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1 In 2022, there were many publications to mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Pierre Bourdieu. This volume edited by Julien Duval, Johan Heilbron and Pernelle Issenhuth holds a special place among them by virtue of its subject, approach and period of study. It draws on Bourdieu’s theoretical contributions in order to retrace the social history of the sociological studies that he himself co-produced over more than a decade: first in Algeria and the Béarn region of France, then at the Centre for European Sociology (CSE), from its creation in 1959 by Raymond Aron until its splintering in 1969 and the creation of the Centre for the Sociology of Education and Culture (CSEC-CSE) headed by Bourdieu.

2 The book takes a series of steps away from the most common approaches to Bourdieu and his work, building on epistemological foundations that are presented in the introduction by Johan Heilbron. First of all, the book focuses not on Bourdieu’s mature years as a ‘“great author”, sovereign theoretician or intellectual of the first order’ (p. 11), but on the founding period of his conversion from philosophy to sociology and ethnology, when the research practices and theoretical concepts that would mark French sociology were developed. Second, rather than looking at fully realized theoretical works, it examines empirical studies (enquêtes). Drawing on materials from a number of archives – including the CSE and Bourdieu archives – and interviews with the protagonists, the authors study in detail how Bourdieu and his collaborators conducted their research. The choice to use empirical studies as a point of entry proves particularly illuminating. By looking at these enquêtes, the main activity of the group led by Bourdieu, the authors capture science in the making, while avoiding the ‘academic separation between theory, methodology and empirical research’ (p. 31). They also – and herein lies a third shift in perspective within the book – shed light on the collective nature of this research, deconstructing the narrative that idealizes Bourdieu’s personal achievements as a charismatic individual. Finally, as they situate these studies in their space of possibilities, the authors explore the intellectual activism of Bourdieu and his group, and the conditions underlying its transformation into a driver of scholarly research.

3 In a cross-cutting chapter, Johan Heilbron presents the environment surrounding Bourdieu’s group, that of the 1960s expansion of the social sciences. He then focuses in on the Centre for European Sociology, where Bourdieu took on a key role in 1961, its evolution over the following years, and its splintering after the politicization that followed the events of May 1968. Six studies – or rather six intertwined sets of studies – are examined in the book. Each one informs and influences the others, all within a single system of investigations, while evolving in response to social and political conditions, participants, and contextual opportunities. Over the course of the various chapters, the authors analyse the conditions of possibility of each study, the practices involved, and the development of key theoretical notions, such as ‘reflexivity’ and the ‘habitus’.

4 According to Amín Perez, this ‘new conception and … practice of the social sciences’ (p. 42) began with Bourdieu’s improbable ‘ethnographic experiments’ (p. 41) in Algeria in the late 1950s, in a context of anti-colonial war and conducted in close collaboration with an Algerian activist, Abdelmalek Sayad. Johan Heilbron and Pernelle Issenhuth then analyse Bourdieu’s ‘anamnestic’ studies in his native region of Béarn. As in Algeria, and calling on his own family and friends, Bourdieu turns his sociological gaze towards an entire village in order to investigate a farming society in crisis. These two sets of studies, one immediately following the other, confronted Bourdieu with the question of the scholar’s relationship to his subject – as an activist in one case, and a native in another. It was in this context that he progressively developed the concept of reflexivity.

5 The study on the social uses of photography (1962–1964) analysed here by Pernelle Issenhuth was the first collective study carried out by the CSE under Bourdieu’s leadership. It consists of a ‘system of studies combining different methods and multiple sites of observation’ (p. 177), drawing on both the Algerian experiment and the Béarn study, but framed as a research topic through collaboration with the Kodak company. In exploring this ‘minor object’, Bourdieu aimed to ‘develop a general aesthetic theory and move beyond the opposition between objectivist and subjectivist approaches’ (p. 176). In doing so, he developed the first elements of a sociology of taste and the concept of the habitus.

6 François Denord investigates a little-known study on bank loans (1963). It was a pioneering exercise in economic sociology that influenced later thinking on the field of power, but generated few major publications and was labelled as a ‘half-failure’ (p. 235). Denord partly attributes this to the difficulty of ‘sociologically constructing the loan as an object’ at a time when the study protagonists had divergent approaches to the shift from an ‘interactionist perspective’ towards a ‘structural point of view’ (pp. 235–236). He also points up the problem of the study’s funding by a private bank which, unlike Kodak, sought to defend its interests, leading the sociologists to reflect on the conditions under which they could accept private funding.

7 The question of political and social engagement also arose in the first studies on education (1961–1964), which ‘from their beginnings, inseparably blended educational, political and scientific concerns’ (p. 259). Pernelle Issenhuth analyses how these concerns shaped an approach that would underpin a diverse collection of studies across various domains in higher education. Inseparable from studies on taste, these studies on higher education, she argues, are ‘the keystone’ of the sociology of culture (p. 323). The question of cultural inequalities also motivated a study of the museum-visiting public (1964–1965), commissioned by the statistics department of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs (discussed here by Julien Duval). This study, built on a survey by questionnaire, was based on ‘sophisticated mathematical modelling’ (p. 325); Bourdieu’s ambition was to offer an alternative to the statistical sociology dominated by Paul Lazarsfeld and his disciples in France. This chapter, like the one on the education studies, describes in detail the practical implementation of the survey and the hierarchical relations within the group that conducted the study. In the same register, the book includes an unpublished document on ‘Practical research guidelines’ (from around 1969) as an appendix.

8 Johan Duval and Sophie Noël’s final chapter is devoted to the CSE’s publication strategies, devised in the light of the CSE’s ongoing sociological analysis of the publishing world. They then retrace the position in publishing occupied by the Sens Commun collection – an essential complement to the CSE’s sociological activity, both through its original publications and through translations.

9 This volume represents an important contribution to the history of the social sciences. The decision to focus on the genesis of a ‘scientific enterprise whose importance is no longer in any doubt’ (p. 11), and to do so by examining empirical studies, is particularly rewarding. The chapters bring to light collective dynamics, processes and practices that have been obscured by the success of the works later built upon them. The book also has a methodological dimension, reviving the original meaning and inventiveness of methods that have since become standardized. With this ‘return to the source’ (p. 423), the authors raise the question of their own proximity to the sociological approach and the collective that they study here. They convincingly argue that familiarity with the object can be an opportunity, on condition that it is recognized, objectified and controlled. In the conclusion, Julien Duval and Johan Heilbron apply this reflexive approach to explore the present-day questions brought to light by the study of this foundational period in French sociology. One key observation is the need for sociologists to critically examine their own practices, beyond the terms offered by methodological formalizations, and to recognize the creativity of ‘controlled improvisation’ (p. 415). The book can also be used in another way: ‘to nurture initiatives, actions and ways of working that allow researchers to demand scientific autonomy and freedom’ (p. 423).

Uploaded on on 31/03/2023
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