‘Bricolage away’ – using Bourdieu’s ideas today

‘Bricolage away’ – using Bourdieu’s ideas today

Reflections of a participant in seminar 2

Sam Hillyard, Durham University, UK. https://www.dur.ac.uk/sass/staff/profile/?id=4408

Bourdieuvian ubiquity and theory ‘lite’.

I heard Bourdieu speak in London many years ago and, as a sociologist working in the Sociology of Education and associated fields, I have retained an interest in his work. Bourdieusian ideas are rampant in contemporary British sociology at the moment, to the extent that one attendee at a recent BSA conference quipped that Bourdieu’s name should be barred from next year’s abstracts. With ubiquity comes the risk of superficial citation without the engagement. As Reay nicely paraphrases Hey, a theory ‘lite’ use that is akin to intellectual hairspray, is one which bolsters through adding superficial gravitas. Reay’s paper (‘It’s all becoming a habitus …’) exposed the habitual use of the term and David James now makes a similar case that misrecognition has become misrecognised. Such a background informs SHU’s Seminar Series, Critical Perspectives on Theory and Methodology and it offered a timely and welcoming environment in which to explore how we can use Bourdieu’s ideas both critically and constructively.

Principles in practice

The seminar used newly-published work as a springboard to discussion and follows an excellent format that we have used to good effect at my own university – Roger Burrows presented on the h-index paper followed by BSA President John Holmwood, which made for a very lively Q&A afterwards. SHU’s Andrew Morrison’s paper offered a three-part theoretical exploration of perceived barriers to employment in teaching. Using focus group data, Morrison faced the challenge to empirically operationalise concepts such as habitus. Do, for example, focus groups reveal only articulated anticipated reactions to behaviours (what they say they do), rather than what people actually do (that may be accessed and studied via ethnography)? He concluded that the majority of his participants articulated discourses that could serve to further reproduce misrecognition processes. This echoed Cardiff’s David James argument that Bourdieu’s meaning of misrecognition was that the hidden injuries of class remain very firmly hidden. That is, they are entirely naturalised.

A theory of what?

The panel discussion that followed revealed that there are differences in how Bourdieu’s work can be viewed and used. Morrison’s argument suggested that differentiation processes – enacted through accent – were internalised. Questions arose, appealing to Foucault, as to the extent that agents are complicit in their domination. I asked, also, using a definition of the situation approach, whether such anticipation would produce this actual effect – that, in believing a situation to be real, it becomes real in its consequences. For example, as Goffman argues, shaming processes (such as those Morrison articulates in his data and analysis) are anticipated and steps to alleviate it are taken by the actor during the situation – with the potential to over-compensate as a result. This means that shame is anticipated before such practices may have occurred: in other words it is pre-cognitive, but nevertheless internalised on the basis of earlier negotiated interactions.

The agent and Bourdieu

Morrison’s reading of Bourdieu was that he offers a normative political theory. This implicates the very autonomy and status of the agent in, for example, that, as James argues, Bourdieu was no determinist (no ‘closet Marxist’ as Cresswell concurred). It is rather, that coming to an understanding of circumstances for agency (by understanding of misrecognition in the agent’s work) can lead to a pessimism. That is, pessimism regarding the possibility and scope for change and, too, a pessimism arising from an awareness that the optimism that educators often hold is itself a form of misrecognition. The very potential to offer acts of resistance – that agency could act as a means to rectify misrecognition seems a tall ambition, in the same way James noted that Willis’ (1977) Learning to labour had been critiqued for being overly romanticised.

On avoiding theory ‘lite’

The research seminar demonstrated the vibrancy of debates on the best use of seminal ideas and James offered useful guidance with which to conclude:

  • Bourdieu’s ideas are a diagnostic tool/ analytic device for understanding social relations;
  • Habitus is best used alongside the concept of field;
  • It is important to understand the tradition from which ideas emerge (his paper is great for signposting further readings);
  • Remember that some terms lack conceptual hygiene, i.e. social capital differs for Putnam and Coleman;
  • Other theoretical ideas are available too: Bernstein/ Foucault and offers opportunities for bricolage and synthesis.

Future directions

The SHU event demonstrated how theoretical ideas could be fruitfully used in practice. It showcases work inspired by such seminal work and debates within the Sociology of Education and sociology more broadly, seeking to analyse enduring social inequalities. The application of misrecognition to unlocking the ‘hidden injuries of class’ is useful, but not the only theoretical line. For example, Cardiff graduate Mike Ward’s monograph, From labouring to learning, applied Goffman’s ideas to explore working-class masculinities via an ethnography and, my Durham University colleagues (Boliver and Tummons) and I have used Robert Dingwall’s adaptation of occupational boundary work and issues of superiority and assurance elicitation to explore access barriers to elite universities (see http://www.ethnography.webspace.virginmedia.com/Ethnography_Conference/Ethnography_Conference_Home_page.html). Scholars at SHU have, too, also applied used Goffman in different lights to problematized internalisation (see https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.420758!/file/Vygotsky-versus-Goffman-paper-summary.pdf ).

In sum, the Seminar Series was an excellent opportunity to critically think about how theoretical idea can work in practice. It can be revisited, as I have done, here https://theometho.wordpress.com/seminars/seminar-2/. James observed in his paper that the very unit of analysis is itself too often taken-for-granted and that soft reflexivity is too easy. As Bourdieu himself argued, Goffman was the master of the infinitely small and, if we pursue the importance that Goffman’s dramaturgy places upon the audience (as opposed to the actor), it is uncomfortable and disquieting. However, what is good practice empirically is not as clear-cut as Reay’s discussion implied and this seminar demonstrated. Both agree, as does Cresswell, that ideas are best engaged through the challenges of empirical practice, rather than abstraction alone: “reality is fuzzy – our job is to make it fuzzier” (Bourdieu, quoted in Cresswell 2002:379).


Bourdieu, P. (1983). Erving Goffman, discoverer of the infinitely small. Theory, Culture and Society 2(1), 112-113. (Orig. in Le Monde, 4.12.82, trans. Richard Nice.)

Cresswell, T. (2002). Bourdieu’s geographies: in memorium. Environment and Planning D abstract20(4), 379-382.

James, D. 2015. How Bourdieu bites back: recognising misrecognition in education and educational research. Cambridge Journal of Education 45(1), 97-112.

Morrison, A. (2014). ‘I Think That’s Bad’: Lay Normativity and Perceived Barriers to Employment in Primary Teaching in the UK. Sociology, 49(4), 643-659.

Reay*, D. (2004). ‘It’s all becoming a habitus’: Beyond the habitual use of habitus in educational research. British journal of sociology of education25(4), 431-444.

Ward, M. (2015) Labouring to learn: working-class masculinities, education and de-industrialization. London, Palgrave.


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