Sociology as a Martial Art: An Interview with Terry Rey

I interviewed Terry Rey in late 2009, shortly before the terrible earthquake in Haiti that devastated Port-au-Prince. He was eager to speak about his passion for Bourdieu’s justice-based approach to sociology—“scholarship as martial arts”—as well as how Bourdieu’s theoretical frame can be updated and adapted for new analytical projects in the modern world. Like Bourdieu himself, Rey wove examples from his own work through his discussions of methodology elegantly and informatively. Terry Rey’s Bourdieu on Religion: Imposing Faith and Legitimacy (Equinox Publishing, 2007) is part of Equinox’s Key Thinkers in the Study of Religion series.

Donovan Schaefer: You’ve written this book introducing Bourdieu’s theoretical project and incorporated his methods into your own research. What attracts you to Bourdieu’s work?

Terry Rey: I first started reading Bourdieu in early1992, shortly after I moved to Haiti, where I was, among other more important things, doing fieldwork on religion there. Over time, I became personally quite close to very poor Haitians and to very wealthy Haitians alike, and I found it virtually impossible to conceive of them as co-nationals, as citizens of the very same nation, because their respectively classed social worlds were (are) in fact exceedingly different. How that came to be, how that class divide is reproduced across generations, is something that Bourdieu, more so than any other theorist I know, helps explain. I remember reading Distinction while waiting on a friend in her Port-au-Prince shantytown home one sweltering day back then. She returned and asked me, “What’s the book about?” My reply, more or less: “Well, it’s pretty much about why you and I are speaking Creole and how it came to be that you walk two miles a day to fetch water, while the folks who live up on the mountainside speak French and have running water in their homes.”

As I studied Haitian religious history, furthermore, I found Bourdieu’s theory of practice to offer a very powerful set of “thinking tools” to get at the contentious relationship – the struggle – between the Catholic hierarchy and Vodou. In every way, this is a case in point of the key arguments that Bourdieu made in his 1971 article Genèse et structure du champ religieux: the Church enters the region via colonialism and dispossesses local Taino shamans of religious capital, which it also does to the African healers and possession priests and priestesses who are enslaved and brought to Americas thanks in part to the Church’s legitimating authority. In doing so, the Church seeks to monopolize the religious field by inculcating into the habitus of the laity the misrecognition of its religious capital as legitimate and that of Vodou, or of the heresiarch, as illegitimate. The laity’s adherence to the Church and aversion to Vodou – at least in principle – is thus reproduced, the arbitrary is naturalized and eternalized, and the laity thereby become addicted (my term, not Bourdieu’s) to the Church’s salvation goods, and hence the Church’s domination of the religious field is reproduced.

Concerning Haitian religious history, I have also been quite struck by the alliance – and this is not unique to Haiti, by any means – between the Catholic Church hierarchy and the economic and political elite. Bourdieu’s conception of capital as fungible is very helpful for understanding such relationships, for they are prime examples of how the structures of domination are mounted and reproduced through the transubstantiation of religious capital into political capital. Every Te Deum that has been said for every Haitian president illustrates this marvelously.

More recently I have come to see Bourdieu’s notion of habitus as perhaps the most powerful concept in his theory of practice for the study of religion, largely because of its somatic and dispositional aspects. With some notable exceptions, since its inception religious studies as an academic discipline has been dominated by presumptions that religion is primarily about ideas and beliefs – about ideation and cognition. My experiences of religion, both as a scholar and as a religiously musical person, inform me that religion is every bit as somatic, emotional, and aesthetic as it is cognitive. This is why I chose to end Bourdieu on Religion with a beautiful quote from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the bit about Christianity being compelling to a recent African convert not because of its ideated teachings but because of “something felt in the marrow.” This is also why I think that religious studies has a great deal to learn from performance studies and from phenomenology à la Merleau-Ponty, who was of course one of Bourdieu’s mentors.

DS: You describe Bourdieu’s method as a sociological adaptation of the Cartesian philosophical method of radical doubt. Are there limits to this method? Does Bourdieu see his critical work as supplemented elsewhere by some sort of affirmative project? Or is he, to paraphrase Whitman, simply “making much of negatives”?

TR: After reading so much Bourdieu for so many years in a rather sustained fashion, I recently came to realize what a transformative impact that he had on me on a deeply personal level – that he had inculcated into my own habitus a capacity for exercising radical doubt in my own self reflexivity, in my reflections on my existence as a social agent in general and as homo academicus in particular. As a result, one by one I saw many of my most deeply held beliefs, convictions, and values being frittered and wasted away, and it really was such a terrifying experience that I actually forced myself to stop reading him shortly after I finished the book. In the end, however I find in Bourdieu a kindred spirit in the martial artistic sense – that we’re together in a sort of intellectual dojo – that scholarship should speak truth to power. Therein lies something altogether affirmative, however daunting the task may usually appear to be. Few would deny that life is really a struggle, and struggle is at the heart of Bourdieu’s understanding of the social world, as are distinction and consecration. Without distinction – especially consecrated distinction – there can be no domination, really, and so to expose the sources of domination is to pave the way for the struggle against domination. I find that to be quite affirmative, too. In calling sociology “a martial art,” finally, Bourdieu implies that his craft can and should be put to use for the defense of human beings against systematic and real oppression. Though for the most part Bourdieuian thought can be rather depressing, it is also liberating in the sense that it sheds light on how our suffering is really not our fault, however unwittingly complicit in its reproduction that we may be. To quote the man: “Domination can be liberating and liberation can be alienating.”

DS: Bourdieu relies heavily on economic metaphors to describe social spaces. Is there, for Bourdieu, a space that is outside the economic? Or do the economies of power relations and domination structure all human spaces?

TR: Bourdieu sees all fields as “structurally homologous,” meaning that they all do operate according to the same principle, and that principle is an economic logic. This should not be taken, however, as a kind of economic reductionism, for the capital that is at stake in most fields is symbolic rather than material, and all forms of capital are, for Bourdieu, “instruments of power.” So, I would say that symbolic capital is not economic in the literal sense but in the logical sense, and hence that, yes, there is plenty of space beyond the economic space, and even the economic field is itself situated in the metafield of power. I think it is helpful in this regard to recall that although Bourdieu sometimes used the term “market” interchangeably with the term “field,” that the latter is by far his chief spatial concept, and that a field is not only a kind of space but it is also a playing field and a force field. The economic logic that structures most fields, furthermore, is not so rigid and predictable as the economic logic that structures the economic field. Furthermore, soundly understanding the kinds of “play” and “force” that operate in a symbolic field requires consideration of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, which, as Bourdieu formulates it, suggests that we more often do what we do out of “practical sense” than rational calculation. Economics proper is far more rationally calculating than religion (or than art, music, and sports, for that matter) and surely Bourdieu understood that; he did speak of personal religion, after all, as essentially a matter of a linguistic habitus fused to/with a corporeal hexis. So, by employing economic metaphors and arguing that all fields operate according to an economic logic, Bourdieu did not so much mean to say – as I read him, anyway – that power relations structure all social realities, but that all social realities are shaped by struggles over limited quantities of capital and hence of power. I think there is a subtle difference in that.

DS: Bourdieu’s theory seems to function exceptionally well in circumstances of colonial domination, such as your example in the book of the encounter between the Wampanoag and Puritan settlers in the 17thcentury. How would it need to be adapted for a postcolonial setting, for instance where we see evangelization coming from formerly colonized locations in Africa, or the pursuit by the religious right of issues like opposition to birth control or gay marriage? Can those battles be explained in terms of capital and symbolic violence?

TR: Bourdieu clearly had colonialism in mind when he wrote Genèse et structure du champ religieux, as one of the main arguments that he makes in that dense essay is that the religious field only emerges as an autonomous social field when representatives of a conquering religious institution (religious specialists), which he sweeping refers to simply as Church, dispossess the conquered people of religious capital and proceed to establish a quasi-monopoly over the newly autonomous religious field. This is of course a central part of the Euro-Christian colonization of so much of the world. It thus stands to reason that his theory of religion would function at its best when applied to the analysis of religion and colonialism. But even there, one can identify limitations in Bourdieu’s explicit theory of the religious field. For example, it predisposes the researcher to perceive of the Church as almost monolithically in cahoots with the colonial administration, thereby obscuring some of the relatively positive services that missionaries in fact did perform for the dominated. For one example from my own research on religion in Saint-Domingue, in the earliest phase of the Haitian Revolution there are numerous examples of Catholic priests who are not only preaching and writing on behalf of the enslaved, but who in some cases are actually residing in insurgent camps, blessing rebel slaves, and even taking up arms themselves to fight against the French slave regime.

For the material on the relationship in colonial America between the Wampanoag Indians and the English Puritan settlers I relied entirely on David Silverman’s excellent book Faith and Boundaries, as I wanted to use a case study with which most likely readers of my own book would be familiar, hence I moved away from the Haitian material of my own work and adopted as a substantive example the colonial American material in Chapter Four, which of course is in large part an English story. David was very gracious not only to communicate with me while I was writing the book and to comment on an early draft of the chapter, but to recently visit my graduate seminar at Temple University in “Religion, Race, and Ethnicity,” in which his book is staple reading. He made a similar point to that which I made a moment ago when asked by one of my students about the relationship in colonial America between missionaries and colonial administrators: that missionaries are the leading and usually the only advocates of the dominated, whatever the colonial setting. So, not only would Bourdieu’s explicit theory of the religious field require adjustment for studies of postcolonial religion but for colonial religion as well.

As for the kinds of postcolonial religious realities to which you allude, I can envision a number of ways in which Bourdieuian theory in general – moving away from his very institutional 1971 model of the religious field, mind you – could help get at these issues in an insightful way. Religious advocacy for any social group or cause, for instance, would seem to be at its most effective when the institution or individual who is behind the advocacy possesses large stores of religious capital, as Bourdieu understands the term. If a lay Catholic, for instance, takes to the street with a placard to advocate for workers’ rights, obviously she will not have the same effect as if the Archbishop of Philadelphia were to do so from the pulpit of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, with television cameras focused on him and journalists following his every word, not to mention Catholic lobbyists working at the Vatican’s behest in Washington. That religious capital can thus be transubstantiated into political capital in such a way is one of the key insights in Bourdieuian theory for the analysis of religion. I think that Bourdieu himself would have preferred that I employed an example of such transubstantiation taking the form of symbolic violence rather than one of resistance to domination, though. Be that as it may, the point is made.

DS: In your own work on Haiti, how have you had to adapt the framing and terms of Bourdieu’s methodology?

TR: Most of the best scholarship on religion that is oriented by Bourdieu treats his methodology as a thinking tool box, using only one or two thinking tools and leaving the others in the box. Some Bourdieuian scholars argue against such a selective adoption, but I think that it is fine. It should also be noted that much of this scholarship draws not so much on Bourdieu’s explicit model of the religious field as it does on his later, more “mature” theory of practice. I think, for example, of Thomas Csordas’ work on healing in Catholicism, which masterfully employs Bourdieu’s concept of habitus without concerning itself at all with capital or field. So, being selective in adopting parts of Bourdieu’s theory of practice is one form of adaptation, though I myself have been more holistic in my adoption of Bourdieu, albeit not without identifying limitations – I am a Bourdieuian and not a Bourdivin, as it were. Danièle Hervieu-Léger and Meredith McGuire respectively identify one limitation, for instance, and that is that Bourdieu’s model of the religious field overemphasizes institutional religion and is ill-suited for the analysis of popular religion. For the most part, I would agree with this assessment. Toward correcting this imbalance, some scholars, like Bradford Verter, have promoted the notion of “spiritual capital,” while I myself have toyed with the idea of differentiating between institutional religious capital and popular religious capital. Recently I presented this idea in a paper delivered to a workshop at the Center for Chinese Studies at University of Wales, Lampeter, which brought together some of the world’s leading scholars of Chinese religions. Obviously I was invited as a Bourdieu scholar, as the workshop was designed to explore various theoretical approaches to the study of Chinese religion, and there was a great deal of discussion about Rodney Stark’s work, rational choice theory, and Bourdieuian theory. Some felt that my distinction between institutional and popular religious capital was promising but underdeveloped, and they’re certainly right on the latter count. My thinking about this distinction emerged during fieldwork among Catholic Charismatics in Haiti, primarily in the urban settings of Port-au-Prince and Cape-Haitian, as lay Charismatics and their prayer groups sometimes wield considerable amounts of religious capital without the presence of any priests, their rituals often taking place outside the walls of the Church, hence one might think of this form of religious capital as popular as opposed to institutional. But, that is about as far as I have gotten with the idea

DS: Your book is designed as a teaching book. What have your experiences been teaching Bourdieu to undergraduates in the US and Haiti? What kinds of resistances and openings have you encountered?

TR: Both in Haiti and in the US I have had a very positive experiences teaching Bourdieu, in general. In Haiti of course it was advantageous to read Bourdieu with my students in French, as there are some flaws in certain English translations of his work, and one of his key essays on religion is translated into English in abridged form and without a key diagram that the French original contains. In Haiti, meanwhile, I didn’t teach key issues in contemporary American sociology of religion, chiefly due to my own ignorance of the subject at the time. It’s very interesting and somewhat ironic to see most of my graduate students embrace Bourdieu and reject the leading American sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, as the former dismissed religion altogether while the latter has gone to great lengths to demonstrate religion’s rationality; or, as one of my students, Suzanne Parlier, put it, adopting a term from Paul Farmer, Bourdieu employs a hermeneutic of suspicion in his analysis of religion, while Stark employs a “hermeneutic of generosity.” I think the reason that most of my students over the years have preferred the former to the latter is the greater subtlety that Bourdieu’s notion of religious field affords the researcher than the notion of the religious market in American sociology of religion, and of course the analytical power of Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, which is better suited than anything I know in social theory for getting at the non-cognitive aspects of religious practice. A similar sentiment was expressed by several participants at the Lampeter gathering, though there were those who objected even to the notion of field for application to the study of Chinese religions. To be sure, I have had many students who do not take either approach seriously, and that is their prerogative. It should be said, finally, that religious studies is lukewarm to materialist approaches in general, and this is surely due to the liberal Protestant roots of the discipline (one could argue that religious studies still has a liberal Protestant disciplinary habitus or collusio), and religious people seem to me, for probably obvious reasons, quite loathe to think of their churches or mosques as firms, their pastors or rabbis as CEOs, and their sacraments and symbols as salvation goods. What I think that they (we) should consider, however, are some of the brilliant and often positive conclusions that scholars using field and market theories have drawn and the very important contributions that they have made to our understanding of religion. Were I the pastor of a struggling church, I would definitely want to read Rodney Stark to try to figure out how to save it.

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