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Fields & Capital

May 14, 2008

Update 9 August 2008: Benson and Neveu (2005: 20) in Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field suggest the best explicated accounts of Bourdieu’s field theory are to be found in Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, esp. pp. 94-115 and they also recommend David Swarzt (1997), Culture and Power, pp. 117-42

Fields & Capital

“Fields are systems of objective relations that are constituted by various species of capital. Positions in a field are related to one another, not directly through interactions or connections, but in terms of exterior
relations of difference, especially in regards to efficient forms of power (capital). The difference between a field and a social network is especially important to keep in mind. A field is defined by differential relations between properties while networks are defined by actual connections. Thus people who have very little interaction with one another can be grouped very close together in social space.

It is also by and through a field that a species of capital becomes efficient. The implication is that something counts as capital only to the extent that possessing it incurs an ability to access profits specific to the field (97). Because anything can be made the object of struggle or a weapon in struggle there are an infinite number of possible differentiated fields (more likely in highly differentiated societies) Fields work for Bourdieu, very much in the way they do for the Gestaltists. The whole is a system of relations that cannot be defined in terms of its parts (i.e. a brick in a wall is perceived in terms of being a part of the wall) and hence fields can be constituted independently of any empirical persons (1992: 106). There are no components or parts (104). Rather the parts take their properties from their relationship to other parts. Bourdieu also makes the point that some fields become institutions while other institutions, such as family, are not really fields (although they may be field like). Unlike Parsons, who also considers differentiation, Bourdieu conceives of fields as vertically and horizontially differentiated. Similarly autonomous fields (economic, artistic, scientific) are at any empirical moment in time, more or less irreducible to one another.

Fields are alternatively understood as markets and games. Games are perhaps the best metaphor since it integrates illusio and habitus more readily. Each field, like a game, is only possible given players who ‘know-how’ to play and are inclined to play. Furthermore, the game and its stakes must be understood as the relationship of players on the field and their varying ability to play the game. Thus the field is always in a state of flux as players struggle for command of the field. In terms of capital, the game metaphor points out why a goal in hockey does not count as winning chess.

The field of play, i.e. the structure of the field, is determined by the position of players in the field, and this is determined by the overall volume and specie of capital that each player has. Capital, very simply, is whatever has an effect. “A capital does not exist and function except in relation to a field” (1992: 101). Thus what has an effect in one social world may not have an effect in another. The various species of capital and their distribution are what give contour to the space of positions that make up a field. Fields are “the locus of relations of force” in which agents struggle to conserve or transform what counts as capital. Furthermore, the game analogy forces us to conceptualize “the rules of the game” from the standpoint of practical reason. The rules of the game are embodied as a readiness to respond skillfully to the ever changing nature of the game. It makes no sense to say that Lebron James needs a rule book (or ever read one for that matter) to play basketball.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2008 6:24 am

    I’ve been struggling with beautiful weather, and a backpack full of Bourdieu. Thankfully it rained today and my academic brain kicked back into gear – bringing me back here. This post helps a lot! Thanks.


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