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Engaging Bourdieu and phenomenology in global sociology
Bourdieu selectively adopted some of Edmund Husserl’s insights, but his total sociologization of habitus and subjectivity results in a position that stands far from the phenomenological one
By now it is virtually commonplace knowledge among sociologists that Pierre Bourdieu’s intellectual project was deeply shaped by phenomenology. Yet, as anthropologists Throop and Murphy (2002) documented extensively in a critical article, in his written work Bourdieu never fully admitted the importance of the phenomenological tradition to his own practice of sociology. When speaking of phenomenology, Bourdieu is often dismissive. At other times his statements misrepresent the aims and contents of the phenomenological project. In a series of two articles (Pula 2020, 2021) and in ongoing research, I engage phenomenology in substantive ways with Bourdieu’s sociology, and highlight the continued relevance of phenomenology to sociology. In the first, I argue why a phenomenological reading can aid in a critical reconstruction of one of Bourdieu’s signature concepts, that of habitus. In the other, I historicize and contextualize phenomenology’s impact on sociological theory, by distinguishing three phenomenological traditions and characterizing their relationship with social theory. In this short piece, I wish to extend the latter argument to point ways in which phenomenology can aid the conduct and practice of global sociology.
In any discussion of phenomenology and Bourdieu, attention to habitus seems justified by the fact that it is arguably the most phenomenological of the entirety of Bourdieu’s battery of concepts. Famously, Bourdieu (1990, and elsewhere) offers habitus as a means of overcoming the structure/agency dualism of classical sociological theory. It accomplishes this goal by incorporating the agency of actors in the form of embodied dispositions (rather than of “will” or “action”), while simultaneously defining habitus as the generative basis of social structure. While Bourdieu’s conception seems to resolve the structure/agency dualism, it introduces, as countless critics have argued, other problems. If habitus indeed reflects deeply embodied dispositions, such that (as Bourdieu at times suggests) they evade even the reflective grasp of actors, it would appear that the actor is engulfed by habitus not only in observable patterns of behavior, but in the totality of their personal self-knowledge and existential being. Another problem is the mode Bourdieu conceives habitus as the internalization of external (objective) structures. For this point, Bourdieu relies heavily on the classic work of Durkheim and Mauss, who develop a correspondence theory of social structures and mental structures in which the latter is argued to originate in the former.
There are clear phenomenological underpinnings to Bourdieu’s habitus.Edmund Husserl, the founder of modern phenomenology, made formidable and lasting interventions in philosophy that exploded notions of the Cartesian mind/body dualism, Kantian transcendentalism, and the tradition of psychologism which Husserl traced back to Locke and through its scientific variants in modern empirical psychology. Husserl instead emphasized embodiment, and examined reality in its dual existence as objective and as mental representation emergent in the temporal unfolding of structures of consciousness. This resulted in distinct insights, such as the role of unthought (habitual) and pragmatic knowledge in everyday behavior. Even the term habitus was employed by Husserl in this context.
Bourdieu selectively adopted some of Husserl’s insights, but his total sociologization of habitus and subjectivity results in a position that stands far from the phenomenological position on the actor’s relationship to the world. That position is best expressed by another twentieth century phenomenologist, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who argued that human behavior, reliant on the sui generis structures of consciousness, cannot be reduced to an analogous effect of external determinations. Here, however, it would seem that phenomenology results in extreme subjectivism – and in one variant, such as the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, it does. Indeed, Bourdieu often targets Sartre to denounce phenomenology as subjectivist. But neither Sartre, nor the hermeneutical tradition developed by Martin Heidegger, are the sole traditions of phenomenology on offer. In attacking his targets and in his own theoretical construction, Bourdieu unfortunately elides the very deep engagement between phenomenology and sociology, and the effort undertaken in particular by Alfred Schutz.
Phenomenology’s contributions to sociology
An earnest examination of Schutz’s pioneering work illustrates that the history of engagements between phenomenology and sociology runs deep. In the case of Schutz (1967), he applied phenomenological methods towards fundamental theoretical, epistemological, and methodological problems of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology. His goal was to develop a scientific grounding for social science. Unlike the philosophical concerns of the existential and hermeneutic offshoots of phenomenology (in the work of Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, etc.), Schutzian social phenomenology had a narrower and more sustained concern. The motivating problem for Schutz was addressing the problem of social reality, in its apparently dual status as a subjective reality that one experiences and is oriented towards mundanely, and as an objective set of structures that transcend any particular individual existence and which the social scientist tasks herself with identifying and characterizing in a systematic fashion. The epistemological problem of social science, as Schutz saw it, was that the task of objective sociological description was a purely conjectural exercise without engagement with social reality as subjectively and meaningfully experienced by living social actors. There is thus a peculiar co-dependence between the “ordinary” meaning of actors’ lived reality, and the scientific descriptions social scientists construct. The historical impact of Schutz’s work on the development of social constructivism and ethnomethodology are largely known, as are the latter’s impact on offshoots such as neo-institutionalism. As such, several American sociological traditions already incorporate many elements of the Schutzian phenomenological legacy.
But simply highlighting social phenomenology’s historical role in the development of sociological theory is insufficient. By engaging in earnest with the work of Schutz, my goal is to recover the ontological and epistemological insights for sociology that Schutz generated in his extensive phenomenological studies. This entails understanding the relationship between objectified (social) structures and embodiment, premised upon the recognition of the distinct ontological status of intersubjectivity and subjective (embodied) structures of consciousness. This is different both from a traditional conception that describes structure as a constraint on personal agency, as well as one (like Bourdieu’s) that rolls personal agency and social structure into a single construct. Contra Sartre, a phenomenologically-informed position on social actorhood does not seek to locate actorhood in radical subjectivity, but develops a position that is in closer alignment with Husserl’s original project. As Husserl shows, the boundary between internal and external reality is not fixed and separable, but unstable and permeable. External reality (including social reality) is not a “mirror image” that simply reflects in the actor’s internal system of cognitive structures (as in Durkheimian structuralism). Neither is external reality a mere outward projection of internal mental states, through which all reality (including social reality) can be reduced to the operation of cognitive functions (as in certain variants of cognitive and constructivist sociology). Instead, Husserl describes the genesis of subjective knowledge as one following the principles of transcendental logic. Knowledge of the world is constituted by acts of meaning, with the result being deeply embodied (un- and pre-conscious) systems of taken-for-granted presuppositions about the world. Schutz explores the implications of this insight for social reality, in which social reality is not conceived as an external, static object that actors confront subjectively, but as an interactive sphere of shared experiences, objects and schemes of interpretation formed in the “we-relationship” between ego and alter. Neither socially nor mentally reductive, the social phenomenological position holds the view of the co-original nature of objective and intersubjective reality. This is but one among many other important insights and implications.
What does phenomenology offer to global sociology?
Clearly, these broad insights are especially pertinent to global and transnational sociology. Phenomenological investigation is a critical method for investigating embodied but socially marginal experiences of world society, such as those of migration and labor in globalized production, organized “ethnic” conflict, systemic inequalities of gender and race, the socially and geographically uneven experiences of environmental degradation and collapse, and other social fields where conventional forms of macro-sociological description fail. It is also the only effective method of exposing underlying presuppositions that structure social reality (a task that, in spite of advertisements to the contrary, sociology alone is unsuited for). Phenomenology is thus indispensable for critical social analysis.
But phenomenology can also inform the practice of a planetary project of social science, grounding that project not on any given set of canonical authors or methodologies, or any particular set of social problems, but on the understanding of the essential relationship between universal features of human consciousness, structures of meaning, and lived experiences of historical lifeworlds. At the very least, phenomenology makes these domains amenable to descriptive study in a manner in which no one, not even the social scientist, can claim extraordinary privilege.
(Published in the Global and Transnational Sociology [GATS] Newsletter of the Global and Transnational Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, Spring 2021, pp. 23-26.)
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Pula, Besnik. 2020. "From habitus to pragma: a phenomenological critique of Bourdieu’s habitus." Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 50 (3): 248-262.
---. 2021. "Does Phenomenology (Still) Matter? Three Phenomenological Traditions and Sociological Theory." International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society Pre-publication online: 1-21.
Schutz, Alfred. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
Throop, C. Jason, and Keith M. Murphy. 2002. "Bourdieu and Phenomenology: A Critical Assessment." Anthropological Theory 2 (2): 185-207.