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Pierre Bourdieu, 71; Sociologist and Philosopher

January 27, 2002|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Pierre Bourdieu, an internationally renowned French sociologist and philosopher who ventured outside the academic world to join protest movements, has died of cancer in Paris, his publisher said. He was 71.

Bourdieu, whose works dealt with subjects ranging from the 1960s social upheavals in France to the influence of television and the media, died Wednesday at a hospital in Paris, the Seuil publishing house said.

Much of his work was concerned with the nature of social status, or "symbolic capital."

Later in life, Bourdieu was involved in the struggle against social injustice, supporting striking rail workers, students and the homeless. He also joined anti-globalization protests and once called sociology "a combat sport."

Many of the nation's top politicians paid tribute to Bourdieu, whose death was front-page news in the newspaper Le Monde. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin described Bourdieu as "a master of contemporary sociology and a great figure in the intellectual life of our country."

Bourdieu held a pessimistic view of social mobility, believing that most people enter adulthood with the social and economic limitations that determine their ultimate rank in life.

"The point of my work is to show that culture and education aren't simply hobbies or minor influences," he told the New York Times recently. "They are hugely important in the affirmation of differences between groups and social classes and in the reproduction of those differences."

He tested his ideas through field studies and wrote about 30 books over a 40-year career.

Jose Bove, the French farmer-turned-activist who ransacked a McDonald's restaurant in a 1999 anti-globalization protest, told France-Inter radio that Bourdieu "was an active sociologist ... who shed light on the reality of our society."

Although Bourdieu would later argue that education was an instrument of privilege, his own early experience proved to the contrary. Born in 1930 in the Bearn region of southwest France, he was the son of an itinerant sharecropper turned postman who did not complete high school. An exceptional student, Bourdieu won admission to the elite Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, which produced many French intellectuals. He lived for many years in Algeria, where he studied traditional farming and ethnic Berber culture.

His major works included "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste," published in France in 1979 and in the United States in 1984. It was named one of the 20th century's 10 most important works of sociology by the International Sociological Assn. Other works touched on literature, politics, poverty and gender inequality. In "On Television," he called TV a "symbolic instrument of oppression."

Since 1981, he had held the chair of sociology at the prestigious College de France.

He is survived by his wife and three children.

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