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Bourdieu and the problem of relations

Published in Theory by Mark Murphy on May 16, 2013

(c) Satish Krishnamurthy

Relationality as a concept is deeply embedded in the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. According to Willem Schinkel, ‘the notion of the relational was so central to Bourdieu that he preferred to speak not of his “theory” but rather of a “system of relational concepts”’. Bourdieu himself has stated that ‘the real is relational’ (Bourdieu 1998). The very term distinction represents, for Bourdieu, ‘nothing other than difference, a gap, a distinctive feature, in short, a relational property existing only in and through its relation with other properties’. This relational turn, however, has a particular meaning that takes it away from the intersubjective. The relations Bourdieu positions at the centre of social analysis, are ‘not interactions between agents and intersubjective ties between individuals’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant), but objective relations. So for example, social position depends ‘not on the intrinsic properties of groups or locations (‘substantialism’), but on the configuration of relations which link and give them their significance’ (Wendy Bottero). 

This explicit denial of what Bourdieu terms substantialism, however, has created a number of difficulties that hang over his work. Bottero presents a useful summary of three problems: To paraphrase, Bourdieu privileges relations between social positions at the expense of exploring the substance of these positions; assumptions about the interactional properties of habitus, field and social space are left unexamined, and thirdly, the neglect of the interactional character of social networks leads to a disengagement with the intersubjective world, one that may have significant value to his overall theory. By actively avoiding the intersubjective domain, Bourdieu has effectively delivered a one-sided theory of relationality.

This disengagement with the intersubjective is a shame, as it precludes any effective engagement with literature that specifically deals with the substance of social interaction. There exists an established body of research that suggests a strong impact of parental and peer expectations on young people, whether it be related to career, education, or general lifestyle choices. Evident in these studies such as these is a strong need for acceptance, allied to a world of pressure brought to bear via persuasion, cajoling and influence. A good example of this form of relational negotiation is provided by Judy Chu’s study on boy’s friendship formation, which suggests that boys are strongly aware of their peer culture and its reinforcing of masculine norms of behaviour ‘by policing and punishing those who deviate’. Such important social tasks as proving masculinity and protecting vulnerability were played out alongside a ‘constant sense of being judged’ and ‘being watched and scrutinized.’

Combined, these strands of research illustrate the unavoidably relational contexts that people inhabit, exposing the habitus of classed existence as a rather flat theoretical landscape, shorn of ambivalence, complexity, and most importantly, agency. They also suggest that the power of others is a significant force in people’s lives, regardless of whatever social location they find themselves in, an issue that casts some doubt on the veracity of a purely ‘objective’ account of classed relations.

– Mark Murphy, adapted from: Murphy (2011) The ties that bind: distinction, recognition and the relational. International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, 5 (10). pp. 103-116.

About the author /

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.

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  1. Emmet Fox

    First of all I have found in studying Bourdieu over the last five years that it is dangerously misleading to use secondary sources. He is in my view often poorly interpreted. The article by Crossley and Bottero I have argued in my forthcoming reply to be just such a misreading. I will deal with their rejoinder when cultural sociology publishes it. Anyway the gist of my argument relies on a notion of how Bourdieu subscribes to a theory of relational interactions and of concrete ties being covered by his use of objective relations. Some of which I cover in the second half of this post:


    I am trying to use Bourdieu to analyse the Hill Society in Uttarakhand, India. So far I find it very interesting and useful. I hope as I come to know more about his tools, they will help me apply them meaningfully for my PhD thesis.

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