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Bridging the study of culture and religion: Pierre Bourdieu's political economy of symbolic power
Swartz, DavidSociology of ReligionWashington: Spring 1996.Vol.57, Iss. 1;  pg. 71, 4 pgs
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People:Bourdieu, Pierre
Author(s):Swartz, David
Document types:Feature
Publication title:Sociology of Religion. Washington: Spring 1996. Vol. 57, Iss. 1;  pg. 71, 4 pgs
Source type:Periodical
ProQuest document ID:9365883
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Abstract (Document Summary)

Key features of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture are examined in light of their potential contribution to the sociology of religion. The ways in which Bourdieu elaborates from Marx and Weber to develop an original analytical grid for the study of culture and religion are examined.

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Copyright Association for the Sociology of Religion Spring 1996

This essay examines key features of Pierre Bourdieu's sociology of culture in light of their potential contribution to the sociology of religion. Bourdieu himself has devoted little attention to the study of religion.(1) Yet, significant features of his approach to the study of culture find inspiration in the materialism of Karl Marx and particularly in Max Weber's sociology of religion.


Bourdieu proposes a sociology of symbolic power in which he addresses the important topic of relations between culture, stratification, and power. He contends that the struggle for social recognition is a fundamental dimension of all social life. In that struggle, cultural resources, processes, and institutions hold individuals and groups in competitive and self-perpetuating hierarchies of domination. He advances the bold claim that all cultural symbols and practices, ranging from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science, and philosophy--indeed to language itself--embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions. Bourdieu focuses on how these social struggles are refracted through symbolic classifications, how cultural practices place individuals and groups into competitive class and status hierarchies, how relatively autonomous fields of conflict interlock individuals and groups in struggle over valued resources, how actors struggle and pursue strategies to achieve their interests within such fields, and how in doing so actors unwittingly reproduce the social stratification order. Culture, then, is not devoid of political content but rather is an expression of it.

In his approach to culture, Bourdieu develops a political economy of symbolic practices that includes a theory of symbolic interests, a theory of cultural capital, and a theory of symbolic power. These are not tidy, well-delimited theoretical arguments but orienting themes that overlap and interpenetrate. They draw from a wide variety of intellectual influences including Marxism, structuralism, and phenomonology. But as Brubaker(1985) points out, Max Weber is the most importance influence from the classical sociological tradition on Bourdieu's work. It is impossible to probe the full complexity of these theories or to cover the full range of Bourdieu's conceptual innovations in this short essay.(2) Nonetheless, it is possible to show how Bourdieu draws from Marx and from Weber's sociology of religion to develop a sociology of cultural practices.


At the core of Bourdieu's intellectual project for over thirty years stands the central question in Western social thought since Marx: the debate between cultural idealism and historical materialism. Bourdieu's sociology represents a bold attempt to find a middle road that transcends the classic idealism/materialism bipolarity by proposing a materialist yet non-reductive account of cultural life. His thinking begins with Marx but draws more substantively from Weber.(3)


Like Marx, Bourdieu emphasizes the primacy of conflict and class-based social inequality in modern societies. Yet, he is sharply critical of class reductionist accounts of religious and cultural life. Bourdieu is a materialist in the sense that he roots human consciousness in practical social life. He is also concerned with forms of false consciousness or, in his terms, "mis-recognition" of power relations. He accepts the Marxian idea that symbolic systems fulfill social functions of domination and reproduction of class inequality. Yet he is critical of the view of ideology that focuses largely on the social functions of symbolic goods and practices without showing how they are necessary features for he enactment of social practices.

While Bourdieu accepts the Marxist claim that religion is ideology, he resists separating out the symbolic dimension of social life as separate and derivative of the more fundamental material components of social life In short, he rejects the Marxist infrastructure/superstructure conceptual distinction as rooted in the classic idealism/materialism dichotomy that Bourdieu believes must be transcended. Here Bourdieu parts company with the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser (1970), which was one of Bourdieu's important intellectual references in the 1960s and 1910s. Bourdieu shares Althusser's basic materialist outlook and his emphasis on the relative autonomy of religion and culture from politics and economics Still, Bourdieu's position is not fundamentally Althusserian. Inspired by Marx's first thesis on Feuerbach, which emphasizes the underlying unity of all social life as practical activity, Bourdieu (1984a:467) rejects the idea that social existence can be segmented and hierarchically organized into distinct spheres, such as the social, the cultural, and the economic. Rather than explore the various forms of articulation of the superstructure and infrastructure as Althusserians do, Bourdieu argues that the two realms are not to be separated in the first place. Bourdieu seeks to write a general science of practices chat combines the material and symbolic dimensions and thereby emphasizes the fundamental unity of social Life. Nonetheless, Bourdieu's central concern with the problem of relations between the symbolic and material aspects of social life and between structure and agency stem in part from his early confrontations with this particular Marxist tradition.


From Marx, Bourdieu turns to Max Weber for the conceptual tools to elaborate a theory of symbolic goods and practices that would transcend both class reductionism and idealism. Bourdieu remarks that it is Max Weber "who, far from opposing Marx, as is generally thought, with a spiritualist theory of history, in fact carries the materialist mode of thought into areas which Marxist materialism effectively abandons to spiritualism" (1990b:17). Bourdieu sees Weber offering a "political economy of religion" that brings "out the full potential of the materialist analysis of religion without destroying the properly symbolic character of the phenomenon" (1990a:36). One central objective of Bourdieu's sociology is to elaborate Weber's model for a political economy of religion to all of cultural and social life. Indeed, Bourdieu sees his sociology of culture to be of the same character as that of Weber who used "the economic model to extend materialist critique into the realm of religion" (1990a:107). It is to be a "generalized" or "radical" materialism, but one that avoids the class reductionism that Bourdieu (1990b:17; 1993:12) believes characterizes Marxism. Bourdieu believes he has found in this generalized materialism a way to transcend the classic idealism/materialism dichotomy in the social sciences.


Bourdieu's work represents an important elaboration of Max Weber's notion of ideal goods and interests (Gerth and Mills 1970:280). The idea of "religious interest" comes from Weber's emphasis on the "this-worldly" character of behavior motivated by religious belief. Weber writes that "the most elementary forms of behavior motivated by religious or magical factors are oriented to this world" (1978:399). He goes on to stress chat "religious or magical behavior or thinking must not be set apart from the range of everyday purposive conduct, particularly since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic" (Weber 1978:400). Bourdieu argues that by insisting on the "this worldly" character of behavior motivated by religious factors Weber provides a "way of linking the contents of mythical discourse (and even its syntax) to the religious interests of those who produce it, diffuse it, and receive it" (1990b:4). Thus, Weber provides a means for connecting religious beliefs and practices to the interests of those who produce and administer them.

Bourdieu (1987c:122), however, considers Weber's notion of "religious interest" to be "only weakly elaborated" since it limits the scope of interest to be "determined by the agents' conditions of existence." By contrast, Bourdieu stresses that religious interests--and symbolic interests more generally--"are also determined in their form and their conditions of expression by the supply of religion and the action of the religious professionals." Nonetheless, Weber's thinking permits one to construct the

system of religious beliefs and practices as the...transfigured expression of the strategies of different categories of specialists competing for monopoly over the administration of the goods of salvation and of the different classes interested in their services (Bourdieu 1991a:4).

Bourdieu extends the idea of interest to include non-material goods by arguing that all practices are fundamentally "interested" whether directed toward material or symbolic items. He extends the logic of economic calculation to "all goods, material and symbolic, without distinction, that present themselves as rare and worthy of being sought after in a particular social formation" (1977: 178). Bourdieu wants to construct "a general theory of the economy of practices" that will analyze "all practices" as "aimed at maximizing material or symbolic profit" (1990b:209). The research program he proposes would unite what has traditionally been thought of as economic (i.e., interested and material) and non-economic (i.e., disinterested and symbolic) forms of action and objects. Thus, symbolic interest and material interest are viewed as two equally objective forms of interest. Actors pursue symbolic as well as material interests and exchange one for the other under specified conditions

While extending the idea of interest from material to ideal goods, Weber nonetheless retains analytical distinctions for different types of behavior. Weber (1978:24-25,339) analytically distinguishes the following types of action: "instrumentally rational," "value-rational," "affectional," and "traditional." Weber does not consider every instrumental action as economic. To be economic, action must satisfy a need that depends upon relatively scarce resources and a limited number of actions. Such distinctions disappear altogether in Bourdieu's work. Moreover, the idea that action is interest-oriented is for Bourdieu a fundamental presupposition not a hypothesis for testing. And he does not consider whether some practices might be more self-interested than others.

Despite the economic language, Bourdieu sees his generalized materialism as quite distinct from economism since his perspective views material utilitarianism as but one form of the more generalized pursuit of interest. Thus he claims to be writing a "general science of the economy of practices" of which the "science of economic practices is but a particular case" of the more general program (Bourdieu 1977:183). He sharply distinguishes his own economy of practices from rational actor theory. The interest-orientation of practices for Bourdieu does not imply a formal or conscious calculation of costs and benefits. Rather, practices occur for the most part at a tacit, dispositional, and pre-reflective level that reflects past accumulation through early socialization of various advantages and disadvantages associated with social class background. He sharply contrasts his view of action as dispositional with the two radically opposing views that depict action as flowing either from rational calculation or from structural determination.(4)


The extension of Weber's idea of religious interest permits Bourdieu to develop concepts such as "religious capital" and "cultural capital" as irreducible forms of power though interchangeable with economic capital. Bourdieu conceptualizes resources as capital when they function as a "social relation of power" (1989:375) by becoming objects of struggle as valued resources. Bourdieu's concept of "religious capital" (1991a:9) is close to Weber's idea of religious "qualification." It represents "accumulated symbolic labor" and is connected to the "constitution of a religious field" where a group of religious specialists is able to monopolize the administration of religious goods and services. Religious capital is a power resource since it implies a form of "objective dispossession" through constituting a "laity" who by definition are those without, yet want, the valued resource controlled by specialists. Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital covers a wide variety of resources, such as verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, scientific knowledge, and educational credentials. His point is to suggest that culture (in the broadest sense of the term) can become a power resource.

Bourdieu thus builds a case for the irreducible character of cultural representations as forms of power by extending the logic of self-interest to the non-material sphere where he identifies prestige, honor, knowledge, and educational credentials as forms of capital. According to Bourdieu, actors pursue investment strategies in cultural goods just as they do with economic goods. Individuals, families, and groups can accumulate cultural as well as economic items. Moreover, privilege and prestige can be transmitted intergenerationally through forms of cultural capital. Families who invest in the higher education of their children pursue a cultural form of investment in order to maintain or enhance the material conditions of their offspring. Thus Bourdieu finds it useful to think of valued non-material resources as forms of capital to the extent they can be accumulated, exchanged, and invested for profits. An important task for sociology Bourdieu argues, is to explore the production, circulation, and consumption of the various forms of cultural and economic capital. Under what conditions and at what rates do these distinct forms of capital become mutually convertible forms of power?

Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital needs to be distinguished from Gary Becker's (1976) concept of "human capital" Unlike human capital theorists, Bourdieu focuses on the class-based variation both in the meanings and uses of the various types of capital. Moreover, Bourdieu's theory of human action as suggested by his concept of habitus does not share the anthropological assumptions of a rational actor perspective. Bourdieu's actors pursue strategies but not as conscious maximizers of limited means to achieve desired ends. Their "choices" are tacit, practical, and dispositional, reflecting the encounter between their accumulated capital and corresponding dispositions from past socialization and the present opportunities and constraints of fields where they act.

Bourdieu's concepts of symbolic interest and capital also need to be distinguished from Ann Swidler's (1986) "tool kit" view of cultural practices. Though similar in stressing agency and the practical features of culture rather than norms and values, Bourdieu is less voluntaristic than Swidler; he stresses the group embeddedness of individual action. Moreover, Bourdieu stresses more than Swidler the power dimension of cultural resources, their capacity to constitute social hierarchies.


Bourdieu draws from Max Weber's notions of charisma and legitimacy to develop a theory of symbolic power.(5) This theory stresses the active role played by taken-for-granted assumptions in the constitution and maintenance of power relations. Like Weber, Bourdieu contends that the exercise of power requires legitimation. Bourdieu argues that the logic of self-interest underlying all practices--particularly those in the cultural domain--goes "mis-recognized" as a logic of "disinterest." "Misrecognition" is a important concept for Bourdieu; akin to the idea of "false consciousness" in the Marxist tradition, misrecognition denotes "denial" of the economic and political interests present in a set of practices. Symbolic practices, Bourdieu thus argues, deflect attention from the interested character of practices and thereby contribute to their enactment as disinterested pursuits. Activities and resources gain in symbolic power, or legitimacy, to the extent that they become separated from underlying material interests and hence go misrecognized as representing disinterested forms of activities and resources Individuals and groups who are able to benefit from the transformation of self-interest into disinterest obtain what Bourdieu calls a "symbolic capital" (see 1972:227-243, 1977:171-83, 1990b:112-21, 1991b:163-170). Symbolic capital is "denied capital;"(6) it disguises the underlying "interested" relations to which it is related, giving them legitimation. Symbolic capital is a form of power that is not perceived as power but as legitimate demands for recognition, deference, obedience, or the services of others.

Symbolic Labor

For Bourdieu, the focus by Weber on religious producers provides the key for understanding how relations of interest become transformed into disinterested relations to create symbolic capital. It is the "symbolic labor" by specialists that transforms relations of power into forms of disinterested honorability (Bourdieu 1977:171) Bourdieu (1987c:122-124, 1991a:5-13) highlights as particularly insightful Weber's (1978:1177-1181) analysis of the "ethicalization" and "systematization" of religious needs of the rising urban bourgeoisie as the product of religious labor by specialists. Religious labor by specialists creates religious understandings of the particular social conditions of existence of specific groups. Symbolic labor produces symbolic power by transforming relations of interest into disinterested meanings.

Bourdieu therefore assigns an important role to symbolic producers (e.g., artists, writers, teachers, journalists, and clergy) in legitimating the social order by producing symbolic capital through symbolic labor. This of course is the role Marx assigned to ideology, but by stressing symbolic labor Bourdieu wishes to emphasize that ideology is nor a given but requires active construction. Moreover, Bourdieu contends that most everyday practices would not be possible without misrecognition of their objective interests. The exchange of gifts, for example, would be transformed into a financial transaction if there were not some degree of misrecognition of their objective interests. Thus symbolic power appears as an inseparable dimension of practices. Though Bourdieu employs a language of economics, his emphasis on the necessity for symbolic power in practices distinguishes his position from a thoroughly utilitarian perspective.


If cultural, symbolic, and economic capital are distinct though mutually convertible forms of power, they nonetheless follow distinct modes of accumulation and operation. As forms of cultural production develop, they generate arenas of struggle by specialists for the monopoly over their administration. To account for this dimension of his political economy of symbolic power in modern differentiated societies, Bourdieu develops the concept of "field" (champ). Fields designate arenas where specific forms of capital are produced, invested, exchanged, and accumulated.

The concept of field emerges from the conjuncture in the late 1960s between Bourdieu's research in the sociology of art and his reading of Weber's sociology of religion (Bourdieu 1987a:33).(7) The concept is inspired by Weber's discussion of the relations between priest, prophet, and sorcerer (Bourdieu 1990a:49).(8) Weber identifies the specific and opposing interests of these principal types of religious leadership and the structures of the "competition which opposes them to one another" (Bourdieu 1990a:107). Bourdieu (1987c; 1992:260) proposes a structuralist reinterpretation of Weber's analysis by stressing how the interactions between the types of religious leadership are structured by their opposing interests and how these interests are in turn related to broader power structures Bourdieu (1987c:121) considers Weber's analysis restricted to an "interactionist" perspective focused on inter-personal or inter-subjective relations among actors. A field perspective, however, introduces a broader perspective of structural conditions that shape the interactions of actors though they are not aware of them. Bourdieu (1911b, 1971a, 1985, 1992:260) first applied the concept to French artists and intellectuals as a means to call attention to the specific interests governing those cultural worlds.

Field has become a key spatial metaphor in Bourdieu's sociology of culture. Bourdieu defines a field as

a network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions. These positions are objectively their present and potential the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field (1992:97).

Fields may be thought of as structured spaces that are organized around specific types of capital.(9) Fields denote arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation of goods, services, knowledge, or status, and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate and monopolize different kinds of capital For example, Bourdieu speaks of the "intellectual field" to designate that matrix of institutions, organizations, and markets in which artists and writers compete for the symbolic capital of legitimate recognition for their artistic and literary work. Field is a more inclusive concept than market; as a spatial metaphor it suggests rank and hierarchy as well as exchange relations between buyers and sellers. Indeed, Bourdieu's concept of field should not be reduced to the neoclassic idea of market Rather, the concept suggests a force-field where the distribution of capital reflects a hierarchical set of power relations among the competing individuals, groups, and organizations. Interactions among actors within fields are shaped by their relative location in the hierarchy of positions. Bourdieu has applied this concept in studies of social class lifestyles, higher education institutions, science, culture, law, and religion.

Bourdieu (1985) uses field analysis to offer a cultural-structural interpretation of the rise of cultural markets and the modern intelligentsia. Field analysis posits a parallel process: As corps of cultural producers emerge, specialized and institutionalized cultural arenas of production, circulation, and consumption of symbolic goods also emerge with increasing autonomy from the economy and the polity. Bourdieu's basic research hypothesis in field analysis is that as cultural fields gain in autonomy from external factors, the intellectual stances assumed by the agents increasingly become a function of the Positions occupied by the agents within these fields. Thus, in contrast to Marxist class analysis, Bourdieu sees fields as mediating relations between social structures and cultural life.

Structural Properties of Fields

Bourdieu (1993:72) speaks of the "invariant laws" or "universal mechanisms" that are structural properties characteristic of all fields. First, fields are arenas of struggle for control over valued resources, or forms of capital. Field struggle centers around particular forms of capital, such as economic capital, cultural capital, scientific capital, or religious capital Cultural capital, for example, is the key property in the intellectual field whereas economic capital is the important property in the business world. There are as many fields as there are capitals. Actors also struggle over the very definitions of what are to be considered the most valued resources in fields. This is particularly true in cultural fields where style and knowledge rapidly change. In other words, fields are arenas of struggle for legitimation: in Bourdieu's language, for the right to monopolize the exercise of "symbolic violence."

Second, fields are structured spaces of dominant and subordinate positions based on types and amounts of capital. Field struggle pits those in subordinate positions against those in superordinate positions. The struggle for position in fields opposes those who are able to exercise some degree of monopoly power over the definition and distribution of capital against those who attempt to usurp those advantages. In general, Bourdieu sees this opposition occurring between the established agents and the new arrivals in fields. Drawing from Weber's description of the opposition between priests and prophets, Bourdieu depicts this conflict in terms of those who defend orthodoxy against those who advocate heresy. For Bourdieu (1992:289), this fundamental structure of conflict is paradigmatic not only in the religious field hut in all cultural fields. The orthodox/heterodox opposition is a struggle for the

monopoly of cultural legitimacy and the tight to withhold and confer this consecration in the name of fundamentally opposed principles: the personal authority called for by the creator and the institutional authority favoured by the teacher (1971b:178).

Bourdieu sees an analogous opposition in intellectual fields, particularly in academe, between the "curators of culture" and the "creators of culture," between those who reproduce and transmit legitimate bodies of knowledge and those who invent new forms of knowledge. In his study of the Parisian university faculty, Bourdieu 1988) finds this fundamental opposition between teachers and researchers, between professors and independent intellectuals In the field of religion, an analogous opposition might be found between denominational administrators and clergy, on the one hand, and sociologists of religion and theologians, on the other hand.

Crucial for Bourdieu in his field analysis is that the two opposing strategies are dialectically related; one generates the other. Orthodoxies call into existence their heterodox reversals by the logic of distinction that operates in cultural fields.(10) Challengers oblige the old guard to mount a defense of its privileges; that defense, then, becomes grounds for subversion.

Third, fields impose on actors specific forms of struggle. Entry into a field requires a tacit acceptance of the rules of the game, meaning that specific forms of struggle are legitimated whereas others are excluded. Both the dominant establishment and the subordinate challengers share a tacit acceptance that the field of struggle is worth pursuing in the first place. Bourdieu refers to this deep structure of fields as the Doxa for it represents a tacit, fundamental agreement on the stakes of struggle between those advocating heterodoxy and those holding to orthodoxy.(11) Challengers and incumbents share a common interest in preserving the field itself even if they are sharply divided on how it is to be controlled.(12) In the sociology of religion, for example, contemporary debates occur over the trends and significance of religious life; all assume--including the proponents of secularization--that religion is worth talking about in the first place.

Fourth, fields are structured to a significant extent by their own internal mechanisms of development and thus hold some degree of autonomy from the external environment. The "relative autonomy" of the educational system, for example, as of most institutionalized religions, refers to its capacity to control the recruitment, socialization, and careers of actors, and to impose its own specific ideology. More generally, Bourdieu points to the relative autonomy of cultural fields from ecomonic and political fields. A scholarly discipline such as the sociology of religion, for example, will reflect to some extent broader intellectual trends. But it also has its own particular history and structure that new arrivals need to appropriate in order to gain recognition as members of the field.

Field analysis, therefore, directs the researcher's attention to a level of analysis capable of revealing the integrating logic of competition between opposing viewpoints. It encourages the researcher to seek out sources of conflict in a given domain, relate that conflict to the broader areas of class and power, and identify underlying shared assumptions by opposing parties. Field analysis directs attention to the task of identifying the principal poles of opposition and their underlying shared assumptions in a particular domain.

Finally, a fundamental methodological principle flows from the posited relative autonomy of fields; namely, priority is given to the internal analysis of fields. Bourdieu argues that external influences are always "retranslated" into the internal logic of fields. External sources of influence are always mediated through the structure and dynamic of fields. The class background of the artist, for example, does not influence the work of art directly. Rather, the effects of class intersect with the patterns of field hierarchy and conflict where the artist is situated (Bourdieu 1984b:6).

Structural Homologies

Bourdieu conceptualizes the relations among relatively autonomous fields in terms of "structural and functional homologies," which he defines as "a resemblance within a difference" (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:105-106). Fields become homologous to the extent that they develop isomorphic properties such as positions of dominance and subordination, strategies of exclusion and usurpation, and mechanisms of reproduction and change. In his early work on French education, Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977:63-64,194-200) stresses the "structural and functional" homology between French education and the medieval Catholic Church: schools, like the Church, not only transmit knowledge and skills but also reproduce themselves by monopolizing the selection and training of their own leadership. Moreover, like the Church, schools also reproduce social class relations by legitimating the unequal distribution of cultural capital.

Field analysis for Bourdieu differs from a market approach to culture. Though Bourdieu superficially resembles a growing number of social scientists who use economic imagery in their analytical language (Warner 1993:1051), he does not work within a rational choice framework. Field analysis does not analyze the economics of culture in terms of a direct effect of demand on supply or of supply on demand. For Bourdieu, cultural tastes are not simply imposed by cultural producers an unwitting consumers; nor do cultural tastes stem from cultural producers attempting to respond directly to patterns of consumer demand. Field analysis posits that the relation between supply and demand, between cultural producers and their public, and more generally, between the field of cultural production and the field of social classes, is mediated by field structures and struggles. Thus, patterns and changes in cultural production are to be analyzed in terms of the competitive struggle among cultural producers in which newcomers challenge established groups for the right to define what are to be legitimate cultural forms Producers struggle within the field of cultural production and their cultural products reflect more their respective positions of dominance or subordination than they do the demands of consumers.

Consumers, in turn, select from these products according to their own positions of dominance or subordination within the struggle for distinction among the social classes. Consumers in subordinate positions tend to select products produced by producers in subordinate positions within the field of cultural production. Thus a relation of "structural homology" rather than one of conscious adjustment is established between the various categories of cultural producers and the various categories of consumers according to their respective positions in the separate fields of struggle. Bourdieu writes:

The logic of objective competition at the core of the field of cultural production leads each of the categories of producers to offer, without any conscious search for adjustment, products that ate adjusted to the preferences of the consumers who occupy homologous positions within the field of power (1984b: 14).


Bourdieu brings a conflict perspective to the study of religion. He stresses the power dimension in religious life and organization. No less than other arenas of cultural and social conflict, religion is a resource of power over which some individuals, groups, and organizations feel it is important to struggle. The struggle for the right to impose the legitimate definition of religion is in the final analysis a political function "Religious power" or "religious capital," Bourdieu writes, depends on the material and symbolic force of the groups and classes the claimants can mobilize by offering them goods and services that satisfy their religious interests (1991a:22).(13)

Moreover, the struggle for legitimation within the religious field tends to reproduce the relations of domination within the established order (1991a:31-32).

How might one employ Bourdieu's perspective to study a religious field in North America? Since fields are defined first and foremost as arenas of struggle over the definition and distribution of specific forms of capital, the first task would be to identify relevant points of conflict Forms of religious interest and capital are involved in a great variety of contemporary issues: theological doctrine, constitutional rights, tax exemption, abortion, school prayer, and teaching and research in universities. For some, religion is important in these issues and for others religion is irrelevant. Who participates in these struggles and what kinds of symbolic as well as material interests guide them? These questions suggest different types of struggle, different levels of analysis, and different fields. They also bring into consideration a wide variety of organizations, groups, individuals, and institutions. Foundations, universities, TV and radio stations, and political action committees as well as congregations and denominations might be considered. A field perspective would suggest that issues of doctrine, organizational structure, legal status, or intellectual respectability are matters of struggle for legitimation that involve a broad array of individuals, groups, and organizations who pursue different kinds of symbolic as well as material interests.

One fruitful area for field analysis would be the religious media. If one of the main points of field analysis is to suggest that patterns of production of religious goods and services reflect more strategies of product differentiation among producers rather than the direct effects of consumer demand, then one way of testing that hypothesis would be to study an assortment of religious publications to see to what extent their editorial policies attempt to correspond to reader demand or reflect competitive referencing and differentiation with other publications.

Finally, a popular form of study that Bourdieu's field framework would not encourage would be the case study of congregations, denominations, or religious leaders. The field analytic perspective calls for situating particular entities, whether denominations or congregations, within a broader framework of struggle over the significance of religion. Local characteristics, Bourdieu contends, cannot be fully understood sociologically without situating them within this broader perspective.

On the other hand, Bourdieu's field concept presupposes a strong clergy/lay opposition and is perhaps less useful where such an opposition does not have that formal character. The concept of religious field does not grasp the "religious dimension" of social phenomena in other social areas such as sports or politics where it is has very little connection to the historically constituted religious traditions (Hervieu-Leger 1993).

In conclusion, the growing interest in relating the sociology of culture and the sociology of religion will find inspiration in the example set by Pierre Bourdieu. Drawing in part from Weber's sociology of religion, Bourdieu offers an original approach to the study of culture, one that can be applied to religion as well. This approach gives a strong sense of agency but within a structured framework of particular interests that mediate broader effects of social class. Just as students of culture are increasingly looking to Bourdieu for insights for studying the complex relation between culture and power, so also can students of religion find similar inspiration.

1 Bourdieu (and Martin 1982) has published one empirical investigation of religion, a study of French Catholic Bishops, and written two theoretical articles in the sociology of religion (Bourdieu 1987c, 1991a). In addition, Bourdieu (1987b, 1987d) has published two public lectures devoted to the sociology of religion. The November 1985 issue of his journal, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, was devoted to various aspects of French Catholicism.

While Bourdieu dominates the sociology of culture in France, he has had little impact on the post-World War II generation of French sociologists of religion (Dobbelaere 1987). Nonetheless, one can see growing signs of his influence on the post-sixties generation of French sociology of religion scholarship (Hervieu-Leger 1993). Bourdieu's influence in the sociology of religion has been more striking outside of France (e.g. Maduro 1982).

2 See Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) for a good comprehensive introduction to Bourdieu's work.

3 There are Durkheimian influences as well though they will not be explored in this paper.

4 This is the view of action suggested by Bourdieu's concept of "habitus."

5 The argument is laid out in Bourdieu (1971b, 1980, 1991a, 1991b: 163-170; and Passeron 1977: 171-183).

6 Bourdieu writes:

Symbolic capital, a transformed and thereby disguised form of physical economic capital, produces its proper effect it conceals the fact that it originates in "material" forms of capital which are also, in the last analysis, the source of its effects (1977:183).

7 In developing the concept Bourdieu (1987c) draws primarily from Chapters VI and XV of Economy and Society.

8 It also parallels Weber's idea of "life-orders," which inspires Gerth and Mills's (1964) conceptualization of "institutional orders."

9 Field means a "certain structure of the distribution of a certain kind of capital" (Bourdieu 1993:91).

10 This symbiotic relationship between orthodox and heterodox views brings to mind Mannheim's (1955) analysis of how ideological and utopian visions of the social world, though radically opposed in their posture toward the status quo, nonetheless become locked into a pattern of complex exchange of critiques, each to an appreciable extend determining the other.

Williams and Demerath (1991) identify a similar dynamic in their study of religion and politics. They show how logically incompatible themes of civil religion and separation of church and state can coexist and actually "enable" each other in political practice.

11 The idea of the Doxa resonates with Durkheim's concept of the "collective consciousness." A crucial difference is that Doxa is field-specific rather than representing a system of tacit understandings for the entire society.

12 Like opposing players in a card game, they share a common interest in the game though both compete to win over their opponents. Bourdieu (and Wacquant 1992:98-99) sometimes draws upon the analogy of the card game to illustrate these properties of fields. At other times he stresses that knowledge of the rules themselves represents a form of cultural capital that is unequally shared among contestants.

13 While not working within Bourdieu's framework, Demerath (1991) and Williams and Demerath (1991) have recently employed the terms "cultural power," "cultural resources," and "religious capital" in ways similar to Bourdieu. Speaking in the American context where religion resonates more as a form of authority in national culture than in France, Williams and Demerath (1991) are even more concerned than is Bourdieu with the effects that religion can have on political mobilization. They show how religious and moral argument can on occasions be successfully employed by religious leaders to redefine public economic issues into ethical and moral concerns.


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* Bridging the Study of Culture and Religion: Pierre Bourdieu's Political Economy of Symbolic Power, Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Miami Beech, August 1993 and at the New England Religious Discussion Society, Hartford, CT, April 1995. I want to give special thanks to Rhys Williams for helpful suggestions on all the drafts of this paper and also to an anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on an earlier version. Direct correspondence to David Swartz, 10 Magnolia Ave., Newton, MA 02158. E-mail:swartz(at)

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