Sociologising resilience with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of social change

four children standing on dirt during daytime

Human beings live in a universe of diversity. One response to such diversity is ‘lazy inclusivism’ that persists as an institutionalisation of ethical but tokenistic celebration of differences. Since tokenistic celebration portrays the human universe as a multichrome mosaic of monochrome blocs, lazy inclusivism reinforces social stereotyping of differences. At the same time, social differences, often than not, are arranged and perceived as a hierarchy rather than a spectrum. Consequently, assimilation into the dominant pole of the hierarchy remains a lure for the othered groups to happily leave their cultures and histories behind and achieve the so-called mobility. As competition for power and struggle for mobility continue, social reproduction persists. Most structural problems operate as symbolic violence that penetrates body and mind ‘gently’ but more brutally and effectively. With symbolic violence, change is rather difficult. To better understand the persistent social reproduction, I have recourse to Bourdieu’s sociology.

For a long time, I read Pierre Bourdieu as merely a theorist of reproduction. Yet a careful trawl through his oeuvre illustrates some insightful analyses of fundamental social changes that have long been overlooked in the literature. It is this line of Pierre Bourdieu’s work that made me read him also as a theorist of social transformation. In this column, I first bring to light some of Pierre Bourdieu’s engagements with social change – sometimes rendered in the form of subtext, sometimes elaborated convincingly in his writing. Following the route of the famed sociologist, I share with the reader my tentative sociological foray into social change through my work with some Chinese and Australian young people who are labelled as ‘at risk’ and made disadvantaged. These young people demonstrate resilience to symbolic violence by protesting against any arbitrary labelling and social stereotyping imposed on them. In the final part of the article, I sociologise the traditional psychological notion of resilience. I argue that psychology of resilience, despite its positive framing, may fall prey to neoliberalised agenda. The emphasis on individual responsibilisation in precarious situations cloaks structural problems and reproduces pre-existing system flaws and persistent power imbalances. Sociology of resilience differs in its attempts to deconstruct and reconstruct the self, dissect the unquestioned doxa and nomos, challenge the conservative orthodoxy, and spark possibilities for transformational change.

Situating Pierre Bourdieu in social change 

In The Algerians (1961), Pierre Bourdieu presented a thorough examination of ‘a complete transformation of the old Algeria’ (p. 190). He attributed the Algerian social transformation to multifarious factors, including the sizable and durable colonial enterprise, the unusual appeal and deep penetration of French culture, the large-scale European settlement in Algeria and its exerted influence through the power of example, the setting up of a capitalistic economy, the prolonged war of liberation, and the severe control of civil and military administration. Pierre Bourdieu, therefore, concluded that all these social dynamics ‘had a direct or an indirect effect on all spheres of existence and on all social classes’ (p. 190).

In a chapter titled Changes in Social Structure and Changes in Demand for Education (1978), Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski documented the transition of the French economic field from ‘a personal … to a structural mode of domination’ (p. 203). This transition saw traditional domestic enterprises sacrifice their freedom to company finances characterised by depersonalised training, recruitment and promotion, as well as standardised channels of communication and rationalised procedures of written regulations and orders. Attendant with such economic transition was the increasing household expense on cultural goods that required at least a certain amount of cultural capital to consume. Concomitantly, new habitus evolved in forms of ‘an aptitude for discussion and negotiation, a knowledge of foreign language, and perhaps especially, civilised and subtle manners’ (p. 205). Such new habitus embodied ‘a new symbolism of excellence’ that replaced traditional ‘institutional insignia’ such as honours and ‘natural insignia’ such as ‘grey hair and portliness’ and ‘forceful and surly roughness’ (pp. 204-205).

The transformed economic field in France also brought crisis to peasant society. The Bachelor’s Ball (2008) analysed such crisis through which the Béarn community shifted from ‘the closed world to the infinite universe’ (p. 174). With the post-World War I price rising in national and global markets, the traditional prosperous and secure peasant class declined; the previously enclosed agrarian microcosm with its hierarchies morphed into an urbanised social space that pressed peasants to a subordinate position; and the increasing preference of peasant daughters marrying townsfolk after the World War II accelerated the spread of urban ethos, degraded peasant sons as uneducated, and consigned them to bachelorhood. All these social changes destructed the traditional, agrarian peasant society.

In addition to the above are crumbs of analyses of possible social mobility in Pierre Bourdieu’s writings. In The State Nobility (1996), he discussed the ‘surprising’ downward social mobility of students from favourable backgrounds whose ‘deviant trajectories’ led them to the pole opposite to the position ‘to which they were promised and which was promised to them’ (p. 184). The gap between their individual trajectory and the modal trajectory of their group of origin often led to unstable stances fraught with constant shifts or, in time, reversals. In Pascalian Meditations (2000), Pierre Bourdieu indicated possibilities for upward social mobility through ‘a margin of freedom.’ To break the circle of expectations and chances requires a belief that any future, whether desired or feared, is possible, probable, or inevitable. Such emancipatory belief can incite the unthinkable and ‘raise expectations beyond the objective chances’ (p. 236). Apart from ‘inspired and uplifting performative evocation of the future’ (p. 234), the symbolic transgression of pre-existing positions and dispositions is also visible in the actions of subversion, provocation, and iconoclasm that destruct the imposed limits.

It is accurate to claim that theorising and problematising reproduction is a red thread in Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology. However, it is epistemologically naïve and fallacious to merely read Pierre Bourdieu as a theorist of reproduction. As I have discussed above, Pierre Bourdieu is not ignorant of change and liberty, although engagement with such is only sporadically scattered in his works. For Pierre Bourdieu, change is possible and visible when agents are awakened from their epistemic slumber in pre-existing, objectively defined realities, with a firm belief that any arbitrary social structures are not fossil but fragile, cannot be taken for granted but contested. Nevertheless, the awakening of critical conscious in itself may not suffice for social change. When pushed beyond the threshold, any critical conscious would become foolhardy and unrealistic. To introduce change, the structures that are contested must themselves be in a state of crisis that favours uncertainty about them. Informed by this transformative Bourdieusian perspective, I have made some tentative attempts to search subversive strategies and emancipatory practices in context of uncertainty.

Children at a structural disadvantage as agents for change   

Looking for traces of social change in an era of profound reproduction of power imbalance is no doubt challenging. My work with Chinese floating children and left-behind children inspired me to take up the challenge. Floating children are those who moved out of rural communities with their parents who currently work as labourers in cities. Without an urban hukou (household registration), they face layers of problems accessing social welfare enjoyed by urban residents, particularly free public schooling. Left-behind children, as their name suggests, grew up in rural communities without parenting, looked after by their grandparents when their parents migrated to cities for work. Altogether, floating children and left-behind children constitute a massive population of 40 million. Over the past two decades, they have become increasingly visible against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation and large-scale internal migration in China. Their critical mass and mythical might and the uncertainties and crises brought about by the unprecedented urbanisation and migration create meaningful opportunities and strong potentials for probing and prodding change and transformation.

It is difficult to empirically dispute the socioeconomic disadvantage of floating children and left-behind children. Not surprisingly, these children are often labelled as ‘at risk’ in scholarly literature, policy documents, media reports, and public discourse. When such labelling is arbitrarily imposed on floating children and left-behind children, it becomes a form of symbolic violence, reinforcing the doxic stereotype that assigns to these already disadvantaged children a marginalised position in the mainstream society. Arbitrary labelling thus constructed entraps floating children and left-behind children in a modal trajectory. When children take their fate lying down and accept their given destiny, they are enculturated into an ontological complicity with symbolic violence. Consequently, doxic stereotyping and arbitrary labelling are inscribed in the deepest regions of their habitus as a penchant and propensity.

While my quantitative analysis of these children does suggest a statistical modal that social disadvantage perpetrates their wellbeing, what are infusive are the ‘statistical outliers’ who perform ‘unexpectedly’ well despite adversity. These outlier children tend to transform their destiny into a choice, by carrying to the extreme the modal trajectory assigned to them. The deviance of the statistical outliers from the statistical modal creates a gap between the individual trajectory of the outlier children and the modal trajectory of their group of origin. This very gap is reified in my subsequent ethnographic work. Some floating children and left-behind children rejected the deficit discourse imposed on them and redefined the ‘positive outcomes’ previously expected of them from the mainstream. Some children deliberately excluded themselves from the powerful institution of school that has already excluded them from the onset. By leaving school early, they pursued a career that fit them best, survived, and thrived. Some other children undertook excessive labour work as a means of contributing to their family. They took such contribution as pride and privilege rather than child exploitation or maltreatment commonly perceived by mainstream society. It is by no means my intention to celebrate their early school leaving or excessive labour work. Rather, I intend to bring to light their ‘against the grain’ identities. Denying mainstream yardsticks, they demonstrate sociological resilience to socially defined mores and statistically modelled norms.

Similar stories have also evidently emerged from my work with Australian children. In an interview with an immigrant student with a Burmese background, I found myself inadvertently drawn into his inner microcosmos. His family made a stepwise migration to Australia through Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia. When he told me about his experiences of poverty and uncertainty, hunger and danger, and bereavement of beloved family members, a piercing pain thrust into my heart and a twinge of sympathy fleeted into my mind. But as our conversation continued, these intense emotions evaporated from my body. He convinced me that his journey was full of attractions rather than distractions. He enjoyed an exploratory excursion rife with novel experiences as if he had never gone through a bumpy migration journey. What inspired and impressed me was not his psychological coping with his ‘at risk’ background but his sociological resistance to the arbitrary labelling of ‘at risk.’ His story made me realise that my intense emotions, although ethical and moral, were deeply rooted in a belief in social stereotyping, a habitus of one-upmanship. Thanks to him who powerfully subverted my worldview. He exercised power on the margins not in the way of neoliberalised adaptation to adversity, but in the way of sociological resilience to symbolic violence of arbitrary labelling. But how would Pierre Bourdieu’s work help to sociologise and problematise the psychological notion of resilience?

Sociologising resilience with Pierre Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu himself would have been engaged in a resilience process, without which he might have left his ethno-sociological work in Algeria unfinished due to the throes of war, political conflicts, social upheavals, and even the risk of being assassinated. These dysphoric situations did not fail but accelerated the scientific maturation of the youthful sociologist who himself once disclosed that those exceptional, extraordinarily difficult and dangerous conditions sharpened his vision through the ceaseless vigilance that they imposed on him. Interestingly, Pierre Bourdieu barely has any direct probe into resilience except his sporadic mentions of the ‘wonder boys’ in Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture (1990, p.175). Despite their working-class background, wonder boys succeeded ‘against all the odds,’ demonstrating a form of academic resilience. These wonder boys, together with the Chinese and Australian children, have taught me to ponder over my middle-class condescension that subliminally assumed myself as a redemptive salvager of the vulnerable. They pulled me outside my contemptuous habitus and woke me up from an inherited position of being in the centre and an inculcated disposition of being used to being in the centre. Such reflexive criticism of the ‘taken-for-grantedness’ is part and parcel of what I call a ‘sociology of resilience.’

Psychological resiliency celebrates individual tenacity and self-governance in the face of adversity. Of course, the personal attribute of resilient adaptation to adversity is laudable; but paradoxically the more adaptative the individuals to the structural problems, the more conservative the structural problems become. Behind psychological resiliency lurks an insidious agenda of self-exploitation and an ontological complicity between the resilient individual and symbolic violence. Sociology of resilience differs in its gist to deconstruct the nomos – the constituting point of view and the cultural arbitrariness of institution. Over the years, many children with whom I have worked show sociological thinking and doing of resilience. These children, with their extraordinary ordinariness, develop and deploy strategies of Reconciliation, Recalcitrance, Retreat, Redirection, Reconstruction, and Reflexivity in dysphoric, uncertain situations. These strategies constitute a Multi-Rs Sociological Model of Resilience.

Reconciliation manoeuvres agency to negotiate power, modifies the self for surviving and thriving in the field, but barely questions structural dominance in the field. Recalcitrance threatens the power of the powerful, challenges the orthodoxy of the field, but risks provoking cynicism and anarchism and bringing the self into disrepute. Retreat emancipates the self, opts out of an excluding field, hollows out dominant power, but may further marginalise the self to the subordinate pole of the field. Redirection temporarily withdraws the self from an oppressing space, seeks opportunities to return to the game with alternative solutions, but seldom transcends power imbalances. Reconstruction reframes failure positively, relearns negativities, but never deconstructs the root course of failure, leaving the structural problems behind failure largely untouched. Reflexivity turns a problematic situation into a sociological problem, brings transformational change to oneself and others, shakes existing power structures in the field, but remains an underutilised epistemological tool among most laypeople. Clearly, each R comes with opportunities and risks. As such, sociology of resilience is a promising but difficult task.

Over a long time, I have observed that school curriculum and public discourse are inundated with psychological resiliency, which shrouds system flaws in a cloak of ‘super kids’ who demonstrate the ‘magic’ of super functioning despite adversities. However, I have also observed many Chinese and Australian children astutely shifting power without taking power, defying the ignorance and arrogance of the dominant, questioning the unquestioned doxa and orthodoxy, and therefore, making social change possible, probable, and even inevitable. To force symbolic violence to retreat, sociology of resilience matters. By revealing the hidden laws of sense by consensus, recognition by misrecognition, position by imposition, vision by division, and parity by disparity, sociology of resilience has potential to break the circle of voluntary consent to the system and violent constraint by the system.


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Full Citation Information:
Mu, G. M. (2020). Sociologising resilience with Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of social change. PESA Agora.

Guanglun Michael Mu

Dr Guanglun Michael Mu is Senior Research Fellow in Queensland University of Technology. He is developing a sociology of resilience through his work with Chinese floating children and left-behind children in migration context; Chinese teachers in inclusive education context; and diverse student populations in Australia’s multicultural context. Michael’s work has been published into five books and numerous papers.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash