Suffering/symbolic violence

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Book Chapter

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Publication Title

Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts


We can say that Pierre Bourdieu was preoccupied with how societies work throughout his career. The concepts he developed, such as habitus, field and cultural capital have had tremendous heuristic and ontological value for those who study society. While I do address how societies function in this chapter, the emphasis here is on what Bourdieu explicitly tells us about why we should bother studying society at all. According to Bourdieu, contemporary social hierarchies and social inequality, as well as the suffering that they cause, are produced and maintained less by physical force than by forms of symbolic domination. He refers to the results of such domination as symbolic violence. Although explicit reference to such violence is not present in all of Bourdieu's publications, I follow Wacquant (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992a: 15; Wacquant 2005b: 133) in arguing that the concept informs his entire body of work. In fact, the notion of symbolic violence follows on, and is a consequence of, his understanding of language. He sees language as, "an instrument of power and action" as much as communication (see Eagleton, in Bourdieu & Eagleton 1992e: 111). Language itself is a form of domination. I argue that while symbolic domination may be seen to have played a part in all social formations, it is becoming more and more significant in contemporary, advanced capitalist societies.
Bourdieu's analyses of these societies are essentially concerned with processes of classification and domination. His argument is as follows. Categorizations make up and order the world and, hence, constitute and order people within it. Political struggle is found in efforts to legitimize those systems of classification and categorization, and violence results when we misrecognize, as natural, those systems of classification that are actually culturally arbitrary and historical. Symbolic violence is thus a generally unperceived form of violence and, in contrast to systems in which force is needed to maintain social hierarchy, is an effective and efficient form of domination in that members of the dominant classes need exert little energy to maintain their dominance. They need only, "let the system they dominsate take its own course in order to exercise their domination" (Bourdieu 1977b: 190). In other words, members of the dominant classes need only go about their normal daily lives, adhering to the rules of the system that provides them their positions of privilege. Hierarchies and systems of domination are reproduced to the extent that the dominant and the dominated perceive these systems to be legitimate, and thus think and act in their own best interests within the context of the system itself.
Symbolic violence may in some ways be "gentler" than physical violence, but it is no less real. Suffering results from both forms of violence. The social origins of this suffering are often misrecognized and internalized by members of society, a fact that only serves to exacerbate suffering and perpetuate symbolic systems of domination. As such, symbolic violence tends to be a "more effective, and (in some instances) more brutal, means of oppression" (Bourdieu, in Bourdieu & Eagleton 1992e: 115). Bourdieu turns to sociology because it enables him to focus on and name symbolic violence, and because it can identify the sites where political action might best be effective. The best sociology will seek to locate the way in which this less obvious form of violence works to both produce and protect dominant interests, while at the same time inflicting suffering and misery among dominated segments of the population. Sociology's greatest value, then, is that it can provide the "weapons" to see and combat the symbolic violence that leads to socially distributed suffering (see Bourdieu 1993a: 60).
This chapter addresses both suffering and symbolic violence.


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