Extract from:

The Cartography of Power

Foucault & Bourdieu

Written by Anders Fogh Jensen

Painter: Rasmus Svarre Hansen

Magtens kartografi, Foucault og Bourdieu
Copenhagen: Unge Pædagoger, 2006.









Point of View


Point of View

In one of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales five peas are sitting in a pea pod. They are green and the pod is green so they think the whole world is green. As time passes and they turn yellow and the pod turns yellow, they are convinced that the whole world is turning yellow. And, Hans Christian Andersen adds, they are entitled to do so.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological universe man is a being who colours the world. People draw maps of the social world and paint its distinct regions according to what they think is good, bad, beautiful, ugly, acceptable, foolish, wise, ridiculous, posh, right and wrong. And, Bourdieu adds, they are entitled to do so.

These coloured maps are not all alike, which causes fights over which maps are the valid ones. Everyone tries to palm their maps off on everyone else, to make others see that the world is green because they themselves are green. Obviously, the world of the green ones would also become the centre of the world, if everyone else would accept that the world was green.

The world varies according to who you are. Does everybody experience the world in completely different ways than everybody else? No. Bourdieu shows us that the various ways in which we experience the world are systematic all the same and, we can look people over the shoulder and classify them, accordingly. When sociologists embark on tasks like that, they categorise people according to, for instance, income or occupation. People of higher social ranking enjoy greater opportunities and more status because they have more money.

However, there are more aspects that need consideration when one is to analyse and describe how social systems function. Status and opportunity depend on many different factors; e.g. if one has a good network, if one has the power of speech, what style one has, in what way one moves, etc. Bourdieu calls all these various components capital. Capital earns you reputation and enables you to do things. Financial capital is but one form of capital. Other forms of capital are social capital, cultural capital, political capital, linguistic capital. Bourdieu sorts people according to how much capital they have and how their capital is meted out among the various forms of capital.

This does not complete the sociologist’s job, however, because the people who walk the streets of the city, drive through the country, do the spring-cleaning or dig the garden always have a way with the world and act in specific ways. This is where things become systematic: the way you understand the world and act in it is in agreement with where in society you find yourself. Social structures have inscribed themselves in the bodies and minds of individuals so that we always view the world from a particular social position.

A person’s social position is a viewpoint; a point is but an infinitesimal element in the entire social world – however, because it is a viewpoint the entire social world may be contained in the point. A certain kind of circularity is at work here: people who are grouped together all develop the same point of views and people with the same point of views get together. Subsequently, they confirm each other in the belief that their map of the world corresponds to the world – to be sure, that the whole world is green.

Bourdieu expresses this by saying that the social and mental structures are homologuous. When the mental structures are reproductions of the social structures it is hard to change the world. It is not enough to change the social structures because they will relapse into the old structures maintained by people’s maps.

Bourdieu borrows a concept from the world of physics to describe this: hysteresis. Hysteresis means that an effect continues to linger although the cause has disappeared. When you magnetise iron, magnetisation continues after the active stimulation has ceased.

The social world is hysterical because people feel at ease in their worlds. They have learned to find their way with their maps, e.g. what is appropriate for men and what is appropriate for women. When decisions are made to change social structures, people will continue to navigate according to the old maps, which is why the world is inclined to revert to its old position: This is hysteresis.

We may, for example, decide that men and women must have equal opportunities on the job market, or that black and white people must have equal access to education; but the question of which jobs or lines of education it is appropriate to pursue is embedded within their mental structures – their experience of the world. Just because formal equality may have been achieved it does not mean that an actual state of equality will occur.

There is an order in the world. This order is not based on external categorisations only; it is also based on a number of mental pictures and a practical turn of mind within each of us. Society is not simply something outside ourselves; it is internalised by each of us as a point of view.


Capital and hysteresis. We have already introduced two of Bourdieu’s central concepts and there are more to come. Why can’t we just say “power”? Why make such a fuss about language? That is because everyday speech is itself part of a map that has drawn and painted the world. The world has been demarcated and coloured by common sense which has posited its figures in the concepts of language.

Preferably, science is capable of something more than merely repeating common sense. If science just repeats that the world is green, it does not contribute with new knowledge and insight. In order to say something new which individuals cannot see themselves from the vantage point of their pea pod, science has to break away from those concepts that reproduce common sense. For this reason Bourdieu invents and renews a number of concepts and assembles them into a theoretical machine that he may feed with existing meaning, ideas and opinions. Even common sense has its own term in Bourdieu’s language: it is called doxa.



In fractal geometry you find the contention that a pattern can be limited in its immediate spatial extension and infinite in the expansion and levels of its repetition.  From a boat on the ocean you can contemplate the form of the coast. If you sail closer to land you cannot see the entire stretch of the coast any longer, only a small part of it. You rediscover the same form but on a smaller scale. You sail even closer to the coast and find the same form on an even smaller stretch. You go ashore and discover that the pebbles lie in the same patterned formation. You pick up a shell and see a pattern with the same form. You break off a small piece and observe through a magnifying glass that the pattern repeats itself. You consult a book and discover that the structure of molecules take a similar form. Perhaps the planets are modelled on the same pattern. It’s a dizzying thought which nevertheless proves itself in complex systems across scales. The dizzying thought is this: apparently there is a kind of order in chaos and this order is repeated on several levels.


Bourdieu does fractal sociology. He has set himself the task of proving the idea of order in social life. How come the cars in the big roundabout on Place de la Bastille do not crash but steer clear of each other in the seeming chaos of indeterminate lanes and find their way out in the right direction? Anyone who has driven a car for a longer duration of time in Italy knows that the image we have of Italian traffic in northern Europe does not hold good. Traffic in Italy is not total anarchy. For sure the give-way markings are not respected, overtakings do take place in unusual ways and, yes, they beep in tailbacks. But the signs of traffic and the performance of the car mean something else because these are placed in a completely different a context. Give-way markings do not mean that you have to give way in practice; it means “you have to worm your way out, then the others will give way”. A red light does not mean stop or no driving; it means that the one with a red light is relatively more responsible for avoiding a crash than the one who has a green light.

Bourdieu is not interested in reconstructing the traffic rules of social life. That is what they do in the legal profession. He is interested in reconstructing how practice works regularly, how this regularity has a normative influence on people and how there is consistency (homology) between different regularities, for example, how ‘driving ability’ in one form of traffic is transferred to other specific forms of traffic. In the legal practice they are busy with driving licences; Bourdieu is busy with driving abilities in the traffic of social life.