- A Disconcerting Brevity: Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination
Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination is the English translation of La Domination Masculine (1998), which was developed from an article of the same name published in 1990 in Actes de la Recherché en Sciences Sociales. It articulates Bourdieu’s theories of gender construction and his analysis of the pervasive and insidious power of masculine domination, which is, in “the way it is imposed and suffered . . . the prime example of this paradoxical submission” through which “the most intolerable conditions of existence can so often be perceived as acceptable and even natural” (1). This domination is effected, subtly, through a form of what Bourdieu calls “symbolic violence, a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition (more precisely, misrecognition), recognition, or even feeling” (1–2). Despite Bourdieu’s reference to “gentle violence,” symbolic violence is the most powerful weapon in masculine domination’s arsenal, since, despite its virtual invisibility, it creates the conditions of possibility for other, more immediate and explicit forms of violence, whether economic or physical.
At one hundred and thirty-three pages (including notes and index), Masculine Domination is one of Bourdieu’s shortest books. This, moreover, is not the only way in which Masculine Domination is atypical. In books such as Distinction, Bourdieu has shown his ability to examine social structures minutely by producing and interpreting huge blocks of data. At its best, Bourdieu’s work is a potent mix of scientific analysis and literary interpretation, with each of these methods allowing him to reach those places where the other will not take him. A further strength has been his willingness to analyze every available position in the huge “fields” that he examines. In contrast, the sole “data” that informs Masculine Domination comes from anthropological information about the Kabyle society (a Mediterranean ethnic group) that Bourdieu gathered in the 1960s and a reading of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. By comparison with the thoroughness of his earlier work, Masculine Domination seems a brisk treatment of a subject that does not have Bourdieu’s full attention.
Bourdieu justifies choosing the “particular case” of Kabylia by pointing out that “the cultural tradition that has been maintained there constitutes a paradigmatic realization of the Mediterranean tradition,” and, further, that “the whole European cultural domain undeniably shares in that tradition,” a contention for which he offers as proof only “a comparison of the rituals observed in Kabylia with those collected by Arnold Van Gennep in early twentieth-century France” (6). Bourdieu uses this tenuous series of connections to establish Kabyle society as a source of examples of masculine domination that he refers to throughout the book. In using Kabyle society in this way, Bourdieu allows a confusion to develop between evidence and illustration. Furthermore, as Terry Lovell (one of Bourdieu’s most frequent and incisive critics) points out, “it is not always possible to know when [Bourdieu] is restricting his observations to the particular case of Kabyle society, when he is extending them to encompass the whole Mediterranean culture of honour/shame, including that of the modern period, and when he is offering universal generalizations” (20). It is therefore difficult to summarize Bourdieu’s analysis of Kabyle society, since he does not proceed in any systematic way. In fact, there are only a dozen or so specific references to Kabyle society throughout the book, many of which are very brief, as when Bourdieu simply states, without mentioning specific details, that it represents “the canonical form” of the masculine/feminine oppositions to which he wants to point (56). At other times, Bourdieu will describe a particular aspect of Kabyle society, only to leave it impatiently in an apparent extrapolation of his conclusions to universal circumstances. Asserting that “it is not exaggerated to compare masculinity to a nobility,” Bourdieu notes
the double standard, with which the Kabyles are very familiar, applied in the evaluation of male and female activities. Not only can a man not stoop without degrading himself to certain tasks that are...