Skip to main content

Ideology and Symbolic power: Between Althusser and Bourdieu.

Western Marxism has often laid considerable stress upon the ideology of modern capitalist societies. This focus upon ideology stems from the failure of proletarian revolution to have either occurred, or establish socialism within Western Europe. The exact nature and function of ideology became paramount in Marxian explanations of the continued stability of Western capitalism after the Great War and Great Depression. Marxian conceptualizations of symbolic domination (under the notion of ideology) remain in the realm of consciousness and intellectual frameworks. Pierre Bourdieu developed a paradigm for understanding symbolic power and domination through his theory of dispositional practices that breaks with the concept of ideology and it basis in the tradition of ‘Kantian intellectualism’. This theoretical model both deepens and broadens the sociological understanding of symbolic power and domination, through the acknowledgment of non-intellectual and bodily elements in the dynamics of symbolic power mechanisms. The theory of ideology advanced by Louis Althusser, with its assertion of the materiality of ideology, despite some tenuous overlap with the theory of dispositional practices provides a good counter-example to Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic power, violence and domination.

Like Bourdieu, Althusser endeavor to understand symbolic domination was derived from the problem of social production and reproduction of stratified social structures. That is, for Althusser, the perpetuation of a class system inimical to the very interests of those who comprise the majority and unwittingly carry on their subordinated class position. Marxian analyses of the class system have often noted the repressive function of the state apparatus. Lenin unambiguously argued that the state was a product of “irreconcilable class antagonisms” and an organ for the hegemony of ruling class and their domination of other classes. The violence inherent in the state apparatus is augmented in the Marxian analysis by the subtle coercion of ideology. Althusser was concerned with the nature of ideology and its materiality both within individuals and within the so-called “ideological state apparatuses”.

The conception of ideology developed by Althusser differed in some respects to prior theoretical expositions of the concept, but it still retained essential elements common to Marxian analyses. In the German Ideology, Marx and Engels defined ideology as an assemblage of ideas that distort and mystify consciousness about the nature of human relations . This distortion of consciousness always represents a class position. The class whom controls the means of production, are often said to control the means of intellectual production and therefore, the hegemonic ideas of a society are those of its ruling class . Althusser concluded that “ideology represents the imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence”.

An archetypal example Althusser offered was the “divine right” of Kings. The notion that the relationship between the serf, the aristocrat and the King was established by the imaginary dictate of God and not to be found in the historical development of class relations and political organizations. Ideological conceptions have the distinctive feature of a seemingly trans-historical nature. The monarchy or capitalism is presented through ideology as the end of history and the eternal law. Bourdieu definitely breaks with Althusserian theory, for him, constitutions and law are obeyed more from custom and habituation than the “misrecognition of the arbitrariness which underlines it”. In Bourdieu’s view, the law and state are not heavily dependent upon intentional mystification, but docile dispositions. This is one central difference between the notion of ideology and dispositional practices. Ideology concerns thought and consciousness, whilst Bourdieu’s symbolic power functions through non-conscious embodied reactions.

Althusser did postulate that ideology had a material existence and a “modality” of “materiality”. Ideology derived its materiality from it existence within the subject and moreover the formation of the subject by ideology transmuted via the ideological state apparatuses (families, educational institutions, etcetera…). However, Althusser is still concerned with consciousness and its imaginary dimension even if seated within the individual subject. Althusser paid little to no attention to the body and its reactions, his assertion of the materiality of ideology seem to be more motivated by a defense of metaphysical materialism than the extent of inculcation. Bourdieu offers a theory that breaks with what he calls the intellectualism of the Kantian tradition in drawing attention to non-conscious and automatic bodily reaction in the mechanisms of symbolic power.

The physical and non-conscious reaction to symbolic power and the acquiescence to symbolic violence and domination are grounded in the imbedded dispositions that individuals acquire through interaction in social fields. Dispositions, or what Bourdieu calls their “habitus”, are durable structures that form generative principles that underpin practice. These generative principles are primarily the product of the family and educational system, but are not passively absorbed. There is an active component in individual practice. Central to the development of dispositions was the “socially elaborated” nature of “desire”; Bourdieu hypothesized a tentative thesis based upon a distinctly Freudian framework of the transition from ‘libidinal’ narcissism to the investment within the social field.

The transition from libidinal energy invested in bodily desire to investment within the social field and social reaction constitutes a crucial transitional point in which symbolic capital and therefore symbolic domination become a reality through the “search for recognition”. The individual develops a looking-glass self, by which is meant the individual start to evaluate itself via other people’s perception of him or her self. This search for recognition and self-evaluation via others becomes the source of satisfaction for what Freud called our primary narcissism, but it can also engender problems for individuals. Bad evaluations can elicit feelings of guilt and shame and individuals can develop phobias and complexes from repeated negative judgments upon themselves. There is also a lack of social capital or social regonition in the form of “glory, honour, credit, reputation, fame” etcetera and these common evaluative schemas allow for the symbolic domination of those with minimal symbolic capital.

“Symbolic violence”, wrote Bourdieu “is the coercion which is set up only through the consent that the dominated cannot fail to give to the dominator”. Symbolic power is constructed through the common evaluative schema that are habituated and inculcated within individual throughout their life, by the primary institutions of socialization and the constant re-socialization throughout day-to-day symbolic activities. The reaction to symbolic power is not initialized in the realm of consciousness, but is prereflexive and expressed as bodily reaction or emotional responses. In this sense, Bourdieu argues we are the outcome of a long process of “autonomization”. This automization take the form of a “quasi-bodily involvement in the world” and is not a process of conscious calculation. To exemplify his position on symbolic power, Bourdieu uses the example of orders and preformative utterances and linguistic exchanges in general.

The “symbolic force” or the illocutionary power of an utterance such as an order is said to derive from the previously acquired disposition of the body. Acquiescence to the order, for Bourdieu, is “automatic” and appears mechanical in its process. This symbolic force also depends upon the position of the speaker and their possession of authority invested in them by social institutions and their linguistic practices. Bourdieu utilized the example of judges to explain the importance of institutions and symbol of power. The judge can sentence someone to prison, not because of his intrinsic qualities, but because his speech is backed by social institution, manifested by the symbols of power and authority, the robe and gavel. Interpersonal linguistic exchanges are also sites of symbolic power and domination.

Linguistic exchanges are often conducted by individuals with an uneven distribution of linguistic capital, competence and expressive styles. This unequal distribution of linguistic recourses is often linked to both the condition under which it was acquired and the market (the receivers of linguistic products) under which it finds it conditions of use. The condition of primary acquisition of linguistic habitus is often highly related to economic capital and class position. Education imbues the individual with both linguistic dispositions and a bodily hexis. Different classes are said by Bourdieu to be characterized by different form of expression and hold their body in different ways. These characteristics are often tailed toward different social fields. When an individual from one class is placed within a social field that his or her upbringing had not prepared them for, they often find it harder to compete for social capital with those whose linguistic expression was formed for the field. This can manifest itself in nervousness and hesitant delivery in linguistic exchanges between those with different levels of cultural capital.

The conceptualization of symbolic power put forth by Pierre Bourdieu breaks with the conceptualization of ideology advanced within the Marxian tradition and Althusser’s work in particular. Althusser sought to understand the production and re-production of stratified social system in terms of ideology and its power over individual consciousness. Bourdieu identified this as a continuation of the tradition of Kantian intellectualism that privileged conscious thought over the body and ignored bodily reactions and habituation in the development of dispositions and symbolic power. Symbolic power and domination are therefore much broader concepts than ideology, despite Althusser’s assertion of the materiality of ideology. Bourdieu’s conception of symbolic power is given an interpersonal dimension with its focus upon the uneven distribution of symbolic capital and the conflict over symbolic profits. Bourdieu’s conception of symbolic power is therefore, both deeper and broader then that of ideology, while also breaking with its intellectualist bias.

Written by Mathew Toll.

Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: (Notes Towards an Investigation)”, Lenin and Philosophy: and Other Essays, trans Ben Brewster, (1971, New York: Monthly Review Press).

Bourdieu, Pierre, Pascalian Meditations, Trans Richard Nice, (1997, Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Bourdieu , Pierre, The Logic of Practice, Trans Richard Nice, (1990, Oxford: Polity Press).

Bourdieu , Pierre, Language and Symbolic Power, Edited John B. Thompson, Trans Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, (1991, Cambridge: Polity Press).

Lenin, V.I, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution, (1999, Sydney: Resistance books).

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick, “The German Ideology: A Critique of the Most Recent German Philosophy as Represented by Feuerbach, B. Bauer, and Stirner”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Trans and Edited Loyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, (1967, New York: Anchor Books), pp. 403-473.


Hitendra Patel said…
found your piece very engaging. More later.
Hitendra Patel, Kolkata.
Liseli Sitali said…
Very good overview of both Althusser and Bourdieu's work. In particular, I found your links between their theories and other concepts e.g.Kantian intellectualism helpful for understanding each theorist's main argument and how their approaches critique each other. So thank you very much.

All the best
Liseli Sitali
Mathew Toll said…
Thank you both for the kind comments.
Ιωάννα said…
very helpful, thanks
Anonymous said…
It would be interesting to find out (objectively) each major world religion's view (and differences) on the usage of symbolic power for social governance.
Khanh said…
Bravo! Succinct article that sharply dissects the debate between scholastic marxism (Althusser) and combative down-to-earth Marxism (Bourdieu). Bourdieu's habitus is the fruit of long range ethnographic surveys and field works that shed a better light on issues of political oppression through symbolic violence. ( His argument could be added to Braudel's longue durée thesis to explain the social psychology of human groups and class conflicts. Khanh K. Phuong ,Cambridge,MA.

Popular posts from this blog

Karen Armstrong on Women and Islam.

Zaibatsu Dissolution, Reparations and Administrative Guidance.

During a lecture before the Eugenics Society in 1937, British economist John Maynard Keynes stated that “a greater cumulative increment than 1 per cent per annum in the standard of life has seldom proved practicable”. Moreover, Keynes continued, “generally speaking the rate of improvement seems to have been somewhat less then 1 per cent per annum cumulative”. Of course, Keynes was speaking during the great depression, and therefore his remarks may be tainted with a particular pessimism. But they draw into sharp relief the experience of economic growth in post-war Japan: between 1950 and 1973, GDP growth averaged 10%, a rate of sustained growth never before seen .By 1962, the English publication Economist, with poetic flair, dubbed Japan’s recovery an “economic miracle” . This designation caught on and became a general catch phrase for spectacular economic growth. In the case of Japan, a multitude of explanations have arisen for why Japan underwent an ‘economic miracle’. Crucial to el…