Fields, Trajectories and Symbolic Power: Studying Polycentric Governing with Bourdieu

This project demonstrates how Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology can address challenges in research of polycentric governing, such as the blurring of geographical scales, the ambiguous relationship between private and public sectors, and the fluid constructions of authority. Bourdieu’s practice-oriented approach is analytically promising in methodological and conceptual terms. By taking practices as a main methodological entry-point, his account allows researchers to use everyday activities of governing – such as negotiating, mandating a group of experts, and defining benchmarks – as a key to understand social order and change. Regarding concepts, Bourdieu’s vocabulary, particularly his notion of field, provides useful tools to study governing from a relational point of view, which overcomes explanations stuck in an agent-structure dichotomy. Following Bourdieu, a description of emerging trans-scalar and trans-sectoral fields – e.g. of security, human rights, and finance – focuses on knowledge structures, power relations, and practices of in- and exclusion, always in their particular trajectories and histories. Bourdieu’s account addresses power relations comprehensively, allowing for the study of different facets of power that are at work simultaneously. Such a view on power struggles elucidates different phenomena such as enduring hierarchical structures, practices of stratification, and the significance of new political agents playing successfully the game in a distinct field. However, this strong emphasis on power comes at the price of rather limited notions of techniques and legitimacy in comparison to other pragmatic accounts in practice theory. The chapter illustrates these points empirically with references to the growing significance of private military companies in the global field of security.

Keywords Relational Sociology, Practice Theory, Bourdieu, Symbolic Power, Fields, Trajectories