A recent French documentary about Pierre Bourdieu is entitled, after one of his own pronouncements: La Sociologie est un sport de combat. When he died in January 2002, Bourdieu was widely considered France's leading sociologist, its most influential intellectual - and one of its angriest men. In an autobiographical fragment published within days of his death (now available as a book, Esquisse pour une auto-analyse[*]), he recalled the 'stubborn rage' engendered in him by his experience of boarding-school and the mockery he suffered there, in part for his rural accent and origins, in part for being a 'bon élève' who clearly aspired to rise above his fellow pupils. The fragment's unauthorised publication set off a noisy public dispute, which returned again and again to Bourdieu's personal combativeness. Even his defenders conceded that he was a 'génie colérique' (Michel Onfray) and asked for sympathy for 'les fragilités d'un sociologue du combat' (Philippe Corcuff). In the eyes of his philosopher friend Jacques Bouveresse, the politeness of the establishment, which Bourdieu had manifestly failed to acquire, was merely the sign of its immense, taken-for-granted privileges, the very privileges that Bourdieu had spent his life railing against. Others pointed out that he had picked fights with everyone, including some who were no more privileged than he was. And climbing to the pinnacle of the French academic world, at the Collège de France, might be thought to disqualify him from presenting himself as an eternal and uncompromising rebel.
LRB 20 April 2006 | PDF Download