In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pierre Bourdieu

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts

Literary and Critical Theory Pierre Bourdieu
Jen Webb
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0040


The work of Pierre Bourdieu (b. 1930–d. 2002) has continued to exercise a profound influence on the academic field in the years following his death. In 2007, ISI Web of Science identified him as the scholar with the second-highest number of citations of books in the humanities (after Michel Foucault); in 2014, Adrian Ivakhiv analyzed the updated data and named him as the third most cited humanities scholar of the 20th century (after Foucault and Freud). Grandson of a peasant sharecropper, and son of a village postman, he grew up in rural Béarn, France, where he describes himself as being a “renegade” distinguished by the number of detentions he received at school. He moved on to further education in prestigious schools, where his experience of social exclusion provided him with insights into social politics that informed his later work. Bourdieu began his professional life as a philosopher, and he worked as a teacher before he was conscripted and sent to Algeria. His tour of duty completed, he took a post at the University of Algeria, taught himself ethnography, and began his first major empirical work, with the Kabyle people. In the mid-1960s, now back in France, he was appointed director of the Centre de Sociologie Européenne, and in 1981 he was made chair of sociology at the Collége de France. Later in his career he became a public critic, using both scholarly and popular media to battle what he identified as forces of oppression in French society. He is, therefore, not precisely a philosopher, sociologist, or anthropologist, and yet his influence across these and related disciplines has been extensive. Though his work has been criticized as being too oriented toward reproduction, and overly focused on socioeconomics, his analysis of the role of cultural capital breaks with the easy polarities of high and low, or elite and mass modes of literary and other cultural production, attending rather to the conditions in which practitioners and audiences are constructed. This offers a fresh way of viewing the literary and cultural space from that offered by either cultural history or Frankfurt School–style critical theory. Throughout his career he has explored new ways to understand and engage with the impact of the sociopolitical domain on the lives of individuals. His signature themes of field, habitus, and capital; his focus on scholarly reflexivity; and his sophisticated methodological and epistemological rigor provide literary and critical scholars with valuable tools for thought.

General Overviews

Bourdieu’s first book was published (in French) in 1958, and during the decade that followed his key topics began to emerge—principally empirical studies of the fields of education and of cultural production, and texts on the principles and practices of critical sociology. By the 1980s he had published also on language and philosophy, and by the early 1990s—emerging as a public intellectual and social activist—he had added explicitly political writings and pamphlets to his oeuvre. Throughout, the same topics reappear, and are developed or reconceptualized. The result is a large and constantly growing body of work. His books have continued to appear in French and in English translation since his death, and the secondary literature proliferates, with publications testing Bourdieu’s concepts in art, sociology, education, the economy, literature, ideology, linguistics, nursing, business administration . . . the list goes on. Adding to the complexity, Bourdieu’s prose is notoriously difficult in his native French, and no easier in English translation. This was a deliberate gesture on his part, one designed to break with familiar or commonplace perceptions and afford new ways of thinking about, and perceiving, social concepts and frameworks. It does, though, make the task of understanding Bourdieu considerably more challenging. In addition, he does not necessarily revisit and explicate key terms developed in his earlier publications. Consequently, new readers coming to his mid- or late-career work may miss both the meanings and the nuances of his publications. All this makes it difficult to produce a genuinely comprehensive overview of his writings and their impact. There have, however, been a number of such publications produced. Some address the arc and trajectory of his work (Calhoun, et al. 1993; Grenfell 2004; Reed-Danahay 2005). Others are general accounts aimed at elucidating Bourdieu’s themes and concepts, or providing a context for the reach and endurance of his work (Jenkins 1992; Lane 2000; Santoro 2011; Webb, et al. 2002). Others again provide critical overviews of a specific theme or themes: Robbins 1991 and Swartz 1997 contextualize Bourdieu’s critical sociology, while Fowler 1997 addresses his contributions to the creative and cultural domains. Though there are many other publications worth exploring, these are among the English language overviews likely to be set on course reading lists, and to feature in bibliographies.

  • Calhoun, Craig, Edward LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, eds. Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

    This edited collection draws together essays by specialists including Scott Lash, Loïc Wacquant, Beate Krais, and the editors, with concluding remarks by Bourdieu himself. The essays cover such topics as the science of science; knowledge systems; habitus, field, and capital; language and linguistics; gender and power; and television and the cultural arbitrary. Though necessarily dated, it outlines many of the building blocks of Bourdieu’s oeuvre.

  • Fowler, Bridget. Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory: Critical Investigations. London: SAGE, 1997.

    This work pays less attention than do others to Bourdieu’s sociological work, and significantly more to his contributions to cultural and critical domains of practice. It offers a close, critical evaluation of his writings on the creative field and the apparent blind spots in his account—popular literature and other cultural artifacts, for example. Further, it provides a detailed analysis of the critical reception of Bourdieu’s work by English-language scholars.

  • Grenfell, Michael. Pierre Bourdieu: Agent Provocateur. London: Continuum, 2004.

    Beginning with a brief biographical account, this book sets out the distinct moves in Bourdieu’s work—from ethnography, through education, art, and culture, to his late interventions as a political analyst and activist. Throughout, Grenfell contextualizes Bourdieu’s work, concluding with a critical account of his intellectual legacy.

  • Jenkins, Richard. Pierre Bourdieu. London: Routledge, 1992.

    Aims to clarify Bourdieu’s ideas and concepts for an Anglophone audience who, in 1992, may yet not have come across his work. In a move that must have heartened early readers, Jenkins criticizes Bourdieu’s writing style as “obscure, complex and intimidatory,” but nonetheless elucidates his sociological, epistemological, and conceptual contributions.

  • Lane, Jeremy F. Pierre Bourdieu: A Critical Introduction. London: Pluto, 2000.

    Lane’s introduction begins by engaging closely with Bourdieu’s Algerian work, something that receives minimal attention from many Bourdieu scholars. A useful feature of this is that Bourdieu’s combination of critical reason and empathic connection emerges in this early work, along with his concern to rely for effect not on passion, but on evidence. Central to Lane’s thesis is his explication, and evaluation, of Bourdieu’s theoretical apparatus.

  • Reed-Danahay, Deborah. Locating Bourdieu. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    Published later than many of the better-known overviews, this work incorporates Bourdieu’s shift, during the last decade of his life, toward the role of the public intellectual and critic of the state, as well as exploring his occasional, but significant, autoethnographic and “autobiographical” writings.

  • Robbins, Derek. The Work of Pierre Bourdieu: Recognizing Society. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, 1991.

    One of the early book-length overviews, in English, of Bourdieu’s critical sociology, this volume outlines his concepts of human society, and of critical social research as a way of reframing social relations. Though now quite outdated, it remains an accessible introduction to key concepts from Bourdieu’s early to mid-career research.

  • Santoro, Marco. “From Bourdieu to Cultural Sociology.” Cultural Sociology 5.1 (2011): 3–23.

    DOI: 10.1177/1749975510397861

    This introduction to the special issue of Cultural Sociology on Bourdieu’s legacy touches on the specifics of his major contributions, offers a detailed and dispassionate overview of his place in the academic field, and argues for the efficacy of his cultural and intellectual practice in developing his premier position as a critical and cultural sociologist.

  • Swartz, David. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

    As the title of this book indicates, the focus throughout is how Bourdieu addresses the problem of power in the various domains in which he conducts his investigations. Like other overviews, Swartz’s covers the key issues of field, habitus, and capital, with close analyses of his work on intellectuals and cultural producers. It offers a valuable explication of Bourdieu’s reliance on Weber and Durkheim, something often overlooked by other critics.

  • Webb, Jen, Tony Schirato, and Geoff Danaher. Understanding Bourdieu. London: SAGE, 2002.

    Written as a general introduction to Bourdieu’s work from the perspective of social and cultural theory, this book uses examples from popular culture to explicate key terms and concepts. Offers a “roadmap” to his methodological, epistemological, and axiological frameworks. The final section focuses specifically on his engagements with creative and critical theory and practice.

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