- Picturing Algeria by Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) is recognised as one of the most influential social scientists of all time. Given his concern for such issues as class, status, taste, education, economy and politics, around which he built his theory of 'habitus' and its involvement in the production and reproduction of social patterns and systems, Bourdieu might be regarded as a sociologist's sociologist, a modern-day Emile Durkheim responsible for enhancing our understanding of the individual within the social and the social within the individual.
But as part of his writings on culture, Bourdieu has also become well known for producing some of the most original commentaries on the meaning and practice of photography, both in its everyday and sociological contexts. And in this remarkable new book we see how photography was not simply a sideline for Bourdieu, not simply incidental to his sociological and ethnological theories, but was in fact central to their development. Built around a collection of over 160 monochrome photographs taken by Bourdieu between 1957 and 1960 while he served as a soldier with the French army, Picturing Algeria is an intimate portrait of Algerian life amid the chaos and destruction of colonial struggle. The photographs are interspersed with excerpts from Bourdieu's diary notes and other writings on Algeria, as well as essays from other contributors including Craig Calhoun and Christine Frisinghelli.
If photographs represent a curious point between reality and representation, then these images are the perfect metaphors of Bourdieu's own in-between status as something of a double-agent in Algeria, working for a cold and detached colonial administration on the one hand, while connecting and sympathising with his subjects on the other. Bourdieu discusses the methodological role of the photographs as ethnological data in a candid interview with Franz Schultheis, which was conducted at the Collège de France, Paris, in June 2001. As if to corroborate Bourdieu's memories of his time in Algeria, a number of photographs are juxtaposed alongside his responses to Schultheis' questions. Some of the descriptions in Bourdieu's answers correspond with his visual illustrations of people, incidents and objects, emphasising the testimonial power of words and photographs in combination.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is its exploration of Bourdieu's theory of habitus and its application to the photographs. During the colonial war, the socio-economic basis of Algeria was being transformed by the French. In the name of 'civilisation', an agrarian society and an economy of sentimental bonds and supportive brotherly love was being rapidly dismantled and replaced by a one-dimensional, individuated capitalist system more [End Page 202] readily recognisable (and apparently more pleasing) to the invading Western eye. Bourdieu's photographs provide a visual record of the displacement and 'resettlement' of Algerians into newly-built villages constructed with such geometric precision that Bourdieu likens them to the settlements of 'Roman colonizers' (p73). Such changes produced irreconcilable disorientation in many Algerians who could no longer understand and master their own social milieu. During the four decades that followed, these experiences would manifest themselves in Bourdieu's theoretical writings on the tightly interwoven structures of culture and economy which are part and parcel of any social fabric.
Picturing Algeria is essential reading for anyone interested in the life and work of Bourdieu. But it will also be of interest to those concerned with ethnography, and particularly visual ethnography and its significance as a sociological method. As compositions in themselves, many of the photographs in this book are compelling and beautiful; befitting of any of the masters of the medium, they attest not only to a disappearing way of life, but also to the extraordinary talent of Bourdieu himself as perhaps the foremost sociologist of the twentieth century.