The second issue of Catalyst contains a long article by Dylan Riley on Pierre Bourdieu and the exceptional resonance of his work in American and international social science. Riley doesn’t beat around the bush: Bourdieu’s sociology, he argues, offers a lousy theory of social class. Its popularity in academia derives from the fact that it legitimizes academic privilege and explains academics’ lack of any connection to popular movements. Bourdieu’s theory resonates with self-help fads like yoga, gluten-free diets, exercise monitors, and the like. Riley concludes that Bourdieu’s entire project is directed toward transforming sociologists’ consciousness rather than transforming society.
Since we won’t be beating around the bush either, we should start by observing that Riley’s article is sloppy and riddled with mistakes and omissions. It is helpful neither for understanding contemporary capitalist societies, nor for the political reflection that the Left urgently needs. Riley distorts Bourdieu’s work, ignores essential parts of it, and in the end regresses to comfortable slogans such as “truly radical critical theory,” without providing any clue as to what that might really mean. Riley calls on his reader to “face the facts,” but as we will show, large swathes of his essay are fact free.
In this article we will first rebut the arguments in the opening part of Riley’s article concerning Bourdieu’s theory. In the second section we will turn to the concluding part of Riley’s article, which attempts to explain the popularity of Bourdieu among sociologists by deploying a sort of sociology of sociologists. Here Riley begins by noting the enormous popularity of Bourdieu’s work globally and among his colleagues — whom he characterizes as “elite academics in the advanced capitalist countries.” But this popularity has nothing to do with the perspicacity, generativeness, or originality of Bourdieu’s thought. Riley argues instead that Bourdieu appeals to politically powerless social scientists because Bourdieu equates social change with self-transformation. Bourdieu also contributes to these social scientists’ professional success. Riley’s portrait of Bourdieu as an academic self-help theorist can now be mounted on the wall alongside the veritable gallery of wild denunciations of Bourdieu, ranging from slanderous accusations — Bourdieu as “intellectual terrorist”1 and anti-Semite2 — to depictions of him as a mere leftist activist posing as a scholar.3