Review of Pierre Bourdieu, On the State: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1989-1992



Review of Pierre Bourdieu, On the State: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1989-1992, edited by Patrick Champagne et al., translated by David Fernbach (Polity 2014), 449 pages

Reviewed by Rohit Chopra



Pierre Bourdieu’s On the State grapples with the unthinkability of the state, seeking to bring it within the ambit of the thinkable. Bourdieu describes how the state derives its legitimacy by possessing not just a monopoly over physical violence but also over symbolic violence. The state is incorporated within us, by shaping both our mental structures and practices. Those empowered to act in the name of the state routinely perform and reinforce the authority of the state as do citizens by following state orders. Unmasking how the historical origins of the state are marked by arbitrary inequalities is essential to understanding how the authority of the state is linked to the distribution of privilege in the present. The book shows a remarkable theoretical and methodological coherence across Bourdieu’s range of work. And it distinguishes his perspective and project as uniquely distinct from Marxist, poststructuralist, or conventional historical or structural sociological appproaches.


Bourdieu, state,

legitimacy, symbolic, capital, inequality, authority

Any review of a work such as this one must begin with a caveat about the limited nature of its own perspective and of the necessarily partial mode in which it grapples with the vast range and depth of Bourdieu’s scholarship. Bourdieu would not find this troubling. To the contrary, it would square with his understanding about the situated nature of any vision of the world, of the constraints that inform the production of knowledge, and of the conventions of life as homo academicus, the title of Bourdieu’s book on the world of academia. Bourdieu would also probably point to the invisible hand of the state at work here: a general compliance with convention in general, embodied in this review as a dutiful abiding by academic convention.

As the appendix contextualizing this text informs us, On the State gathers Bourdieu’s complete lectures on the subject over three years. “Nothing,” the editors note, “leads us to suppose that Bourdieu intended to make these into a book, and he did not undertake any preparation for publication in this sense” (378). The editors also find it “somewhat unexpected” that Bourdieu had a “programme for a sociology of the state,” with the word not even showing up in his work till the early 1980s (378). It is relatively late in his career that Bourdieu begins to think about the state, or attempt to think about the state, which, he pointedly tells us, has the quality of being unthinkable. The book, accordingly, reflects these various characteristics, which may seem somewhat contradictory: it has the raw, unmediated quality of thought working on the problem of the state, all the while reflecting on its own theoretical and methodological assumptions; it is attempting to bringing the state as an unthinkable object into the ken of thinkability; and it is also seeking to develop a systematic, programmatic account of the state.

My interpretation of Bourdieu’s attempt to think the state through these lectures—marked by the characteristics identified above–sees the work as primarily shaped by three imperatives.

The first of these is: why does the state possess legitimacy at all, and, following from which, why and how is the legitimacy of the state, its institutions, and its representatives accepted by members of society? To put it another way, why is it, Bourdieu wants to know, that people follow rules such as traffic signals? What gives official commissions their authority? Why do people obey the tyranny of clock time?

The second imperative is to show how the state as the source of authority is the ground of the social world itself. Here, we get a possible, if speculative, clue as to why Bourdieu turns to the state at a particular moment in his career. A possible answer is that he does so to provide a unifying thread and ground for his work on different areas of social life, over the course of a long and distinguished career. The state is the basis or framework that enables players engaged in the accumulation and contestation over different kinds of capital: economic, educational, cultural, political, social, religious, academic, and so on. I use the terms ‘ground and ‘basis’ cautiously because one of Bourdieu’s main aims is to show us how there is a very distinct mode in which the state manages to ‘be’ as such. Bourdieu’s reflection on the state also demarcates a set of relations between what may be understood as concepts at the micro-level—like the habitus or structure of practices or dispositions of individuals in smaller social settings and communities and doxa, the invisible orthodoxies that inform such practices—and concepts at the macro-level, like fields or broad domains of social existence, like the educational field, cultural field, and nomos, the logic that governs the accumulation of capital in such fields.

A final imperative of the book is to clarify the distinctiveness of Bourdieu’s own project; to clearly demarcate its differences from the Marxist tradition and from conventional historical analysis, as well as to map its engagements and conversations with a broad range of scholars across disciplines. Whether on the basis of particular works, his specfic intellectual concerns and questions, or his general lines of inquiry, Bourdieu has been, at different points, labeled a Marxist, a sociologist of culture or education, a scholar primarily concerned with questions of inequality, a poststructuralist, and so on. These collected lectures on the theme of the state serve as a statement by Bourdieu in which he stakes his position within the academic field in relation to these varied perceptions. Such a statement also reinforces the nature of his work as a remarkably coherent architectonic, uniting, as noted above, his investigations into numerous aspects of social life and sets of concepts from across different domains of scholarly inquiry.

Bourdieu inaugurates the discussion on the state by pointing to his contribution to Max Weber’s classic formulation on the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In Bourdieu’s extension of this argument, the state also possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence in Bourdieu itself

is linked to the concept of symbolic capital, that is, a special kind of uber-capital or meta-capital accruing from special expertise or significant capital in any one field. For example, it may be said that Einstein’s vast amount of educational or scientific capital is what endowed him with the symbolic capital that could be cashed in, traded, or used as authority in any area of social life. It is what allowed, for instance, Einstein to comment on politics or world peace with authority. But the processes by which Einstein could accumulate both scientific capital and symbolic capital both derive from the state. Here, a brief explanation on Bourdieu’s use of the word ‘symbolic’ is in order. The symbolic is not the opposite of the material. Bourdieu, through the course of his work, urges us to think beyond such oppositions, to see human practices as stemming neither solely from a realm of ‘consciousness’ or intentionality nor as seemingly objectivist behavioral responses.

Bourdieu shows how the state enables the operation of fields, like the social, cultural, and educational, and the accumulation of capital within them, by ‘incorporating’ itself in players in the field. These players are the individuals or actors involved in the field (given that this kind of intentionalist language is perhaps not entirely inescapable). The state is incorporated in us in our cognitive structures and is also embodied in our habitual, routine practices. Even though Bourdieu eschews the philosophical minefield of seeking an ontological ground for human action, this consonance or pact between mental, cognitive orientation and practical action has the effect of appearing like ontologically grounded behavior. As the horizon that sets the implicit rules for all kinds of engagement, the state remains invisible as a principle that can be thought from within the framework of social life. In this, state parallels two other principles of invisibility of which the state is the source itself: the nomos, which is the principle that structures fields and informs the logic of accumulation of capital within them and doxa, which is the principle that, within an habitus, compels individuals to see their subjective perception of their own place in the world as the objective condition of their life.

The state in Bourdieu is both trick and truth. It bestows upon those who act in its name, such as bureaucratic commissions or individual authorities like inspectors, a quasi-mystical and, paradoxically, secular theological authority, with which subjects of the state are disposed to comply. The state, then, exists as performance too; the performance that, however, is neither lie nor illusion, but that upon which the compliance that is the stuff of everyday social llfe rests. Even those who break the law, in the knowledge of doing so, reinforce these very structures and principle of compliance. In the book, Bourdieu takes on the task of detailing the processes of how the state produces and reproduces itself through through the actions of citizens, by mining his own earlier work, for instance, on the bureaucratic field or the structure underlying the allegedly autonomous zone of the economy.

But the state is not neutral in its orientation toward all those within its purview, Neither is it exempt from the disbursement and perpetuation of privilege. Bourdieu seeks to understand the role of the state in this regard by approaching the question as historical sociologist, particularly by employing the method of a genetic sociology. One way to grasp what is key to the method is to identify what genetic sociology is not: it should not be seen as some kind of compromise between the claims of history and structure with regard to explaining the state. Rather, the state bears, within its structures, the imprint of the arbitrary inequalities and privileges by which it came into being at all (115). The state, “and everything that follows from it,” Bourdieu says, “is a historic invention, a historical artefact and […] we ourselves are inventions of the state, our minds are inventions of the state” (115). These historically rooted inequalities continue to inform the functioning of fields within the ambit of the state—even as players in the field are simultaneously engaged in the paradoxically dual activities of accumulating capital by those principles that preserve privilege and seeking to change the very rules by which capital and the privilege that accrue from it are accumulated.

Bourdieu’s theoretical understanding and methodology of the state differ radically from the Marxist perspective, which, he argues, in trapped in its limited vision of seeing the state purely in terms of its functions. The utopian ideal of the Marxist state does no more than invert the negative functions it finds in the idea of the state as essentially representing the interests of particular classes. The Marxist scholar Perry Anderson’s work on the state comes in for a critique along these lines, its very object of inquiry described by Bourdieu as “naïve” (78) Similarly, “genetic research” of the kind Bourdieu advocates, is to be distinguished from Foucault’s geaneaological project (115). His approach, Bourdieu emphasizes, is the only solution to “‘the amnesia of genesis’ that is inherent to every successful institutionalization” (115). By drawing attention to this forgetting of origins that mask the enduring inequalities coexisting in and with the state, Bourdieu’s On the State can be viewed as a radical, ethical act of recuperation, of scholarship as ethical memory, which aims to critically examine how institutions in societies that call themselves liberal and democratic are implicated in the persistence of different kinds of inequalities.

The nature of its format presents the reader of Bourdieu’s On the State with challenges and difficulties but rewards as well. In addition to its contributions outlined above, it is a peerless example of reflexive thought in action, and  of how to approach a problem from different angles. It offers a rich picture into the struggle of thought that the finished, polished monograph of academic convention often papers over. There is but one additional issue with which I wish the book had engaged in a sustained manner: which is the question of the nature of the legitimacy of the postcolonial state, highlighted, for instance, in Ranajit Guha’s landmark work Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India (Harvard 1998). Notwithstanding that omission though, On the State is indispensable, not just for Bourdieu scholars, but for anyone interested in social theory and questions of state power, legitimacy, authority, and privilege.


Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. His research interests include global media and cultural identity, social and postcolonial theory, new media technologies, and memory work. His current research project addresses media memories of the 1992-93 riots and 1993 bomb blasts in Mumbai, India.


Guha, R (1998) Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.