The Invention of the State: Bourdieu Between Bearn and Kabylia

Franck Poupeau

Pierre Bourdieu’s On the State, based on a three-year lecture course he taught at the Collège de France, was published earlier this year. Franck Poupeau interprets the book and makes us ask: what kind of self is needed to confront the social ills of the twenty-first century? And can the state—or at least Bourdieu—help us get there?

Editor’s note: Pierre Bourdieu’s On the State, based on a three-year lecture course he taught at the Collège de France, was published earlier this year. It comprises his most systematic and capacious exposition of the state as an object for sociological inquiry, presenting the development of a working theoretical framework in real time. In this piece, Franck Poupeau interprets the book in the context of Bourdieu’s early fieldwork in Algeria, uncovering the postcolonial conditions for his interest in the state and its pivotal role in setting the terms by which social life is enacted. The result is a new interpretation of Bourdieu’s entire project: an attempt to identify the role of the state in both constituting and impeding the synthesis of the social self, as well as its embodiment of the ideological contradictions (integrationist and domineering, universalizing and exclusive) which defined Bourdieu himself as a consecrated heretic in the French academy. At a time when Bourdieu’s scholarly legacy remains open for debate, and nation-states around the world face existential challenges in the form of financialization, political revolution, and refugee crisis, Poupeau makes us ask: what kind of self is needed to confront the social ills of the twenty-first century? And can the state—or at least Bourdieu—help us get there?

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Pierre Bourdieu’s posthumos publication Sur l’Etat (On the State)[1] presents the courses that he taught at the Collège de France between 1989 and 1992. The book is interesting not only because it presents a very unknown dimension of the sociologist’s work—his oral transmission of knowledge—but also because it really shows his thinking in progress: going back and forth, doubting and wavering about his own approach and his own way of questioning this “unthinkable reality” named “the state”. It offers a familiar image of Bourdieu himself for those who could go to his seminars, but for a larger public, it offers an unusual vision of a sociology that is sometimes reduced to a system of classical concepts (habitus, capital, field, etc.).

This article focuses on a specific dimension of Sur l’Etat. Bourdieu relied on information gleaned from most of his past research, especially his first fieldwork in Algeria in the 1950’s. However, the presence of the French state in this context of colonial domination appears marginal to the analytical framework applied by Bourdieu, who first went to Algeria with the French army and stayed on as a teacher at the University of Algiers. This article ascertains the degree to which an analysis of colonial domination underpins Bourdieu’s analytical model of the “universal” state (of which Europe and, particularly, France are the self-proclaimed representatives[2]), and to identify the very conditions of possibility underpinning his project to develop a sociology of the state capable of describing the state’s emergence and its peculiar efficacy.[3]

Colonial Domination in Bourdieu’s Analysis

A parenthetical remark made by Bourdieu in the third year of the course provides a good starting point: “[E]verything that I have been saying for many years now is a long commentary on the phrase, ‘French Republic,’”[4] an object symbolized by the letters ‘RF,’ the flag, the bust of Marianne, and the President of the Republic. The French Republic is at once secular and universalist, colonialist and nationalist.[5] From the outset, this remark about the French Republic addresses a sensitive point: what the Republic defines is also what it excludes and rejects as its other, outside its realm. If to be French is to locate oneself in this symbolic space, to become French is to pass the threshold of that space, to salute the flag, sing the national anthem, and recognize the authority of the state and its representatives.

In effect, the particularity of the French colonial state was that it provided the inhabitants of conquered territories with French nationality, without necessarily giving them either citizenship or the rights associated with it. The Sénatus-consulte of July 14, 1865 for colonial Algeria defines the civic status of Muslims: “the indigenous Muslim is French; nevertheless, he will continue to be governed by Muslim law.” Until the order of October 7, 1944, indigenous Muslims could only become citizens if they renounced their personal Koranic status. In his first article on the “Shock of Civilizations,” published in 1959, Bourdieu provides an analysis of the Sénatus-consulte, which he views as a form of land law designed to restructure land ownership and fragment the tribes, seen as obstacles to “pacification.” The colonial administration’s approach is presented as a process of “land dispossession” that led to the “disappearance of traditional social units (fractions and tribes) and their replacement by abstract and arbitrary administrative units, the douars, an approximate transposition of the French municipal unit.”[6] The word “state” is not employed in that context, but in Sociologie de l’Algérie Bourdieu makes the following comment about the period: “between the years 1830 and 1880, the state attempted to install colonists on the land that it had grabbed, purchased or liberated.”[7]

The state in question in this last text is what could be described as the French “Metropolitan” state, rather than the colonial state in the sociological sense of the term defined by George Steinmetz.[8] The colonies were territories the sovereignty of which had been appropriated by an external political power, and which, without having the formal legal status of a state, were “permanent and coercive institutions exercising a relative monopoly of violence within defined territories.” It should also be added that French Algeria was specific in at least one regard: the colonies on the North African coast became French départements in 1848, thereby diminishing any pretentions to sovereignty on the part of existing colonial governments. From this point of view, the geographical proximity of Algeria added extra impetus to the French assimilationist project.

It is clear that Bourdieu was aware of how the French state imposed models on its colonized societies, for example, with his introduction of the douars. Still, it comes as little surprise that Bourdieu does not think of French Algeria as a colonial state. This is because Algeria was formally a block of three French départements, though Frédérik Cooper demonstrates that the fiction of Algeria being an integral part of France is contradicted by the fact that the majority of its non-Muslim colonists had pan-Mediterranean roots, while most of the Muslim population identified with the Arabs, or Bedouins.[9] In addition, unlike the notion of the “colonial situation” theorized in 1955 by Georges Balandier, the concept of the colonial state had not yet been formulated. Indeed, the question of its specificity was not even posed, since colonialism was seen as a simple transposition of the forms of the Western state onto foreign societies.[10] Neo-Weberian theories of colonial administration, which treat the economic and political interests of the Metropolitan state as determining the form of the institutions of the colonial state, considerably postdate Bourdieu’s research on Algeria as well as his course on the state. It is nevertheless curious to note that Bourdieu, who integrates a cultural logic into his analyses of the economic destructuration of traditional societies, did not attempt to understand “the socio-cultural logic of the formation of the state” during this period. According to Daniel Goh, cultural studies later enabled him to do just that: “what these approaches have in common is the idea that the official representatives of Western countries did not only go to live in the colonies with a desire to develop a policy based on self-interest, but that they also brought with them representations of indigenous societies.”[11] The urgency of war and its destructive effects on colonial society could explain why Bourdieu put any reflection on the cultural aspects of the situation on hold.[12]

Rather than focusing exclusively on the mechanics of the colonial administration, [Bourdieu’s] analysis of the effects of a capitalist economy on a pre-capitalist one emphasizes the fragmentation of traditional society.

Bourdieu’s research on Algeria focuses on the colonial situation as a meeting between two economies, and his analysis takes into account the “cultural” characteristics that govern how those economies function. Rather than focusing exclusively on the mechanics of the colonial administration, his analysis of the effects of a capitalist economy on a pre-capitalist one emphasizes the fragmentation of traditional society. Bourdieu is not interested in taking the colonial situation as state domination, but in “domination effects,” a concept that he borrowed from François Perroux. He studied destructuration effects at the socio-spatial level of the internment camps in Le Déracinement (1964); at the level of the relationship of Algerian sub-proletarians to work and time in Travail et travailleurs en Algérie (1963); and, more broadly, at the level of the generalized collapse of the symbolic economy of the colonized society (honor, kinship, time, etc.). He was therefore not interested in what constitutes the unity of the colonial situation, namely the ascendancy of a particular state exercised on either side of the Mediterranean.

However, this is not enough to explain why Bourdieu did not use his experience of the colonial administration in his later analyses of the state. The explanation is to be sought elsewhere, in the interstices between his texts and his life trajectory, and in the space of the thinkable available to him, the limits of which he never ceased challenging, notably in terms of his analysis of the imposition of a dominant cultural order.

Kabilyia and the Béarn in a Same Research Perspective

In his article, “Pour Abdelmalek Sayad,”[13] Bourdieu talks of his relations with the Algerian sociologist in very strong terms. Although Sayad had been his student, his principal informer, his field guide, and then, from 1958, his co-author, Bourdieu compares their relationship, characterized by silent understanding, with his relationship with his own father. He writes of having taken Sayad to his home village in the Pyrenees, where he was doing research on the causes of celibacy among the eldest sons of peasant families. Bourdieu writes that,he understood immediately, thereby helping me to understand (…) the roots of my interest for the peasants of Kabylia.”

Bourdieu’s texts on Algeria have to be compared here to his research on the French Béarn. There is no methodical and coherent “comparison” between the two fields of study based on defined criteria (types of activity, economic indicators, kinship systems, etc.); there is, instead, a much stronger link that could almost be described as an interweaving of texts and themes. Kabylia and the Béarn, thought of together, provide a way out of the “national” framework in which researchers, be they ethnologists or sociologists, tend to become ensnared. The two thought of together: not, as has often been maintained, Kabylia imagined on the basis of the Béarn, or the Béarn reimagined in the light of Kabylia; but, instead, Kabylia and the Béarn thought together and simultaneously, the Béarn in Kabylia and inversely,[14] in a process of “denationalization” of categories of analysis and of the symbolic violence that affects the two situations. On his return to France, Bourdieu began to view the education system as a colonial power that subjected and humiliated social classes bereft of the legitimate bourgeois culture that the system recognizes and institutes. Evoking in “Entre amis”[15] his relation to the traditional objects of ethnology in Algeria, Bourdieu writes, “I should also mention my research on peasants in Kabylia and the Béarn. Why the Béarn? In order to avoid falling into the trap of the compassionate ethnologist in awe of the human wealth of an unjustly despised population, etc., and to put a distance between myself and my informers that allowed for familiarity. I often asked myself, when talking to a Kabilyian informer, how a Béarnais peasant would have reacted in a similar situation.” 

The denominations themselves are revealing: “informers” rather than enquêtés (“respondents”), a term widely employed in the social sciences even today. The “objectivist distance” created by the relationship of exteriority with the most familiar situations, such as the bachelor’s ball, does not encourage the researcher to treat social facts as pure “things” or “objects of inquiry.” Indeed, it has an affective, subjectivist pendant: informers exist when one seeks to get to know a world better, or when one has already penetrated a world to which interlocutors give form from the inside, a world that they in-form. Bourdieu addresses this affective relation in referring in an interview to the article written about him by Yvette Delsaut, an article that he compared to Sayad’s perspective on his native Béarn. She “wrote an article about me in which she said, quite correctly, that Algeria is what enabled me to accept myself.  I was able to apply the comprehensive, ethnological viewpoint that I adopted in regard to Algeria to myself, to the people of my region, to my parents, to my mother and father’s accents, and to reappropriate all that, without drama, which is one of the problems faced by all deracinated intellectuals, trapped in a choice between populism on the one hand and, on the other, a self-loathing linked to class racism. I applied the obligatory comprehensive perspective that defines the ethnological discipline to people very similar to the Kabyles, people with whom I spent my childhood. My photography, first in Kabylia, then in the Béarn doubtless contributed greatly to this conversion in terms of perspective that presupposed—and I don’t think it’s too strong a word—a real conversion.”

Although the influence of cultural anthropology was to disappear in later editions of Sociologie de l’Algérie, it is a matter of record that Bourdieu’s Algerian experience was decisive. Indeed, he acknowledges the fact on several occasions: “I came back from Algeria with an ethnological experience which, acquired under the difficult circumstances of a war of independence, marked, for me, a decisive break with my educational experience.”[16] Educational experience is, of course, understood to be the “scholastic bias” associated with a certain philosophical posture, as well as a structuralist objectivism designed to provide a commanding, neutral overview of so-called “cold” societies. But we can also see in the term a reference to two properly academic experiences: the preparatory class for the Louis Le Grand lycée in Paris, and the time Bourdieu spent boarding at the lycée in Pau. In regard to both experiences, he expresses the sentiment that he was never really at home, that he felt deracinated; but he also, no doubt, developed a resolve to master the dominant codes to which “the colonized of the interior” are generally subject.

Bourdieu describes the particularities of his habitus and their links to the cultural particularities of his region of origin, particularities that he was able to “better perceive and understand by analogy with [what he read] about the ‘temperament’ of cultural or linguistic minorities like the Irish.”[17] Minorities whose specificities are denied by the process of the invention of the state: this was the function assigned to the education system and the Army in the French Third Republic. The Army in terms of the conquest of Algeria, and the education system, which introduced Bourdieu to another “probable future”: the one enjoyed by the “over-selected,” but at the cost of a social divide with his original milieu. Thus, when he wrote of the startling contrast between the world of the boarding school and the normal, sometimes exulting the “world of the classroom,” he described two realities: on the one hand, “a world of study, populated by boarders from the country or small local towns” [and] “on the other, the classroom, with its professors, with their observations and grueling trials […]. And there were also the day boys and girls, like slightly unreal foreigners, in their flamboyant clothes […] so very different from our gray blouses, and different also in their manners and preoccupations, which were obviously characteristic of an inaccessible universe […]. Much later, in the preparatory class for the Louis le Grand lycée, I found once again the same demarcation line between the boarders, bearded provincials with gray blouses and string belts, and the Parisian day boys, who deeply impressed a French teacher of modest provincial origins, avid for intellectual recognition, with the bourgeois elegance of their demeanor, as well as the literary pretentions of their scholarly productions.” A re-emergent colonial relationship between the center and the periphery, this one inside, rather than outside Metropolitan France.

His reappraisal of the duality of his educational experiences helped him to understand that his “very deep ambivalence in regard to the world of education perhaps had its roots in the discovery that there was another aspect to the exaltation of the diurnal and supremely respectable face of school, namely the degradation inherent in its nocturnal flipside, displayed in the scorn of the dayboys for the culture of the boarding school and the children of small rural communes,” with whom he shared “among other things, the feelings of confusion and helplessness provoked by certain cultural phenomena.” This “tension between contraries, never resolved in a harmonious synthesis,” can be considered as the key point and the impetus of his theory about the invention of the state.

The Double Reality of the State

Bourdieu was clearly aware of the way in which the French state had remodeled “traditional” society since the nineteenth century. He mentions it indirectly in the course—and it is doubtless an advantage of the aural as opposed to the written medium that it produces associations of ideas concerning the unthought dimension of the state—at a particularly revealing moment, when he addresses the double face of the state: domination and integration, monopolization and unification.[18] It is not a question of an antinomy “between two theories,”—Marxism versus French Republican theory—but of an antinomy “inherent in the very functioning of the state”: the modern state is at once progress toward universalization (de-particularization, etc.), and a vector of the monopolization of this same universal (concentration of power). Bourdieu adds: “In a certain way, it could be said that integration—which should be understood in the Durkheimian sense, but also in the sense of those who talked about the integration of Algeria […]—is the precondition of domination.” Bourdieu cites cultural unification as the condition of cultural domination, the unification of the linguistic market which “creates patois, bad accents, dominated languages,” in the same way that the unification of the market of symbolic goods explains celibacy in Bearn. This idea of a process of unification which is at the same time a process of universalization, which Bourdieu presents as a break with Weber and Elias, is associated with the construction of a unified social space linked to the state as “holder of a meta-capital that makes it possible to partially dominate the way in which various fields function.” This unification of a homogeneous and de-particularized space occurs in relation to a central locus—which “in the French case, attains its limit”—that tends to replace personal relations (jus sanguinis) with territorial relations (jus loci) by constituting groups. It is significant that, in this instance, Bourdieu mentions Kabylia and the conflict between the principles of clan-based and territorial unification.[19]

This is how he explains his example: “the village [Bourdieu is writing about Sayad’s village] on which I worked was composed of two agnatic clans: all the members of the clans regarded themselves as descendants of a single ancestor, as cousins – their terms of address were kinship terms. They shared more or less mythical genealogies; at the same time, the village unit encompassed the two halves in a single, territory-based unit and, therefore, there was a kind of wavering between the two structures. I had great difficulty in understanding this because, with the local structure in my unconscious, I wasn’t clear in my mind about this territorial unit—the village—which, in the end, did not exist. Compared to the family, the clan and the tribe, the village unit was an artifact that only existed as a consequence of the existence of bureaucratic structures – there was a town hall … In many societies, it is still possible to observe this kind of oscillation between two forms of belonging, one based on a lineage group, the other on a place. The state thus installs a unified space and ensures that geographical proximity predominates over social, genealogical proximity.” Bourdieu is well aware of the fact that “traditional society” is a product of colonial domination, as is demonstrated in the passage on the Algerian village quoted above, in which he admits to have found it hard to understand that this French administrative unit “did not, in the end, exist,” that it was “an artifact that ended up existing as a consequence of the existence of bureaucratic structures” transported from Metropolitan France to the colony.

After giving this example, Bourdieu examines the unification of the national state and obligatory education—the education system being an instrument of integration, which enables submission—before moving on to another example of unification, this time of the marriage market, a kind of résumé of the colonization of the French countryside. He then evokes the phenomenon of male celibacy in the Béarn as the “incarnation of the unification of the market of symbolic goods in which women circulate.”[20] In this instance, the protected local market is annexed by the national market, notably by means of the education system and the media. Once again, Bourdieu mentions Algeria, pointing out that, “submission and dispossession are not antagonistic to integration; indeed, integration is their precondition. (…) This mode of slightly twisted thought is difficult because we are so used to thinking of integration as the opposite of exclusion: it is hard to understand that, to be excluded, or to be dominated, one must first be integrated. If we take the example of the struggle over “French Algeria,” we should ask why those most unfavorable to integration became, at a certain moment, integrationists? It is because, in order to dominate the Arabs, it was necessary to integrate them, to transform them into “bougnoules,” racially scorned, dominated individuals.”

There are not, therefore, two Algerias in Bourdieu’s work, but a double reality of the state: integration and domination, unification and monopolization. A double reality without which Bourdieu would never have been able to become what he was, without having been “torn” from his original milieu by the French education system and his success in the school and university systems. Of course, Bourdieu did not go as far as to say explicitly that the Republican, secular and universalist state is colonialist in its very principles. A colonialist state is nestled at the heart of an emancipatory project based on equality and homogeneity, which is its mirror image or double as well as its condition of possibility. As such, the Algerian failure is the failure of the secular, Republican model[21] of which Pierre Bourdieu is a product, at once an academic phenomenon and a rebel.


Such a reading of Bourdieu’s experience of domination and of the colonial state sheds new light on his theorization of the state. It also suggests why, with the exception of a few articles, his analysis of the state remains incomplete and unpublished except as course notes, from which he extracted the most “objective” aspect: the socio-historical model and the analysis of the twin process of monopolization and the division of labor of domination associated with the invention of the state.

Franck Poupeau is Senior Researcher at the French CNRS and director of the International Joint Unit iGLOBES (CNRS/University of Arizona). After training in philosophy, he obtained his PhD in Sociology from the EHESS in Paris, following a three-year stint as a research assistant to Pierre Bourdieu at the Collège de France. His interests include urban inequality, education and segregation, social movements and environmental sociology, and the sociology of knowledge and politics, with a focus France and the Andes. Poupeau has published over six books and 50 articles in in French, Spanish, and English in peer-reviewed journals of sociology, anthropology, urban studies, education, geography, and Latin American studies. He coordinates several international grants on water conflicts and urban inequalities.

References and Footnotes

  1. Bourdieu, P. 2012. Sur l’Etat, Paris, Raisons d’agir/Seuil.
  2. For example, Bourdieu writes that “it is impossible to understand the specific logic of French colonialism and of decolonization, which took an unusually dramatic form, without taking into account the fact that France, due the particularity of its history and its Revolution, has always thought of itself as the vector of universal values.” 2012. Sur l’Etat, Paris, Raisons d’agir/Seuil. Pp. 562-563
  3. Go, J. 2009. The ‘New’ Sociology of Empire and Colonialism, Sociology Compass, 3/5:775-788; Go, J. 2013. For a postcolonial sociology, Theory and Society, 2013, 42:25-55
  4. Bourdieu, P. 2012. Sur l’Etat, Paris, Raisons d’agir/Seuil. P.462
  5. Conklin, A. 1997. A Mission to Civilize. The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa (1875-1930), Stanford, Stanford University Press
  6. Bourdieu, P. 2013. Algerian Sketches, New York, Polity Press. P.66 ed fr.
  7. Bourdieu, P. 1958. Sociologie de l’Algérie. P.108
  8. Steinmetz, G. 2008. L’État colonial comme champ, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, Pp.171-172,122-143
  9. Cooper, F. 2010. Le colonialisme en question. Théorie, connaissance, histoire, Paris, Payot
  10. Goh, D. 2008. Genèse de l’Etat colonial, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, Pp.171-172
  11. Ibid. P.58
  12. P. Bourdieu, « Entre amis », Esquisses algériennes, op.cit., p.352: “I presented an initial critical summary of what I had gleaned from my readings and observations in the book published in the “Que sais-je?” series entitled Sociologie de l’Algérie by applying the theoretical instruments available to me at the time, or, in other words, those provided by the cultural anthropology tradition, but critically reappraised (with, for example, a distinction between the colonial situation as a relationship of domination, and ‘acculturation’).”
  13. Bourdieu, P. 2013. Algerian Sketches, New York, Polity Press. Pp.295-300
  14. Wacquant, L. 2004. “Following Pierre Bourdieu into the Field,” Ethnography, 5(4):387-414
  15. Bourdieu, P. 2013. Algerian Sketches, New York, Polity Press. Pp.288-294
  16. Bourdieu, P. 2004. Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, Paris, Raisons d’agir. P.54
  17. Ibid.
  18. Bourdieu, P. 2012. Sur l’Etat, Paris, Raisons d’agir/Seuil. P.351
  19. Ibid. P.353
  20. Ibid. P.360
  21. Luizard, J.-P. 2006. La politique coloniale de Jules Ferry en Algérie et en Tunisie, in Luizard J.-P. (ed.), Le choc colonial et l’islam. Les politiques religieuses des puissances coloniales en terres d’islam, Paris, La Découverte, Pp.89-120