Bourdieu Comes to Town: Pertinence, Principles, Applications


This article frames the themes of the two-part Interventions section ‘Bourdieu Comes to Town’. I first establish the pertinence of Bourdieu’s sociology for students of the city by revisiting his youthful work on power, space, and the diffusion of urban forms in provincial Béarn and colonial Algeria. In both cases, urbanization is the key vector of transformation, and the city, town, or camp the site anchoring the forces dissolving the social fabric of the French countryside and overturning French imperialism in North Africa. These early studies establish that all social and mental structures have spatial correlates and conditions of possibility; that social distance and power relations are both expressed in and reinforced by spatial distance; and that propinquity to the center of accumulation of capital (economic, military, or cultural) is a key determinant of the force and velocity of social change. Next, I discuss four principles that undergird Bourdieu’s investigations and can profitably drive urban inquiry: the Bachelardian moment of epistemological rupture, the Weberian invitation to historicize the agent (habitus), the world (social space) and the categories of the analyst (epistemic reflexivity); the Leibnizian-Durkheimian imperative to deploy the topological mode of reasoning; and Cassirer’s command to heed the constitutive efficacy of symbolic structures. The plasticity and productivity of his concepts suggest that Bourdieu can not only energize urban inquiry but also merge it into a broader analytic of the trialectic of symbolic division, social space, and the built environment. This paves a pathway for reconceptualizing the urban as the domain of accumulation, differentiation and contestation of manifold forms of capital, which makes the city a central ground, product, and prize of historical struggles.