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Bourdieu’s field theory and ethnonational literatures

August 21, 2008

Exeter Centre for Ethno-political Studies, University of Exeter, UK

Workshop: The field of literature in the context of ethno-national conflicts, February 2009

Please submit proposal (abstracts of around 300 words) by October 1st, 2008

Please direct all inquiries and abstracts to Clémence Scalbert Yücel


The aim of this workshop is to study the development and mechanisms of literary worlds evolving in or around several languages that, in the context of ethno-national conflicts, may strongly be associated with particularistic or nationalistic demands. Focusing on minority languages and literary worlds, the workshop aims at proposing a reflection on the existing theories of the sociology of literature, mainly the theory of the fields (théorie des champs) elaborated by Pierre Bourdieu (1992) and to try to reconsider it principally by challenging its mono-state and mono-national frames. 

The sociological theory of the fields seems to be functioning within a united and unified, monolingual, national space. The literary field microcosm is analysed as a world evolving within unique, closed, national spaces, i.e. the field of power and the national social space – understood as a macrocosm. The theory does not deal with inter or trans-national issues and seems to assume that distinct institutional mechanisms of literature evolve within strictly national frameworks. Related to this restriction, one should also mention that his reading does not deal with the spatial issue: the literary phenomenon is studied in national spaces, excluding reflections on supra or infra-national spaces and levels (Saint-Jacques, Viala 1999).

Furthermore, nationhood and national spaces are assumed to be monolingual.  Research in literature and sociology of literature owes Pierre Bourdieu’s work a great debt and his theory enabled in-depth studies of certain contexts or of a national literature as understood by the common sense (one state, one language, one literature). Moreover it is strongly attractive for the study of minority literature, in particular because of the notion of power it incorporates. It may however have concealed a plurality of scales and some complex dynamics of the literary worlds and foremost, among them, those that, evolving with different languages, seem definitively plural and hence open toward different literary and political worlds. How to adjust the theory to such cases? How to go beyond? What more specifically about the situations in which languages are associated with particularistic or nationalistic demands that are closely related to different and competing fields of power? Indeed, in those peculiar contexts, the usage of one or another language may lead to sometimes contradictory fields opening, shutting or crossing effects.

The workshop will concentrate mainly but not exclusively on the situations of nationalist (minority) movements within established nation states. Cases such as the Basques in Spain and France, the Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, etc., the Samis in Finland, Norway and Sweden, or the Berbers in Morocco and Algeria may be exemplary cases to question this theory because of both the linguistic and spatial characteristics they present: they all present situations where a minority language associated with a particularistic or nationalist movement underwent a process of strong domination even if the situation may have evolved toward a more important recognition today. Moreover, some of the languages they use together sometimes with the dominant languages have not undergone a full process of standardisation and may then be multiple. This, together with the fact that they evolve in trans-national contexts, increase the points of ruptures/ connection in the field, and the levels of analysis. 

Through analyses of the development, structure and functioning of these literary worlds, the analysis of the production and diffusion of texts and books, the sociability networks, but also translation or intertextuality, the workshop expects to question the process of autonomisation/integration of these minority fields of literature vis-à-vis the main national field of literature and vis-à-vis the political fields (both minority and national). The workshop will focus on the phenomenon of opening, of de-compartmentalization, of passing through, but also of blockades associated with the use of different languages, associated to particularistic or nationalistic claims, in the literary world. This focus on contact or sometimes also absence of any contact should lead us towards new perspectives on both the mechanisms of interactions between different literary universes and theirs articulations with the fields of power.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1992), The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lahire, Bernard (1999) « Champ, hors-champ, contrechamp », in Bernard Lahire (ed.), Le travail sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu, Paris : La découverte, p. 23-57.

Saint-Jacques, Denis ; Viala, Alain (1999), « À propos du champ littéraire: histoire, géographie, histoire littéraire », in Bernard Lahire (ed.), Le travail sociologique de Pierre Bourdieu, Paris : La découverte, p. 59-74.

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