The central bank of symbolic capital

Bourdieu’s On the State

RP 193 () / Article

On the State comprises edited versions of three lecture courses that Pierre Bourdieu delivered between 1989 and 1992 at the Collège de France during his tenure of a research chair in sociology at that institution (1982–2001). [*] Beginning with the well-worn theme of the difficulties of thinking and studying the state, then illustrating the importance of state effects, the lectures conclude with detailed accounts of the sociogenesis of the dynastic and then the bureaucratic state from the twelfth century onwards. These topics indicate that Bourdieu did not aim to develop a general theory of the state as a universal, or of state formation wherever it occurred, nor to undertake comparative historical analyses of states and empires, nor to provide a comprehensive account of particular states. Rather, he aimed to sketch and illustrate a research programme, based on his own core concepts and the logic of practices, which would explore the genesis of the modern European state and some distinctive features and contradictions of its typical modus operandi. The analysis in On the State draws mainly on secondary analysis of selected studies of England and France with supplementary material drawn from imperial Japan and contemporary China, but it also supplements these cases with earlier or parallel studies conducted by Bourdieu and his collaborators on the state’s role as ‘the central bank of symbolic capital’ in organizing other social fields, such as housing, education, marriage, public opinion, law and the professions.

To situate these lectures, it is worth commenting on where they were delivered. The Collège de France is a unique public higher-education institution that was founded in 1530 with a dual mandate from the monarch: to be a forum for fundamental research (initially in disciplines outside the established curriculum at the Sorbonne, then in emerging or transdisciplinary fields) and to teach ‘knowledge in the making in every field of literature, science and the arts’. [1] This second obligation involves the professors delivering lectures open to the public on a first come, first seated basis. These lectures were not part of any formal scheme of study, there were no exams, and there was no qualification or certificate for auditing. For many lecturers, such as erudite scholars with narrow or specialized interests, the audience was limited to a narrow circle of colleagues and students. For other lecturers with the profile of public intellectuals (think Foucault) or a well-established position within the wider university system (such as Bourdieu, at least until the 1990s when he adopted a more militant public profile), the audiences would be larger but quite heterogeneous. [2]

The three lecture series published in this book illustrate the second aspect of the mission: they reveal Bourdieu at work as he feels and talks his way towards an account of the state framed by his distinctive approach to the genesis of social fields, the logic of practice and the articulation of different kinds of social capital. The four editors have invested much time and effort in producing a text that is based on recordings, manuscripts, notes taken by the audience, annotations in works in Bourdieu’s research library and personal recollections. They describe the result as ‘a lattice of written texts, oral commentaries and more or less improvised reflections on his own approach and on the conditions that led him to present this [approach]’ (xi). And this conveys well the feel of lectures intended to teach ‘knowledge in the making’. For the lectures indicate the hesitancies, digressions, repetitions, reversals, unmet promises, new insights and cumulative movement typical of this kind of lecture series.

It is clear that Bourdieu used the lectures for their intended purpose and that, like the earlier courses delivered by Foucault at the Collège in the 1970s and early 1980s that were also published posthumously (notably, on the state and governmentality), [3] they were not intended for publication in their original or current form. Another difficulty for many of his colleagues, as Bourdieu remarks at several points in this text, is that the public nature of the lectures makes for a heterogeneous and changing audience with uneven degrees of ignorance, knowledge and ‘semi-wisdom’. …