Social Theory


Michel Foucault is often called a philosopher and a social theorist, sometimes a historian and a literary critic, but also a post-structuralist thinker. One can see these identities merge into a single project, at least, if we can agree to call him "a critical historiographer of the humanist discourses of modernity". For Foucault, the humanist discourses of modernity are knowledge systems which inform institutionalised technologies of power. Foucault's main interest is therefore in the origins of the modern human sciences (psychiatry, medicine, sexuology, etc.), the rise of their affiliated institutions (the clinic, the prison, the asylum, etc.) and how the production of truth is governed by discursive power regimes. The latter, however, should not be understood exclusively in "language"-terms (cf. the attention he pays to the dimension of productive power in the way for instance that buildings are designed). Foucault's work can be divided into three stages: archaeology, genealogy and post-modern ethics. Note that the first two stages involve a metaphoric reading of a particular sub-discipline of history.

Archaeology. In this stage of Foucault's work, the production of scientific truth cannot be separated from the discourse formations of scientific disciplines (applied by Foucault to psychiatry and the birth of modern medical science). Particularly relevant to discourse analysis is Foucault's insistence on a reversal of the subject-statement relationship: the subject has to conform to the conditions dictated by the statement before s/he can become the speaker of it (in other words, the structures of discourse prevail over human agency). As paraphrased by McNay (1994:49 McNAY Lois, 1994. Foucault. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.  ), archaeological analysis reveals that the notion of a subject which exists prior to language and is the origin of all meaning is an illusion, created by the structural rules that govern discursive formations. In the words of Foucault (1973:172):

    FOUCAULT, Michèl, 1973. The Birth of the Clinic: an Archaeology of Medical Perception. London: Tavistock.  If there is one approach that I do reject [it is the one] which gives absolute priority to the observing subject, which attributes a constituent role to an act, which places its own point of view at the origin of all historicity - which, in short, leads to a transcendental consciousness. It seems to me that the historical analysis of scientific discourse, in the last resort, be subject, not to a theory of the knowing subject, but rather to a theory of discursive practice.

Some implications of the subject-statement reversal:

  • Meaning does not originate in the speaking subject; instead it is governed by the formative rules of discourses. Thus, the speaking subject is "de-centred".
  • Social identity is "dispersed". The "whole", "true", "unique" social subject is replaced by a "fragmented" subject which is constituted in the unstable role identities enabled by discursive formations.
  • One further implication might be that the acquisition of social identities is a process of immersion into discursive practice and of being subjected to discursive practice. For instance, the process of becoming a teacher is a process in which a novice gradually adopts and subjects him/herself to the multiple modes of speaking and writing which are available in professional contexts. However, as pointed out by McNay (1994:49 McNAY Lois, 1994. Foucault. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.  ), it is probably not correct to ascribe such a view on the socialising capacities of language use to Foucault himself. Note that this "detail" is often overlooked in discourse analytical research, even when Foucault is claimed as a major theoretical source. In that sense, one can talk about traditional conceptions of subjectivity having been "let in again through the backdoor".

Genealogy. In this second stage of Foucault's work, discourse is put on a secondary plane, as the focus is now on truth/power regimes with particular reference to bodily practices (applied by Foucault to the "objectifying" practices of prisons and the "subjectifying" discourses of sexuality).

    FOUCAULT, Michèl, 1984. 'Nietsche, genealogy, history'. In: P. Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Harmondsworth: Penguin.  The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration. Genealogy, as an analysis of descent, is thus situated within the articulation of the body and history. Its task is to expose a body totally imprinted by history and the processes of history's destruction of the body.

Here Foucault (1984:83) moves to the core of the institutionalised power techniques in modern societies, in particular the role of its key "discursive technologies": (i) the "confession" (cf. the salience of counselling & therapy-oriented practices in contemporary institutions) and the (ii) "examination" (cf. the salience of all kinds of recordkeeping for different purposes as central to everyday, routine practices and decision-making in modern institutions).

An ethics of the postmodern subject. Especially in the second and third volume of the history of sexuality - "The use of pleasure" and "The care of the self" (as well as in other late essays), Foucault develops an ethical orientation for the postmodern era. It is based on the idea that an analysis of the techniques of domination can be counterbalanced by an analysis of the techniques of the self. McNay (1994:133) writes about this:

    McNAY Lois, 1994. Foucault. A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press.  Through the formation of a 'critical ontology of the self' it is possible to formulate an alternative ethical standpoint from which individuals can begin to resist the normalising force of the 'government of individualisation'. The idea of an ethics of the self redefines Foucault's relation with a tradition of Enlightenment thought which he rereads through the figures of Kant and Baudelaire. From his reinterpretation, Foucault is able to deploy the concepts of autonomy, reflexivity and critique and, thereby, overcome some of what have been regarded as the nihilistic implications of his earlier work on discipline.

As an afterthought, two "facts" about Foucault which are worth keeping in mind: (i) his rejection of the concept of "ideology" and (ii) his particular perspective on "power".

First. Although Foucault is often cited in the context of language/ideology-research, he was extremely sceptical about the concept of ideology. His critique centres on the assumption that "ideology critique" (e.g. the laying bare certain naturalised, common sense assumptions as distorted representations which  hide class interests) presupposes the existence of an un-ideological, pre-existing truth which is to be situated elsewhere. Such a view is simply ruled out in a theory which sees truth as a product of discourse. In Foucault (1980:118), we read that

    FOUCAULT, Michèl, 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings. 1980 (ed. C. Gordon). Brighton: Harvester.  [T]he problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in a discourse which comes under the category of scienficity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically, how effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false.

Secondly, for Foucault, power does not repress or separate the haves from the have-nots. Instead, power produces and its working is "capillary". The metaphor which is being pursued here is that power flows through the veins of society, permeating all levels; it enables, because like blood it supplies nutrients and carries away waste products. See, for instance, Foucault (1980:96):

    FOUCAULT, Michèl, 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings. 1980 (ed. C. Gordon). Brighton: Harvester.  Power must be analysed as something which circulates, or rather as something which only functions in the form of a chain. It is never localised here and there, never in anybody's hands, never appropriated as a commodity or piece of wealth. Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organisation. And not only do invididuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power.



From a perspective of language studies, the French sociologist/anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, is perhaps most readily associated with the key concepts of linguistic/symbolic capital and linguistic habitus, their positioning in linguistic markets and their role in the production of communicative legitimacy (with attendant effects of social reproduction, domination, exclusion and situated silencing). This, however, has to be seen as part of a larger project, which his close collaborator, Loïc Wacquant, summarises in terms of overcoming "the antinomy between subjectivist and objectivist perspectives, social physics and social semiology, so as to produce a unified, materialist science of human practice and symbolic power" (2002:53 L. Wacquant, 2002. Obituary Pierre Bourdieu. Anthropology News, 46:3. ).

One of the recurrent themes in Bourdieu's work is that of an enquiry into the social conditions of possibility for particular practices - ultimately part of an enquiry into the production of social distinctions (artistic, cultural, educational, linguistic, related to fashion, etc). When taken to the domain of language study, these questions imply a displacement of an autonomous linguistic object of enquiry, focusing instead on the conditions for the production (and recognition of) legitimate participation, legitimate language and a view in which language use is always invested with value - appropriacy and well-formedness beyond grammatical acceptability (Bourdieu 1984:103-104):  

    P. Bourdieu, 1984, 'Ce que  parler veut dire'. Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 95-112. La linguistique le plus avancée rejoint actuellement la sociologie sur ce point que l'objet premier de la recherche sur le langage est l'explication des présupposés de la communication. L'essentiel de ce qui se passe dans la communication, n'est pas dans la communication: par exemple, l'essentiel de ce qui se passe dan une communication comme la communication pédagogique est dans les conditions sociales de possibilité de la communication. [...] [L]a communication en situation d'autorité pédagogique supposes des émetteurs légitimes, des récepteurs légitimes, un situation légitime, un langage légitime.
    Il faut un émetteur légitime, c'est-à-dire quelqu'un qui reconnaît les lois implicites du système et qui est, à ce titre, reconnu et coopté. Il faut des destinataires reconnus par l'émetteur commes dignes de recevoir, ce qui suppose que l'émetteur ait pouvoir d'élimination, qu'il puisse exclure 'ceux quit ne devraient pas être là'; mais ce n'est pas tous: il faut des élèves qui soient prêts à reconnaître le professeur comme professeur, et des parents qui donnent une espèce de crédit, de chèque en blanc, au professeur. Il faut aussi qu'idéallement les récepteurs sois relativement homogènes linguistiquement (c'est-à-dire socialement), homogènes en connaissance de la langue et en reconnaissance de la langue, et que la structure du groupe ne fonctionne pas comme un système de censure capable d'interdire le langage qui doit être utilisé. [...] Un langage légitime est un langage aux formes phonologiques en syntaxiques légitimes, c'est-à-dire un langage répondant aux critères habituels de grammaticalités, et un langage qui dit constamment, en plus de ce qu'il dit, qu'il le dit bien. Et par là, laisse croire que ce qu'il dit est vrai: ce qui est une des façons fondamentales de fair passer le faux à la place du vrai. Parmi les effets politiques du langage dominant il y a celui-ci: 'Il le dit bien, donc cela a des chances d'être vrait.'

Bourdieu's sociological critique of linguistics entails a threeway displacement of concepts (1976:646):  

    P. Bourdieu, 1976, 'The  economics of linguistic exchanges'. Social Science Information, 16:6, 645-668.

    In place of grammaticalness it the puts the notion of acceptability, or, to put it another way, in place of 'the' language (langue), the notion of legitimate language. In place of relations of communication (or symbolic interaction) it puts relations of symbolic power, and so replaces the question of the meaning of speech with the question of the value and power of speech. Lastly, in place of specifically linguistic competence, it puts symbolic capital, which is inseparable from the speaker's position in the social structure.

One fairly accessible entry into Bourdieu's theory of capital has been developed in Bourdieu (1986 ). Its starting point is the observation that the social world can be viewed accumulated history. Unless one wishes to reduce this history to a series of short-lived mechanical equilibria (in which the actors can be treated as interchangeable), its understanding requires the introduction of the notion of capital and the attendant concept of accumulation. Capital is accumulated labour (in a material form or in an incorporated form). It takes time to acquire but once acquired it can be invested into a new situation - in this respect, it does not matter whether one talks about money or forms of behaviour. Capital is acquired by individual actors and it can be accumulated exclusively: this brings out a dimension of the invididual as a strategic player in the social world, acting on perceptionsa of value, profitability, etc. Capital is also a force which is reflected both in objective structures. It creates a set of conditions embedded in the reality of the social world and it determines the chances to durable success for specific practices within that world. Finally, capital is what makes the societal game into something different from a game of pure chance. Only at the roulette table one comes across a virtual world in which anyone can acquire a new financial and social status overnight in a situation of perfectly equal opportunity, unhampered by mechanisms of gradual acquisition, profitable investment or conditions of hereditary transfer. In contrast, capital needs to be invested in a particular way, it needs time to become profitable.

Bourdieu's reliance on a framework which revolves around the concept of 'capital' in its various manifestations is not based on a straightforward simile which seeks to explain social processes in education, art, etc. through a logic which in its purest form is to be found in our understanding of economic markets. Quite the contrary, Bourdieu's institution of the concepts of 'social capital', 'cultural capital', 'symbolic capital', etc. is based on a reversal of the reductionism which limits the logic of the markets to what is narrowly economic and which conceives of the artistic, the educational, etc. as 'desinterested'. Bourdieu's point is that one must do theoretical and analytical justice to the diverse forms of capital in their various manifestations (and not just the one which is recognised by economic theory).  

    Bourdieu, Pierre, 1986, 'The forms of capital'. In: Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson, New York: Greenwood Press. A particular definition of the economic has been imposed upon economic practices. This definition is a historical invention of capitalism. By reducing the universe of exchange transcactions to the exchange of goods which is oriented objectively and subjectively towards a maximisation of profit (i.e. based on (economic) self-interest), other forms of exchange have implicitly been defined as non-economic and desinterested. [...] In other words, the accomplishment of a so-called science of market laws, which is not even a true science of the economic field (to the extent that it takes for granted as natural the foundations of the order which it purports to analyse, e.g. private property, profit, wage labour, etc.) has prevented the development of a general economy of practices, in which the exchange of commodities is just one specific type of exchange.

Thus, the point about linguistic capital is not only that symbolic exchanges can be compared conceptually to economic transactions, but also that linguistic capital is a field-specific form of capital, which, under certain conditions can be transformed into other forms, while it cannot be reduced to any of these other forms (e.g. linguistic dispositions allow the acquisition of educational qualifications which in their turn will promote access to prestigiuous jobs with prospects of entry into attractive social networks). Important from a sociolinguistic point of view, are then the processes of control over the value of symbolic resources which regulate access to other social, cultural and economic 'goodies' (Heller & Martin-Jones 2001:2-3 M. Heller & M.  Martin-Jones, 2002, 'Introduction: symbolic domination, education and  linguistic difference'. Voices of Authority: Education and Linguistic Difference. Westport: Ablex. ). In this way, Bourdieu's cautions us against the objectivism of economistic reductionism and the subjectivism which reduces social transactions to communicative events:  

    P. Bourdieu, 1986, 'The  forms of capital'. In: Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J. Richardson, New York: Greenwood Press. As such we must simultaneously hold on both to the idea that economic capital is the root of all other forms of capital and the idea that these transformed, hidden forms fo economic capital can never be reduced completely to this definition, because their most specific effects are produced precisely where there rootedness in economic capital is hidden from view (not in the least from their owners) and this, even though only in the last resort, is the foundation of their specific effects. The real logic of capital, transformations of one type into another, and the laws of accumalation to which they are subjected cannot be understood well unless one leaves behind two opposite points of view which are inherently equally limited: economism which, because of its final analysis in which all forms of capital are reduced to economic capital, pays insufficient attention for the specific workings of other forms of capital; and semiologism (present examples are structuralism, symbolic interactionism, and ethnomethodology), which reduces social exchange transactions to communicative events and ignores the naked fact of universal reduction into the economic.

Perhaps one can conclude that Bourdieu seeks to establish the specificity of non-economic forms of capital by radically applying an analysis of economic capital to it, be it with a focus on sets of perceptual differences (it is the quality of the negation of forms of economistic logic which make up the specificity of non-economic forms of capital). These perceptual differences are indeed treated as clandestine apparancies (their apparent character can be exposed through an analysis in terms of economic capital). However, at the same time, they are not treated as redundancies (the workings of, say, social capital cannot be shown or explained unless subjective differences from the logic of economic capital are taken seriously as factors which constitute the difference). For instance, the ways in which cultural capital masks itself is essential to our understanding of it as capital. Note that such an overcoming of a subjectivist/objectivist antinomy is repeated in Bourdieu's definition of habitus.

Through the notion of linguistic habitus, Bourdieu, refers to individual differences in practical linguistic competence. Habitus refers to a speaker's competence as a strategic player: their ability to put language resources to practical use but also to anticipate the reception of their words and to profit from this. However, at the same time, habitus is seen as an internalised disposition of objective structures: a system of choices influenced by inhereted and accumulated asset structures (e.g. the language brought to school because of one's social background rather than merely a matter of individual aptitude). The formation of a habitus is continually being sanctioned by relative successes/failures in the market of linguistic exchanges. An early formulation of this position (Bourdieu 1976:654) reads: 

    P. Bourdieu, 1976, 'The  economics of linguistic exchanges'. Social Science Information, 16:6, 645-668. Situations in which linguistic productions are explicitely sanctioned and evaluated, such as examinations or interviews, draw our attention to the existence of mechanisms determining the price of discourse which operate in every linguistic interaction (e.g. the doctor-patient or lawyer-client relation), and more generally in all social relations. It follows that agents continuously subjected to the sanctions of the linguistic market, functioning as a system of positive and negative reinforcements, acquire durable dispositions which are the basis of their perception and appreciation of the state of the linguistic market and consequently of their strategies of expression.

Very importantly, the concept of a "habitus" presupposes a theory of linguistic practice, rather than a theory of the linguistic system (which Bourdieu radically rejects as an abstraction completely detached from the "fields of social action"). Habitus receives multiple definitions: Habitus is discourse adjusted to a situation, a market, a field. Habitus is capital. Habitus is hexis - it refers to a set of internalised bodily dispositions. Habitus is schematic knowledge, because it generates an orientation to practice and regulates its evaluative reception. Finally, habitus encompasses ethos (cf. Goffman's claim that the interaction order is a moral order).

In Bourdieu's model, all linguistic situations function like markets. In 'ce que parler veut dire' (1984:98), he defines discourse through the formula: speaker competence + market = discourse.  

    P. Bourdieu, 1984, 'Ce que  parler veut dire'. In: Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 95-112. Le discours que nous produisons, selon le modèle que je propose, est une 'résultante' de la compétence du locuteur et du marché sur lequel passe son discours: le discours dépend pour une part (qu'il faudrait apprécier plus rigoureusement) des conditions de réception.
    Toute situation linguistique fonctionne donc comme un marché sur lequel le locuteur place se produits et le produit qu'il produit pour ce marché dépend de l'anticipation qu'il a des prix que vont recevoir ses produits. [...] Un des grands mystères que la socio-linguistique doit résoudre, c'est cette espèce de sens de l'acceptibilité. Noun n'apprenons jamais le langage sans apprendre, en même temps, les conditions d'acceptibilité de ce langage. C'est-à-dire qu'apprendre un langage, c'est apprendre en même temps que ce langage sera payant dans telle ou telle situation.

Thus, discourse here surfaces as a general term for language use when interpreted as linguistic practice adjusted to a market situation. It is defined as language use implicated in an authority/belief-structure.

A few interesting, further implications:

  • Given the basic observation that symbolic resources (the ability to mobilise sets of linguistic resources in order to gain legitimate access to discourse situations) are unequally divided over social populations and given that such inequalities are being maintained through mechanisms of succesful accumulation (or the lack of it), it need not surprise us that Bourdieu's work is often described as rather (one-sidedly) inclined towards a sociology of self-perpetuating dominance. This impression is fuelled by the attention which he pays to the homogonisation of markets as an important condition for social linguistic dominance. However, one should not forget the many pages he has devoted to mechanisms of crisis in symbolic markets, situations where le système de credit mutuel (the mutual reinforcement of speaker competence, legitimate language and receiver endorsement) collapses as well as his insistence that prevailing habituses will always be the result of specific historical circumstances and therefore be susceptible to change.
  • Another trait in the reception of Bourdieu has been to equate the production of legitimate language rather unreserverdly with command of the standard language. Even though there are various points where Bourdieu points to the limiting case of 'Il le dit bien, donc cela a des chances d'être vrait' and where successful speech in the linguistic markets of symbolic exchange is equated fully and exclusively with the standard language. First of all, one should note that authorised language use, for Bourdieu, is not thet same as standard language use as learned at school, in the sense of explicit knowledge of the grammar and its rules. In many situations, mastery of the standard language will reinforce the effects of authorised language, but it does not follow from that authorised language can be reduced to standard language (for instance, the production of perfectly grammatical sentences is not enough for an economist to be seen to be speaking authoritatively as an economist. Furthermore, (a) Authority/belief-structures are relative to situations of contact; value has to be enacted and there will be situations where an orientation towards the standard (measured relatively to an audience) counts as sufficient. (b) There are lots of language communities which are divided over what counts as the standard. (c) It is also important to recognise as real such possibilties as trade union leaders who will be keen to avoid overtly correct speech or situations where non-prestigious forms are strategically appropriated so as to promote claims to authenticity and sincerity (cf. "l'acceptibilité sociologiquement définie ne consiste pas seulement dans le fait de parler correctement une langue: dans certains case, si'l faut, par exemple, avoir l'air un peu décontracté, un français trop impeccable peut être inacceptable' (Bourdieu 1984:123
  •   P. Bourdieu, 'Le marché  linguistique'. In: Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 121-137. ). Indeed, the extent to which 'le bien dit' increasingly becomes equated with the speaking 'not so well', the ostensible display of certain dispositions inherited from outside the dominant classes, is a key theme in understanding the contemporary media scene. (d) At the same time, it is also possible to think of certain symbolic markets where recourse to the language of dominant groups is antithetical to situational legitimacy (e.g. how many car owners will trust a mechanic who speaks the standard language impeccably?). 
  • The effects of social domination are seen as resulting from the effectuation of objective market relations which bear on an actual situation of contact. They do not follow directly nor automatically from the mere possession of symbolic, social or cultural capital. Bourdieu discusses a range of possissible relations resulting from contact, including
    • limited transposibility, which suggests that markets are organized along relative axes of centre/periphery.
    • corresponding effects of hypercorrection
    • le franc parler and its situated silencing (censure) in formal situations, that is, 'Ce franc-parler est le parler populaire en situation populaire lorsqu'on met entre parenthèses les lois du marché' (1984:131 P. Bourdieu, 1984, 'le  marché linguistique'. In: Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 121-137. ), but it is important to note that 'le franc-parler existe mais comme un îlot arraché aux lois du marché. Un îlot qu'on obtient en s'accordant une franchise [...] [Q]uand elle est affrontée à un marché officiel, elle détraquée'. Situated silencing is thus seen as an inevitable by-product of linguistic legitimacy: 'parler de légitimité linguistique, c'est rappeler que nul n'est censé ignorer le loi linguistique [...] Ca veut dire que, s'ils se trouvent en face de Giscard, ils perdront les pédales: que de facto leur langage sera cassé, qu'ils se tairont, qu'ils seront condamnés au silence, un silence que l'on dit respectueux.' (1984:132 P. Bourdieu, 1984, 'le  marché linguistique'. In: Questions de Sociologie. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 121-137. )
  • Comprehension is not the primary goal of communication. Bourdieu has repeatedly stressed that language users primarily monitor their behaviour in view of achieving strategic outcomes (e.g. to be believed, to be obeyed, to bring about a decision), often at the cost of misunderstandings. This view is diametrically opposed to the one advocated by analytical philosophers, like H.P. Grice, whose models are based on the assumption that speakers' efforts are always minimally geared towards achieving understanding (compare also with Habermas's distinction between 'strategic' and 'communicative rationality').



[continue to the contributions from the SOCIOLOGY OF ORDER IN INTERACTION ]