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On the State

Lectures at the College de France 1989-1992
Pierre Bourdieu


Lecture of 18 January 1990

An unthinkable object - The state as neutral site - The Marxist tradition -The calendar and the structure of temporality - State categories - Acts of state - The private-home market and the state - The Barre commission on housing

An unthinkable object

When we study the state, we must be on guard more than ever against 'prenotions' in the Durkheimian sense, against received ideas and spontaneous sociology. To sum up the analyses I gave in previous years' lecture courses, and particularly the historical analysis of the relationship between sociology and the state, I noted that we risked applying to the state a 'state thinking', and 1 insisted on the fact that our thinking, the very structures of consciousness by which we construct the social world and the particular object that is the state, are very likely the product of the state itself. By a procedural reflex, a professional effect, each time I have tackled a new object what I was doing appeared to me to be perfectly justified, and I would say that the further I advance in my work on the state, the more convinced I am that, if we have a particular difficulty in thinking this object, it is because it is - and I weigh my words - almost unthinkable. If it is so easy to say easy things about this object, that is precisely because we are in a certain sense penetrated by the very thing we have to study. I have previously tried to analyse the public space, the world of public office, as a site where the values of disinterestedness are officially recognized, and where, to a certain extent, agents have an interest in disinterestedness.

These two themes [public space and disinterestedness] are extremely important, since I believe that they bring to light how before arriving at a correct conception - if this is indeed possible - we must break through a series of screens and representations, the state being - in so far as it has an existence - a principle of production, of legitimate representation of the social world. If I had to give a provisional definition of what is called 'the state', I would say that the sector of the field of power, which may be called 'administrative field' or 'field of public office', this sector that we particu¬larly have in mind when we speak of 'state' without further precision, is defined by possession of the monopoly of legitimate physical and symbolic violence. Already several years ago, I made an addition to the famous definition of Max Weber, who defined the state [as the] 'monopoly of legitimate violence', which I corrected by adding 'monopoly of legitimate physical and symbolic violence', inasmuch as the monopoly of symbolic violence is the condition for possession of the exercise of the monopoly of physical violence itself. In other words, my definition, as I see it, underlies Weber's definition. But it still remains abstract, above all if you do not have the context in which I elaborated it. These are provisional definitions in order to try to reach at least a kind of provisional agreement as to what I am speaking about, since it is very hard to speak about something without at least spelling out what one is speaking about. They are provisional definitions designed to be improved and corrected.

The state as a neutral site

The state may be defined as a principle of orthodoxy, that is, a hidden principle that can be grasped only in the manifestations of public order, understood simultaneously as physical order, the opposite of disorder, anarchy and civil war, for example. A hidden principle that can be grasped in the manifestations of public order understood in both the physical and the symbolic sense. Durkheim, in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, makes a distinction between logical conformity and moral conformity. The state, as it is commonly understood, is the foundation of both the logical and the moral conformity of the social world. Logical conformity, in Durkheim's sense, consists in the fact that the agents of the social world have the same logical perceptions - the immediate agreement established between people who have the same categories of thought, of perception, of construction of reality. Moral conformity is agreement on a certain number of values. Readings of Durkheim have always stressed moral conformity, forgetting the logical conformity that, in my view, is its foundation.

This provisional definition would consist in saying that the state is that which founds the logical conformity and moral conformity of the social world, and in this way, the fundamental consensus on the meaning of the social world that is the very precondition of conflict over the social world. In other words, for conflict over the social world to be possible, a kind of agreement is needed on the grounds of disagreement and on their modes of expression. In the political field, for example, the genesis of that sub-universe of the social world that is the field of high public office may be seen as the gradual development of a kind of orthodoxy, a set of rules of the game that are broadly laid down, on the basis of which a communication is established within the social world that may be a communication in and through conflict. To extend this definition, we can say that the state is the principle of the organization of consent as adhesion to the social order, to the fundamental principles of the social order, that it is the foundation, not necessarily of a consensus, but of the very existence of exchanges that lead to a dissension.

This procedure is a little dangerous, in that it may appear to go back to what is the initial definition of the state, the definition that states give themselves and that was repeated in certain classical theories such as those of Hobbes and Locke, the state in this initial belief being an institution designed to serve the common good, the government serving the good of the people. To a certain extent, the state would be a neutral site or, more exactly - to use Leibniz's analogy according to which God is the geometral of all antagonistic perspectives - the point of view overlooking all points of view, which is no longer a point of view since it is in relation to it that all points of view are organized. This view of the state as a quasi-God underlies the tradition of classical theory, and is the basis of the spontaneous sociology of the state that is expressed in what is sometimes called administrative science, that is, the discourse that agents of the state produce about the state, a veritable ideology of public service and public good.