U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Use and Abuse of Intellectual History: Reflections of an Early Americanist (part, the last)

I remember once hearing from either one of my professors or from a fellow graduate student that for historians theory is like underwear: it is best to have it, but it is also best if it doesn’t show. Indeed, it would certainly seem that historians are averse to theory, or at least to discussing theory. We cherish contingency and historicism with too great a passion to allow patterns too central a role in our scholarship. The problem is that some form of theoretical premises always inform the way we approach scholarship. There are two questions then: are we aware of our conceptual frameworks and are we forthcoming about them? I think that good historians are usually aware of their conceptual framework to some degree or another. However, even many theoretically minded historians seem loath to admit the extent to which theory informs their scholarship. For some reason this rings particularly true for Americanists.

As I stressed in former posts, I think that a more fleshed out conceptualization of power could prove particularly useful for examining the early republic and revolutionary periods. For instance, I have rarely heard Americanists explicitly employing one of the primary distinctions made by sociologists, between conflict and functionalist approaches to social analysis. Whether, on the one hand, the most fundamental question we ask when approaching any given society is how certain groups accumulated power at the expense of other groups, or if, on the other hand, we ask how does a given society function. Sociologists like to use the two founders of modern Sociology to capture the distinction, presenting Weber as conflict oriented and Durkheim as a functionalist. In history, by contrast, we like to say that we come open minded to the archives and let the sources ‘speak for themselves.’ And so, it seems to me, that too often we are neither conscientious enough nor are we very forthcoming about how we approach our scholarship.

As far as the above distinction between functionalist and conflict approaches to social analysis is concerned, it is not incidental that social historians are a bit of an exception. Informed by Marxist predilections, the field revolves around the premise that class conflicts have had a central role in American history (Marx was more conflict oriented than Weber). Indeed, by implication social historians always employ some theoretical framework for analyzing power, usually with a slant towards class conflict and a focus on material conditions.

Since, at least, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Marxist oriented historians have done much to engage with cultural analysis as more then mere superstructure. Often influenced by the writings of Antonio Gramsci, English Marxist scholars in particular have modified and reevaluated Marxism in a way that complicates the relationship between culture and material conditions, relying on both for establishing causal arguments. Left leaning early Americanists have borrowed extensively from this Neo Marxist tradition with illuminating results. Nevertheless, even a Gramscian or other Neo Marxist conceptualizations of power, I believe, have not proven flexible enough to unearth the full scope and stakes of the conflict over power during the revolutionary era.

Approaching colonial and early US society from a conflict perspective quickly reveals three major divisions which I believe must figure in any comprehensive analysis of power and its intellectual underpinnings—along the lines of the classic trinity of class, race, and gender. The best theory I have encountered to tackle the problems early American history poses for the conflict minded historian is that of Pierre Bourdieu. Unlike Marxist perspectives Bourdieu does not afford material conditions any primacy in his evaluation of power. This allows us to evaluate race and gender without the gnawing feeling that class in some form subsumes them. Unlike Foucault, Bourdieu offers us more structure and a more wieldy notion of power, one that lends itself to a conflict oriented analysis which acknowledges that power is not diffuse, but rather accumulated, concentrated, and deployed by certain dominant groups.

I do not claim to do full justice here to Bourdieu’s conceptual frameworks, for that would be impossible in the space of a post, or even perhaps one book. Furthermore, while I have been reading scholarship by and about Bourdieu on and off for many years now, I am far from an expert on him. In fact I thought of Bourdieu’s promise for early American intellectual and cultural history quite recently. Here again, I must credit the last S-USIH conference; indeed, as I was thinking about the implications of the plenary session “what is US intellectual history?” for early Americanists, I stumbled upon a recent book about Bourdieu in the lounge area of the conference. And though I had, for at least a year, been leaving myself mental notes regarding Bourdieu—each stressing the need to reengage with Bourdieu’s theory for my dissertation—it was only while I was browsing books to kill some time at the conference that I returned to him after a couple of years of other intellectual flames. Finding this book—Symbolic Power, Politics, and Intellectuals: The Political Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu by David L. Swartz—proved quite auspicious, as Swartz’s discussion of Bourdieu’s political sociology, and more particularly his discussion of Bourdieu’s frameworks for understanding power, catered to my reflections on early American history—indeed it has greatly informed this series of posts.

One of the best features of Bourdieu’s work is that he devised it and modified it over many years of extensive anthropological and sociological research. As historians, who by nature tend to be very attentive to the contingency of historical contexts, I think it would only be fitting that we too modify the conceptual tools Bourdieu provides, as we deem fitting and useful for examining a particular historical context (or as Michael Hattem aptly put it in his reply to my post last week, bastardize it). A different—and more humble—way to cast this move is that I, at times, am not sure I fully understand what Bourdieu had in mind; so what I offer is a simplification that I concocted in my mind which I found compelling, and I hope you will too. I would thus like to discuss two concepts central to Bourdieu’s work that I found helpful for an analysis of early American power struggles and will allow myself a certain freedom in their adaptation/simplification, which, I hope, evinces the spirit of Bourdieu’s vision.

I would like to start off with the concept of ‘capital,’ which Bourdieu borrowes from economics but applies to denote a broad range of socially significant resources. Swartz writes, “Bourdieu thinks of capital as a ‘social relation of power’ that has a differentiating and stratifying effect between individuals and groups. An object becomes a capital when it establishes a social relation of power that differentiates the holder from the non holder.” What I find most useful in this conceptualization is that it uses the language of economics to release us from its all-embracing grip. This relational notion of power assumes at least two parties bound in it and regards material resources as only one among several types of socially impactful forms of capital.

To apply this concept to the case of early American history, I would argue that we must understand the myriad ways in which the various forms of whiteness, manhood, and class served as relational resources—as forms of capital. From there we can go on to examine, in Swartz’s words, the “various forms of power as capital and the laws of their interconvertability.” What I regard as crucial here is exploring first how whiteness intersected with manhood, and second how this powerful convergence intersected with class categories in early America. This, I think, will help us understand how US society/culture came to confer upon white common men a privileged position, as well as better examine what goods (cultural and material) that privilege gained them over other Americans. By the same token then, it will, I hope, allow us to fully wrestle with the problem that these same people might not have been always very comfortable materially.

Secondly, I would like to propose using Bourdieu’s concept of ‘fields.’ Bourdieu conceptualizes fields as the primary arena of social conflict. “For resources to become forms of capital,” asserts Swartz, “they must become instruments and objects of struggle in structured arenas or social spaces that Bourdieu calls fields.” He then elaborates on the relationship between fields and capitals, “fields can be and often are arenas of conflict involving several different capitals. Bourdieu thinks of fields as places of exchange—markets—where different capitals exchange one for the other but also where actors struggle to valorize one form of capital over all others.” In this vein, I think it would be fruitful to identify the fields upon which early Americans enacted their offensive and defensive maneuvers, using and exchanging various forms of capital to gain an edge. The central challenge this framework poses for the historian is identifying the pertinent fields of struggle and their attributes.

Indeed, for the intellectual historian the notion of fields is of particular use, since Bourdieu regards a field as a historically constituted space with certain qualities that change over time. For the intellectual historian, I think, the challenge is to understand the ‘lay of the field,’ which at bottom is a socially constructed space, and trace the process of its construction and its transformation over time. In other words, ideas are central to the shape and historical developments of these spaces.

A bit of a comparison and a return to the notions of conflict and functionalist approaches to social analysis, I hope, will clarify the potential of this conceptual framework. The concept of field, for instance, certainly has an affinity with Foucault’s concept of discourse or Geertz’s notion of “symbolic universe.” However, Bourdieu’s conceptualization better lends itself to a conflict analysis, whereas Foucault’s and Geertz’s notions, I would argue, better complement a functional approach to society. If one is in the business of explaining what functions different cultural artifacts, practices, or rhetorical formulas play in a given culture or discourse, then Geertz and Foucault will probably do well. But if one is interested in ascertaining how these same cultural artifacts or practices figure in the struggle over power in society, Bourdieu I think would be our best bet.

Ultimately, whether or not we wear our theory as underwear or on our sleeve, I believe that incorporating Bourdieu’s ideas may offer early Americanists, in particular, but other historians as well, promising avenues of intellectual and cultural inquiry.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was a wonderful series of posts. I just want to say I’m glad to have you on board.

    In regards to your points about theory, you make an excellent point that we as historians always have to be upfront about the theoretical frameworks we use in our research and writing. Your analysis of Bourdieu, I think, is spot-on. But, of course, I’m looking forward to seeing what others have to say about your analysis here.

    Once again, welcome on board! Your questions surrounding early American history and theory are important and valuable.

    • Thanks Robert, it’s been great so far, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with y’all.

  2. This is a great piece. I admit that I am an anti-Bourdieu-an, which makes me reluctant to comment, because there is a lot here that is generative. I will say that there are some strict limits to Bourdieu’s conceptualization of “value” as motor of distinction between “meum and tuum”––among other things, as with the economic theories it borrows from, it is very hard to move from micro to macro. There is also a danger, in Bourdieu, of the reification of class (this is Jacques Rancière’s critique), along the lines of “poor people like McDonalds, rich people like filet mignon.” If distinctions serve to reify or reproduce this stratification, then we are back in the world of functionalism.

    Finally, I would like to highlight this statement: “this, I think, will help us understand how US society/culture came to confer upon white common men a privileged position.” Might we think here about who/what is being established as actor/agent here, what sorts of behavior/tendencies we ascribe to this actor/agent, and even the processual nature implied in the syntax “came to confer.” I have no objection to this clause on poetic grounds, but I think that dispersed, contradictory, and heterogeneous processes are here being turned into the authorial labor of a single master subject (“US society/culture”).

  3. Hi Kurt, you seem to be more familiar with some of his work than I. I am not familiar with his theory of value, for instance, so I might be out of my depth a bit, but I must admit that I find his conceptual framework quite historically useful especially with regard to social stratification of various sorts. I also don’t think that functionalism and conflict are always mutually exclusive scholarly efforts, at times they can complement one another. I think that the great example for that kind of complementary effort is E.P. Thompson’s work on Methodism.
    You could certainly read his notions of class as hopelessly cultural, but I think they serve as a great counterpoint to those who are hopelessly materialist, and I think that his conceptual framework could be used to strike a fine balance between the two.
    I also think that historically speaking his ideas complement Norbert Elias’s longue duree historicism with a clearer grasp of both conflict and class stratification and without the problematic use of the term ‘civilization.’
    As for the historical agency ‘I confer’ upon American culture, you are certainly right, I should have been more careful and less poetic with my choice of words. I think Bourdieu’s concept of field in fact allows us to do just that–to identify the historical agents correctly and determine how white common men became such a culturally dominant group. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think this is a good way forward.

  4. Eran: I’ve enjoyed this whole series, and am always partial to historians thinking aloud about theory.

    You claim that social historians have tended to be more explicitly theoretical than other sorts of historians because they have tended to be Marxists or Neo-Marxists. This was certainly true early on in the social turn, with E.P. Thompson, Genovese, etc. But it seems to me that eventually social history became every bit as empiricist as the rest of the discipline if not more. The typical social history dissertation or book in the 80s and 90s was a close archival-based study of one community with perhaps a nod to how the particular community helps us understand larger patterns, but that nod was hardly theoretical and was usually just an afterthought or a rationalization for the significance of the project.

    Do you disagree? If so I would love to know which historians or books you have in mind.

    • I think you are right. Can’t think of any left leaning historian to have recently discussed theory in depth. But there is a trend back towards a history of capitalism and political economy, undertaken by historians that seem very deliberate about the approach they have taken. I also recall that Seth Rockman has recently discussed Marxist inclinations explicitly in an article about historical materialism, though I can’t find it in a simple google search.

      • Sven Beckert’s earlier work (which overlaps into antebellum history) is one example of theoretically engaged social history (it is quite Bourdieu-an, too, come to think of it). Rockman’s essay ‘The Unfree Origins of American Capitalism” in The Economy of Early America (Matson, ed) is very very good, and theoretically ambitious.

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