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Northern theory: The political geography of general social theory


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DOI 10.1007/s11186-006-9004-y

Northern theory: The political geography of general social theory

Raewyn Connell

CSpringer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Abstract The relationship between geopolitical position and general social theory is exam- ined by a detailed reading of three important texts, Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory, Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice, and Giddens’s Constitution of Society. Effects of metropoli- tan position are traced in theoretical strategies, conceptions of time and history, models of agency, ideas of modernity, and other central features of their theorizing. Four textual moves are identified that together constitute the northernness of general social theory: claiming uni- versality, reading from the center, gestures of exclusion, and grand erasure. Some alternative paths for theory, embodying different relations with the global South, are briefly indicated.

But one should not lose sight of the real.

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks In a short but disturbing paper examining the 14th World Congress of Sociology, Heinz Sonntag, a former president of the Latin American Sociological Association, demonstrated the institutional dominance of world sociology by academics from the rich countries of the global North. In terms of organizational authority within the International Sociological Association, in the convening of Congress sessions, and in the authorship of papers, the same pattern repeats itself–massive predominance of the developed countries.1

As Sonntag would doubtless agree, the professional organization of sociology is not the root of the problem. Vast international inequalities of resources, especially in the size and wealth of higher education systems, shape all academic disciplines. But global inequali- ties may also be embedded within a discipline, in the way intellectual workers define their problems and carry out their work.

It is time we explored this issue for a key element of sociology’s disciplinary culture, general theory. Social theory is overwhelmingly produced in the global North. This is perfectly well known, but – except in a specialized literature of “post-colonial theory” – remains

R. Connell

Faculty of Education and Social Work, A35, University of Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia e-mail: r.connell@edfac.usyd.edu.au

1Heinz R. Sontag, “How the sociology of the North celebrates itself,” ISA Bulletin 80 (1999): 21–25.


unspoken in our theoretical discourse. It is one of those uncomfortable facts “in front of your nose,” as George Orwell put it in a memorable critique of political thinking, “which are obvious and unalterable, and which will have to be faced sooner or later.”2

I propose to study this uncomfortable fact by a close reading of influential texts of general theory. I focus on three of the most influential theorists of the last generation, James S.

Coleman, Anthony Giddens, and Pierre Bourdieu. From their oeuvre I focus on the books that most explicitly state their general theoretical perspectives.

A small set of texts cannot represent the whole of social theory, but if we are to examine the genre at all, these seem a good place to start. They come from three countries influential in the history of sociology, and represent contrasting styles of theoretical work – one building a tightly-knit propositional system, the second an elaborate scheme of categories, and the third a practical tool-kit for analysis. The authors all have reputations as major theorists.

Their work is, for instance, prominent in Charles Camic and Neil Gross’s 1998 survey of

“contemporary developments in sociological theory.” The Web of Science on-line database provides solid evidence that these particular texts are widely known and used. In the last ten years, Giddens’s The Constitution of Society has 2279 citations recorded, Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice has 1236, and Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory has 1860.3

Although it may not be popular bedtime reading, general theory is much admired; it has a certain hegemony in the collective life of sociologists. Books of general theory will, we expect, tell us what the most important features of the social world are and what the best way to understand them is.

I value what such texts try to do. General theory is important in enabling social science to be a cultural force. But the way theory is done may also be severely limiting. In this article, I raise the question of what in the genre of theory (rather than what propositions in particular theories) we need to re-think, to allow social science to play a larger role in the world.

Northern choosers: Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory

James S. Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory was published in 1990 as the summation of a very distinguished intellectual career. The author had been for three decades a leading figure in US sociology, working in fields as diverse as youth studies, quantitative methodology, educational inequality, and rational choice theory. Famous far beyond sociology for the

“Coleman Report” on race and schooling, Coleman also had an agenda for the re-making of the discipline, which this book spells out.

Foundations is perhaps the most single-minded solo flight in recent sociology. Across a thousand pages it makes a heroic traverse of sociological problems ranging from social- ization and the family to corporate management, the state, and revolution. Coleman shows in every chapter how existing knowledge can be re-written in a single language of choices and choosers. In the final section of the book, this re-writing evolves into a mathematical formalization, presenting algebraic models of social processes, strongly influenced by game theory. The book was greeted by some reviewers as the most important piece of social theory

2Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (London: Verso, 1997); George Or- well, In Front of Your Nose: Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Volume IV, 1945–1950 (London: Secker and Warburg, 1968).

3Charles Camic and Neil Gross, “Contemporary developments in sociological theory: Current projects and conditions of possibility,” Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 453–476; Web of Science, http://www.isinet.com/products/citation/wos/.


since Parsons’s Structure of Social Action, and Coleman as a “master of social thought” on a par with Weber and Durkheim.4

Although the book offers hardly any new concepts and is noticeably isolated from other theoretical trends in sociology, Foundations is important because of the point of view it crys- tallizes. Coleman had been a leading advocate and practitioner of methodological positivism, which has dominated empirical sociology in the United States since the 1930s but has had limited impact on theory. This book is modern positivism’s great moment in sociological theory. Its arguments are particularly timely because of the current dominance of economics in the Western social sciences and public policymaking. Coleman’s model for theory of- fers a solution to sociology’s current dilemma of marginalization, orienting the discipline consciously towards the hegemonic science.5


Coleman’s theoretical ambition is announced in his first sentence: “A central problem in social science is that of accounting for the functioning of some kind of social system.” “Some kind”

becomes “any kind,” through an extremely abstract definition of what a social system is. A social system is a set of individuals linked by transactions, in which they must engage to satisfy their own interests because the other individuals have some control over the resources they need. The interplay between individual and system, the micro-macro link, becomes a formative problem in Coleman’s theorizing, and is generally a central problem in modern positivism.6

Less noticed, because it is so common in sociological theorizing, is Coleman’s assumption that this language of individual and system, interest, control, and resource, micro and macro, is of universal relevance. The concepts can be applied in any time and place. This is in accord with the epistemology of the positivist school. The attempt to make universal statements,

“highly generalized propositions” (in Marion Levy’s phrase) that could be tested empirically, was always their key strategy of theory-building. Coleman’s ambition, consistently, is to produce a universally applicable account of the functioning of social systems.7

The two starting points

Coleman is explicit, indeed insistent, about what his starting-point is: “the individual,” also called “the person” or “the natural person.” These are the “elementary actors” of social theory, up to the point where “corporate actors” are introduced – but the corporate actors have already been deduced from the individuals. Resources and rights may be transferred to corporate actors, but they begin with individuals. In one of the few passages where Coleman

4Peter Abell, “Review article: James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory,” European Sociological Review 7/2 (1991): 163–172; Michael Hechter, “Review of James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory,”

Public Choice 73 (1992): 243–247; Thomas J. Fararo, “Review of James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory,” Social Science Quarterly 72/1 (1991): 189–190.

5For the earlier methodological position, see James S. Coleman, “The methods of sociology,” in R. Bierstedt, editor, A Design for Sociology: Scope, Objectives, and Methods (Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1969), 86–114.

6James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 1, 29.

7Marion J. Levy, Jr, “Scientific analysis as a subset of comparative analysis,” in J.C. McKinney and E.A.

Tiryakian, editors, Theoretical Sociology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970), 100; cf. Hubert M.

Blalock, Jr. and Ann B. Blalock, editors, Methodology in Social Research (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968).


approaches eloquence, he insists that even in the processes where sovereignty is transferred to collectivities, “individual persons do have primacy.”8

Some critics, such as Neil Smelser, have seen this as the central weakness of Coleman’s work, a paradoxical attempt to construct a social science from individualist assumptions.

Coleman is sensitive to the charge of exaggerated individualism – the ghost of Durkheim can be heard off-stage, groaning – but he has an answer to the charge in his later institutional analysis. He does get to collective processes eventually.9

The more important problem about this starting point is what kind of individual is being brought into play. Coleman is sharply critical of the “intellectual disarray” in sociology resulting from varying conceptions of the person:

The correct path for social theory is a more difficult one: to maintain a single conception of what individuals are like and to generate the varying systemic functioning not from different kinds of creatures, but from different structures of relations within which these creatures find themselves.10

So what kind of creature does Coleman maintain? When we examine what the “natural persons” do in his text, it becomes clear that they are creatures of a very specific kind. They pursue their own interests, they make calculations about costs and benefits, they bargain with others, they give up rights or receive rights, they engage in purposive actions towards a goal. In short, they behave like entrepreneurs in a market – all the time. Olof Dahlb¨ack put it succinctly: Coleman’s theory assumes “that individuals are rational and that they are egoistic.”11

This is not surprising. It is, after all, the model of the individual in marginalist economics from which Coleman was borrowing. This model provides the assumptions required to set up the formalization of social exchanges in Part V of the book, “The Mathematics of Social Action.”

But this shows that Coleman is not quite accurate in claiming the individual as the “starting point” of his theory. Equally, his starting point is a concept of the market – the social structure that gives rise to that particular kind of “individual.” Coleman is more sociological in his underlying reasoning than he admits himself.

Coleman is well aware that there are many social situations that are not competitive markets, for instance authority relations. But he consistently analyzes non-market structures by bringing into play “a set of independent individuals” that consists of only market actors, calculating and bargaining. In this respect, his sociology is strikingly contemporary. It is a grand generalization of the vision of people and social relations characteristic of modern neo-liberalism.12

Theoretical strategy

Coleman follows the time-honored strategy of moving from (apparently) simple to (appar- ently) complex phenomena. Indeed this provides the architecture of the book as a whole,

8Coleman, Foundations, 3, 32, 367, 493, 531.

9Neil J. Smelser, “Can individualism yield a sociology?” Contemporary Sociology 19/6 (1990): 778–783.

10Coleman, Foundations, 197.

11Coleman, Foundations, passim, e.g. 34–37; Olof Dahlb¨ack, “Review of James S. Coleman, Foundations of Social Theory,” Aeta Sociologica 34 (1991): 139–140.

12Coleman, Foundations, 66 et seq.


as well as the shape of many moves within it, e.g., “Social relations between two persons are, of course, the building blocks of social organization.” This allows him to start with radical abstraction and simplification, construct a less-simple derivation, and then compare the product with some actual set of events.13

An illuminating case in point is his discussion of Palestinian resistance to Israeli oc- cupation. He examines these events as an illustration of the relation between frustration and the outbreak of revolutions. This “case” is not forced on him by any logic of argu- ment. Coleman has not been analyzing, for instance, Islam’s relationship to the European world, which would require him to look at these events and no others. The case is simply an example of a certain kind of relationship. Another case from another period of history, indeed any other case from any period of history, would serve equally well. The theoret- ical strategy thus leads to a consistent disembedding of actual events from their historical contexts.14

In place of historical time, Coleman’s argument works with an abstract time. Processes occur with a before and after, but not with a date. Alternatively they are abstracted from time altogether, e.g., the indifference curves of the formalized “linear system of action.” To put it another way, in the positivist theoretical strategy, history is treated as homogeneous and non-cumulative. Historical events do not change the logical structure of later events; there is no dialectic here. (However a disjunction is assumed in Coleman’s treatment of modernity, discussed below.)15

The site

Coleman’s actors move in an energetic dance, calculating, bargaining, and exchanging, on a featureless dance floor. It is not entirely accidental that his visual models of action systems resemble teaching diagrams for the fox-trot and the jazz waltz. The featurelessness of the dance floor follows from the ahistorical method. In each derivation, the same limited set of elements and possible relations is set in motion. The theoretical logic will not work, any more than one can dance a fox-trot, if the dance-floor is lumpy with footprints from previous dances or with the bodies of previous dancers.

To use another metaphor, Coleman’s own: at each important step in the argument Coleman has to imagine a space in which the building (he repeatedly invokes “building blocks”) of the social system can go ahead. His theory is an account of a building operation, an account that presupposes the cleared space of the building site. His book has no name for this space, in which the “set of independent individuals” that provide his “theoretical foundation” can be conceived to exist. It is a significant silence. As I show later, we can find and name this space, but only by stepping outside Coleman’s text.16

Raiding history

Coleman’s theoretical strategy, precise about derivations and formalization, is much vaguer about the role of evidence. This was a key point for sociological positivism a generation

13Coleman, Foundations, 43.

14Coleman, Foundations, 484–486.

15Coleman, Foundations, 30, 190, 213, etc.; indifference curves, chapter 25.

16Coleman, Foundations, 66. For an example of diagrams, see 889.


ago, and marks a certain distance between Coleman’s positivism and strict sociological empiricism. Coleman is not very much concerned with verification or falsification. But he is consistently concerned to illustrate his argument. Brief worked examples pepper the text.17

The principle that the theory is universally relevant allows Coleman to dip into any period of history for these examples. As the book unfolds, examples are plucked from modern US demography, a theatre fire, transnational corporations, US high schools, the South Sea bubble, a student demonstration, medieval European land tenure, the constitution of the USSR, a printing union, Eskimo polar bear hunts, and many more. In this respect, Foundations of Social Theory is strikingly traditional. This is the way evidence was deployed in Sumner’s Folkways and other books of the pre-World War I era, though one must admit Sumner had a richer store of ethnographic detail.18

Again a strong assumption of homogeneity is at work. Illustrations from any place, any time, have the same relevance. Indeed imaginary examples have the same standing for Cole- man as real ones. The text works as if the theory describes not just the real social world but the only conceivable social world.

But a few of the examples feel different. Most of Coleman’s cases are drawn unproblem- atically from the life of North America and Europe in the twentieth century. At one point in the text, however, Coleman speaks of “primitive” societies, at another of “primitive tribes,”

at another of “natives” (citing, for the first and only time, Frantz Fanon). Late in the book he gives, with an air of amusement, the example of a Bedouin husband riding while his wife carries a burden on foot – and an American wife takes the family car. Early in the book, two such cases pop up together: “nomadic tribes of the Sahara” dividing rights to a camel, and Eskimos dividing the carcass of a bear.19

It seems that, despite the assumption of homogeneity, there is a heartland of Coleman’s sociology, and also an exotic periphery. This is not just a matter of a few colorful and amusing examples. There is something significant in the theorizing here – a dichotomy that goes back to the earliest days of sociology.


Well into the text, at chapter 20, Coleman opens a discussion of “modern society.” What is distinctive about the modern, Coleman proposes, is a predominance of “purposively con- structed” relationships over “natural” ones. This is part of:

a long-term historical development in which the primordial, natural environment is replaced by a purposively constructed one. The change occurs in both the physical environment and the social environment.20

This means the predominance of “the new, purposively constructed corporate actors” over

“primordial ties and the old corporate actors based on them (family, clan, ethnic group, and community)”. A society of a new type has been produced over the last few centuries.

17For the earlier emphasis on verification, see Hans L. Zetterberg, On Theory and Verification in Sociology, revised edition (Towota: Bedminster, 1963). I am grateful to C. Calhoun for calling attention to this difference.

18William Graham Summer, Folkways: A Study of the Sociological Importance of Usages, Manners, Customs, Mores, and Morals (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1906 [reprinted 1934]).

19Coleman, Foundations, 325, 607, 480, 783, 59.

20Coleman, Foundations, 552.


Here Coleman is replaying the argument of an earlier book, The Asymmetric Society.

This line of thought is central to his political agenda for sociology, since he sees the loss of

“primordial ties” as constituting a deep social crisis. Coleman notes a similarity to Weber’s story of rationalization. I would go further, and say his theory at this point depends on the very traditional figure of sociological thought that constructs a global difference between the modern and the primitive. This grand ethnography, characteristic of nineteenth-century evolutionary sociology, is reproduced even in Coleman’s reply to critics of Foundations, where he evokes “a fundamental structural difference between the societies now emerging and all those that have gone before.”21

Coleman does not speak of “capitalism,” because he has no theory of accumulation.

He generally lumps the state and corporations together, on one side of a divide that has

“the family” on the other. This is actually more like Spencer than like Weber. Modernity is both the creation of the new purposively constructed corporate actors (in more familiar terminology, large-scale organizations) and the dissolution of the old. This yields a fluid world of “freestanding” corporate actors “without a fixed relation either to natural persons or to other corporate actors.” In fact this is our good friend, market society. Coleman’s theorizing thus arrives at what it presupposed at the start.22

The map of the world

The exotic examples now fall into place. The “primitive tribes” whose members hunt bears, cut up camels, and make the wives walk, are beyond the edge of the modern.

At a couple of points in the text, this edge is almost in view. One is the discussion of the Palestinian revolt. The Palestinians are being drawn into “prosperity” by the Israeli economy, yet turn against it, and start throwing rocks and committing arson. However, Coleman’s interest is not in how this conflict of cultures and interests arose; it is in how well the course of events matches theories of frustration and revolution.

Although his account of the “constitution” of a social system is overwhelmingly a consen- sus theory (drawing on social contract models with a whiff of Parsons), Coleman acknowl- edges that some systems are coercive. He calls the very coercive ones “disjoint constitutions”

where one set of actors creates arrangements that “impose constraints and demands on a dif- ferent set of actors.” That might sound to you or me like the definition of an empire, or perhaps the structural adjustment policies imposed on Latin America by US banks and the IMF. But Coleman’s principal example is Stalinist paper constitutions that defined the workers as beneficiaries and other classes as targets!23

Coleman’s account ignores the whole historical experience of empire and global domin- ation. He never mentions colonies. He treats slavery briefly elsewhere, mainly in terms of the intellectual problem that slavery creates for an exchange theory of society. (His mem- orable solution is that it is rational for the slave to accept enslavement if the alternative is death.)24

21James S. Coleman, The Asymmetric Society (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1982); James S. Cole- man, “The problematics of social theory,” Theory and Society 21/2 (1992): 263–283. For the idea of grand ethnography, see R.W. Connell, “Why is classical theory classical?” American Journal of Sociology 102/6 (1997): 1511–1557.

22Coleman, Foundations, 579.

23Coleman, Foundations, 327–328.

24Coleman, Foundations, 327, 86–88.


Despite the universal ambitions of the theory, then, Foundations misses or misrepresents vast tracts of human history, and ignores the majority of contemporary social experience.

This is a striking asymmetry, which, as we shall see, is not unique to Coleman.

In summary

Coleman’s general theory builds a picture of the person and social relations that is drawn from recent European and especially North American social experience, reflecting the hypertrophy of the market. His central model of social process presupposes a cleared space and suppresses historical time. His theoretical strategy for the most part homogenizes history and social experience, though it allows a linear narrative of modernization. There is every indication that it is difficult for Coleman to “see” any experience different from that of his own society, except through a residual idea of the primitive. Yet the form of the theory makes universal claims about social systems and processes. Thus, market society and the bargaining individual become the standards by which we understand all social process.

Agents of the gavotte: Giddens’s Constitution of Society

In 1984 Anthony Giddens published The Constitution of Society, with the subtitle “Outline of the Theory of Structuration.” This text too was the culmination of a long project. His approach can be seen developing through New Rules of Sociological Method, which gave an account of practical action, Central Problems in Social Theory, which expanded on the relation between action and structure, and A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, which criticized Marx’s view of world history and proposed an alternative.25

The Constitution of Society offers a summary (in fact, three summaries) of the matured structuration framework, a detailed exposition of some of its themes, and some illustrations of how the perspective could be applied. As a bonus, Giddens appends to most of the chapters short essays on other theorists, in the style of his Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory, explaining where their work corresponds to, and where it falls short of, structuration theory.

All the theorists discussed are men, and all are First World.26 Ambition

The task Giddens set himself in the series of books from New Rules to Constitution was a reformulation of social theory as a whole, the reconciliation of conflicting intellectual traditions, and the creation of a consistent conceptual framework for social research and social critique. This magnificent project involved an enormous effort of synthesis, on a scale hardly matched in modern social thought except by Habermas. It is wider in scope than Bourdieu’s project and intellectually deeper than Coleman’s. In the Constitution, Giddens criticizes and incorporates research ranging from psychoanalytic accounts of the development of trust to Goffman’s anatomies of encounters, debates on the origins of the state, innovative

25Anthony Giddens, New Rules of Sociological Method (London: Hutchinson, 1976); Anthony Giddens, Cen- tral Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis (London: Macmillan, 1979); Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. Vol. I: Power, Property, and the State (London: Macmillan, 1981).

26Anthony Giddens, Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory (London: Macmillan, 1982).


work in geography, and the empirical sociology of education, taking in Parsons, Blau, and Foucault along the way.

This tremendous range of reference makes sense because the object of knowledge is so broad. Giddens says at the start:

The basic domain of study of the social sciences, according to the theory of structuration, is neither the experience of the individual actor, nor the existence of any form of societal totality, but social practices ordered across space and time. Human social activities, like some self-reproducing items in nature, are recursive. . .To be a human being is to be a purposive agent, who both has reasons for his or her activities and is able, if asked, to elaborate discursively upon those reasons.27

The field of theory, then, is unbounded. It concerns social practices and human beings in general. The theory of structuration embraces all social relations, all social structures, and all societies. So Giddens can dip into the story of neo-Confucian China, then ancient China, the financial moguls of the City of London, a car factory, a concentration camp. Because the theory concerns all possible social relations, Giddens, like Coleman, has no hesitation in analyzing imaginary examples as well.28

Like Coleman, however, he draws almost no examples from the colonized world. A striking example is Giddens’s discussion of the development of autonomy in chapter 2. Giddens makes effective use of Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytic model of human development. But he makes no use of Erikson’s famous cross-cultural analysis in the very book, Childhood and Society, being quoted. The result in Giddens’s hands is a universalized, completely abstracted, account of human development – very much at odds with the emphasis on plurality and diversity in the modern sociology of childhood.29

The business of theorizing

Giddens frames his task, in the “Introduction,” in terms of the history of social theory and philosophy – for instance, coming to terms with the “linguistic turn.” He repeatedly re-writes familiar sociological or psychological concepts in the language of structuration, much as Coleman re-writes in the language of markets and choice.30

Giddens also undertakes to transcend dichotomies in existing theory. Although he does this for various minor issues, by far the most important is the dichotomy (also transcended by Bourdieu) between objectivism and subjectivism. Transcending this dichotomy leads to Giddens’s basic principle of the “duality of structure,” whose child is structuration it- self, “the structuring of social relations across time and space, in virtue of the duality of structure.” The fundamental concept in Giddens’s theory thus arises, not from any con- frontation with social problems, crises or transformations, but from a refined professional

27Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984), 35.

28Giddens, Constitution, 165–168, 319–326, 128, 62; for imaginary examples 8–11, 81–82, etc.

29Erik H. Erikson, Childhood and Society (London: Imago, 1950); for a good example of modern childhood research, see Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, Barrie Thorne, Anna Chee and Wan Shun Eva Lam, ‘Transnational childhoods: the participation of children in processes of family migration.’ Social Problems 48/4 (2001):


30Giddens, Constitution, xxii, 193ff.


practice – reflection on the internal antinomies of a European/North American intellectual tradition.31

The unbounded object of knowledge and the theorist’s willingness to re-write other peo- ple’s work in a more abstract language give rise to a characteristic feature of Giddens’s writing. The text of Constitution alternates between critical commentary on existing liter- ature and frequent bursts of definition and concept-elaboration. Even a favorable reviewer such as Jonathan Turner, when Constitution first came out, was moved to remark on the

“definitional texture” of the book. The glossary at the end is needed.32

This is the opposite of Coleman’s strategy of taking the smallest set of categories for the longest possible walk. Giddens’s work reads as if the vastness of the field creates vacuums that theory must expand to fill. The result is often both enthusiastic and banal – as we see in a model of social change so generalized that it covers every episode in the history of the world, yet says almost nothing about them.33

The knowledgeable agent

Where Giddens is in no degree banal, where he has a strong line and argues eloquently for it, is in the theory of the agent. Giddens’s agent is not only active, as with Coleman and Bourdieu, but also knowledgeable:

The knowledge of social conventions, of oneself and of other human beings, presumed in being able to “go on” in the diversity of contexts of social life is detailed and dazzling.

All competent members of society are vastly skilled in the practical accomplishments of social activities and are expert “sociologists.” The knowledge they possess is not incidental to the persistent patterning of social life but is integral to it. . .Human agents always know what they are doing on the level of discursive consciousness. . ..34

There are moments when Giddens on practical consciousness sounds very like Bour- dieu on practical logic, as will be seen, but here the contrast is marked. Bourdieu emphaz- ises misrecognition, Giddens emphasizes knowledgeability and competence. Accordingly, in Giddens’s writing there is little of the irony one finds in Bourdieu’s.

Giddens’s idea of the knowledgeable agent is drawn, as the allusions in this quotation suggest, from the later Wittgenstein and from ethnomethodology, not from Marxist theories of praxis (where the idea of purposive and skilful action was both more collective and more closely tied to social transformation). This genealogy has two consequences. Giddens’s

“agent” is an individual and is abstract.35

By “abstract” I do not mean that real individuals are entirely absent from Giddens’s text, though they mostly are. More importantly, agency is understood in terms of the universal requirements of the duality of structure. Consider, for instance, Giddens’s very effective argument against the positivist search for “laws” in social science: “according to the view

31Giddens, Constitution, 46, xx, 26, 162, 376.

32Giddens, Constitution, 31, 35, 176, 244; Jonathan H. Turner, “Review Essay: The Theory of Structuration,”

American Journal of Sociology 91/4 (1986): 969–977.

33Giddens, Constitution, 244ff.

34Giddens, Constitution, 26.

35Karel Kos´ık, Dialectics of the Concrete: A Study on Problems of Man and the World (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1976); John W. Murphy, “Yugoslavian (praxis) marxism,” Current Perspectives in Social Theory 3 (1982):

189–205; for the agent as individual, see Giddens, Constitution, 163.


suggested here, it produces a form of reified discourse not true to the real characteristics of human agents.”

The “real characteristics” are the competencies that allow actors to constitute and re- constitute social systems through their routine activities and interactions. To Giddens, these capacities appear the same in all times and places, because what the agent is required for, in the theory, is always the same. The recursive “stratification model of the agent” is therefore described in terms as universalized as the model of the duality of structure.36

Yet where Coleman’s and Bourdieu’s agents are tacticians and bargainers, always with a sharp eye out for a deal, Giddens’s agents are much more subdued and orderly. Giddens does not, in fact, have a market model of the person. His accounts of agency emphasize routine, trust, and coordination, the interlocking of activities between different agents. If Coleman’s tacticians seem to be weaving across the floor in a fox-trot, Giddens’s diagrams seem to be maps of a stately gavotte, executed by a ballroom full of well-trained dancers.37

Explaining the social

The agent may be an individual, but Giddens is emphatic that his theorizing does not start with the individual, that to him, society is equally real. This is certainly true: Giddens’s concept of agency does depend on a notion of the social order. But so does his concept of the social depend on the notion of agency. In fact, the principle of the “duality of structure”

locks the two levels together logically. One is not emergent from the other, as in Coleman’s theorizing, or (from the other end) in Althusser’s and Foucault’s conceptions of the subject.38 Giddens theorizes the social in two divergent ways. In the first mode, he is concerned with how society is possible, how organized social existence can occur and persist. As Urry put it, much of Constitution is “principally concerned with constituting an ontology of the social.”

Concepts such as “structuration” relate to these questions, and their extreme abstraction results from Giddens trying to give answers that will be valid for any known, or any possible, form of human social existence. Hence, such enormous categories as “reciprocity between actors in contexts of co-presence” (English translation: “people doing things together face- to-face”).39

Concern with the classic conservative problem of how society is possible leads Giddens to re-define some social-scientific concepts drastically. “Structure” itself is one of these concepts. Rejecting both the notion of discoverable empirical pattern (as in Lazarsfeld’s latent structure analysis), and reversible system of transformations (as in L´evi-Strauss’s structural anthropology), Giddens arrives at this definition:

Structure thus refers, in social analysis, to the structuring properties allowing the “bind- ing” of time-space in social systems, the properties which make it possible for dis- cernibly similar social practices to exist across varying spans of time and space and which lend them “systemic” form.40

36Giddens, Constitution, 179, 5, 29.

37Giddens, Constitution, 29.

38Giddens, Constitution, 163.

39John Urry, “Book review: The Constitution of Society,” Sociological Review 34/2 (1986): 434–437; Giddens, Constitution, 28.

40Giddens, Constitution, 17.


A hard-edged concept is thus dissolved into – to coin a term – “structurishness.” As Giddens develops the argument, it becomes clear that “structure” is whatever the theorist needs to postulate, in order to account for the persistence of any kind of social order.

The concern with “how to go on,” not only at the level of the individual playing a language game but also at the level of society, leads Giddens to an equally abstracted treatment of power.

“Power” is disconnected from inequality and oppression, re-defined in Parsonsian style as

“the means of getting things done,” and made a property of all action:

. . .action logically involves power in the sense of transformative capacity. . .. Power is

not intrinsically connected to the achievement of sectional interests. . .. In this concep- tion the use of power characterizes not specific types of conduct but all action. . .. We should not conceive of the structures of domination built into social institutions as in some way grinding out “docile bodies”. . ..41

A few pages down the track, this blandness has become an explicit conservatism: “power is not an inherently noxious phenomenon,” and we can never have a society without domination, whatever the socialists say. There is a significant contrast, at least in emphasis, with Giddens’s writing in other books of the period, such as the Contemporary Critique of 1981, and The Nation-State and Violence, which appeared in 1985. In the first of these, Giddens proposes a strong concept of exploitation. In the second, where Giddens is concretely studying the history of the European state system, he has a strong emphasis on coercion, military force, and war. One could not say that Giddens’s books contradict each other, but it does seem that the task of creating universal theory in Constitution leads to a marked de-politicization of concepts related to power.42

The gaze on history

Yet Giddens is also aware of the glorious diversity of human social experience. He has read widely and is interested in history. So he has a second mode of theorizing, in which he elaborates categories of social situations and processes: types of time, types of regionalization, types of context, types of constraint, types of society, types of resources, and so forth.43

These categories too are abstract, but in a different way from the “structuration” categories.

They are meant to catch the ways in which situations differ, rather than what is common and necessary to all social processes. Nigel Thrift has suggested that the nub of Giddens’s whole argument is that “social theory must become more contextual.” These are the categories that allow him to map the diversity of social action’s contexts.44

With Giddens’s enthusiasm for definition and his fertility in elaborating concepts, they add up to a tremendous grid, through which one can gaze on human history from a great height, seeing where each episode fits in an intelligible scheme. This view-from-above on the whole story of human civilization gives a grandeur to Constitution more reminiscent of Spencer and Comte than of Giddens’s contemporaries in the social theory trade.

41Giddens, Constitution, 15–16, 283.

42Giddens, Constitution, 32, 256ff., 283; Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence: Volume Two of A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985).

43Giddens, Constitution, 35, 121, 132, 176, 181–182, 258.

44Nigel Thrift, “Bear and mouse or bear and tree? Anthony Giddens’s reconstitution of social theory,” Sociology 19/4 (1985): 609–623.


The most important part of this grid defines types of society. Giddens is no functionalist, and so he does not fall into the trap of assuming societies are neatly bounded systems. He is also no evolutionist, Marxist, or Hegelian, so does not assume any unfolding of a grand logic in history. But he comes up with a hierarchy that has a little flavor of both – and is, in its way, as traditional as Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s schemes of modernity and pre-modernity.45

Giddens’s grand ethnography is a three-fold scheme distinguishing:

(1) Tribal society

(2) Class-divided society (roughly, with cities but without factories) (3) Class society, or capitalism

This is obviously intended as a historical order, the later listed arising after the former, though Giddens insists it is not an “evolutionary scheme.” The different types of society are distinguished by different “structural principles” and are marked by different “contradictions”

(another concept Giddens re-writes and de-politicizes). The traditional character of Giddens’s thinking is especially clear in relation to his first category. Tribal societies are closer to nature;

they are “cold,” i.e., not adapted to change; they are dominated by kinship and tradition; they are segmented; etc.46

How are these types of society related to each other? To Giddens, the most important point is that they are logically distinct. If a society is one, it is not the other. However, once the later forms come into being, different types of society can co-exist, in contact with each other within an inter-societal system. Giddens invents the term “time-space edge” to define where one structuring principle gives way to another, or as we might say in ordinary language, where one type of society encounters another. The relationship across a time- space edge may be one of domination or of symbiosis, the concept itself is neutral. Thus, Giddens arrives at a way of referring to something like imperialism without uttering the word.47

Missing the empire

The relationship that Constitution does not theorize is colonization, the structuring principle it does not explicitly name is imperialism, and the type of society that never enters its classifications is the colony. (“Colonization” appears once in the index – as a reference to Goffman’s research on asylums.)

For a world-spanning book of general social theory, written in the heartland of the greatest imperial power the world ever saw, this is interesting. There seems to be something in Giddens’s project and frame of reference that makes it difficult to address this aspect of global history. The struggle for de-colonization was certainly one of the most dramatic and important changes, on a world scale, in Giddens’s lifetime. All that the theory of structuration can find to say about it is: “What is a ‘liberation movement’ from one perspective might be a ‘terrorist organization’ from another.”48

That is it. That quotation is all there is to say about anti-colonial movements, de- colonization, neo-colonialism, and post-independence struggles, as far as Constitution is concerned.

45Giddens, Constitution, 163ff, 236, etc.

46Giddens, Constitution, 182, 193ff.

47Giddens, Constitution, 184, 244, 164.

48Giddens, Constitution, 337.


In Giddens’s other books there is a little more attention to the issue. The Nation-State and Violence offers a critique of world-systems theory, suggests why European sailors outgunned others, and includes “colonized” and “post-colonial” in a classification of types of state. But the limits of Giddens’s thinking are indicated by the fact that colonizing states are not named in the same classification. The metropole vanishes from view (subsumed under the category of “classical” states). Nowhere in Giddens’s writing of the 1970s and 1980s did the social relations of empire come into focus as a major issue. And when, in the late 1990s, he came to write a book about globalization, Runaway World, it was to persuade us that we are all becoming inter-dependent, democratic, and de-traditionalized, and that old-style imperial domination is no more.49

The problem is not just the absence of factual detail about the majority world in a book of general theory. The model of types of society, i.e., the part of the theory where Giddens is the most traditional sociologist, leads to a doctrine that systematically downplays the significance of imperialism and the experience of conquered and colonized societies. In a crucial passage of Constitution, Giddens explains that modern capitalism, the third type of society, is not like the others, and did not evolve out of them. Rather, it resulted from “massive discontinuities”

that were:

introduced by the intertwining of political and industrial revolutions from the eighteenth century onwards. The distinctive structural principle of the class societies of modern capitalism is to be found in the disembedding, yet interconnecting, of state and eco- nomic institutions. The tremendous economic power generated by the harnessing of allocative resources to a generic tendency towards technical improvement is matched by an enormous expansion in the administrative “reach” of the state. . ..50

That is to say, Giddens sees modernity as an endogenous change within Europe (or “the West”), producing a pattern that is afterwards exported to the rest of the world. This is, of course, the standard sociological view of the origins of modernity, encapsulated in ideas of the “industrial revolution” and the “democratic revolution.” The crucial shifts occur around the late eighteenth century. This picture is partly derived from Comte, partly from Marx, and has been re-worked by Foucault and others in a darker, but structurally similar, view of modernity and Enlightenment.

The actual dating is important, as we can see in the best-known alternative account. In Immanuel Wallerstein’s model of the capitalist world-economy, the crucial shift is in the sixteenth century. To Wallerstein, capitalism involved from the start a colonial economy:

within Europe, in relation to Poland and Scandinavia; overseas, with the conquests of the Spanish and the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, the British, and the French; and overland, with conquests by the Russians and the North American European settlers. All of these conquests were underway before the late eighteenth century, some were long over, and the imperial powers had already fought wars over the spoils. In Wallerstein’s account, conquest and colony/metropole relations are not a by-product of what Giddens blandly calls “the increasing ascendancy of Western capitalist societies.” Rather they are constitutive of modern capitalism as a system.51

49Anthony Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence: Volume Two of a Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985), 269; Anthony Giddens, Runaway World (London: Profile Books, second edition 2002).

50Giddens, Constitution, 183.

51Immanuel Wallerstein, The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979);

Giddens, Constitution, 185.


This is a very loaded difference. Giddens’s view implies that “the West” is dominant, not because it conquered the rest of the world, but because of its “temporal precedence.” The West industrialized and modernized first:

Rather than seeing the modern world as a further accentuation of conditions that existed in class-divided societies [i.e., type 2, urban/agricultural but pre-industrial societies], it is much more illuminating to see it as placing a caesura upon the traditional world, which it seems irretrievably to corrode and destroy. The modern world is born out of discontinuity with what went before rather than continuity with it. It is the nature of this discontinuity – the specificity of the world ushered in by the advent of industrial capitalism, originally located and founded in the West – which it is the business of sociology to explain as best it can.52

Other social orders are passing away, not because Europeans with guns came and shattered them, but because modernity is irresistible. On this point, Giddens remained entirely consis- tent, because this was to be the core of his model of globalization, too.

In summary

Giddens undertakes a sweeping reformulation of social theory, operating entirely within a European/North American intellectual tradition and trying to resolve its antinomies. The object of knowledge is an unbounded concept of the social, the central theoretical categories are stated in universal terms. A non-market but highly abstracted model of the knowledge- able agent is developed. Concepts such as power and change are formulated in an abstracted and de-politicized way. The conceptual system constructs a universal grid for viewing hu- man history, as a system of differences among social forms. A grand ethnography is con- structed, seeing modernity as discontinuous from other forms of society, the product of endogenous change within “the West”. The whole issue of colonialism and empire is thus occluded.

Southern tacticians: Bourdieu’s Logic of Practice

Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice was also the child of a long gestation. Its first form as an Outline of a Theory of Practice (Esquisse, which can also mean a sketch or draft) was published in French in 1972; a revision was made for the English translation in 1977; a further revision, meant to be definitive, hit print in 1980 as Le sens pratique, and was in turn translated into English in 1990. But all this was only the later stage of an enterprise that began in Algeria in the 1950s, as a study of Berber-speaking farming communities in Kabylia. A large part of the Logic (and the Outline) describes the daily lives of these communities, in dense ethnographic text interspersed with methodological comments.53

At the empirical level there could hardly be a greater contrast with Coleman’s and Gid- dens’s texts. Here the focus is overwhelmingly on the global South. Nor was this an arbitrary choice of subject-matter. Bourdieu’s Algerian experience was, on his own account, forma-

52Giddens, Constitution, 239, 131.

53Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977); Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990); Pierre Bourdieu, “Retour sur l’exp´erience alg´erienne,” in Franck Poupeau and Thierry Discepolo, Pierre Bourdieu, Interventions, 1961–2001: Science sociale et action politique (Marseille: Agone, 2002): 37–42.


tive in his “conversion” from philosopher to social scientist and in shaping his distinctive approach to social science, especially his concern with reflexivity. As Tassadit Yacine shows in some detail, the young Bourdieu became a field researcher in close collaboration with Algerian students and colleagues such as Abdelmalak Sayad.54

This did not make Bourdieu an anthropologist in the conventional sense. As early as 1958 Bourdieu – as Sayad remarks, a “v´eritable entrepreneur scientifique” – had published Sociologie de l’Alg´erie. Fourteen years later, when the Esquisse came out, Bourdieu had also published influential work in the sociology of education and the sociology of culture. By the time Le sens pratique came out he had also published Distinction, on class hierarchies.

By the time the Logic appeared in English, Bourdieu held the most prestigious academic chair of sociology in France. Bourdieu was certainly grounded in anthropological theory – a respectful discussion of L´evi-Strauss is a point of departure for the Logic – but constantly subverted the distinction by which anthropology studied the primitive and sociology the advanced.55


The Logic of Practice is an attempt to develop a credible basis for social-scientific knowledge, in the form of an analytic strategy and conceptual language, and to show this approach at work. What is at stake is more than academic. Bourdieu thinks his project has cultural, political, and philosophical importance. As he says in characteristic rhetoric at the end of the Preface:

By forcing one to discover externality at the heart of internality, banality in the illusion of rarity, the common in the pursuit of the unique, sociology does more than denounce all the impostures of egoistic narcissism; it offers perhaps the only means of contributing, if only through awareness of determinations, to the construction, otherwise abandoned to the forces of the world, of something like a subject.56

To get to the place where “something like a subject” will come into view, Bourdieu has to deal with existing accounts of the social and subjectivity. His opening chapters therefore critique both “objectivism,” as represented by structural linguistics, L´evi-Strauss, and struc- turalist Marxism; and (more summarily and angrily) “subjectivism,” as represented by Sartre and rational choice theory.

Both critiques raise the question of the theorists’ own place in the theory. This point about the structuralists is sustained through the book, and is a clue to Bourdieu’s intention. He is trying to define limits of social science as well as state its foundations, and also to suggest a view of intellectuals. On the one hand, he rejects structuralism because it takes a god-like view of social reality. The theorists are not present in the world being theorized, therefore cannot learn from analyzing their own social practice. In consequence, they impose a formal logic on a world to which formal logic does not really apply. On the other hand, Bourdieu

54Tassadit Yacine, “L’Alg´erie, matrice d’une oeuvre,” in Pierre Encrev´e and Rose-Marie Lagrave, editors, Travailler avec Bourdieu (Paris: Flammarion, 2003): 333–345; Tassadit Yacine, “Pierre Bourdieu, amusnaw Kabyle ou intellectuel organique de l’humanit´e,” in G´erard Mauger, editor, Rencontres avec Pierre Bourdieu (Bellecombe-en-Bauges: Editions de Croquant, 2005): 565–574; Abdelmalek Sayad, “Abdelmalek Sayad in Interview” (1996), reprinted in Derek Robbins, editor, Pierre Bourdieu (London: Sage, 2000): 59–77.

55Bourdieu, Logic, 21.

56Bourdieu, Logic, 16, 75, 41.


rejects subjectivism because it refuses to recognize the constraints on social action, thinking that practice can be understood purely from decisions of the will.

The domain

Although Bourdieu sometimes drops in a remark that “all societies” do this or that, he is not after universal generalizations in Coleman’s style. Indeed, he is sharply critical of theorists who think they have discovered transhistorical laws – this is not his idea of general theory.

Nor is he constructing a grand classificatory system as Giddens does. His project is more epistemological and methodological than theirs.

Nevertheless Bourdieu does sweep across topic, time and place in fine style. While his main examples come from Kabylia, he also offers an extended case study of a village in south- western France, and from time to time offers examples from French politics, or French class dynamics, or even further afield. For instance, in arguing that practices can be coordinated without being governed by design or law, he remarks:

The coherence without apparent intention and the unity without an immediately visible unifying logic (is this not what makes the ‘eternal charm of Greek art’ that Marx refers to?) are the product of the age-old application of the same schemes of action and perception which, never having been constituted as explicit principles, can only produce an unwilled necessity. . .57

Universal social laws might be fetishes, but Bourdieu certainly works on an assumption of the methodological homogeneity of the whole of human history. His theoretical tool-kit is intended to work anywhere and everywhere. What Bourdieu universalizes is not a set of propositions, but a scheme of analysis, expressed in a core set of concepts and examples of how to use them. Rogers Brubaker nicely captures this by suggesting that what Bourdieu offers is not a fixed propositional scheme but a theoretical habitus, a well-defined manner of doing theorizing.58

The practical logician and his world

Bourdieu lays out the tool-kit twice in Logic: briefly in the preface, and more extensively in Chapters 3, 7, and 8. These are the now familiar concepts of practice and structure, strategy, social reproduction, habitus, field, symbolic capital, and domination. The concepts of symbolic violence and the cultural arbitrary, central to Bourdieu’s sociology of education, are not much in evidence in the Logic, but the rest of his contribution to modern sociological theory is in view.59

My purpose here is not to criticize these concepts; I did this some time ago, and many others have done so since.60Rather, as with Coleman’s and Giddens’s concepts, I want to

57Bourdieu, Logic, 13; for the village example, 147–161.

58Rogers Brubaker, “Social theory as habitus,” in Craig Calhoun, Edward LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, editors, Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 212–234.

59Bourdieu, Logic, 16; Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction: In Education, Society and Culture (London: Sage, 1977).

60Craig Calhoun, Edward LiPuma, and Moishe Postone, editors, Bourdieu: Critical Perspectives (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1993); R.W. Connell, “The black box of habit on the wings of theory: Reflections on the theory of social reproduction,” in Which Way is Up? Essays on Sex, Class and Culture (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1983); Derek Robbins, editor, Pierre Bourdieu (London: Sage, 2000); David L. Swartz and Vera L.


ask what view of the world and its inhabitants is at work in them. At one level, there is a striking similarity with Coleman’s theorizing and a contrast with Giddens’s. The “agent” in Bourdieu’s world, the person who engages in practice, uses practical logic, and is the bearer of the habitus, is very much a tactician, maneuvering for advantage in a world where he confronts other tacticians, who are also maneuvering.

“Even when they give every appearance of disinterestedness,” Bourdieu remarks towards the end of his exposition, “practices never cease to comply with an economic logic.” Strategies are always seeking “profit” of one kind or another. Bourdieu’s peasant is a more sophisti- cated bargainer than Coleman’s rational chooser, maneuvering simultaneously in several dimensions of social reality, and letting some strategies unfold over long periods before a return is reaped. But the vision of the agent as bargainer, and the social world as a ter- rain of deals, is equally strong. Bourdieu energetically extends the market vision into ap- parently non-market fields of social life, and goes even further than Coleman by dealing extensively with cases in which the market logic is systematically denied by the people themselves.61

This gives Bourdieu’s sociology a strongly ironic flavor. He is constantly debunking preten- sions, and revealing the advantages sought by maneuvers that cannot be acknowledged as ma- neuvers – which are therefore systematically mis-recognized. This remained a central theme in Bourdieu’s writing about culture and social hierarchies after the Logic as well as before.

However, Bourdieu’s agent goes bargaining in a lumpier world than Coleman’s. Here the debt to L´evi-Strauss and Marxism is clear. There is no cleared space; the social world is already shaped by structures, especially those of class and kinship. It is these structures that give rise to the habitus, the internalized principles of action. (Here Bourdieu relies on a black- box treatment of socialization.) These structures are re-generated through the deal-making of the agents, who maneuver always within limits set by the habitus. Thus, Bourdieu’s theory of practice becomes, systematically, a theory of social reproduction. Another layer of irony is piled on.

Dance of the happy shades

A society or social formation, then, is at one level a self-regenerating set of structures, at another level a set of agents engaged in an endless dance of strategizing, bargaining, and exchange. Through this dance, whose rules are set by the structures, the structures reproduce themselves. (“The strategies produced by the habitus. . .always tending to reproduce the objective structures that produced them. . ..”) On this theme, Bourdieu’s theorizing most resembles Giddens’s.62

The dance unfolds in time. Bourdieu insists strongly on this point. He has a whole chapter on it, pointing out, for instance, that time is of the essence in gift exchange. It is his most effective criticism of structuralism, and makes possible the realism of his vivid discussions of practical strategies and tactics.63

Bourdieu’s “time” is, nevertheless, quite as abstract, quite as date-free, as the time invoked in Coleman’s derivations. It is striking that a theorist as sophisticated as Bourdieu, and as

Zolberg, editors, After Bourdieu: Influence, Critique, Elaboration (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004).

61Bourdieu, Logic, 122, 109.

62Bourdieu, Logic, 61.

63Bourdieu, Logic, 105–106.


aware of colonialism, nevertheless constantly uses the “ethnographic present” – without the slightest hesitation or discussion - in this, his fundamental conceptual treatise. This anomaly tells us something important about his theoretical project.

Time in Bourdieu’s theorizing is not only abstract, it is circular. The ironic effects of the habitus constantly bends events back into their former patterns. Bourdieu is well aware that in real life things do change, and the good old habitus becomes partly irrelevant to new circumstances. But structural change is not what his theorizing explains. It is a familiar criticism of Bourdieu’s sociology that the conceptual tool-kit does not contain devices for analyzing social transformation. To put it another way, agents and practices are able to be theorized by Bourdieu’s model insofar as their activities correspond to the model of social reproduction.

The dance of practice, then, is a danse macabre, in which the ghostly emissaries of the structures perform their semi-scripted revels, and at the end of each cycle of practice sink back into their graves, i.e. their places in the structures. Time is of the essence, in the steps of the dance. But at the level of the whole, history is frozen.

Where the women are

To make the rough social psychology of the habitus work as a mechanism of reproduc- tion, Bourdieu has to make a strong assumption of cultural homogeneity. Coleman blandly presupposes consensus by freely-choosing individuals in the “constitution” of social sys- tems. Bourdieu is tougher-minded than that, he can see domination clearly enough. But his theorizing also persistently presupposes a unified, interlocking social order.

This may sound strange in the sociologist who made differences in cultural capital so central to the sociology of education. Yet in the Logic, Bourdieu constantly presents the social order as culturally homogeneous, and Margaret Archer has shown that a similar assumption of homogeneity underpins Bourdieu’s educational sociology. The most striking example in the Logic is the ideal-type model of “The Kabyle House,” presented as simple reality. Bourdieu laughs this off as “perhaps the last work I wrote as a blissful structuralist,” but he thought well enough of it to reprint it in another book, and the same rhetorical device occurs throughout the Logic. In the Logic there seem to be no debates among the Kabyle, no religious tensions, no radical movements, and no prophecy.64

This feature of Bourdieu’s theorizing is very marked in relation to gender, an issue to which he gives a lot of attention in the Logic. He draws an absolute dichotomy between the man’s world and the woman’s world, making clear inter alia that his energetic bargaining

“agent” is a man. The gender system is mapped as a simple dichotomy and a simple hierarchy.

In a vivid passage, where Bourdieu is explaining how the habitus is built into the body, he describes the stances of the manly man (upright, alert, etc.) and the well-brought-up woman (stooped, eyes downcast, etc.).65

This schematic and archaic model of patriarchy, so much at odds with contemporary gender research, was worked out for Kabylia, but Bourdieu clearly thought it was not confined there.

In Masculine Domination, one of his last books, he presented the same idea as a model of

64Margaret Archer, “Process without system,” Archives Europ´eennes de Sociologie 24/4 (1983): 196–221;

Bourdieu, Logic, 9; Pierre Bourdieu, Algeria 1960: Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

65Bourdieu, Logic, 217, 70–72.


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