Relationality is deeply embedded in the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (pictured). Bourdieu himself has stated that ‘the real is relational’ (from Practical Action, 1998). His famous conception of distinction represents, for
Bourdieu, ‘nothing other than difference, a gap, a distinctive feature, in short, a relational property existing only in and through its relation with other properties’. This relational turn, however, has a particular meaning that takes it away from the concept of intersubjectivity, which underpins much of Dirty Looks. The relations Bourdieu positions at the centre of social analysis, are ‘not interactions between agents and intersubjective ties between individuals’, but objective relations.
This explicit denial of the relational as an intersubjective property (denial in the sense that he thought it unimportant), however, has created a number of difficulties that hang over his work. Wendy Bottero presents a useful summary of three problems: To paraphrase, Bourdieu privileges relations between social positions at the expense of
exploring the substance of these positions; assumptions about the interactional properties of habitus, field and social space are left unexamined, and thirdly, the neglect of the interactional character of social networks leads to a disengagement with the intersubjective world, one that may have significant value to his overall theory. By actively avoiding the intersubjective domain, Bourdieu has effectively delivered a one-sided theory of relationality, a one-sidedness that weakens his claims for habitus as a bulwark against cartesianism.
This disengagement with the intersubjective is a shame, as it neglects to comprehend the unavoidably relational contexts that people inhabit, exposing the habitus of classed
existence as a rather flat theoretical landscape, shorn of ambivalence, complexity, and most importantly, agency. The power of others is a significant force in people’s lives, regardless of whatever social location they find themselves in, an issue that casts some doubt on the veracity of a purely ‘objective’ account of classed relations. Authors such as Anthony King, however, have pointed to the existence of a second strand of Bourdieu’s writing that ‘emphasizes virtuosic, intersubjective social practice’, a strand of thought King argues ‘offers a way out of the structure-agency problem without relapsing into either subjectivism or objectivism’. Given that Bourdieu believes this second relational strand ‘justifies the concept of the habitus’, it is confusing that Bourdieu simultaneously confirms and denies the importance of intersubjectivity to his theoretical apparatus. As King puts it, he fails ‘to take his own greatest insight seriously’, thereby slipping into the very objectivism ‘whose poverty he has done so much to highlight’.