- Algerian Sketches by Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu is undoubtedly one of the most influential theorists and sociologists of our era. His notions of habitus, capital, and field—among others—have exerted such a tremendous influence on the humanities and social sciences that they have become widely used concepts, even in contexts far removed from their origins in a particular social and historical reality. However, despite this association of Bourdieu with abstract concepts, his writings emphasize the need to establish a strong link between theory and practice, and to ground all general statements in empirical facts. It was in Algeria and Kabylia, perhaps more so than in the halls of the École Normale Supérieure, that he began developing the basis of his theories through his ethnographic research and writings. Although Bourdieu is familiar to many scholars as a thinker and philosopher, his work as an ethnographer of Algeria remains less known. Scholars often begin their study of Bourdieu by focusing on his later works, such as his 1979 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.
For these reasons, Algerian Sketches, a hefty volume that brings together texts that Bourdieu wrote during his time in Algeria, is a most welcome addition to the field.1 Perhaps the most surprising fact about this volume is that it does not already exist. Despite the immense fascination with the work and life of Bourdieu, it is the first time that his writings on Algeria have been compiled into an English-language volume. This [End Page 245] collection includes not only many previously untranslated essays, but also Bourdieu’s interviews and letters, in which he reflects upon his own experiences with the Algerian people and the War for Independence, as well as more generally upon processes of colonization and decolonization. Expertly edited, annotated, and presented by Tassadit Yacine, with all the texts (including the introductory ones) translated by David Fernbach, this book is in fact a direct translation of Esquisses algériennes, published by the prestigious Parisian publishing house Seuil in 2008.
In the “Presentation” of the volume, “Bourdieu and Algeria, Bourdieu in Algeria,” Yacine provides a useful introduction to the texts at hand. First, she outlines the formative influence of Algeria and Kabylia, where Bourdieu was sent for military service after graduating from the École Normale Supérieure in 1954, on his work. In particular, as Yacine emphasizes, it was upon his arrival in Algeria and appointment to a position at the University of Algiers that Bourdieu began to turn away from philosophy and towards the social sciences, which he viewed as a more potent political weapon. As a Frenchman experiencing the conflict in Algeria firsthand—the war for independence erupted in 1954—“Bourdieu sought to explain ‘to the French people, especially those on the left, what was really happening in a country that they often knew next to nothing about […]’” (6). The goal of the volume, as Yacine explicitly states, is “to make available to readers the articles Bourdieu wrote while he was in Algeria, along with the interviews that he subsequently gave on this period of scientific activity” (6).
Yacine makes the interesting claim that the texts collected should be read at four different levels: first, as an account of “a colonized society in the midst of a war of liberation”; second, as “the experience Bourdieu acquired in the course of this war”; third, as the mode of thinking that would ultimately orient the whole of his work; and fourth, as a means of understanding the origins of his fundamental concepts (7). She hopes that Bourdieu’s writings on Algeria will be of interest not only to scholars of his philosophical work, but also to all those who seek to understand the damaging effects of colonization. Her assertion that this English-language volume is “addressed above all to Algerians, and especially the young generations desiring a better acquaintance with their memory and culture” (7) is a bit puzzling, since presumably Algerians would prefer to read Bourdieu in the original French or Arabic translation. However...