Bourdieu, P. Language and Symbolic Power

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French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his work, Language and Symbolic Power (1991), describes the power of language in relation to politics, social institutions, economics, and education. He views language as a means of communication but more especially as a competitive means of pursuing interests and objectives. He explores the traditional approaches to language but emphasizes that language is more important and beneficial when it is understood in the social context.

“The social uses of language owe their specifically social value to the fact that they tend to be organized in systems of differences which reproduce the system of social differences” (p.

54). The connections between literacy and social positioning can be analyzed through the different forms of capital – economic, cultural (i.e. knowledge, skills and other cultural acquisitions, as exemplified by educational or technical qualifications), symbolic (i.e. accumulated prestige or honor), etc., which can be accumulated through family or social institutions (Menard-Warwick & Dabach, 2004).

Central to the discussion are the two concepts ‘linguistic market;’ and ‘linguistic habitus’ that are considered as “sites of struggle and competition where individuals or agents strive to maintain or alter their position and where their capacity to compete is determined by the volume of capital they possess” (Riagáin, 1997, p.

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39). Linguistic capital, together with other forms of capital, defines position of an individual within the social hierarchy (Riagáin, 1997). Bourdieu also speaks of a linguistic market competence as capital. His extensive use of the language of economics (e.g., markets, profit, price, investment), according to Riagáin (1997), implies that individual adopts linguistic strategy that contributes to a realization of desirable outcome like profit that symbolizes prestige.

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Social dynamics will then contribute to the understanding of the role of education. For Bourdieu, literacy learning involves interrelated aspects of complex individual, social, and cultural contexts. This multidisciplinary perspective allows us to increase our knowledge and deepen our understanding of concepts and ideas that might form social groups. In the academic field, the habitus provided educators with a different way of viewing social institutions where students and teachers act and react analytically based on their practices, perceptions, and attitudes already in place.

Teachers and students are viewed to have socially structured resources and competencies that enable them to use language in dealing with and understanding relationships, hierarchies, and literacy practices (Gutierrez & Stone, 2000). “Sociology can free itself from all the forms of domination which linguistics and its concepts still exercise today over the social sciences only by bringing to light the operations of object construction through which this science was established, and the social conditions of the production and circulation of its fundamental concepts” (Bourdieu , 1991, p. 37).

The use of language through the power of media is also associated to the fields of politics and social sciences. Bourdieu’s dynamic model of the relationship between society and politics explains how language is used in political systems that affect social conditions. For instance, people who share common culture and social networks are likely to shape their own social institutions. The Civil Rights Movement in The United States (US) is an example of how social institutions are developed.

In addition, Bourdieu also explains through the concepts of habitus, symbolic power, religious capital, and field the occurrence of social movements within institutions like religious groups. For example, the introduction of women’s ordination movement in the Catholic Church (Stone, 2001). It is therefore important to consider Bourdieu’ concepts of ‘linguistic habitus’ and linguistic market, as well as the different capitals in analyzing discourse social, political, and economic processes and changes because language should not only be viewed in the traditional perspective but also in the different context to maximize the use and functions of language in specific fields of study and practice.


Gutierrez, K. D. & Stone, L. (2000). Synchronic and diachronic dimensions of social practice. In C. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 150-164). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Menard-Warwick, J. & Dabach, D. B. (2004) “In a Little While I Could Be in Front”: Social Mobility, Class, and Gender in the Computer Practices of Two Mexicano Families Computer Users Tend to Develop Literacies Most Compatible with Their Current Lives Programs for Adult Learners Need to Make the Technology A Meaningful in This Context. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 47(5), 380+.

Riagáin, Pádraig Ó (1997).Language Policy and Social Reproduction: Ireland, 1893-1993. New York: Oxford University.

Stone, Lora (2001) “Misrecognition of the Limits”: Bourdieu’s Religious Capital and Social Transformation. University of New Mexico. Retrieved October 13, 2007 from

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Bourdieu, P. Language and Symbolic Power. (2017, Mar 17). Retrieved from

Bourdieu, P. Language and Symbolic Power

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