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Death is not the end: The rise and rise of Pierre Bourdieu in US sociology

Pierre Bourdieu would have turned 85 on 1 August 2015. Thirteen years after his death, the French sociologist remains one of the leading social scientists in the world. His work has been translated into dozens of languages (Sapiro & Bustamante 2009), and he is one of the most cited social theorists worldwide, ahead of major thinkers like Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, or Erving Goffman (Santoro 2008). That Bourdieu is one of the most prominent social theorists will come as no surprise to those accustomed to the academic scene. A more surprising fact, however, is that he is probably the most cited scholar in the social sciences. In a forthcoming paper on the reception of French sociologists in the United States, Andrew Abbott and I show that, at the turn of this decade, he is referenced in more than 100 sociological articles a year. Important authors like Paul Di Maggio or James Coleman are only cited 60 times, while Mark Granovetter has nearly 50 mentions. Bourdieu is also referenced more often than Émile Durkheim, who for a long time epitomized (French) sociology.

Figure 1: Total number of citations of selected authors
Figure 1: Total number of citations of selected authors

The son of a postman from the Southwest of France, Bourdieu was far from predestined to become the most influential sociologist of his generation – maybe of the 20th century. Upon arriving at the École Normale Supérieure, the French elite school that was then the pinnacle of academic life, Bourdieu chose philosophy as a major. The curriculum, friendships, and what he saw as the useless posturing of philosophers made him stray from this standard trajectory for aspiring intellectuals at the time. Being drafted into the army had an even stronger influence on this life-course shift. In 1955, Bourdieu was deployed in Algeria, in the midst of the war for liberation. After his military service, Bourdieu remained for several years in Algiers, where he became a lecturer and undertook ethnographic work.

This experience turned the avid reader of philosophy into an empirical researcher. Upon returning in France, his interest expanded to embrace a flurry of objects: from the school system (The Inheritors, 1964) to art lovers and museum-goers (The Love of Art, 1966), from cultural practices (Distinction, 1979) to cultural producers (Homo Academicus, 1984 and The Rules of Art, 1992). His publications cover an impressive variety of topics. From these different sites, he built his theoretical system. The concept of “cultural capital” originates in his studies on education, “habitus” from the analysis of practice in Algeria, “field” from the worlds of art and science, and “symbolic violence” is an attempt to recast the question of the acceptance of power raised during studies on a wide variety of topics including masculine domination and the state.

This diversity of topics influenced the reception of Bourdieu’s work abroad. As has been pointed out (see Sallasz and Zavisca, 2008), it was initially read by different (unrelated) groups. Though it happened fairly early, the reception of his work remained confined to local areas for over two decades. In the United States, this situation changed in the late 1980s following a number of efforts to emphasize the systematic character of Bourdieu’s research. The key initiative among these was the 1992 interview book co-authored by Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology. Written in English with a US audience in mind, it aims at presenting Bourdieu’s system to a foreign audience. Our data shows that after publication of this book, his work subsequently gained widespread exposure beyond the limited local fields in which it was already popular. Not only were his concepts now used outside of those fields, but references to his work also increasingly pertained to theoretical aspects rather to empirical ones. Starting in the mid-1990s, Bourdieu was regarded as a general social theorist and read across sub-disciplinary lines—as well as across disciplines.

What will happen next? Although prediction and social science don’t square well, several signs indicate that Bourdieu is currently entering the canon of worldwide sociology. In the United States, our study shows that while the number of references to his work continues to increase, scholars’ level of engagement with the text is decreasing. In fact, over the last few years, references to Bourdieu have become more allusive. To measure this change, we hand-coded several hundred references from different periods. The proportion of those extensively citing Bourdieu has decreased steadily since the 2000s. This trait is characteristic of a process of canonization, when an author becomes equated with an idea or a set of ideas (e.g. Foucault and power, Goffman and face-to-face interactions, etc.), and is therefore considered a mandatory reference on the topic. The citation becomes a ritual. In some cases, the author has obviously not read the text in question.

Figure 2a and 2b: References to Durkheim and Bourdieu
Figure 2a and 2b: References to Durkheim and Bourdieu; Number of citations per article, boxplot (top) and total number of articles (bottom)

Has Bourdieu become a museum piece? It does not seem so, at least for now. Scholarly interest is still strong and his work is still very much discussed. A good indicator of this is the number of references to an author per article, and comparison with other authors is telling here. Whereas Durkheim is routinely cited but not much debated, and receives an average of one reference per article citing him (fig2a), Bourdieu’s work is still an object of active investment (fig2b). At least 25% of the articles citing Bourdieu make two references to his work, sometimes many more. Bourdieu may well be entering the canon, but his appropriation abroad still fosters debates.

Image credit: “Pierre Bourdieu, painted portrait” by Thierry Ehrmann via Flickr

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