, the people whose interest would be to appropriate sociological knowledge do not possess the resources to do so: "those who have an interest in unveiling the mechanisms of domination [...] hardly ever read sociology and, in any case, they can't afford it" (1990: 50). In contrast, those who do possess these instruments have no interest in using sociological knowledge, and sometimes have a strong interest in ignoring it, since using it might imply unveiling mechanisms of domination, the effectiveness of which is conditional on their hidden and unacknowledged character (Ibid.: 50). Until recently, thus, Bourdieu advocated a detachment of sociologists from public debate and pressing social issues.

3. Lay People's Appropriation of Sociological Knowledge

The relationship between sociological knowledge and lay people can be addressed at two different levels. There is, first, the level of sociological inquiry: sociologists study lay people, and this study sometimes involves a direct interaction between the researchers and the people under study. At this first level, sociologists can be concerned with the way the people under study might benefit from their interaction with the sociologist, and might appropriate the sociological knowledge produced about their own lives and practices. Second, the relationship between sociology and lay people can also be addressed at the more general level of the appropriation by lay people of sociological knowledge, outside the context of sociological inquiry and of a direct interaction with sociologists.

In the last years of his career, Bourdieu has addressed both levels of the relationship between sociology and lay people, in a way that does not seem easy to reconcile with his position presented above about sens pratique and the scholastic fallacy. La Misere du Monde (1993) is considered by many as a turning-point in Bourdieu's work (4) (Hamel, 1997, 1998; Mayer 1995; VerdesLeroux, 1998) regarding his conception of sociologists' role and commitment in society and about the conduct of sociological inquiry. (5) At the level of sociological inquiry, the turning-point in Bourdieu' s position lies in the notions of "accompanied self-analysis" (Bourdieu, 1991: 3) and of "participatory objectification" [objectivation participante] (1993: 8) for characterizing the relationship between sociologists and the people understudy. During interviews with lay people, the sociologist can lead the interviewees to become reflexive about their own lives, and to reach a certain level of self-knowledge, a form of reflexivity whic h usually is the exclusive privilege of those situated in the scholastic fields (1997: 75). Thus sociological inquiry, under specific circumstances, can be a truly exceptional form of communication (1993: 914). It can be an occasion, for lay people, to put into question, and to reflect upon, their own lives and conditions, and to reach a level of consciousness of the social determinants that bear upon their lives (6) (1991: 3).

At the second level, La Misere du Monde is, like many of Bourdieu's last publications, but unlike most of his earlier work, aimed at an audience of both sociologists and lay people, and "presented in such a way that anyone can understand it" (Hamel, 1991: 11). Bourdieu describes his work in La Misere du Monde as a case toward the "democratization of the hermeneutic posture" (1993:923). He intended to give to non-specialists the sociological instruments which would enable them to decode the interviewees's narratives presented and analysed in the nine hundreds pages of the book.

That lay people could use, and benefit from, sociological knowledge, is a concern that Bourdieu has stated very explicitly after the publication of La Misere du Monde, for example in Contre-Feux (1998a), by expressing the wish that sociology be useful for social movements, instead of being misinterpreted and misused by journalists or hostile interpreters (1998a : 64-5). Sociologists need to "invent new forms of expression, which would enable to communicate to militants the most advanced results of sociological research" (Ibid.: 65). La Misere du Monde illustrates one of these possible forms of expression, aimed at communicating the sociological perspective to lay people. It implied the retranscription verbatim of about sixty interviews conducted by Bourdieu and his colleagues. The retranscription of the interviews permits "the delivery of a more accessible equivalent of complex and abstract conceptual analyses [...]. [They are] capable of touching and moving, of appealing to sensibility, without pandering to sensationalism, [and] can bring about conversions of thought and view that are often the prior condition to understanding" (1993: 922).

In the past ten years, Bourdieu has multiplied direct interventions in the French public debate, about topics such as the construction of Europe, immigration, the education system, television, gender, and so on. He acknowledged his change of position regarding his engagement in the political sphere. (7) In Contre-feux2 (2001), he argues that "those who have the chance to devote themselves to the study of the social world cannot stay neutral, indifferent, and away from the struggles whose stakes are the future of this world" (8) (2001: 7). Bourdieu insists on the figure of the intellectuel and wishes that the social scientists intervene directly in the political sphere, in order to take scientific knowledge outside of the scientific field (2001: 9-10).

4. Hysteresis and the Transformation of Ordinary Knowledgeability

In sum, two major epistemological positions are developed in Bourdieu's last publications. On one hand, Bourdieu has re-affirmed and developed his early position about the fundamental rupture between social science and ordinary knowledgeability: the latter consists in a non-reflexive sens pratique which is radically different from social scientists' scholastic posture. Supposing that lay people could adopt a theoretical, reflexive posture amounts to committing the scholastic fallacy. On the other hand, Bourdieu has also argued that lay people, under specific conditions, (9) can adopt a theoretical posture through a process of self-analysis accompanied by the sociologist and that, more generally, lay people, again given specific circumstances, (10) are increasingly able to appropriate sociological knowledge thanks to its massive diffusion throughout society. (11)

There are allusions, in Bourdieu's last publications, to the idea that the conditions for the production and lay people's sens pratique are changing. Bourdieu has never pushed this argument, however, to a point at which it would put into question his conception of ordinary knowledgeability and his key concept of senspratique. Yet it is precisely to the re-examination of the notion of sens pratique, that is, of the conception of lay people's knowledgeability, that we would like to point in this brief discussion of Bourdieu's legacy. The germs of such a re-examination can be found in Bourdieu's work itself, as well as in the work of several commentators and critiques.

Bourdieu acknowledged that the coincidence between structure and habitus is increasingly disrupted -- a phenomenon that he calls hysteresis (12) (Bourdieu, 2000: 263) -- and that the conditions for achieving the "placid ignorance" characteristic of sens pratique are disturbed. In the concluding pages of his Mediations Pascaliennes, he notices that, in contemporary society, the perfect coincidence between structure and habitus is increasingly lost, and briefly alludes to the large-scale social processes involved in this transformation, such as the generalisation of access to education (1997: 276).

Bourdieu also notes the importance of education for developing a reflexive mode of relating to the world: schooling implies the opportunity to gain the permanent disposition to be reflexive and to put some distance with the "real" (Bourdieu, 1997: 29). Since schooling concerns the majority of the population in our society, we should then conclude that reflexivity and the capacity to adopt a scholastic posture extend far beyond the scholastic fields. Drawing upon the difference, as Bourdieu himself does, between an "oral, non-literate culture, and a literate, scholarly culture" (1990: 103), it could indeed be argued that contemporary society, at least in developed countries, is increasingly characterised by a scholarly culture.

Although the general orientation of Bourdieu's work is precisely to stress the determining character of social conditions and structures, which literally shape the way people -- sociologists and 'lay people' alike -- think and act, lay people's sens pratique is treated by Bourdieu as a universal and immutable form of ordinary knowledgeability, which does not appear to vary according to social conditions. Although Bourdieu acknowledges that a form of reflection and reflexivity can result from moments of hysteresis, he maintains that this form of reflection remains oriented toward practice and cannot be compared with the theoretical or scholastic posture of social scientists (1997:191-2). In agreement with Martucelli (1999), we can then conclude that there is a conflict, in Bourdieu's recent work, between the theoretical statement about the practical correspondence between positions and dispositions and, much more often than such a conception would let us to expect, the empirical finding about the disagreement between positions and agents (Martucelli, 1999: 112). A way to resolve this conflict lies, in our view, in the re-examination of ordinary knowledgeability which, in contemporary society, seems to fit less and less with Bourdieu's notion of sens pratique (Mesny, 1998). Without falling into the trap of scholastic illusion, it is indeed possible to argue that lay people routinely develop theoretical and reflexive postures in the course of their day-to-day lives which extend far beyond the realm of sens pratique.

(1.) In particular: La Misere du Monde (1993), Sur la television (1996), Meditations pascaliennes (1997), Contre-feux (1998), La domination masculine (1998), Les structures sociales de l'economie (2000), Contre re-feux 2 (2001).

(2.) In 1995, Bourdieu publicly supported the workers on strike fighting against the new plan of Alain Juppe; in 1996, in an article published in Zibe ration, he criticised the new president of the Bundesbank; in 1996 and 1997, he supported the Algerian intellectuals through various articles and petitions, and he made numerous public interventions about the university and the Freneh education system; in 1998, he offered his support to the unemployed and made a public communication entitled 'The movement of the unemployed: a social miracle'; the same year he published an article in which he strongly criticizes the French government.

(3.) In the recent Contre-feux2 (2001), Bourdieu reaffirms this ambition to be an intellectuel, and argues that the intellectuals have to play yet again an important role in the social and political arenas, given the new forms of domination at stake in contemporary society (2001: 33--35).

(4.) First published in 1993, various extracts from La Misere du Monde had been published beforehand in Bourdieu's journal Actes de la recherche en science sociale (1991). Besides, Bourdieu has commented the work done in La Misere du Monde in various other publications, for example in his Meditations pascaliennes (1997) and in Contre-Feux (1998a).

(5.) Since his first edition in 1993 and the paperback re-edition, La Misere du Monde has become a best-seller in France -- compared to the usual sales of a sociological book -- and has been described as "the most varied collection of biographical excerpts gathered by a single team of researchers to date, a rich synchronic slicing of French society" (Simeoni & Diani 1995: 27).

(6.) The notion of "participatory objectification," however, masks the fact that the interviewee's and the sociologist's contributions remain markedly different in the perspective developed in La Misere du Monde. It is the sociologist, and only the sociologist, who has the rote of uncovering the objective structures which are only implicitly "contained" in the interviewee's discourse, and of which the interviewee is not aware" (Ibid.: 9 18-9). In the concrete situation of sociological inquiry, any form of spontaneous reflexivity on the part of the people under study is dismissed as a case of "resistance to objectification" (1993: 912-3). There is, for Bourdieu, a very general, if not universal, fear of objectification (Ibid.: 909), which refers to the apprehension of having "one's subjective reasons reduced to objective causes, and the choices that one thinks one has made freely reduced to the effect of objective determinism" (Ibid.: 907). Lay people, especially when put in the context of a formal interview w ith an expert such as a sociologist, tend to resist the latter's attempt to objectify their lives. This resistance often takes the form of a semblance of reflexivity and of objectification; that is, the interviewee tries to be reflexive about his or her own life and to objectify it, but this attempt, according to Bourdieu, is generally fallacious and superficial.

(7.) This has sometimes meant denouncing particular political viewpoints, politicians, or policies. In Contre-feux (1998) and Contre-feux2 (2001), he makes various points against neoliberalism which, in his view, carries a fallacious discourse consisting in reifying social or economic laws, instead of stressing the ways these laws could be changed or could cease to be accurate (1998: 61-2).

(8.) My translation.

(9.) These specific conditions refer, on one hand, to the social familiarity between the interviewer and the interviewee (the interviewers in La Misere du monde were invited to choose their interviewees among friends and acquaintances or, rather, the interviewers were chosen and given subsequent training, according to their social proximity with the people whom Bourdieu wanted to study) as a condition for a "non-violent communication" (1993: 907) and, on the other hand, to the competence of the interviewer, who must have a thorough knowledge of the interviewee's conditions, and who must be used to dealing with the social effects of the research situation and of the interaction with lay agents (1993: 919). Only with this prior knowledge can the interviewer assist the interviewee in his or her attempt to conduct a self-analysis and can control the interviewee's "resistance to objectification" (1993: 912).

(10.) Which have to do with the modes of diffusion of sociological knowledge and with the actual involvement of sociologists in the public sphere.

(11.) There is an explicit allusion in La Misere du Monde to the large-scale appropriation of sociological knowledge by lay people, which concerns sociological knowledge about schooling and education, and the way in which virtually everyone has appropriated the idea that failure at school cannot be explained only by reference to individual and innate aptitudes: "One cannot but assume that the diffusion of major social science findings about education, particularly findings about the social determinants of success and failure at school, must have contributed to transform children's and parents' perceptions of the education system, whose effects they already know in practice" (1993: 598). In this case, the appropriation of sociological knowledge means that lay people increasingly tend to include social factors in their explanations of children's successes or failures at school, such as insufficient resources allocated to the education system, the way teachers are trained, or the logic of the whole education sys tem and the need to reform it (1993: 598). What Bourdieu and Champagne note here about school can, in our view, be extended to many other social issues.

(12.) It is in such a situation that the sociologist can demonstrate the constructed and constraining character of what generally appears as given and natural. It is precisely by studying a situation in which the correspondence between people's habitus and their social conditions had been broken, that Bourdieu (1979) first developed his argument about the practical mode of relating to the world: in his early study of proletarian and sub-proletarian Algerian people in the 1960s. Bourdieu noted the permanent discrepancy between, on one hand, these people's habitus and, more precisely, their economic dispositions, which were adapted to a pre-capitalist world and, on the other hand, the capitalist economic world in which they now have to act (1979: vii). Bourdieu wanted to study the problem of the genesis of new economic dispositions (in particular, the genesis of a particular temporal consciousness) adapted to the developing capitalist economy, which had been, to a large extent, abruptly imported and imposed on Algerian people. The discrepancy between habitus and structure indicated, in this case, that the economic structures changed more rapidly than the people's economic dispositions (Bourdieu, 1979 : 4-5).


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1980 Le senspratique. Paris: Minuit.

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1991 Introduction a la socioanalyse. Actes de la Recherche en Science Sociale 90: 3-5.

1993 La Misere du monde. Paris: Seuil.

1996 Sur la televison Paris: Liber.

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1998b La domination masculine. Paris: Seuil.

2000 Les structures sociales de l'economie. Paris: Seuil.

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1992 An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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1991 The Craft of Sociology. Epistemological Preliminaries. Berlin: Walterde Gruyter(orig. edn.: 1968).

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Mesny, Anne

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Anne Mesny is an Assistant Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Montreal, where she teaches sociology and management. She obtained a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge (UK). Her research interests are in epistemology, organization studies and theories of modernity.
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Title Annotation:sociologist Pierre Bourdieu
Author:Mesny, Anne
Publication:Canadian Journal of Sociology
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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