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Compare and Contrast Bourdieu’s Approach

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In recent years, several authors have attempted to deal with the problem of the relationship between agency and social structure. This has manifested itself in the theory of structuration. Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory is one of the best-known and most articulated efforts to integrate agency and structure. His theory proposes a duality of structure, in that agency and structure cannot be seen as independent of one another. Pierre Bourdieu is another important theorist to contribute to this agency-structure debate. His theory of habitus and field is concerned principally with overcoming the opposition between objectivism and subjectivism. While there are many differences between these two theories, there are in fact a few similarities. Both Bourdieu and Giddens put forward a duality of structure, and they are also both involved with the issue of constraint on agents. Similarly, Bourdieu’s habitus can be linked to Giddens’s theory of structure. In order to fully understand the comparisons and contrasting issues between Bourdieu and Giddens, it is important to look at each theorists work separately, and then to discuss the issues which arise.

Giddens proposes that agency and structure cannot be conceived of apart from one another. In other words, they are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. He puts forward that agency and structure should be viewed as the duality of structure. By this he means that ‘social structures are both constituted by human agency, and yet at the same time are the very medium of this constitution’ (Thompson, 1989: 58). He even goes so far as to say that ‘every research investigation in the social sciences or history is involved in relating action [often used synonymously with agency] to structure’ (Ritzer, 2004: 509). Practices are part of the duality of structure in that they consist of both action and structure. In this way Giddens’s argues that structure is not external to action; it is, in a sense, more internal to the flow of action which constitutes the practices¬†in question (Layder, 1994). The duality of structure is the core of the theory and is the basis upon which the other dualisms in social theory may be overcome.

During everyday activities, agents continuously monitor their own thoughts and activities, as well as their physical and social contexts. This can be also be termed as action. According to Giddens, action should be conceived as a continuous flow of interventions in the world which are initiated by autonomous agents. Not all action is purposeful in the sense of being guided by clear purposes which the agent has in mind; but much action is purposive, in the sense that it is monitored by actors who continually survey what they are doing (Thompson, 1989). While rationalisation and reflexivity are continuously involved in action, motivations are more appropriately thought of as potentials for action. Although such action is not motivated and our motivations are generally unconscious, motivations play a significant role in human conduct (Ritzer, 2004).

A more commonly used word to replace action is agency, and thus agency is what an agent actually does. It describes their behaviour. Incidentally, all individuals are in fact knowledgeable agents who are capable of accounting for their actions. It is important at this point to separate agency from intentions. Although all action involves power, it does not mean that people are not limited in the things they can achieve and transform. The extent of an individual’s influence is limited by the resources at their disposal (Layder, 1994). In other words, intentional acts often have unintended consequences (Ritzer, 2004).

Consistent with his emphasis on agency, Giddens accords the agent great power. This results in Giddens agents having the ability to make a difference in the social world. Without this power agents cannot properly exist, as an agent without power loses the capacity to make a difference. The concept of agency implies that a person could have done otherwise, and an agent who has no option whatsoever is no longer an agent. Giddens response to this apparent problem is to emphasize the difference between ‘option’ and ‘feasible option’ (Thompson, 1989). An individual who has only one option is not an agent, for there is no possible way in which that individual could have done otherwise.

But an individual who has only one¬†feasible option is an agent. This is because the option is only limited to one in that given the individual’s wants and desires, there is only one option that the individual would regard as reasonable to pursue (Thompson, 1989). A possible course of action would not be an option for an agent if it had no relevance to anything that the agent wanted. Giddens manages to preserve the link between structure and agency by defining agency in such a way that any individual in any given situation could always be an agent.

The core of the structuration theory lies in the ideas of structure, system, and duality of structure. Structure only exists in and through the activities of human agents. It is what gives form and shape to social life, but it is not itself that form and shape. Without this structure, social systems would not exist. Giddens does not deny the fact that structure can be constraining on action, but he feels that sociologists have exaggerated the importance of this constraint. Furthermore, they have failed to emphasize the fact that structure is ‘always both constraining and enabling’ (Ritzer, 2004). Structures often allow agents to do things that they would not otherwise be able to do.

Structures do not themselves exist in time and space, but they are manifested in social systems in the form of reproduced practices. While some systems may be based on intentional action, Giddens places more emphasis on the unintentional action as the basis. Social systems are not only structured by rules and resources, but are also situated within time and space. The primary condition of the structuration theory is face-to-face action, in which others are present at the same time and in the same space (Ritzer, 2004). Gregory (1989) criticises Giddens saying he devotes more attention to time than to space.

This is a mistake on Giddens behalf, as saying where things happen is just as important as why and how. With the extension of social systems in space and time, the other may cease to be immediately present. Such time-space distancing (or ‘distanciation’ as Giddens calls it) was greatly facilitated by the development of writing, which renders possible communication with the past as well as with physically absent individuals (Thompson, 1989: 62). Similarly, developments in technology and the media have also transformed the time-space constitution of social¬†systems.

There have been many criticisms of Giddens’s work, but in spite of this it is still important to deal with the structuration theory. The importance of the structuration theory can be seen in two main areas. The first is that many of Giddens ideas have become integral parts of contemporary sociology. Secondly, anyone working in social theory today needs to take into account and respond to Giddens work (Ritzer, 2004). In conclusion, Giddens sees structure and action as empirically interdependent, and thus deeply implicated in each other, but they are also partly autonomous and separable domains (Ritzer, 2004).

Pierre Bourdieu was focally concerned with the relationship between habitus and field. He saw this as operating in two ways. On the one hand, the field conditions the habitus. On the other hand, the habitus constitutes the field as something that is meaningful and that is worth the investment of energy (Ritzer, 2004). Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and field was concerned with overcoming the opposition between objectivism and subjectivism. Objectivists ignore agency and the agent, while subjectivists focus on the way agents think about, account for or represent the social world. Bourdieu favoured a position that is structuralist without losing sight of the agent (Ritzer, 2004). To side step the objectivist-subjectivist dilemma, Bourdieu focused on practice, which he saw as the outcome of the relationship between structure and agency. He labelled his own orientation ‘constructivist structuralism’ or ‘genetic structuralism’ (Ritzer, 2004). This is because he saw the analysis of objective structures (those of different fields) as inseparable from the analysis of the genesis. Bourdieu argued that social structures also exist in the social world itself. He saw objective structures as independent of the consciousness and will of agents.

Bourdieu’s constructivity ignores subjectivity and intentionality. He thought it important to include in his sociology the way people, on the basis of their position in social space, perceive and construct the social world. However, the perception and construction that take place in the social world are both animated and constrained by structures (Ritzer, 2004). Although¬†habitus is an internalised structure that constrains thought and choice of action, it does not determine them. The habitus merely suggests what people should think and what they should choose to do. People have the ability to engage in a conscious deliberation of options, although this decision-making process does in fact reflect the operation if the habitus (Ritzer, 2004).

The habitus is the concept for which Bourdieu is most famous. Habitus are the ‘mental or cognitive structures’ through which people deal with the social world (Ritzer, 2004: 520). People both produce their practices, and perceive and evaluate them. As a result, habitus reflect objective divisions in class structures such as age groups, genders, and social classes. Taking the issue of social class for example, an individuals tastes and preferences can often illustrate to what class they belong. For instance, perhaps people from the upper class would be more likely to appreciate the theatre than those from the lower class, as this is how they have been educated. In other words, those who occupy the same position in the social world tend to have similar habitus. This can be seen in the fact that art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences (Bourdieu, 1986). The habitus allows people to make sense out of the social world, but the existence of a multitude of habitus means that the social world and its structures do not impose themselves uniformly on all actors (Ritzer, 2004).

Habitus is both durable and transposable, transferable from one field to another. However, it is possible for people to have an inappropriate habitus and to suffer from what Bourdieu called hysteresis. For example, a person who is uprooted from an agrarian background and put to work on Wall Street would not cope very well with their new life (Ritzer, 2004). One of the functions of habitus is to account for the unity of style. The habitus is a unifying principle which associates the characteristics of a position into a single lifestyle, that is, a single set of choices of goods and practices etc. (Bourdieu, 1998).

Moving on from the habitus, the next key area of Bourdieu’s work to focus on is the ‘field’. While habitus exists in the minds of actors, field exist¬†outside their minds. The field is a network of relations among the objective positions within it. The occupants of these positions may be either agents or institutions and they are constrained by the structure of the field (Ritzer, 2004). Social space is constructed in such a way that agents or groups are distributed in it according to their position in statistical distributions based on two principles of differentiation (Bourdieu, 1998). These are economic capital, which relates the economy of the state, and cultural capital, which involves various kinds of acceptable knowledge. It follows that all agents are located in this space in such a way that the closer they are to one another in those two dimensions, the more they have in common. Occupants of positions within the field employ a variety of strategies, and again, the strategies of these agents depend on their position in the field. Nevertheless, this shows that Bourdieu’s actors do have some freedom, although less than Giddens’s.

There are several major differences amongst authors in the agency-structure debate. The main proponents of such debates are Bourdieu and Giddens. The two theorists both agree that the agent should be seen as an individual actor and not as a group, such as social classes. Bourdieu’s agent, dominated by habitus, appears to be far more mechanical however, than Giddens’s. This can be illustrated by further exploring Bourdieu’s idea of habitus. Bourdieu’s habitus involves ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structuring structures’ (Ritzer, 2004:534). It is neither subjective nor objective but combines elements of both. Thus it clearly rejects the idea of an actor with free will. This contrasts significantly with Giddens’s idea of agent. Although his agents may not have intentionality and free will, they have much more willing power than Bourdieu’s.

Bourdieu’s agents appear to be governed by their habitus and by structuring structures. In comparison, the agents in Giddens’s work are the people responsible for action. They have at least some choice in the possibility of acting differently than they do. They have power and they make a difference in their worlds (Ritzer, 2004). This idea of power is a key element to Giddens’s agency-structure theory. The issue of agency and structure pulls¬†different theorists in different directions. Some choose to focus on one side of the debate more than the other. In the case of Bourdieu and Giddens, Bourdieu heads more in the direction of structure, whereas Giddens favours a sense of agency. However, what they both believe is that you cannot have one without the other.

Both Bourdieu and Giddens believe that agency and structure are interlinked. In other words, they cannot be conceived of apart from each other. In Giddens’s words, they are a duality, but Bourdieu also echoes this sentiment. So as not to be made choose between objectivism and subjectivism he focused on practice, which he saw as the outcome of the relationship between structure and agency. He favoured a position that was structuralist without losing sight of the agent. Another area, in which the two theorists had similar ideas, was the constraint of agents. In the case of Giddens, he did not deny that structure was constraining on action, but he also put forward that structure was both constraining and enabling. It often allowed agents to do things that they otherwise might not be able to do. Similarly, Bourdieu found that agents were constrained by the structure of the field.

There is another similarity between the two in relation to habitus and structure. Bourdieu’s habitus is the means through which people produce and reproduce the social circumstances in which they live. This makes it similar to Giddens’s idea about structure being both the medium and the outcome of society. However, Bourdieu is much more likely to view social circumstances in the more conventional ‘objective’ sense of structures and institutions than is the case in structuration theory (Layder, 1994). While there are a few similarities to the take these two theorists have on the agency-structure debate, there are in fact mostly differences.

The agency-structure debate is an important aspect of sociological studies. Both Bourdieu and Giddens have offered intriguing accounts of this issue. Giddens’s structuration theory is one of the best-known efforts of integrating agency and structure. That is not to say however, that Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and field is any less important. They both focus on the duality of structure, but Giddens leaned more towards agency,¬†whereas Bourdieu favoured structure. Giddens looks at the issue of intentions and unintended consequences, and the fact that his agents have the power to execute free will. This contrasts with Bourdieu, whose agents cannot govern their decisions as freely as Giddens’s agents. While there are many differences and different emphases between the two theorists, there are very few similarities. Thus it is easy to say that the majority of their work is conflictual. As a result, both theories are valuable to the sociological world as they offer separate views and opinions to the same debate.


1. Bourdieu, P (1986) Distinction. Routledge: London.

2. Bourdieu, P (1998) Practical Reason. Polity Press: Cambridge.

3. Layder, Dereck (1994) Understanding Social Theory. Sage: London.

4. Ritzer, G. and Goodman, D. (2004) Sociological Theory (6th ed.). McGraw-Hill: New York.

5. Thompson, J. (1989) ‘The theory of structuration’, pp. 56-76 in D. Held and J.B. Thompson (eds.), Social Theory and Modern Societies. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

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