The opening pages of Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology) (pp. 1-9) are a brilliant reflection on theory formation. Pierre Bourdieu examines the “theoretical distortion” that get embedded in social science, especially anthropology, when the observer ignores the “social conditions in which the science is possible.” This is not merely a repetition of the common anthropological trope about the observer’s presence altering the conditions he observes. It is about the more subtle phenomenon by which the observer’s position of observation plays a constitutive role in the shape that his theorizing takes.
For instance: “linguistic research takes different directions according to whether it deals with the researcher’s mother tongue or with a foreign language.” In the latter case there is a “tendency toward intellectualism” when the researcher is in the position of “the listening subject rather than the speaking subject.” The anthropologists “objective situation” as “impartial spectator” becomes “an epistemological choice.” When this happens, the anthropologist is “condemned to see all practice as a spectacle.”
“It is significant that ‘culture’ is sometimes described as a map; it is the analogy which occurs to an outsider who has to find his way around in a foreign landscape and who compensates for his lack of practical mastery, the prerogative of the native, by the use of a model of possible routes.” But for participants, it’s not a map at all. It’s practice. It gets theorized as fundamentally “map” because the theorists has not explored the conditions of his own setting, and what enables him to constitute the people and their actions that he observes as an object. Bourdieu says further: “The gulf between the potential, abstract space, devoid of landmarks or any privileged centre – like genealogies, in which the ego is as unreal as the starting-point in a Cartesian space – and the practical space of journeys actually made, or rather of journeys actually being made, can be seen from the difficulty we have in recognizing familiar routes on a map or town-plan until we are able to bring together the axes of of the field of potentialities and the ‘system of axes linked unalterable to our bodies, and carried about with us wherever we go.’”
Bourdieu is not advocating the “elementary relativism” of acknowledging that knowledge depends on the standpoint of the observer. He’s concerned about a “more fundamental and pernicious alteration” that the observer makes to the things he observes, pernicious because it passes without his knowledge: “in taking up a point of view on the action, withdrawing from it in order to observe it from above and from a distance, he constitutes practical activity as an object of observation and analysis, a representation.”
The “objective” moment of observation is all but unavoidable. Bourdieu doesn’t reject it. What he objects to is the failure to acknowledge the limits of this objective standpoint. The anthropologist needs “to bring to light the theory of theory and the theory of practice inscribed (in its practical state) in this [objective] mode of knowledge.”
What is deleted in the objective stance is time. Timeless models treat irreversible sequences as reversible; turn unpredictability into predictability. Bourdieu illustrates by reviewing Levi-Strauss on gift-giving. Levi-Strauss attributes the cycle of giving, receiving, and return gift to a law of reciprocity that governs the operation. He offers a “model” and “rules” of gift-giving. But, as Bourdieu points out and as all who observe actual gift practices carefully notice, timing is all-important in gift-giving. One receives and gives again, but only with the right time, and if time is left out as it is in Levi-Strauss’s theory, so are all the practical decisions, actions, and ripostes of the actual participants. Time allows for strategy; “To abolish the interval is also to abolish strategy.” Even in the most ritualized sequences of action, “there is still room for strategies which consist of playing on the time, or rather the tempo of the action,” for example “by delaying revenge so as to prolong the threat of revenge.”
Thus, “To restore to practice its practical truth, we must . . . introduce time into the theoretical representation of a practice which, being temporally constructed, is intrinsically defined by its tempo.” Instead of describing the “rules” that govern action, there needs to be consideration of “strategy”: “To substitute strategy for the rule is to reintroduce time, with its rhythm, its orientation, its irreversibility. Science has a time which is not that of practice. For the analyst, time no longer counts . . . because he has the time to totalize, i.e. to overcome the effects of time.” When science forgets that it detemporalizes practices that take place in time, it transforms them, and this totalizing “is never more pernicious than when exerted on practices defined by the fact that their temporal structure, direction, and rhythm are constitutive of their meaning.”
I think every theology student should read and re-read those pages. And, mutatis mutandis, go and do likewise.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 12:42 pm
Permission is given to use material on this site, provided the source is cited, blog entries are republished in full, and the author is notified in advance.