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Ave, lector.

As you are no doubt aware by now, I am a student.  I study anthropology at a liberal arts college, which is a location at which many mid-to-upper class young adults go to learn how to be baristas.

I’m joking, obviously.  A liberal arts education is essential to success. The number of famous people with broad, liberal-arts style educations is so long that I’m not even going to bother providing any sources for this claim.

None of this is related to my point, by the way.  And my point today is a scholastic one, so those of my friends who prefer to relax by not talking about the finer points of anthropological theory might want to tune out here.

I am currently taking a class on Social and Cultural theory.  My teacher has his own blog (It’s called Round and Square and it’s pretty awesome).  He assigns a lot of reading.  And some of it’s hard.  Right now, I’m reading THIS little bucket of fun: An Outline of a Theory of Practice, by Pierre Bourdieu.

Now, ordinarily there’s nothing I like more than to relax with a nice Bourdieu.

It’s the 1977 vintage.

I opened up this little black book (with plenty of time to read) and found a translator’s foreword.  That seems normal.  Everything’s good so far.  Then I turn the page and read the first sentences of the actual book itself.

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

Wait, where did you go? Come back! Come back! I didn’t mean to scare you.  Sorry.

That was pretty much my reaction when I read it, to be fair.  I put the book down and said “What the hell?” People gave me odd looks.  Some of them said things like “sssh!” or “shut up asshole I’m studying.”  I knew they were sympathetic.

I put the book aside for a minute and thought about the first two sentences.  I had no idea what they meant.  I understood the words, but that means about as much as understanding the words the first time you read a hexgram in the I Ching.  Which, to those of you who aren’t hopeless nerds, translates roughly as “I didn’t understand it at all.”  So I did what I usually do when I come across something I don’t understand: I opened up a word document and copied it down.   This forces a process of slow digestion: I had to break it down, and I mean all the way down.

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible.”

Basically, in English, I think, so far as I understand, this is Pierre’s assertion that a scientific theory of the world (epistemology) is always tied to the social condition of the theorizer.  ‘Science’ can only occur in certain conditions, conditions of privilege and leisure.

“The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

The anthropologist’s relationship with the subject is key. An anthropologist who watches their subject from the outside can is naturally inclined to describe things in a mechanical way, and in a communicative way.  If you’re not part of the process, you miss a certain understanding of the process. This makes sense; if what you’re doing all day is watching people talk and interact, your theory of what people do all day is going to be easily summed up by the phrase ‘talking and interacting.’  You don’t capture what they’re thinking, or what they do when they go home.  Pierre is saying that this approach–the “objective” approach–is not only misguided, it is a fundamental theoretical distortion, which is a very strong wording for an academic. 

Don’t be scared by the word “hermeneutic,” by the way.  It won’t be the last time you read it here. 

All these people do is talk! Seriously! And interact with each other! Laaaaaaaaame.

Now, this is the first two sentences of this book.  The ones that follow are shorter, but they aren’t any easier.  But this book is the shit. And by that I mean it’s AWESOME.

I wrote those two sentences down in my notes and ‘translated’ them from Bourdeausian into English.  And then I did research.  I went online and googled “Outline of a Theory of Practice.” I searched scholastic catalogs and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which, by the way, is a kick-ass resource).   And I read summaries of the book, including reviews by readers who said its writing was indeed a bit dense.  Well, actually, the exact words were…

theory of practice review clip

Classics, Philosophy, and Linguistics majors will be laughing here.

More importantly, I found this on Wikipedia: 

“At the center of Bourdieu’s sociological work is a logic of practice that emphasizes the importance of the body and practices within the social world. Against the intellectualist tradition, Bourdieu stressed that mechanisms of social domination and reproduction were primarily focused on bodily know-how and competent practices in the social world. Bourdieu fiercely opposed Rational Choice Theory as grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Social agents do not, according to Bourdieu, continuously calculate according to explicit rational and economic criteria. Rather, social agents operate according to an implicit practical logic—a practical sense—and bodily dispositions. Social agents act according to their “feel for the game” (the “feel” being, roughly, habitus, and the “game” being the field).”

This I can understand.  Especially opposing anything having to do with Rational Choices, which is something I think I may be growing notorious for doing in my philosophy classes.  (I’m aware, by the way, that Rational Choice Theory lies more in the realm of economics or anthropology, but luckily for all of us my bro Aristotle is just as applicable to those fields as well.)

(thanks bro)

Broristotle

“Sup.”

Thus armed with some awareness of what Mr. Bourdieu was attempting to accomplish–and with a sense of sympathy toward this endeavor–I began to read once again, pencil in hand.  And it was not easy, but it was easier.  So I guess I’ll have to concede that, this one time, my dad was right–because he always used to tell me that it’s best to tackle a really rough book with some kind of summary to use as a guide.   

That was my first experience with Bourdieu.

I’m on page four now.

God have mercy on my soul.

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