In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bourdieu’s Concept of Field

  • Introduction
  • Overview of the Concept of Field
  • Overview of Bourdieu’s Conceptualization of Field
  • Collections of Work on Fields
  • Methods for Field Analysis
  • Cultural Fields in Bourdieu’s Work
  • Economic Sociology
  • Education
  • Law
  • Mass Media
  • Organizations
  • Political Field
  • Religion
  • Social Movements
  • Transnational and Global Fields

Sociology Bourdieu’s Concept of Field
David L. Swartz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0164


The concept of field is being used more and more today in North American sociology as well as in Europe. There are three major and distinct if overlapping variants of field theory in the social sciences: the social-psychological perspective associated with the psychologist Kurt Lewin, the stratification and domination emphasis in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology, and the interorganization relations institutionalism associated with Paul DiMaggio and Walter Powell. While the latter exercises considerable influence in organization studies and draws upon Bourdieu, it is Bourdieu’s conceptualization that currently elicits inspiration across the broadest range of substantive areas of sociological investigation. For Bourdieu, fields denote arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation and exchange of goods, services, knowledge, or status, and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate, exchange, and monopolize different kinds of power resources (capitals). Fields may be thought of as structured spaces that organize around specific types of capitals or combinations of capital. In fields actors strategize and struggle over the unequal distribution of valued capitals and over the definitions of just what are the most valued capitals. Like a magnetic field, the effects of social fields on behavior can be far reaching and not always apparent to actors. A field perspective stands in sharp contrast to broad consensual views of social life even though actors within a field share common assumptions about the worth of the struggle and the rules by which it is to be carried out. The concept of field stands as an alternative analytical tool to institutions, organizations, markets, individuals, and groups though all of these can be key components of fields. Field analysis brings these separate units into a broader perspective that stresses their relational properties rather than their intrinsic features and therefore the multiplicity of forces shaping the behavior of each.

Overview of the Concept of Field

The concept of field originates in the physical sciences where one finds varied expressions in electromagnetism, Newtonian gravitation, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity (Hesse 1970). It tries to understand motion among objects without some substantive medium such as through the forces of gravity, electricity, or magnetism. Unlike the conventional understanding of causality where variable A somehow directly impacts B, field theory understands motion as structured by a set of forces whose relations create effects that do not reduce to the properties of individual units. In his philosophy of science, Cassirer 1953 best articulated this shift from substantialist to relational thinking in modern science where the object of investigation becomes the system of force relations rather than the properties of particular substances. In the social sciences, Martin 2003 identifies and discusses three major and distinct if overlapping variants of field theory: the social-psychological perspective of Gestalt theory associated with Lewin 1951, the stratification and domination emphasis in Bourdieu’s field theory, and the interorganization relations institutionalism associated with DiMaggio and Powell 1983. While the latter exercises considerable influence in organization studies and draws upon Bourdieu, it is Bourdieu’s conceptualization that currently elicits inspiration across the broadest range of substantive areas of sociological investigation. Moreover, as Martin and Gregg 2015 argues, it is Bourdieu more than anyone else who offers an exemplary field theoretic framework for research in the social sciences today.

  • Cassirer, Ernst. 1953. Substance and function, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. New York: Dover.

    From a philosophy of science perspective explains the relational view of field theory.

  • DiMaggio, Paul, and Walter Powell. 1983. The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review 48:147–160.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095101

    A benchmark statement identifying reasons for transorganizational consistencies that renewed institutional analysis in the study of organizations. They bring a relational view to the structuration of a field.

  • Hesse, Mary B. 1970. Forces and fields: The concept of action at a distance in the history of physics. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

    Useful explanation of the logic of fields in physics and the physical sciences.

  • Lewin, Kurt. 1951. Field theory in social science. New York: Harper.

    A classic statement of Lewin’s social-psychological field perspective that Bourdieu references in his early work.

  • Martin, Levi John. 2003. What is field theory? American Journal of Sociology 109.1: 1–49.

    DOI: 10.1086/375201

    Martin offers an analytical review of field perspectives starting with classical electromagnetism to Kurt Kewin’s social-psychological perspective, Bourdieu’s field analysis, and DiMaggio and Powell’s interorganizational relations view. Martin identifies the formal properties of field analysis, highlights Bourdieu’s field analytical approach, both its strengths and weaknesses, and compares fields to institutions. His central concern focuses on the nature of social scientific explanation offered by field theory; he finds it superior to conventional approaches for understanding the regularity of human behavior.

  • Martin, John Levi, and Forest Gregg. 2015. Was Bourdieu a field theorist? In Bourdieu’s theory of social fields. Edited by Mathieu Hilgers and Eric Mangez, 39–61. London and New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

    This chapter builds on Martin 2003 but focuses on Bourdieu’s field theoretic perspective and makes the case that it holds the most promise for field-oriented social scientific explanation today.

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