#nextdoorauthor 1: Bourdieu and Boudon

The coronavirus affects many people more than it does me. I’ve been lucky enough to stay healthy, as have my kids, my partner, my friends, and my larger family, and none of us have lost their jobs. Especially in the early mornings my teenage daughter (10th grade) attends her online classes lying in bed – maybe I should insist that she sits at her desk. Her homework is checked more regularly than in normal school days, so she feels this distance education is in fact working quite well. Colleagues with small children have, obviously, a much harder time juggling the family and work life, often in small apartments.

I miss the casual meetings at my work at the University of Amsterdam; fun at the coffee machine, discussions about food at the lunch table, the spontaneous meeting with a PhD student, the research seminars we have, the classes I teach. But overall I am pretty OK with spending a lot of time at home. We give online lectures, we have online coffee breaks now, and even organize research seminars.

Spending so much time in my study reminds me of a thought game I am often doing looking at my book shelves. I imagine that the authors, whom I put on alphabetical order, are neighbours. Would they like to have a good time talking about their work and their field? Or would the blood drip from the walls? And looking at a few doors down the road, I wonder if it would be a nice neighbourhood for them to live.

What, for instance, can we make of the late Pierre Bourdieu and the late Raymond Boudon? They are next-door authors on my shelf, with Bourdieu’s Distinction and Boudon’s The Logic of the Social. The two French sociologists of the same generation stand for two different schools in social theory. Boudon can be seen as a founding father of analytical sociology, following a purposive action model of social action. Bourdieu is harder to place – a cultural structuralist with a post-structuralist side, perhaps. But surely a founding father of field theory, of which the central premise is that fields are conducive to people’s perceptions, relations and cognitions.

The antagonism between the two is well-known. Even today French sociologists who work on education and inequality consider themselves often either Bourdieusian or Boudonian. Analytical sociologists think that the central premise of field theory may sound right but can’t be falsified (and what is a field, actually?). The unwillingness of field scholars to think in terms of cause and effect may reflect the complexities of social action, but also leaves scholars in the blank of how social action can be explained, and how those explanations can be tested against data. Bourdieusians, in turn, have little appreciation for the methodological individualism underlying Boudon’s analytical sociology. Not individuals, but social relations should be the focus of attention of sociologists, just like the early sociologist Simmel would have it. Luckily John Goldthorpe, an ally of Boudon, has made clear that methodological individualism – the premise that, to understand societal level phenomena one needs to study the social action of individuals – is different from ontological individualism; the idea that “there is no such thing as society”, the anti-sociological premise of Von Hayek that, according to some, has led to the poisonous neo-liberal polities of the past decades. Goldthorpe and Bourdieu were surely not the best friends, as Goldthorpe wrote that, “where Bourdieu is right, he is not original, and where he is original, he is not right”. The least we can say Boudon and Bourdieu would have a lot to talk about as neighbours. They may have discussed their supposedly competing candidacies for the prestigious professorship at the Collège de France, a position that Bourdieu won, but whether that would be a friendly memoir I don’t know. The neighbourhood would surely not be a ‘field’ having shaped the views and cognitions of the two gentlemen.

Nevertheless, Bourdieu and Boudon could be harmonious neighbours too. For one, both were concerned with cognitive models as sources of social action. Bourdieusians developed cognition as part of their view on how institutions and fields shape behaviours. For Boudon cognitive rationality was a way to include Weberian value rationality into a rational action framework. Moreover, as David Schwarz has noted back in 1981, both share a concern with social structure as more than the sum of its parts – we can’t just aggregate individual actions to get a grip of macro-level phenomena. Boudon’s scientific ally the late James Coleman made this explicit in his Coleman-boat. Concerning education, both Bourdieu and Boudon see a disconnection between the educational system and the labour market. People invest in education not just with the future labour market in mind, but see the educational system itself as a tournament where social classes struggle for the best positions. It is not coincidental that both follow a Weberian line of thought in this status competition – the sociology of education apparently leads to different explanations for (inequalities in) educational attainment than the economics of education with its prime focus on labour market outcomes. For Bourdieu the social structure creates resources for social advantage:  social capital. Not coincidentally this was also a central concept in the works of James Coleman, and the two even edited a volume together.

I guess it would have been a fun neighbourhood actually. The few houses further down the street by Samuel Bowles and W.E. Du Bois would have made for an avenue of intellectual exchange. Marx and Weber on the coffee table.  

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