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The concept of field

March 16, 2010

A short outline of the theoretical and historical development and relevance of the concept of field*

Although today we associate field theory with the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 1996), this theory has a far longer history originating in physics and Gestalt psychology (Martin 2003). In anthropology, the first sustained usage and elaboration of the concept of field can be traced to the Manchester School of anthropology (1940s-1960s). Led by Max Gluckman, the Manchester scholars conducted fieldwork in Central and Southern Africa during the end of Empire.  They struggled with the problem of how to study urbanised localities under conditions of rapid social and political change. This was a time in which ‘tribal’, linguistic and other ‘community’ groupings were in flux and new kinds of affiliations were being constantly made and remade around novel occupational and recreational practices. Faced with such fluid actualities on the ground, Gluckman and his followers moved away from the structural-functionalist paradigm then predominant in British social anthropology and towards historical-processual accounts informed by new concepts such as ‘field’, ‘network’, ‘social drama’, ‘trouble case’, ‘situation’ and ‘arena’ (Evens and Handelman 2005; Swartz, Turner and Tuden 1966; Turner 1974). The result was a series of now classic ethnographies published in the 1950s (incl. Mitchell 1956, Turner 1957, Epstein 1958).

By the mid-1960s, two key concepts had emerged from these post-War efforts, namely network and field. On the one hand, Mitchell, Epstein and others followed the lead of Barnes (1954) and Bott (1955) and enthusiastically adopted social network analysis. The hope was that this new method would prove as useful to anthropologists working in urban areas as the genealogical method had been to the study of kinship in rural areas (Sanjek 1996). Their investigations crystallised in the volume Social Networks in Urban Situations, edited by Mitchell in 1969. On the other, Turner and his associates – some of them in the United States where he had emigrated – had continued to work on the concept of social field, and particularly on its cognate, the political field. Their efforts culminated in the volume Political Anthropology (Swartz, Turner and Tuden 1966). The starting point was Gluckman’s Zululand research where he found not the ‘tightly integrated systems’ of structural-functionalism but rather ‘social fields with many dimensions, with parts that may be loosely integrated, or virtually independent from one another’ (1966: 3, see also Epstein 1958). For these authors, political fields can expand and contract as political processes migrate across group and geographical boundaries (1966: 8). They saw the concept of (political) field as a way of overcoming the fixity of existing notions such as ‘political system’, ‘political structure’ or ‘governmental process’ (1966: 27).

By the 1970s, the Manchester School had disbanded and anthropologists’  interest in both concepts – field and network – had waned. A notable exception is Victor Turner’s mid-1970s essay, ‘Hidalgo: History as social drama’ (1974), in which he uses both field and network to reconstruct a failed uprising in colonial Mexico. Turner understands this historical episode as a social drama that unfolded across a rapidly shifting political field made up of the people, institutions and resources mobilised to assist or thwart the rebellion. Defining political field as ‘the totality of relationships between actors oriented to the same prizes and values’ (1974: 127), and in line with Gluckman’s emphasis on conflict, Turner argues that a political field is constituted by ‘purposive, goal-directed group action, and though it contains both conflict and coalition, collaborative action is often made to serve the purposes of contentious action’ (1974: 128). Such contentious action is fought out in ‘arenas’. An arena is a ‘bounded spatial unit in which precise, visible antagonists, individual or corporate, contend with one another for prizes and/or honor’ (1974: 132-3). It is an ‘explicit frame’ in which ‘nothing is left merely implied’ and major decisions are taken in public view (1974: 134). In a clear reference to Goffman’s dramaturgical model, Turner adds that in an arena

[a]ction is definite, people outspoken; the chips are down. Intrigue may be backstage, but the stage it is back of is the open arena (1974: 134).

Keen to distance himself from game theory and other rational actor approaches popular among political anthropologists at the time (e.g. Bailey, Barth and Swartz), Turner emphasises that an arena is neither a market nor a forum, although they can both become one ‘under appropriate field conditions’ (1974: 134).  As arenas change, so do the geographical boundaries of the political field, expanding and contracting as the social drama unfolds.

It is difficult to imagine a starker contrast between this conceptualisation of the field and our present-day understanding of this notion, largely derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu.  For Bourdieu fields are those slowly changing, established domains of cultural life in which practitioners acquire a ‘feel for the game’ over many years, for example, the fields of art, sociology, or boxing. Take Bourdieu’s (1996: 52) brief account of Flaubert’s famous Madame Bovary trial, where the novelist stood accused of publishing immoral materials. At the time of the trial, the Parisian salons, says Bourdieu, became sites for mobilisation in support of Flaubert. Bourdieu mentions in passing this episode to illustrate the importance of the salons as points of articulation between the fields of art, commerce and government, distinguished more by who they excluded than by who they included (1996: 51-53). Yet he does not consider the trial to be a political process (or ‘trouble case’) worthy of detailed analysis in its own right, as Turner and other Manchester scholars may have done. Bourdieu focusses on the slow-moving, cumulative changes that take place within an established field (Swartz 1997: 129, Couldry 2003), not on potentially volatile, unpredictable processes such as trials that often migrate across fields. The Parisian salons, brasseries, courthouses, and so on, provide Bourdieu with a relatively fixed spatial matrix of objective relations – a socio-physical backdrop to a slowly changing field of practice (see Bourdieu 1996: 40-43).

This contrast should not make us lose sight, however, of the areas of broad agreement between the Bourdieuan and Manchester approaches. First, both Turner and Bourdieu use the metaphor of game to refer to the field whilst rejecting rational actor models of human agency.  Second, despite popular misconceptions of Bourdieu as a theorist who neglects social change at the expense of social reproduction, both Bourdieu and Turner study social fields diachronically and resist the structural-functionalist idea of fields as self-regulating entities. Third, both scholars place conflict at the heart of their field theories, but whilst Turner is interested in group-driven conflicts that spill over established fields, Bourdieu is more interested in the field trajectories of individual agents within a given field.

In my own recent anthropological work I have sought to synthesize both field-theoretical models in order to study internet activism in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Subang Jaya (Malaysia). Although the Manchester scholars conducted fieldwork in a very different part of the world (British Central Africa) and under radically different historical conditions (the end of Empire),  the conceptual issues they confronted were strikingly similar to those I faced on returning from fieldwork in postcolonial Malaysia.

Like rural migrants in the booming urban areas of post-War Africa (Epstein 1958), many present-day suburbanites find themselves in densely populated settlements with inadequate social and public facilities. The result is the mushrooming of ad-hoc initiatives seeking to resolve the more pressing problems (Postill 2008). New middle-class suburbs such as Subang Jaya are ideal settings in which to rethink our current dependence on ‘community’ and ‘network’ as the paradigmatic notions in the study of how local authorities, firms and residents around the globe are appropriating the Internet to pursue parochial goals. These are frontiers where newly arrived people, technologies and ideas shape one another in unforeseeable ways. Over time new forms of residential sociality arise out of this flux as local stakeholders strive to ‘produce locality’ (Appadurai 1996).

In such unsettled conditions, any attempt at positing an existing ‘local community’ being impacted upon by a globalising ‘network logic’ (Castells 2001) is doomed. Instead, my focus in the forthcoming monograph Localizing the Internet (in press 2011) is on how variously positioned field agents and agencies in Subang Jaya (residents, politicians, committees, councillors, journalists, and others) compete and cooperate over matters concerning the local residents, often by means of the Internet. I call this dynamic set of projects, practices, technologies, and relations the field of residential affairs, and in the book I develop an anthropological account of its uneven development from 1999 to 2009. Adapting Bourdieu, I define this field as a domain of practice with its own ‘fundamental laws’, field-specific forms of capital and irreducible logic. Yet I extend the analysis beyond the remit of Bourdieu’s field theory by means of the Turner-inspired discussion of two social dramas that broke out in 2004 and were played out across a range of face-to-face and online arenas.

* This piece is part of an ongoing conversation with fellow members of the Reconceptualizing Sociality group led by Vered Amit. I am very grateful to other group members for all the engaging discussions and to the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy, SUNY at Buffalo, for sponsoring our most recent meeting which took place in October 2009.


Appadurai, A. (1996) ‘The Production of Locality’, in A. Appadurai Modernity at Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barnes, J. A. 1954 “Class and committees in a Norwegian island parish”. Human Relations 7: 39-58.

Bott, E. 1955. “Conjugal Roles and Social Networks.” Human Relations, 8:345-84.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production.  Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1996 The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. Cambridge:  Polity Press.

Castells, M. 2001 The Internet Galaxy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Couldry, N. 2003  ‘Media Meta-capital: Extending the Range of Bourdieu’s Field Theory’, Theory and Society 32(5-6): 653-677.

Epstein, A.L. 1958. Politics in an Urban African Community. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Evens, T.M.S. and D. Handelman (eds.) 2006. The Manchester School: Practice and Ethnographic Praxis in Anthropology. Oxford: Berghahn.

Martin, J. L. (2003) ‘What Is Field Theory?’, American Journal of Sociology 109: 1-49.

Mitchell, J. Clyde. 1956. The Yao Village. Manchester: Manchester University Press for the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute.

Mitchell, J. Clyde (ed). 1969. Social Networks in Urban Situations. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Postill, J. 2008. Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431.

Postill, J. forthcoming Localizing the Internet: An Anthropological Account. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

Sanjek, R., (1996) ‘Network Analysis’, in A. Barnard and J. Spencer (eds.) Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, pp. 396–397, London: Routledge.

Swartz, Turner, Tuden (eds.) (1966) Political Anthropology. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Swartz, D. (1997). Culture & power: The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Victor W. 1957. Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu VillageLife. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Turner, V.W. (1974) Dramas, fields and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

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