The Patterns of Oppression

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Review of 'Pierre Bourdieu', Michael Grenfell, Continuum £16.99

Most of Bourdieu's work can be read as an attack on 20th century capitalism,' claims the author of this accessible study of a man who, by the time he died in January 2002, had become the most important intellectual figure in France. Grenfell's book provides a clear account of the development of Bourdieu's thought, from his work on Algeria in the early 1960s to the more overt political interventions of the last decade of his life. It deals well with Bourdieu's interest in how society and its institutions can shape and distort hopes and expectations, and in the way relationships of exploitation and oppression are often unwittingly maintained by people who find themselves engaged in patterns of behaviour which run counter to their intentions.

Bourdieu's vast output of work, on subjects ranging from Algeria to education, culture, the media, economics and philosophy, mapped the changing relationships between individuals and society during the second half of the 20th century. Grenfell therefore rightly considers him a 'theorist of the modern state'.

Grenfell emphasises the liberating effect of education on the trajectory of Bourdieu's life, from his modest upbringing in rural France to his election as chair of sociology at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris. He also shows how his initial avoidance of direct political intervention, on the grounds that 'public' intellectuals tended to court patronage and become compromised, gave way to a desire to make academic work relevant within a broader political sphere.

Not that Bourdieu ever avoided political issues, from his early studies which examined the way in which a capitalist logic embedded itself into daily life in Algeria, to his later preoccupation with the impact of neoliberalism, on French society. Books like The Weight of the World, along with the shorter polemical texts produced by the publishing house he set up in the 1990s, are rightly seen as examples of an engagement in political struggle driven by a desire to lay bare the devastating effects of neoliberalism. They also challenged the way in which artistic and intellectual life was becoming subordinated to the media and to commerce.

Bourdieu's contempt for the way in which economic orthodoxies were dressed up as science and their conclusions presented as inevitable made him an important voice in the developing movement for global justice. His own work was rigorously empirical and dealt with the concrete circumstances of people's lives, showing how state institutions mediate relationships between those in power and the rest of society. This means that the movement has lost an important counterweight to other voices, like Hardt and Negri's, whose abstract appeals to the spontaneity of the multitude tend to gloss over the contradictory and complex ties between individuals and the state that any practical political engagement must deal with.

The vehemence of Bourdieu's polemics against neoliberalism reflected his anger at the Socialist Party's embrace of the market from the mid-1980s. 'It is a tragic testimony to Bourdieu's work on education', Grenfell argues, that neoliberal education reforms were introduced in the name of equality, access, choice and opportunity. What are we to make of this? How did Bourdieu's own view of the state as 'one of the great triumphs of human progress' shape the political alternatives to neoliberalism he envisaged? Can his defence of the state be reconciled with his analyses of how its institutions reproduce inequalities?

Unfortunately Grenfell's decision to produce, by his own admission, a book intended as a 'homage' to Bourdieu, leaving the task of examining the gaps and limitations in his work to others, means that the continuing relevance of his thought, both in terms of what it did and what it did not do, is only partially revealed here.