Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bourdieu and Wocquant

I started reading Loic Wacquant's introductory chapter in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The chapter tries to summarize Bourdieu's basic method and philosophical outlook. One of the most fascinating things in the book is it speaks about how sociologists often embrace the false dichotomy between "social physics"- extreme structuralism - and "social phenemonology"- an extreme constructivist point of view. As a recent convert to "biology" from physics I find this utterly fascinating. Indeed, us physicists who have started doing quantitative biology often have similar arguments about quantitative biology.

Bourdieu's solution to overcoming this false dichotomy is really elegant. He first considers the objective structures that constrain an individual's thoughts and representations, a social topology. This is all that structuralists generally consider. However, for Bourdieu this is still not sufficient. Instead, he argues sociology must also "elucidate the perceptual and evaluative schemata that agents invest in everyday life". He then conjectures:
"There exists a correspondence between social structures and mental structures, between the objective division of the social world-particularly into dominant and dominated in the various fields- and the principles of vision and division that agents apply to it"

I think there is an interesting parallel with arguments by scientists about how there must be a correspondence between environment and neural structures. They argue (fairly successfully) that sensory systems- such as vision- are imprinted by the environment they are in. Neural coding is optimized for the environments we see the most. In essence, the environment sets the desired dynamical range for the process under consideration. Using information theoretic arguments, nueroscientists calculate the coding schemes that optimize the average information that the brain can extract in this dynamical range. Actual biological neural schemes are surprisingly close to these optimal schemes.

1 comment:

Derek said...

Pankaj, good to see you have a blog. Hit me up: Maybe we can get together sometime.


(PS-- go ahead and delete this comment after you see it)