Reapproaching Bourdieu’s relational sociology through Social Network Analysis: Some methodological breakthroughs

Year: 2019

Author: Mu, Guanglun, Michael

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Bourdieu carved out a distinctive analytical niche for his reflexive sociology. His epistemological tool of field analysis, sometimes coupled with statistical correspondence analysis, is particularly powerful when deciphering the matrix of objective structures and subjective structures within social spaces (field) where agents vie for positions (capital), strategise dispositions (habitus), and negotiate practices. When grappling with the inner workings of the social world and the logic of practice within the social world, Bourdieu favours his field theory over network theory and considers correspondence analysis to be superior to Social Network Analysis.

In this paper, I engage in a critical response to Bourdieu’s epistemological stances. First, I review Bourdieu’s criticism of network theory for its substantialism that reduces social practice to direct interactions. For Bourdieu, the logic of practice evolves with symbolic relations within field. Second, I revisit some fundamentals of Social Network Analysis. The advancement of contemporary Social Network Analysis has the capacity to ponder over the matrix of direct social connections and probe into the symbolic power relations within social connections. I therefore argue that there is no incommensurability between Bourdieu and Social Network Analysis.

After establishing the conceptual basis, I make some attempts to incorporate Social Network Analysis into Bourdieu’s analytical framework and to expand the Bourdieusian arsenal by adding a Social Network Analysis component. To this end, I showcase my empirical research conducted in an urban community school in Beijing, China. I draw on Social Network Analysis to delve into the field dynamics within the community school where Beijing children and floating children, the latter of whom moved with their migrant parents from rural regions to Beijing, learn and grow together. The inclusive and enabling pedagogies of the community school recognise the rural dispositions of floating children and create relatively equal field positions between Beijing children and floating children.

I conclude the paper with a call for a critical extension to Bourdieu’s canonical framing. Bourdieu himself explicitly argues against “methodological monotheism”. In this vein, Bourdieu’s theory-laden analytical framework does not exclude other methodological approaches. The attempt to engage with Bourdieu-informed Social Network Analysis is an intellectual exercise within a field of mediation that dissolves the seemingly insurmountable oppositions between different epistemological schools. Results from the empirical case show emergent habitus within a changing field landscape. This refutes the mistaken criticism of Bourdieu for determinism.