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Bourdieu’s Relational Interactions

Published in Bourdieu, Latest Posts by Emmet Fox on July 28, 2014

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Bottero and Crossley’s (B & C) (2011) article in Cultural Sociology Worlds, Fields and Networks: Becker, Bourdieu and the Structures of Social Relations makes an important claim that  Bourdieu’s theory rejects the formative role of interactions in producing social structures. While the authors admit Bourdieu’s research work seems more accommodating to the role of concrete relations and interactions – but adding that it under-represents them – they argue that theoretically he is dismissive. For them Bourdieu’s conceptual model of society is therefore untenable as it is forced to operate linearly with structures forming dispositions and dispositions producing interactions. Consequently, without a causal role for interactions, it is as if nothing produces structures.

Upon reading it I was reminded of the interactive prompts of  “‘Have you seen…?’ and ‘You must see…’” in Bourdieu’s description of how a social group (re)produces class-based taste (Bourdieu, 2010: 28). These prompts, going by B & C’s interpretation, are just another example of Bourdieu’s research contradicting his theoretical musings or merely the voice of automatons carried upon the wind of underlying “objective relations”, with the supposed formative effects pre-decided by those relations. However, none of this seems in keeping with Bourdieu’s aims to overcome structure/agency antimonies and the generative capacity of his habitus which is central to those aims (Wacquant, 1992: 22).

In my Reply to Bottero and Crossley (2014) I admit that Bourdieu is wont to seemingly dismiss the role of concrete relations and ‘interactions’ in various statements he makes about them (see Fox, 2014: 205). However, recognising that Bourdieu’s project incorporates an attempt to bridge structure and agency, which in turn collapses related dualisms of determination/freedom, unconscious/conscious, should be enough to keep would-be interpreters on their toes as to the transcendent implications of some of Bourdieu’s statements regarding interactions.[1]

I see two main arguments as to why Bourdieu is seemingly dismissive of interactions: 1) Bourdieu is “warning against treating interaction as the central orchestrator of structure” and 2) that Bourdieu “recognizes the limitations of detached and spontaneous definitions of the word itself” (Fox, 2014) which fail to account for the relationality[2] of an interaction. With the first reason he is concerned about how placing too much focus on interactions by themselves overlooks the vital role of “the existence of other more implicit or non-interactive forces in everyday society” (ibid). For example social spaces (i.e. social trajectory, structure and volume of capital and the practices, signs and experiences characteristic of those spaces) can share ‘identical histories’ (Bourdieu, 1990: 59). “These histories contain the ‘always convergent experiences’ such as the ‘‘closed doors’, ‘dead ends’ and ‘limited prospects’’ for the most dominated (ibid: 60)” (Fox, 2014). Moreover the relations of field are not solely based on interactions between agents but also involve the force of competing positions and the struggle to re-configure field hierarchies (positioning oneself in opposition to an existing legitimacy) (Bourdieu, 1996: 218-19).

The second reason is the more novel part of my defence of Bourdieu. Here I revisit it, while adding thoughts gathered since writing the article. It is entirely related to how his sociology revolves around ‘objective relations’. For example, his concept of field is configured out of a specific “network…of objective relations between positions” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 97).[3] Furthermore he states:

“what exist in the social world are relations – not interactions between agents or intersubjective ties between individuals, but objective relations…” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 97).[4]

This is also one of those statements where he appears to deny the structuring role of interactions. However, instead of fleshing out this notion of ‘objective relations’, B & C treat them in the abstract (Crossley, 2011). Crossley (2011) for example reduces them to the composition and volume of capital, namely economic and cultural, that agents hold. The volume and ratio of which relate agents to other agents (social proximity) through their respective capital (p: 24).  

While I agree objective relations covers these connections they also refer to the more specific “differential relations”[5] that pertain to Bourdieu’s adaptation of Saussure’s structural linguistics.[6] In Saussure’s structuralism, relations of difference are necessary to meaning in any language (langue) and performance thereof (parole):  “meaning is given to the letter ‘A’ by noticing that A ≠ B, C, and all other signs”(Schinkel and Tacq, 2004: 64). Objective relations are essentially composed of such systemic and differential relations among assorted styles, properties, ideas, practices and all other objects. As Bourdieu himself states:

“Differences associated with different positions, that is, goods, practices and especially manners, function, in each society, in the same way as differences which constitute symbolic systems, such as the set of phonetics of a language or the set of distinctive features and of differential “écarts” that constitute a mythical system, that is, as distinctive signs” (Bourdieu, 1998 as cited in Schinke; and Tacq, 2004).

Schinkel and Tacq (2004) solidly identify this “Saussurian influence” as structuring Bourdieu’s relational logic. In Bourdieu’s approach, it is through difference that societal symbolic power is able to wield its effect: when certain objects – discourses, skills, consumer goods – accumulate a level of status and legitimacy above other objects, powerful symbolic hierarchies are established. Often these differences are structured around pre-existing cognitive divisions such as “masculine/feminine, young/old, noble/common, or rich/poor” (Bourdieu, 1999: 336). Using such “principle[s] of division”, a symbolic profit is to be had by legitimating and/or being associated with a particular distinction. A particular lifestyle can enrich the bearer with symbolic capital by way of deviation from lifestyles equated with “ordinary, common, banal, ‘average’” (ibid: 337). Although this may sound a bit like Veblens it is not. It is more a case of the unintended consequences of the difference between social spaces (Bourdieu, 1998: 9), which is also a difference of experiencing the pertinent configurations of the objective relations of those spaces. This encourages varying qualities of discernment between the “systems of classification” common to distinct social groups. A vital component of the habitus is the “systems of classification”: (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 7). This is an agent’s mental and bodily process of classifying (ibid) through which different gestures, tempo, rhythms, feelings, arguments or expressions (all objective relations) are tacitly – but sometimes explicitly – given meaning or symbolic significance (Lizardo, 2004). It is because of the systems of classification that objective relations are not merely objective but symbolic relations and therefore subjective, with much meaning-making inherent in the act of relating. Ultimately it is because of the differential quality of objective relations that the world is rendered meaningful.

The significance of this for interactions is that for Bourdieu they are also entirely composed of objective relations as “an interaction” “brings together: “systems of dispositions (carried by ‘natural persons’) such as a linguistic competence and a cultural competence and, through these habitus, all the objective structures of which they are the product, structures which are active only when embodied in a competence acquired in the course of a particular history (with the different types of bilingualism or pronunciation, for example, stemming from different modes of acquisition)”. (Bourdieu, 1977: 81) In effect objective relations literally conjoin structure and interaction. Every exchange is rendered from the participants’ cultural competencies, linguistic traits, gestures and discursive skills, all of which are also objectively related through their parallel existence in broader structures and, as argued in the subsequent paragraph, through their negotiation within the exchange (this makes sense of his aforementioned statement where he seemingly dismisses interactions).

In contrast to B & C’s interpretation, interactions for Bourdieu contribute to the sustainment or subtle transformation of structure, largely through their role in maintaining membership or aggregating followers to a particular vision of the world. As part of systems of objective relations, symbolic power relations too enter interactions, bearing social hierarchies into the exchange (Bourdieu, 1977: 36; Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 94; Bourdieu, 1999: 340). Consequently everyday social exchanges are:

“not simply interactions, as the narrow definition of the word defines them, but subtle manoeuvrings of relations of power ‘that oppose individuals and groups in the routine interactions of daily life’ (Wacquant, 1992: 14). Constituting ‘a stake in the struggles’ are ‘the systems of classification’ (ibid), of those present.” (Fox, 2014)[7]

Because interactions are formed from objective relations they too play a part in structuring meaning-making. It seems therefore that the signification of the Bourdieusian interactive moment involves masses of contrasting relations and comparisons such as how a multitude of different gestures are: pre-categorised (e.g. vulgar/polite), performed and, through fuzzy practical reasoning, (re)evaluated against each other. This includes how agents sense their own position in relation to the objects of consideration: for example experiencing a piece of highbrow art as ‘not for the likes of us’. Multiple structures play a part in configuring the objective relations of the exchange such as the general division of labour (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 18), class hierarchies (Bourdieu, 1984), gender (Bourdieu, 2001) along with the hierarchical dimensions particular to a social space (which can also involve rejection or self-censorship from the objects of elite culture (Bourdieu, 1984: 346)).

These Bourdieusian interactions recognise the formative work of interacting. The presence of the symbolic power relations within interactions facilitate Bourdieu’s ideas concerning the enabling capacity of the habitus (Bourdieu, 1999: 340) and his practical concept of strategy (Bourdieu, 1977: 36; Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 94): which are really Bourdieu’s expressions of agency. Through a practical sense of how the objective relations within an exchange are symbolically configured or hierarchised, communicators can strategise or adapt their contributions so as to position themselves – or their ideas, arguments, beliefs etc., – favourably within the exchange.[8] Politicians can employ the “strategies of condescension” (Bourdieu, 1989: 16) to stir the submissive gratitude of the voter, academics can use their grasp of the “the rhetoric of scientificity” (Bourdieu and Collier, 1988: 29) to position their arguments favourably. Bourdieu’s description of televised discussion provides an illustrative example of this interactive strategising that seeks to take advantage of symbolic power relations attached to objective differences (see Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 256- 9). In their rejoinder B & C (2014) introduce the figure of the con artist to highlight the importance of the work of interacting, as opposed to social position (which the con artist conceals), for conveying significance. The relational logic of interactions presented here I believe is sensitive to this work of interacting. It would seem the con artists  also exploit their grasp of the objective configurations so as to manipulate the systems of classification of their victims.


1 The implications of this appear lost on B & C in their rejoinder who use their article to instead argue that intention is no substitute for success and that Bourdieu’s anti-dichotomous intentions are generally viewed as a failure.

2 Relational social science acknowledges the systems of material, social and historical relations through which every research object is connected to society (Emirbayer, 1997). Although the concept of relational sociology is contested (Powell and Dépelteau, 2013) this general interpretation is the one favoured here.

3 Emphasis is mine.

4 Italics are mine.

5 When Bourdieu, in deference to François Simiand’s historical method, refers to “a study of the objective relations among phenomena” he proceeds to describe how such a study of an institution would involve treating it as “a set of indices on the basis of which a scientific questioning can constitute objects of specific study. ‘customs, collective representations, social forms’” (Bourdieu et al., 1991: 117).

6 Although Bourdieu takes issue with the Saussurian distinction of ‘langue’ (i.e., an autonomous and homogenous system of signs) and ‘parole’ (i.e., the performative realization of that system through speech) (Thompson in Bourdieu, 1991: 4-5). This detachment of langue analytically renders it as devoid of socio-historical and situated relations “which have established a particular set of Linguistic practices as dominant and legitimate” (Thompson in Bourdieu, 1991: 5-7).

7 Italics are from the source.

8 Also see pp: 142-4 of Invitation to Reflexive Sociology for a brief look at Bourdieu’s take on lingustic exchanges and the power relations involved and pretty much how any interaction is a coming together of various objective relations drawing much significance from beyond the exchange. But also how these relations inform the strategising or bargaining that takes place in the exchange.  

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About Emmet:

emmetEmmet is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and Sociology at National University of Ireland, Galway. His main interests include relational sociology and the sociology of climate change. He is just a few months away from his viva and his thesis investigates public climate change receptivity in Ireland. This involves a multi-method approach, examining how the object of climate change mediates through divergent social spaces, encouraging different appreciations and responses by those who occupy those spaces.


Emmet FoxEmmet is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and Sociology at National University of Ireland, Galway. His main interests include relational sociology and the sociology of climate change. He is just a few months away from his viva and his thesis investigates public climate change receptivity in Ireland. This involves a multi-method approach, examining how the object of climate change mediates through divergent social spaces, encouraging different appreciations and responses by those who occupy those spaces. Follow Emmet on Twitter @EmGeFox. @@EmGeFox

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