Among social scientists, claims of objectivity, or for the ‘best explanation’ of the social world, represent attempts to relativize all other viewpoints. Social scientists, like other intellectuals, struggle to hold the ‘absolute viewpoint,’ to attain primacy over all other views. They therefore mis-recognize the interested character of their own practices by failing to realize the extent to which their intellectual practices are shaped by the competitive logic of their own cultural fields.
—David Swartz, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu1

I think of sociology as the study of informal authority, including how it is acquired and how it is used. With or without formal structures of governance, groups array themselves in hierarchies, establish social norms, and maintain continuity of informal authority.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was an important French sociologist. Among other contributions, he developed the concept of “reflexive sociology,” meaning that sociologists must be aware of the sources and uses of informal authority within their own discipline—a sociology of sociologists, as it were.

I think of the larger domain of social science as human conflict and cooperation. Within that domain, specialization and trade of goods and services is the realm of economics. That is, economists study conflict and cooperation in the process of specialization and trade. Close interpersonal relations are the realm of psychologists. Formal governance is the domain of political scientists. Informal authority is the realm of sociologists.

For more on these topics, see “Karl Marx, the Perennial Prophet,” by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, March 7, 2016. See also “Communities versus the State,” by Arnold Kling, Library of Economics and Liberty, September 5, 2016.

Some sociologists write about informal authority to praise it, while others write to condemn it. For conservative sociologists, such as Max Weber or Robert Nisbet, informal authority enables large-scale social cooperation and provides the basis for civilization. For radical sociologists, including Bourdieu and Karl Marx, informal authority divides humanity into the dominant and the dominated, and the social scientist’s intellectual duty is to expose the oppressive character of informal authority so that people will rebel against it. Swartz writes,

The relations he constructs are invariably competitive rather than cooperative, unconscious rather than conscious, and hierarchical rather than egalitarian. The recurring image of social life one finds in Bourdieu’s work is one of competitive distinction, domination, and misperception. (Swartz, page 63)

Libertarians, too, have an ambivalent attitude toward informal authority. On the one hand, it does not employ state violence. On the other hand, it can be a powerful restraining force on individual autonomy. John Stuart Mill took the latter point of view.2

“Informal authority is worth the attention of anyone interested in human conflict and cooperation. In short, sociology matters.”

Regardless of whether informal authority is to be praised or condemned, it is with us. Informal authority is worth the attention of anyone interested in human conflict and cooperation. In short, sociology matters.

If politics has an “iron law of oligarchy,” then informal authority appears to have an iron law of hierarchy. Swartz writes of Bourdieu,

Whether he is studying Algerian peasants, university professors and students, writers and artists, or the church, a central underlying preoccupation emerges: the question of how stratified social systems of hierarchy and domination persist and reproduce intergenerationally without powerful resistance and without the conscious recognition of their members…

Bourdieu focuses on the role culture plays in social reproduction. How groups pursue strategies to produce and reproduce the conditions of their collective existence… (pages 6-7)

Swartz points out that Bourdieu

… generally speaks of four generic types of capital: economic capital (money and property), cultural capital (cultural goods and services including educational credentials), social capital (acquaintances and networks) and symbolic capital (legitimation). (page 74)

However, Bourdieu does not focus on the individual acquisition and use of these forms of capital. His interest is in the role played by capital in sustaining existing hierarchies.

Bourdieu is notably inclined to apply the tools of sociological inquiry to intellectual and artistic fields. There, he sees competitors pursuing the intangible equivalent of economic profit and wealth.

Thus, symbolic interest and material interest are viewed as two equally objective forms of interest… 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. (page 43)

These resources are means by which individuals gain status within their fields. They are also the basis by which the status hierarchies within fields are maintained and reproduced.

Bourdieu sees a dialectical relationship between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. Swartz writes,

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, this fundamental structure of conflict is paradigmatic not only in the religious field but in all cultural fields. The orthodox/heterodox opposition is a struggle for the ‘monopoly of cultural legitimacy.’

… Bourdieu in fact speaks of three different types of field strategies: conservation, succession, and subversion. Conservation strategies tend to be pursued by those who hold dominant positions and enjoy seniority in the field. Strategies of succession are attempts to gain access to dominant positions in a field and are generally pursued by new entrants. Finally, strategies of subversion are pursued by those who expect to gain little from the dominant groups. These strategies take the form of a more or less radical rupture with the dominant group by challenging its legitimacy to define the standards of the field. (page 124)

Bourdieu’s depiction of academic intellectuals contrasts with a naive perception that they are embedded in a pure meritocracy and have embarked on a dispassionate search for truth. Instead, competition for status rank in academia is paramount, and the participants employ all means, fair or foul, to pursue their self-interest.

Overall, I found much to like and much to dislike in Bourdieu’s sociology as Swartz depicts it. (Note that this essay is a much-condensed discussion of Swartz’s book, which is itself a condensation of Bourdieu’s extensive body of work.) I think that Bourdieu is right to point out that across disparate fields one finds similarities in the emergence of hierarchy, the manner in which high-ranking individuals use their control over group norms to preserve the status quo, and the challenges faced by those who are lower down in rank. Turning the analysis inward to examine the way that academic communities create and maintain power structures, is insightful.

On the other hand, I think Bourdieu’s view is too dark.

Bourdieu considers conflict to be the fundamental dynamic of all social life. At the heart of all social arrangements is the struggle for power. (page 136)

I think that this fails to acknowledge the positive aspects of social arrangements, notably their ability to facilitate cooperation. In seeing only competition and ignoring cooperation, Bourdieu biases sociology toward radicalism, even nihilism.


David Swartz 1997. Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. University of Chicago Press, page 275.

“In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual or the family do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?” —John Stuart Mill 1869. On Liberty, paragraph III.6. Library of Economics and Liberty.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

For more articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.