The Ambiguity of Practice Theory
There is, first, the school of analysis that I will call, for lack of a more widely employed term, cultural practice theory , in whose development Pierre Bourdieu has played a celebrated role. Although Bourdieu has scarcely applied his approach to the analysis of the capitalist factory, he has established a baseline for discussion of the symbolic and material dimensions of economic conduct. It is therefore incumbent upon me to suggest why his approach does not address the guiding question of this book—and why; perhaps, it should.
Bourdieu's work is intended to overcome the contest between cultural and purely utilitarian accounts of the development of social institutions which divides contemporary theory. The utilitarian approach, consecrated anew in the currently fashionable theories of "rational choice," would explain the visible social order as the outcome of the well-considered activity of individuals pursuing their interests as best they can. Of course, supporters of cultural approaches have long accepted the viewpoint that people conduct themselves as strategizing agents. But adherents of cultural forms of explanation insist that the process by which agents pursue their interests must be situated within a broader perspective upon the operation of human agency and reason. Before people set out in pursuit of their interests, they require an order of cultural symbols that establishes for them a relation to the world. The concepts on which agents rely to accomplish this are an historical product whose constitution and development follow a discipline of their own. Cultural forms of explanation need not exclude the play of
utilitarian calculation, but they are inclined to emphasize that collective concepts give shape to individuals' percepts.
Thus is initiated the cycle of debate between cultural and utilitarian varieties of social explanation. For just as culture can inaugurate the terms for the exercise of instrumental reason, so instrumental reason can establish the conditions for the development of culture. The rational choice theorist may admit that the horizon for agents' conduct is momentarily fixed for them by collective traditions. The question then becomes, what are the forces that lend such a system of shared insights and concepts its distinctive shape? Its formations, too, may follow from simple strategic logic, and its defining features may represent a convenient adaptation to the circumstances of action.
Bourdieu tries to overturn several of the distinctions on which this debate between cultural and purely utilitarian modes of explanation has been founded. Like rational choice theorists, he underscores the agents' unceasing manipulation of their symbolic and material environments. But he contends that agents' strategies are not purely means chosen for the pursuit of interests. The strategies are patterned by implicit principles governing perception and action that are transmitted to the agents by their prior life circumstances in society. The long-term acquisition of these skills enables the agents to compete against others, but in so doing the agents do not rationally follow preestablished interests. They are guided by implicit know-how, and they find themselves dedicated to the very practices through which the competition takes place.
Bourdieu's insistence that agents organize manufacturing and other kinds of practices in accordance with acquired schemata seems congenial to cultural forms of explanation. But he also suggests that these acquired schemata are "durably inculcated by objective conditions." The agents' accumulated know-how "organizes perception of the world and action in the world in accordance with the objective structures of a given state of the world." What room, then, does Bourdieu leave for the symbolic mediation of social conditions as agents acquire their social skills? Bourdieu adds a proviso that the agents' dispositions do not mechanically mirror social structures. Rather, the agents' prior locations in the social structure decide how they will appropriate and respond to structural conditions of the moment. The historical filtering of "objective" structures does not offer a positive theory for culture's systematic influence. What is more, since Bourdieu views culture as a creation of practice, he insists that it has only partial coherence as a system of meaning. To his mind, cultural principles exist only in the process of getting things done. Their operation appears fuzzy and inarticulable in the light of contemplative reason. Bourdieu's emphasis on culture's inextricability from the ongoing life of practice enjoins us against representing culture as an intellectually coherent structure with a systematic effect of its own.
Yet Bourdieu's refusal to define culture's own structural effects leads him in his histories to embrace economistic explanations that he denies in his theories. In Distinction , his wide-ranging investigation of contemporary tastes in France, Bourdieu takes care to show that the dispositions of persons in the working class appear to follow a popular logic of their own but actually reflect the force of economic necessity. He claims, for instance, that "it is possible to deduce popular tastes for the foods that are simultaneously the most 'filling' and most economical from the necessity of reproducing labor power at the lowest cost which is forced on the pro-
letariat as its very definition." Such shifts to reductionist forms of explanation are probably unavoidable if Bourdieu wants to account for—rather than merely redescribe—social practices in contemporary societies. In his model, only economic or institutional circumstances (or the agents' transversal of such circumstances over time) offer a specifiable foundation for explanation. Culture is a marker, often misrecognized, of the true arrangement of things. It serves as a model of society, not as a model for society's creation.
In sum, Bourdieu's work grants culture a prominent but analytically dependent role. To be sure, in Distinction Bourdieu makes the survival of the capitalist system dependent upon culture's ability to mystify and legitimate inequality. But if culture serves as a conduit for the expression of economic power, it does not thereby gain independent influence upon the development of institutions or upon historic change. To address the question of whether culture donates a separate constitutive logic to the formation of institutions, we may still preserve one of Bourdieu's insights: namely, culture can be conceived provisionally as the schema that agents employ to orchestrate their instrumental strategies, rather than as a set of revered values. If the principles of a culture are thereby conditioned by the
ongoing logic of practice, we can still employ a comparison to search for the means by which culture partially shapes practice into a consistently meaningful structure. If a degree of cultural coherence obtains, it must be identified initially by comparing practices themselves—in our case, everyday solutions to similar manufacturing challenges—rather than by comparing discourse about practice.