Bourdieu and Rational Action Theory

Jan 29 / Dr Russell Moore
Bourdieu was a vocal opponent of theories of rational action or choice as proposed by those such as Gary Becker. As a result of this and Bourdieu’s use of habitus to explain practices as unconscious actions, Bourdieu’s theories have been criticised for being overly deterministic and not taking enough account of people’s ability to make conscious decisions. However, he does not rule out the practice of agents making conscious calculated choices: 

It is, of course, never ruled out that the responses of the habitus may be accompanied by a strategic calculation tending to perform in a conscious mode the operation that the habitus performs quite differently, namely an estimation of chances presupposing transformation of the past effects into an expected objective (Bourdieu, 1990, P.53).

However, Bourdieu qualifies that these calculations are based around expectations which are conditioned by the habitus:

But these responses are first defined without any calculation, in relation to a probably, ‘upcoming’ future…, which – in contrast to the future seen as ‘absolute possibility’…in Hegal’s (or Sartre’s) sense, projected by the pure project of a ‘negative freedom’ – puts itself forward with an urgency and a claim to existence that excludes all deliberation. (Bourdieu, 1990, P.53)

In other words, when decisions are made, all choices may not be, or appear, to be available as a result of how a person is conditioned to view future possibilities, and the propensity to acquire something will be based on the chances of success in the endeavour. The social world is not, according to Bourdieu equal for everyone, and agent’s aspirations reflect that:

Only in imaginary experience (in the folk tale, for example), which neutralises the sense of social realities, does the social world take the form of a universe of possibilities equally possible for any possible subjects. Agents shape their aspirations according to concrete indices of the accessible and the inaccessible, of what is and is not ‘for us’, a division as fundamental and as fundamentally recognised as that between the sacred and the profane. (Bourdieu, 1990,  p.64)

In this sense then, those with less resources in terms of capital tend to be less ambitious and more satisfied with their lot.

Bourdieu used ‘strategy’ to indicate how individuals acted in orientating their social practices. This was based not only on the link between habitus and social structures, but an unconscious calculation of profit (ultimately to improve position in the field) – thus they have an interest. But, as explained, this cannot be reduced to economic intention and conscious calculation towards material objects as in economics (utilitarianism). Everything we know about the world comes from individual perception, but this primary experience does not take place in a value-neutral environment - a logic of practice already exists and those that form grow to represent them.

This structured structuring means that actors and their social practices have as their defining principal a certain way of viewing the world according to a particular value system with a specific interest. Social practices therefore cannot be put down to the simple notion that underpins rational action theory - that an individual will perform a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether an option is right for them or not. Primary phenomenological experience occurs in a medium that is saturated with values – interest is there at conception and subsequent socialisation.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford university press.
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