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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Resources, Biographies, and Bibliographies
  • Selected Major Works
  • Interviews and Lectures
  • Science and Politics
  • Social Theory
  • Methods
  • Intellectual Legacies

Sociology Pierre Bourdieu
Etienne Ollion
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0083


Pierre Bourdieu was born on 1 August 1930 in a rural area of southwestern France. The only child of a peasant sharecropper turned postman, he left his region on the recommendation of a high school teacher to pursue an elite academic curriculum in Paris. He graduated from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, then at the apex of French academic life. There he studied philosophy. He concentrated on epistemology and on the history of science, which set him against the then dominant current, existentialism, personified by Jean-Paul Sartre. Bourdieu’s vocation in philosophy shifted abruptly to the social sciences after he was drafted into the French army and sent to Algeria at the height of its Liberation War (1956–1962). There he turned to empirical inquiry, carrying out both ethnographic and statistical studies of colonial transformation, as well as absorbing the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Upon his return to France, Bourdieu completed his conversion to sociology: he became Director of Studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (1964); he founded a research center (1968), launched a journal (Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, 1975), and assembled a research team focusing on symbolic power, and social inequality in their broadest manifestations. After the 1970s, Bourdieu tackled an increasingly diverse set of empirical topics (spanning art, ritual, kinship, religion, science, intellectuals, language, social classes, and political institutions, inter alia) while developing his own paradigm, seeking a pathway out of the opposition between structuralist objectivism and constructivist subjectivism—first proposed in Outline of a Theory of Practice. He then honed his distinctive conceptual triad of habitus, capital, and field in Distinction (1984) before he was elected to the Collège de France in 1982, where his research expanded to encompass the state, gender domination, the social foundations of the economy, and the experience of social suffering in contemporary society. Bourdieu addressed salient social issues, as in The Weight of the World (1999), and deepened his rethinking of the distinctive logic of practice and the epistemological dilemmas of social inquiry in Pascalian Meditations (2000). He became a leading public figure in the global mobilization against neoliberalism, while his work gained international influence across the social sciences and the humanities. At the time of his sudden death in 2002, he was working on a “general theory of fields.”

General Overviews

Over the course of his career, Bourdieu published some thirty books and more than three hundred articles on an astounding variety of topics, written in an empirically rich yet theoretically dense style which can deter some readers. Amid the fast-growing literature on Bourdieu, several texts offer routes to approach it. Wacquant 2006 provides a comprehensive and compact overview of the life and work of the French sociologist. Brubaker 1985 is an early article situating Bourdieu within classic social theory. Readers of French can turn to Pinto 2002 for a more detailed presentation. Bourdieu himself was concerned with easing entry into the thicket of his work, and he published collections of essays based on oral presentations (e.g., Bourdieu 1998). For social science scholars, the best entry is Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, which diagrams Bourdieu’s core concepts, explains the inner logic of his inquiries, and responds to objections. Another collection of public lectures and interviews, Bourdieu 1990, offers a window into the development of his thought and in many respects an abridged but theoretically precise presentation of Bourdieu’s main research. Swartz 1998 is a highly readable introduction to Bourdieu’s sociology of culture.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. In other words: Essays towards a reflexive sociology. Translated by Matthew Adamson. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A collection of lectures and interviews in which Bourdieu presents the intellectual rationale and main results of his investigations and answers frequent questions about his work, up until the mid-1980s. Originally published in 1987.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical reason: On the theory of action. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    A collection of conference presentations given abroad sketch out Bourdieu’s main findings on class, cultural capital, time, power, and morality. The format and the primary audience of the papers force Bourdieu to strip out some empirical details about France, hence making the ensemble more accessible. Originally published in 1994.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Invitation is the most comprehensive presentation of Bourdieu’s empirical and theoretical works. The first part offers a thorough delineation of the principles underlying the sociologist’s work. A dense dialogue between the two authors follows, which traces the origins and intentions of Bourdieu’s theory. The third section introduces the reader to the craft of research. While limited to the texts published up to 1992, Invitation remains the clearest and most accurate introduction available.

  • Brubaker, Rogers. 1985. Rethinking classical theory: The sociological vision of Pierre Bourdieu. Theory and Sociology 14: 745–775.

    In this early and illuminating article, Brubaker locates Bourdieu within classic social theories. He describes Bourdieu’s sociology in the light of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, respectively, before he tackles his main concepts.

  • Pinto, L. 2002. Pierre Bourdieu et la théorie du monde social. 2d ed. Paris: Le Seuil.

    Written by a student and longtime collaborator of Bourdieu, the book is a precise introduction to Bourdieu’s social theory. A philosopher by training, the author also manages to locate Bourdieu’s contribution to classical and contemporary debates in social theory. Originally published in 1998.

  • Swartz, David. 1998. Culture and power: The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Highly readable and precise, Swartz’s book is a good introduction to Bourdieu’s theory up to the 1980s, with an emphasis on the culture-power nexus.

  • Wacquant, Loïc. 2006. Pierre Bourdieu. In Key sociological thinkers. Edited by Rob Stones. 2d ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    The chapter provides a general overview of the life and work of the French sociologist, characterized as having developed a science of practice in relation to various strands of classical social theory. Originally published in 1998.

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