Center for Transcultural Studies: Publications/Bourdieu 1988

working papers

No. 20. "Of Interest and the Relative Autonomy of Symbolic Power," Pierre Bourdieu, trans. L.J.D. Wacquant with M. Lawson, 1988.

Most of the questions and objections which have been put to me reveal a high degree of misapprehension, which can go as far as total incomprehension. Some of the reasons for this are to be found on the consumption side, others on the side of production. I shall begin with the latter.

I have said often enough that any cultural producer is situated in a certain space of production and that, whether he wants it or not, his productions always owe something to his position in this space. I have relentlessly tried to protect myself, through a constant effort of self-analysis, from this effect of the field. But one can be negatively "influenced," influenced a contrario, if I may say, and bear the marks of what one fights against. Thus certain features of my work can no doubt be explained by the desire to "twist the stick in the other direction," to react against the dominant vision in the intellectual field, to break, in a somewhat provocative manner, with the professional ideology of intellectuals. This is the case for instance with the use I make of the notion of interest, which can call forth the accusation of economism against a work which, from the very beginning (I can refer here to my anthropological studies), was conceived in opposition to economism. The notion of interest--I always speak of specific interest--was conceived as an instrument of rupture intended to bring the materialist mode of questioning to bear on realms from which it was absent and [to bear] on the sphere of cultural production in particular. It is the means of a deliberate (and provisional) reductionism which is which is used to take down the claims of the prophets of the universal, to question the ideology of the freischwebende Intelligenz [free-floating intellectual]. On this score, I feel very close to Max Weber who utilized the economic model to extend materialist critique into the realm of religion and to uncover the specific interests of the great protagonists of the religious game, priests, prophets, sorcerers, in the competition which opposes them to one another. This rupture is more necessary and more difficult in the sphere of culture than in any other, because we are all both judge and judged. Culture is our specific capital and, even in the most radical probing, we tend to forget the true foundation of our specific power, of the particular form of domination we exercise. This is why it seemed to me essential to recall that the thinkers of the universal have an interest in universality (which, incidentally, implies no condemnation whatsoever).

But there are grounds for misunderstanding that stand on the side of consumption: my critics rely most often on only one book, Distinction, which they read in a "theoretical" or theoreticist vein (an inclination reinforced by the fact that a number of concrete analyses are less "telling" to a foreign reader) and ignore the empirical work published by myself or others in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales (not to mention the ethnographic works which are at the origin of most of my concepts); they criticize out of their context of use open concepts designed to guide empirical work; they criticize not my analyses, but an already simplified, if not maimed, representation of my analyses. This is because they invariably apply to them the very modes of thought, and especially distinctions, alternatives and oppositions, which my analyses are aimed at destroying and overcoming. I think here of all the antinomies that the notion of habitus aims at eliminating: finalism/mechanism, explanation by reasons/explanation by causes, conscious/unconscious, rational and strategic calculation/mechanical submission to mechanical constraints, etc. In so doing, one can choose either to reduce my analyses to one of the positions they seek to transcend, or, as with Elster, to act as if I simultaneously or successively retained both of these contradictory positions. These are so many ways of ignoring what seems to me to be the anthropological foundation of a theory of action, or of practice, and which is condensed in the notion of habitus: the relation which obtains between habitus and the field to which it is objectively adjusted (because it was constituted in regard to the specific necessity which inhabits it) is a sort of ontological complicity, a subconscious and prereflexive fit. This complicity manifests itself in what we call the sense of the game or "feel" for the game (or sens pratique, practical sense), an intentionality without intention which functions as the principle of strategies devoid of strategic design, without rational computation and without the conscious positing of ends. (By way of aside, habitus is one principle of production of practices among others and, although it is undoubtedly more frequently at play than any other--"We are empirical," said Leibniz, "in three quarters of our actions"--one cannot rule out that it may be superseded, under certain circumstances--certainly in situations of crisis which disrupt the immediate adjustment of habitus to field--by other principles, such as rational and conscious computation. This being granted, even if its theoretical possibility is universally allocated, the propensity or the ability to have recourse to a rational principle of production of practices has its own social and economic conditions of possibility: the paradox, indeed, is that those who want to admit no principle of production of practices, and of economic practices specifically, other than rational consciousness, fail to take into account the economic preconditions for the development and the implementation of economic rationality.)

To order a copy, please write to Pierre Bourdieu at the College de France, 54 Blvd. Raspail, 75270 Paris Cedex 06, France.


Working Papers