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Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field

by Rodney Benson and Erik Neveu, Editors
Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2005
435 pp. Paper, $ 24.90
ISBN: 0-7456-3387-0.

Reviewed by Fred Andersson
Department of Art History and Musicology

Lund University, Lund, Sweden


When it comes to Pierre Bourdieu and Marxism, two misunderstandings are common. The first takes as a premise that Bourdieu was a reductionist thinker who didn’t consider art and culture to have any autonomous value at all. Out of this premise, Bourdieu-style sociology is accused of trivializing culture and leveling the debate. The other misunderstanding is completely opposed to the first. Its premise is that Bourdieu, just like the Marxists of the Frankfurt school, adheres to an elitist interpretation of political economy.

It would be quite hard to hold on to such misunderstandings after reading the present volume: Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field. It is the result of a project that started in 1999 with the aim of bringing together French and American scholars studying recent changes in the relations between news media and politics. The two editors, Rodney Benson and Erik Neveu, begin by introducing some of Bourdieu’s key concepts–such as "field" and "habitus"–as well as describing the academic and historical conditions for the reception of his theories in the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-American world. In doing so, they also describe some of the competing alternatives, such as "differentiation theory".

In his posthumous contribution, Bourdieu expresses his view on the degree of "autonomy" (or independence) and "heteronomy" (or dependence) of the journalistic field. He also puts forward the two general hypotheses that are discussed and tested throughout the book, namely: 1) that the journalistic field is "immersed" in the political field, and 2) that the journalistic field is becoming increasingly heteronomous (that is, dependent on economical and political interests), at the same time as the autonomy of other fields (such as the social science field) is weakened by the heavy dominance and influence exerted by the journalistic field.

Of the other contributions, I would like to focus on Julian Duval’s report on a project in which the field of economical journalism in France was mapped in accordance with statistical methods. The report shows that in this field and in this national context, there is a clear divide between three main groups of mediums. The first belongs to the intellectual and specialized pole of the field, the second belongs to the commercial and specialized pole, and the third belongs to the commercial and popular pole.

Duval’s report also demonstrates, in detail and with utmost clarity, how an analysis of this kind is carefully built up from a number of empirical variables. Because of the solid empirical ground, Duval can safely conclude that the development of economical journalism in France confirms Bourdieu’s hypotheses–the economical sections of the dominant media adhere to the dominant political ideology (namely that of market liberalism), and taken as a whole the autonomy of economical journalism in relation to the financial world has weakened. The immersion of the journalistic field in the political field could not be shown more clearly.

The book ends with three "Critical Perspectives" in which the previous topics and contributions are discussed. Erik Neveu describes and refutes some common misunderstandings regarding Bourdieu (for example the "Frankfurt" one). Michael Schudson represents a more skeptical orientation in his critique of the concept of "autonomy". Referring to some striking American examples, he asks to what extent "autonomy" is just another word for not having to admit one’s own faults.

Daniel C. Hallin, finally, contrasts field theory with the "differentiation theory" of Jeffrey Alexander (see above). He concludes that the deterministic character of differentiation theory (media always moving towards greater differentiation) is one of its weakest points, and that it has to be contrasted or supplemented by field theory. On the other hand, he also concludes that while the analysis of power-relations remains a great opportunity with field theory, the nature of journalists’ own power and the relations between the journalistic field and the political field still needs to be clarified.

This is a useful book that really shows how Bourdieu-style sociology can be put to work in the analysis of new fields (i.e. "new" in the context of field analysis). From the perspective of humanities and cultural studies, we should hope that an analysis similar to the one that Duval performs on economical journalism could be applied also to cultural journalism. There is also reason to hope for an intensified debate on the issue that remains the least explicit point in this book, namely to what extent sociology in the spirit of Bourdieu could and should be a weapon for political change.




Updated 1st July 2006

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