Bourdieu series, post #2
Power tends to appear magical to those who have less of it, and mechanical to those who are accustomed to wielding it instrumentally. Different social groups are differently positioned within the larger ‘field of power’; each possessing a different measure of symbolic power and equipped to a greater or lesser extent to navigate the terrain of symbolic power. The asymmetry is not only a matter of control of capital and material resources; it also has to do with the dispositions (or habitus) that correspond with individuals’ different positions in the social structure (affected by education, family life, and many other factors) The power gap between agents’ dispositions is manifested in their different attitudes toward power itself. This can be seen in the phenomenon (or device) that Pierre Bourdieu calls the officialization effect — typically wielded by the few to awe the many. Essentially, those who already hold the reins of power have (as a perk of that position) continually blowing at their back the wind of the officialization effect, which endows them with an aura of presupposed competence (Bourdieu 1990b:109).
So elites tend to possess both predisposition and capacity to effectively project their particular interests as universal (even if rival elite factions frequently fight amongst themselves over the details). The capacity to define the universal is the operation par excellence of symbolic power. The ‘universal’ is not actually universal here. It is, however, still quite real—not because it actually constitutes an objective universal, but because its projection of universality and articulation of the ‘common sense’ constitutes a powerful political operation. In other words, while the ‘universal’ is not really universal, it is nonetheless a political mechanism that the armchair critic’s truth does not dissolve.
Symbols are the instruments par excellence of ‘social integration’: as instruments of knowledge and communication…they make it possible for there to be a consensus on the meaning of the social world, a consensus which contributes fundamentally to the reproduction of the social order. (Bourdieu 1991:166)
What Bourdieu neglects to mention regarding the officialization effect is that, in rare occasions, such a tool can be effectively wielded by relatively powerless political challengers (e.g., social movements). This kind of projection of officialness can be quite difficult for an underdog to pull off, but there are abundant examples of savvy agents doing so successfully—even ‘passing’ as official until the point that they actually become so (i.e., when they take state power). Even on a local and partial level, such audacious projections of power—power that is not actually possessed (yet)—can provide a tactical boost in campaigns.
Pierre Bourdieu, taking it to the streets
I had the opportunity this past semester to take an intensive graduate seminar at Berkeley that focused on the works of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. The class was quite intensive, and aptly named “Bourdieu Bootcamp” by the instructor, Loïc Wacquant, from whom I learned volumes. Prior to this semester, the most I had ever read that was written by a single author was probably J.K. Rowling, so this was a fun challenge. I’m going to post a series over the next few weeks in which I will wrestle with some of Bourdieu’s concepts—especially symbolic power, fields, and doxa—in an unsystematic manner, applying them especially to struggles for social and political change. These will be nerdy posts—you have been warned.
This is the landing page for this series, which I will update with each new post.
- The moral imperative of strategies of universalization
- Usurping the ‘officialization effect’
Bourdieu series, post #1
And one is tempted to say, contrary to the moralists who insist on pure intentions, that it is good that it should be so. No one can any longer believe that history is guided by reason; and if reason, and also the universal, moves forward at all, it is perhaps because there are profits in rationality and universality so that actions which advance reason and the universal advance at the same time the interests of those who perform them (Bourdieu 1997:126).
Bourdieu argues not only that the political project of universality is inescapable—i.e., that someone (or some group or class) will succeed in defining the contents of the universal, even if others eschew the contest itself—he is also suggesting here that there is potential social value in the operations of universality. It is not only a matter of practical necessity in the terrain of politics that contenders claim and contest the symbols, contents, and products of universality; there is also a broader social good in the operation—potentially, at least, and however untidy. While the political operation of constructing, cultivating, and wielding broad unity, and of framing universality(/ies), does indeed obfuscate important differences, heterogeneity, and power concentrations within the constructed alignment—sometimes at great costs to particular groups, especially those that are already marginalized—it simultaneously bridges between the potent solidarity found within fields (and in-groups) and the broad inclusionary project of constructing a common society within which all particular groups and fields must coexist. Continue reading
In The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman had this to say about public opinion polling:
A related kind of ambiguity pervades political process as well: uncertainty about how much public support or opposition for programs exists or can be created. Because opinion is constructed and volatile, all indicators of it are problematic. Poll reports are therefore another device for the reduction of ambiguity to clarity.
Polled individuals are abstracted both from their everyday lives and from political discussion and action shared with others. Their opinions are therefore also abstract — not necessarily related to any course they would pursue when involved in political activities different from answering an interviewer (or, perhaps, voting). In this artificial situation expressed opinion depends upon verbal cues together with changing memories of past situations and anticipations of future ones. Polls and surveys generate numbers that have the dramaturgical look of hard data and the epistemological look of shifting fantasies.
In his essay “Public Opinion Does Not Exist
,” Pierre Bourdieu similarly deflates polling as an elaborate trick that elites use to claim to speak for ‘the people.’ This mechanism, which measures aggregated answers of individuals, who are extracted from any organic social context, to questions about matters that they may or may not have any prior concern or idea about, has an inherently conservative bias to it. This conservative bias is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of people will likely be marginally informed, at best, about most issues, and the vague impressions they have will have been mostly informed by dominant discourses. So, while a particularly impacted community or field may hold intimate experience, expert knowledge, and higher stakes concerning a given issue, the opinion of an ill-informed majority—whose snapshot ‘opinion’ is no-doubt shaped by dominant discourse, which tends to be biased to favor elite opinion—will count just as much. Actually it will count for more
, in the aggregate. Nonetheless, political elites can use the concept of ‘public opinion’ as a weapon—a weapon that is disguised as a mere measuring stick—to legitimize themselves, their agendas, and their powers.
While it may be foolish for political actors (including underdog challengers) to ignore popular sentiment, it is perhaps even more foolish to ‘chase after the wind’ of public opinion; to treat it as if it were something that existed concretely, as an unbending thing, rather than as an ever-constructed construction, whose articulation a political actor has to constantly contribute to and contest — if that actor hopes to be a contender, and not merely a commentator on the sidelines.
(Thomas Gilbert and Andrew Loveridge made interesting related points last year in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology.)