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Bourdieu’s Structuration Theory

Bourdieu didn’t like the label ‘social theorist’ because he insisted that there was a fundamentally important relationship between empirical data, research methods and ‘theory’.

He was not interested in making grand theoretical claims, but rather was engaged in examining particular substantive areas (fields) of social life that existed at particular times and places, such as fields of education.

Drawing inspiration from Marx and Weber, Bourdieu argued that all aspects of social life must be examined in terms of the power relations they embody – the main aim of sociology is to expose the power of elite groups, which would normally not be visible without sociological analysis.

This ‘exposure’ element is different to Giddens’ structuration theory, who generally assumes the knowledgeability of subjects, while for Bourdieu actors are not necessarily conscious of the operation of power.  Bourdieu also focused more on the group, rather than the individual agent.

Bourdieu has been criticise as just being  a Marxist, for seemingly analysing power relations in terms of how structure and ideology reproduce individuals. However, Bourdieu saw his position as successfully mediating between objectivism and subjectivism. He claimed these are transcended by his key concept of habitus – a term meant to describe how social conditions act upon and shape individuals’ actions and how also people are –within certain limits – capable of creative responses to the situations they find themselves in (Reay 2004).

A habitus is the characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, acting and experiencing shared by all members of a certain group.  It describes how social structures act on individuals in a group and how individuals actively respond to the social situations created by those structures – a person’s practices can either maintain or transform the social situations people operate within.

For Bourdieu the primary groups in society are social class groups. He understands power as the domination of one class over another, via attempts at legitimising their world view.

For Bourdieu, the habitus encompasses both  objective and subjective, passive and active, material and ideal elements.

The more objective elements concern wealth and power, and the socialisation processes – socialisation happens at a mental as well as a bodily level — the tiniest details of how we walk, or blow are knows signify aspects of our socialisation, mostly our class background, and for Bourdieu we are not fully aware that everything we do is expressive of the habitus into which we’ve been socialised. Instead the habits disguises itself by making people see the world in common sense ways, and these do not allow critical attention to be paid to it. People just experience what they experience as ‘common sense’.

We do not even realise we have a habitus until we step outside it, into a different context – e.g. a working class person going to a society wedding, realising their ordinary ways of being just don’t fit.

The habitus ‘adjusts expectations to reality’ – so that our subjective outlook meshes with our objective conditions – thus a working class person would just not expect to eat caviar for breakfast, we just accept this.

Bourdieu maintains that habitus does not simply constrain individuals – it also allows action to take place, but it always provides a limited set of possibilities, most of this happens within the realm of practical consciousness.

Bourdieu has been criticised for understating the extent to which people are reflexive today – i.e. it appears that people do increasingly reflect on themselves and their habitus and consciously seek to change what they are.

More to follow>>>

Related Posts 

Cultural Capital and Educational Achievement

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Structuration Theory – A Summary

From a structurationist perspective, a social theory must explain both social reproduction (social order being reproduced over time by people continuing to act in ways inherited from the past) and social transformation (how social order is changed by people, intentionally or unintentionally, through their interactions.

Structuration theory seeks to overcome what it sees as the failings of earlier social theory, avoiding both its ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’ extremes by forging new terminology to describe how people both create and are created by social reproduction and transformation.

The very word structuration attempts to show that social structure and individual action are elements of one single process, the ‘constitution of society’ as Giddens (1984) puts it.

The two most important contemporary structuration theorists are Giddens and Bourdieu. What they both have in common is that they focus on social ‘practices’ rather than ‘actions’. Practices are everyday activities that are routinized, and social structure is just simply routinized practices, and the memories in people’s heads that allow them to keep doing those practices in those ways over time. (Reckwitz 2002).

Thus ‘social structure’ and ‘society’ are not ‘things’ outside of individuals and their practices, they are those practices.

The focus on practices draws from phenomenology the idea of ‘practical consciousness’, the idea that what most people do most of the time is semi-conscious. Practical consciousness, or practices are informed by a stock of taken-for-granted knowledge that makes-up and makes possible our everyday life-worlds. It is these practices which we generally do not reflect upon.

Bourdieu’s and Giddens’ structuration theories differ because they have been developed for different purposes.

Bourdieu, drawing mainly on Marx (especially), Weber and Durkheim, regarded his sociology as one aimed at revealing the nature and operation of forms of domination (which Bourdieu calls forms of ‘symbolic violence’), especially by the higher classes over the lower classes, and in his later life, Bourdieu was an outspoken intellectual, critical of neo-liberal policies.

In contrast, Giddens, drawing mainly on ethnomethodology, put his structuration theory at the service of the ‘third way’ politics associated with Bill Clinton and Tony Blaire which endeavoured to recast ‘soft left’ social democratic policies into an age of global capitalism. Structuration theory was also used by Giddens to diagnose contemporary social and cultural change, including transformations in self-identity and intimacy. (Giddens 1991).

Bourdieu tended to focus on the harms which symbolic violence did to the marginalised, while Giddens tended to focus on new opportunities for liberation which existed for all social classes.

Criticisms of these two are that Bourdieu ends up being too objectivist, Giddens, too subjectivist.

Sources

This post is a summary of chapter 10 from Inglis, D (2012) – A Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.

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The Hidden Privileges of Identity: On Being Middle Class

A summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Sociological Perspectives on Identity’, chapter 7

During summer 2000 and in January 2001, there were two separate community-protests over the housing of child-offenders in the local community, one in a working-class area, by working-class people, another in a middle class area, by middle-class people.

The first protest took place in a working class housing estate in Palsgrove, Portsmouth, in which local residents were demanding the removal men believed to be sex offenders already living in the area; the second protest took place in middle-class Balham, London, where locals were protesting against a proposition to build a residential centre for sex-offenders, including child sex-offenders.

Both received press coverage, but both the amount and the tone of the reporting differed.

The working-class protest received an enormous amount of coverage, and commentary, with the women involved presented in dismissive and disgusted terms and not a single broad sheet newspaper reported their protest as rational or understandable, preferring to cast the protesters as a mob of rioters. In addition, frequent reference was made to personal aspects of their lives – such as their appearance, how they furnished their homes, their relationship status, as well as details of their past relationships.

In contrast, the middle class mothers in Balham were almost entirely sympathetic – they were presented as ‘vigilant’ rather than vigilante, and identification was invited so they became part of an imagined ‘we’ uniting against the sex-offenders; there was minimal reference to their personal lives – other than details of their children’ ages and their jobs, which were all ‘solidly professional’.

The Paulsgrave women were vilified across three different axes:

  • Their bodily appearance
  • Their ignorance or lack of understanding
  • Their inadequacy as mothers

And through this vilification their protests were rendered ridiculous through assumptions of immorality, incompetence and ignorance.

Lawler now asks what can these representations tell us about identity? They tell us nothing about the subjectivities of the people involved – but they do tell us something about how class is conferred on people: there is a long tradition of representing the working class as a mob, against which middle-class individuality is asserted, but it is doubtful that anyone identifies subjectively as part of a mob, so mob-identity is conferred on the working classes rather than coming from them and/ or how they feel about themselves.

One of the subtlest ways this works is through the middle classes claiming to ‘know’ the working classes, thus claiming the right to identify them (when in reality, they don’t know them at all).

One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.

This chapter looks at how middle class identities are normalised, and defined as ‘right’ against a working class identity which is defined (by the middle classes) as wrong. This is important for two reasons

1. We have traditionally understood class in economic terms, but increasingly cultural markers matter.

2. Class still matters as a source of identity but recently it has taken a back seat as academics have focused on other aspects of identity – such as sexuality.

‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118).

The persistence of class

Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.

The drawing of class distinctions has become displaced onto individual persons and families who are approved or disapproved of.

As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for vulgar working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.

Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.

(Lawler thus adopts a relational approach to class and sees it as dynamic, rather than static categories dependent on economic position).

She effectively argues that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.

Together this group, what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘dominated section of the dominant class’ construct a doxic understanding of class – they have a shared understanding of what working class and middle class means, and this is largely goes undiscussed.

This is ultimately all about power, about the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.

Having the knowledge

Lawler begins by quoting a definition of cultural capital form Johnson (1993)…

Cultural Capital refers to a specific form of knowledge which ‘equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts…. cultural capital is accumulated through a long process of acquisitions or inculcation which includes the pedagogical action of the family or group members (family, education), educated members of the social formation (diffuse, education) and social institutions (institutionalised education)’

For Bourdieu, it it is only the cultural capital of the middle classes which is legitimised and becomes symbolic capital – around which prestige and status are conferred – it is only middle class tastes, knowledges, and dispositions which are encoded as inherently ‘right’.

However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because

– part of this process of constructing middle-class ness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself

– because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.

– the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.

On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.

What Lawler’s basically describing above, I believe, is the process of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.

Habitus and the subject

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is central to his analysis of social identity and is his attempt to theorise the ways in which the social is incorporated into the self.

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus has been described as ‘second sense’, ‘practical sense’, or ‘second nature’ that equips people with ‘know-how’. Habitus refers to both physical and psychological aspects of the self – it is the way we stand, how we move, how we look and how we feel, and it is our dispositions, attitudes and tastes, so it is a concept which cuts across traditional mind-body splits, with much of its force deriving from non-conscious elements.

In short, the habitus is not only something someone has, it is learned in the mind-body, it is what one is.

The habitus has also been referred to as ‘socialised subjectivity’, or ’embodied history’, a result of ‘deep socialisation’. It is learned, but we have forgotten that it is learned and so as far as we are concerned what we do and who we are ‘just natural’.

What all of the above suggests is that ‘taste’ is not innate but learned through deep socialisation of the habitus, furthermore what gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is what the group with the power to name things as tasteful decide is tasteful.

Habitus is not determining, but generative. It is dynamic, so it does not reproduce itself perfectly.

Central to the concept of habitus is relationality – habitus only makes sense in the context of specific local contexts or ‘fields’ – a field is a network of objective relations between positions. Fields are the games for which the rules of the game equip us.

Habitus are also relational in another sense – they exist in relation to one another – they carry the traces, or the lines along which society is divided – class, gender, ethnicity, the whole lot.

Habitus are also hierarchical – some are normalised, some pathological and they clash, and part of the embodied sense of habitus is the judgement of other habitus – however, only some people have the power to make judgements stick.

What gives habitus its power is that it’s not about what you do, or how you act, but about who you are, and some people (the middle classes) have more ability to make judgements about legitimate taste stick than others.

Disgusting subjects: narratives of lack…

Savage et al (2001) found that people were frequently uncomfortable and evasive when talking about class as a system, but middle class people consistently characterise working class people in the most horrific terms. The working classes being talked about are rarely named in class terms, but it is clear who the targets are.

Lawler now gives an example of Les Back (2002) who, when giving a paper on white working class youth was asked by an academic member of the audience whether ‘he was going to do the voices’ – imagine the outrage if this had been asked in relation to a study on an ethnic minority group, yet there was no such outrage surrounding ‘parodying’ the working classes.

Back observes that not only do the working class not deserve to be taken seriously, it is also assumed that they are easy to read and know, although they are seen as unable to know themselves.

The working classes are probably most obviously marked out by their appearance – their clothes and general demeanour – in the UK references are made to shell suits, large gold earrings and tightly permed hair – such easy signfiers do a great deal to code class difference and it is left to the reader (or viewer) to fill in the gaps by understanding that such appearances are the result of pathology.

Some commentators also comment with awed horror on the environments where working class people live and are often surprised that ‘people live there’, forgetting that for working class people these environments are completely normal.

There is also a discourse which has coded such working class areas as high-crime areas, given legitimacy through crime-mapping software.

Landscape and inhabitants are frequently described in terms of lack, but it in these discussions it is not so much money they lack, but taste.

On top of criticising working class landscapes and dress, character traits are also part of the construction of the working classes – Lawler now summarises the ways in which the working classes are demonised –

‘As cigarette-smoking teenage mothers, rearing children in deprived and arid backgrounds of instability, emotional chaos, parental strife, of moral vacuum.. whose children will grow up as socially autistic adults with little expectations and even less talent.’

Above all, she says they are held to lack everything perceived as having value.

This discourse of lack defines social policy – which mainly focuses around tackling social exclusion where social class is concerned.

Lawler is very critical of such accounts – especially of Simon Charlseworth’s (2000) account of working class life as picture bleak and empty, devoid of meaning – we have to ask – is this about working class life, or about a way of looking at it?

Two sociologists who argue coherently against such narratives of lack are Beverly Skeggs and Angella McRobbie

And narratives of decline…

Where discussion of the working classes is concerned, narratives of lack are accompanied by narratives of decline.

The narrative of decline is the tale that the working class used to be respectable, but that the decline of heavy industry has lead to the working class either moving upward to become middle class, or behind, effectively no longer having any value.

The working classes are also seen as suffering from outdated political values, or cultural lag, while progress and reason are on the side of the government and the middle classes. The characterisation of the underlcass has done little to change this.

All of this is worse for working class women get a double negative-label – not only working class but also characterised as unfeminine – and those who try to be feminine are themselves disparaged for it.

The move from working class to underclass also has a gendered dimension.

Representations of the working classes of the past emphasise masculinity – and radicalised, politicised male workers at least having respectability.

However, representations of the new underclass are feminised – with the teenage mother being the symbol of spite – hence we have a gendering of the ‘lower’ classes, all fundamentally tied into middle class attempts to empower themselves don’t forget.

We get the impression from current representations that the wc used to be OK but now they are a problem.

Savage argues that this is not the case – only a few wc members manage to claim the noble WC identity referred to above – the middle class have always seen an attempted to portray the WC as something problematic.

All that has changed is that today we don’t talk explicitly about ‘class’; instead the ‘disgusting’ traits are presented as the outcome of individual and familial pathology… representations of working class people are marked by disapproval or disdain not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Their clothes, their bodies, their localities are all seen as tasteless, and faulty.

Lawler now notes that exactly how disgust comes to operate through class is relatively underexplored, but it is so important because it is an emotion which is literally experience in the body, so is very much part of us, but it is also social, because it needs collective affirmation – disgust is thus very much where the personal meets the social.

Lawler now reminds us that disgust does not arise because of something intrinsic within the object, but out of a relation between the disgusted and the ‘disgusting’ object.

Disgust is also bound up with identity – it works to push away others and establish one’s own identity as non-disgusting.

At the end of the day disgust is the opposite of taste, and the two are flexible – forever changing – what is tasteful today may not be so tomorrow – consider the way the middle classes adapt in the face of popularisation through mass consumption. This change however only serves to highlight the fragility of these classes boundaries via good taste and disgust – one is always aware that one can become the other, and hence the crucial importance of working on maintaining boundaries.

Concluding remarks

Basically a reminder that there lies an anxiety at the heart of all identities.

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Cultural Capital and Educational Achievement

Cultural Capital can be defined as the skills and knowledge which an individual can draw on to give them an advantage in social life. In this post, I explore Bourdieu’s foundational concept of the Habitus and then look at how cultural capital can give children an advantage in education.

This is in a bit more depth than you would usually get on a regular A level course.

Key Terms

Capital can be defined as any assets that can improve your life chances.

Cultural Capital – having the skills, knowledge, norms and values which can be used to get ahead in education and life more generally.

Social Capital – possession of social contacts that can ‘open doors’.

Cultural Capital Theory is a Marxist theory of differential educationl achievement. In contrast to cultural deprivation theory, cultural capital theory does not see working class culture as inferior, or lacking in any way, it just sees it as different to middle class culture. Instead of blaming working class underachievement on flawed working-class culture, cultural capital theory focuses on the dominance of middle class culture in society and social institutions.

In short, middle class children are more likely to succeed because the education system is run by the middle classes and works in their interests. The middle classes are able to define their own culture as superior and thus working class culture and working class children are marginalised in the education system and end up underachieving.

Pierre Bourdieu and The Habitus

The Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the theorist most closely associated with developing the concept of cultural capital and applying it to education.

Bourdieu argued that each class has its own cultural framework, or set of norms, values and ideas which he calls the habitus. This habitus contains a set of assumptions about what counts as good and bad taste which influences the kind of leisure activities different classes engage in, the kind of places they visit, where they go on holiday, the kind of television programmes they are likely to watch, what kinds of books they are likely to read and the type of music they are likely to listen to.

The middle class habitus places much more value on the following kinds of activities, and thus these are the kinds of activities which middle class children are more likely to be exposed to compared to working class children:

  • Reading non-fiction and classical literature rather than pop literature

  • Watching documentaries rather than soap operas

  • Learning to play classical instruments (e.g. The Piano)

  • Going on educational visits – to museums and art galleries for example

  • Going on holidays abroad (to ‘broaden horizons’).

Exposure to the above activities provides middle class children with ‘cultural capital’ – many of the above activities are inherently educational in nature and provide middle class children with skills and knowledge which give them an advantage at school. This knowledge can either be specific – such as with reading non-fiction, or more general – such as cultural trips providing children with a sense of independence and self-confidence.

Middle class culture is also the dominant culture in most schools, and schools place high value on the above types of middle class skills and knowledge. Middle class children thus ‘just fit in’ with middle class schools, they are at home in a middle class environment, they don’t need to do anything else other than be themselves in order to belong and thrive at school.

In contrast, working class culture (with its immediate gratification and restricted speech codes) is seen as inferior by most schools. The default assumption of the school in regards to working class children is that school is somewhere where working class children are taught to be more middle class – thus by default working class culture is devalued and working class children are more likely to struggle in education as a result.

Educational Capital

One important (and easy to undersand) aspect of cultural capital theory is educational capital – middle class parents are educated to a higher level than working class parents (they are more likely to have university degrees) – an obvious advantage of this is that they are more able to help children with homework throughout their school careers, but the are also more likely to socialise their children into thinking that going to university is a normal part of life – and thus good GCSEs and A levels are a necessity rather than being a choice.

Research on Cultural Capital (look up the following)

  • Dianna Reay – Middle Class Mothers Make The Difference
  • Stephen Ball – The 1988 Education Act gave middle class parents more choice
  • Alison Sullivan – A Quantitative Study of how cultural capital effects 400 children
  • Why do Working Class Kids Lack Aspiration (Broad support for Cultural Capital Theory)

Evaluations of Cultural Capital Theory

Positive Evaluations

  • Cultural capital seems more relevant now with neoliberal education policies – marketisation (and free schools) gave parents and schools more freedom – middle class parents and schools use this freedom to exlude the working classes.

  • Social capital theory is useful in explaning the punishingly depressing fact that privately educated children often use their social networks to get internships to get them into the ‘professions’.

  • Unlike cultural deprivation theory Bourdieu etc. do not see working class culture as inferior or blame the working classes for the failure of their children.

  • The theory links indside and outside school factors – middle class families and middle class schools work together to exlude working class children (espeically see Ball’s idea about the school-parent alliance).

  • The theory may be more relevant now with the establishment of Free Schools – Only middle class parents really have the cultural capital necessary to set up Free Schools.

Criticisms/ Limitations of Cultural Capital Theory

  • Most statistical research suggests material deprivation and economic capital are more significant factors than cultural capital in explaining class differences in educational achievement.

  • It may be unfair to blame schools for being biased against working class children – many schools put extra resources into helping working class children.

  • From a research methods point of view, it is more difficult to research and test out some aspects of cultural capital theory – how do you measure the effect of piano lessons on educational achievement for example?

  • If cultural deprivation theory is true – there are no practical solutions to reducing class inequalities in education within the existing system – more radical (revolutionary?) changes are necessary.

Cultural Capital Theory – A Summary of The Key Ideas:

  • Marxist Theory

  • Middle Class Socialisation = Cultural Advantage– Literature, Classical Music and Museums

  • Middle Class Parents better educated = help with homework/ University seen as necessary

  • Stephen Ball – Skilled Choosers and the School Parent Alliance

  • Social Capital = Internship in friends Dad’s Law Firm = UNFAIR

  • Positive Evaluation – Blames the middle classes/ More relevant with 1988 and Free Schools

  • Negative Evaluation – Money matters more/ no practical solutions to WC failure.

Examples of Cultural Capital in Action

  • Parents encouraging their children to read.

  • Parents taking their children on a trip to a museum.

  • Parents taking their children on a cultural sight seeing tour abroad.

  • Parents encouraging their children to learn the Piano.

  • Parents helping their children with homework.

  • Parents using their research skills to research which school to send their child to.

  • Parents phoning the school to get their children extra support lessons.

  • Parents taking their child for a dyslexia test to get them extra time in exams.