Category Archives: Pierre Bourdieu

Tennis championships as complex responsive processes of stability and change

The Wimbledon grand slam tennis event is a very good example for helping us to think about how we would account for the complex stable instability of social life.[1] It is an event where the dynamic regularities of British social life are reproduced and potentially transformed year after year and where we have an opportunity to reflect upon the interconnectedness of individual and group behaviour. We recognise and might look forward to the event year on year, and partly because there are always differences and novelty. We are reassured by the annual improvisation on traditional themes. The recognisable patterns of tradition and the familiar arise because of a multitude of fluctuating, responsive social relationships dependent on the co-operation between very long chains of interdependent people. Meanwhile the event is predicated on competition and the disciplined channelling of intense emotional and physical drives. Continue reading


On the complexity of stability and change

Long before theories of complexity became established in the natural sciences, the sociologist Norbert Elias wrote about social development as the complex evolution of ‘blindly operating’ processes. Greater interdependence in increasingly highly differentiated societies has led to longer and longer chains of people who are functionally interdependent with others. In other words, and without drawing on complex adaptive systems models, Elias noted how we are formed by, and at the same time we are forming the social processes of which we are part. It is not adequate to ascribe social change to the actions of highly charismatic individuals, on the one hand, or to mystical descriptions of emerging ‘wholes’ realising some kind of archetypal order, on the other. Instead, he argues, society evolves through the interweaving of intentions, a patterning which simply produces more patterning. Our plans and strategies form a tissue, an intermeshing web of actions and reactions, which are very difficult to interpret and to predict. There are trends in the patterning of social relations, and these tend in a particular direction. But the direction is not always forwards, and the consequences not always good. Development, or developments, are not always positive but are likely to both create and destroy. Continue reading

The idea of purposive transformation – instrumentalising paradox

In previous posts I have been exploring the ways in which conventional management theory tries to overcome organisational paradoxes by introducing logic models, idealisations, producing double-binds or separating the paradox out into temporal or spatial phases. In this post I will treat those scholars who recognise paradox, but nonetheless suggest that somehow it can be mastered for organisational improvement and ‘excellence’. In doing so their writing can tend towards the esoteric , sometimes suggesting that leaders and managers can develop a special skill or insight that allows them to ‘master ‘ paradox and ‘unleash’ its creativity in the organisation. Sensitive to the complexifying potential of the coincidence of one thing and its opposite, they are tempted nonetheless to suggest that it is possible to instrumentalise contradictions for the good of the company.  This is a familiar trope with many people writing about the complexity sciences, who on the one hand express an interest in uncertainty and unpredictability and on the other hand suggest that they can both be harnessed for the good. Continue reading

Complexity and evaluation

Evaluation is a domain of activity which the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as a field of specialised production. In other words, it is a highly organised game, extended over time, with its own developing vocabulary, in which there are a wide variety of players who have a heavy investment in continuing to play. Because the game is complex, and played seriously, and those who want to play it must accumulate symbolic and linguistic capital, it is very hard to keep up. To influence the game there is a requirement to be recognised as a legitimate player, as one worth engaging with, and this requires speaking with the concepts and vocabulary that are valued in the game. To call the game into question, then requires the paradoxical requirement of using the vocabulary of the game to criticise the game, and this is no easy thing.

However, a number of evaluation practitioners have begun to question the linearity of development interventions, and therefore the evaluation methods which are commonly used to make judgements about their quality. Since most social development interventions are construed using propositional logic of an if-then kind, there can be no surprise that most evaluation methods follow a similar path. As a recent call for papers for an international conference articulated this, evaluation is understood as being about developing scientifically valid methods to demonstrate that a particular intervention has led causally to a particular outcome. In calling into question the reductive linear logic of the framing of both social development and evaluation, a number of scholars have found themselves turning to the complexity sciences as a resource domain of a different kind of thinking but have done so with a varied radicalism in calling the evaluation game into question. Continue reading

The science of uncertainty III

In the last two posts I have been exploring the work of two scholars who use computer models to simulate complex social reality. I have been making the argument that both would consider themselves to be academics writing in a natural science tradtion, although their interest is in non-linear rather than linear phenomena. Both Allen and Hedström acknowledge the shortcomings of developing computer models as a way of having something to say about human experience. They are precise and generalisable, but they are at the same time abstract and built on some strong assumptions. Neither would claim that a human would ever behave like a programmed agent in a computer model. Nonetheless, I want to argue that some of their observations about uncertainty, the importance of time, paradox, interpretation and the mutually-adaptive behaviour of humans can also be found in the work of the very theoretical sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, that Hedström in particular has reserved such criticism. Continue reading

Improvising in management

The American sociologist Howard Becker has just written a book called ‘Do you know…’ which is a study into how jazz musicians improvise. Becker is himself a jazz pianist. He was interested to know what happens when jazz musicians, who may not ever have met before, start playing. He noticed that negotiation is the beginning, middle and end of the improvisation process, as the musicians draw on a shared background repertoire.

Similarly, in an article on reflection-in-action, a term coined by the architect-cum-organisational theorist Donald Schon, academics Yanow and Tsoukas wrestle with what it means to improvise with others in a professional context. In the article they argue against the more individualist and cognitive aspects of Schon’s theory, although they go on to point out how influential and helpful it has been. Improvisation is a collective enterprise drawing on skills and knowledge which have been learnt in social settings. It draws on a repertoire which has been rehearsed and practised over time, although it may look to onlookers like it has been made up in the moment. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu made a similar point when he remarked that excellence is improvisation on collectively understood norms and standards. Although experts appear to be making things up on their own, actually they are responding to collectively constructed codes of practice and professional norms. Continue reading

Joanna Lumley, Bourdieu and excellence

The British actress Joanna Lumley was being interviewed on an arts radio programme this week about her career as well as about her recent intervention on behalf of  Gurkhas living in Britain. Despite loyal service in the army, Gurkha veterans had been denied citiLumley - Woolaszenship by the Home Office, and Lumley had championed their cause to try and overturn the decision. On one notable occasion she completely dominated a press conference jointly held with the Home Office Minister Phil Woolas to such a degree that she was lauded in the press and on television, and people wrote to her admiringly asking her to stand as an independent MP, even to become Prime Minister. What was it that people had experienced and recognised about her leadership and why did they go on to compare this unfavourably with the performance of both Woolas and the Prime Minister? Continue reading