Giddens’ strange neglect of Bourdieu

One thing that has puzzled me was how Giddens would write essays on almost any major figure or strand in social theory — from Durkheim to Habermas via Goffman; even Frank Parkin, André Gorz and Ulf Himmelstrand — but almost nothing on Bourdieu.

In the first instance, this is strange because they had a theoretical ambition in common, of overcoming the objectivism-subjectivism divide. And despite their striking and important differences, there are some similarities in their “solution”, as has indeed been pointed out by certain critics, notably M. Archer.

It’s even more strange because Giddens was clearly aware of Bourdieu’s work, as he himself translated a paper by Bourdieu in 1974, ahead of Giddens flurry of books and essays developing the theory of structuration. This means that his neglect of Bourdieu cannot be chalked up to simple ignorance.

The one central instance in which Giddens does refer to Bourdieu is in passing towards the end of Central Problems in Social Theory, in which Giddens remarked that the approach he is trying to develop is “in some respects” similar to Bourdieu’s Outline of a theory of practice.

And then there’s Giddens’ brilliant review of Distinction in 1986 (virtually unknown, despite being blurbed on the US edition) in which he demonstrates a solid understanding of the work — much unlike so many prominent Anglophone commentators.

In the review, Giddens makes what might be an interesting concession, when he says that no one has contributed more to overcoming the objectivism- subjectivism divide than Bourdieu. Recall that this was also the stated ambition of Giddens’ own work. Should this be taken to mean that Giddens had come to see Bourdieu as beating him “in his own game”?

Might be a weak interpretation on my part, but it would seem consistent with the fact that, by 1986, Giddens had basically abandoned structuration theory, which he would later dismiss as mere “youthful indiscretion” – and even as basically unintelligible (What a way to refer to your own claim to fame!).

Moreover, Giddens seemed to stick with the interpretation that Bourdieu and himself had very similar views on social theory. In the interview book with Pierson. Giddens is asked about structuration theory,  and says the following: “We can’t make any sense of social life without something like the view that I am taking. I don’t see what the alternative is. I can see failed alternatives, as it were, like Durkheim and social facts, or even the methodology of neo-classical economics. People might not like the concepts I use, and may prefer say a version by Bourdieu or somebody else, but that is just what social life is like. It is continually contingently reproduced by knowledgeable human agents – that’s what gives it fixity and that’s what also produces change.” I don’t know about you, but I think this has a slight defeatist ring to it; it is as if Giddens here is acknowledging that people would rather use Bourdieu’s ideas.

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