Bourdieu & Symbolic Power: The Archaeology of Proto-Religion

I just finished reading David Swartz’s superb article, “Bridging the Study of Culture and Religion: Pierre Bourdieu’s Political Economy of Symbolic Power” (open access), and must recommend it not only to cultural theorists but to archaeologists as well.  Several aspects of Bourdieu’s thought lend themselves readily to novel interpretations of what otherwise might appear to be a limited archaeological record:

Bourdieu proposes a sociology of symbolic power in which he addresses the important topic of relations between culture, stratification, and power. He contends that the struggle for social recognition is a fundamental dimension of all social life.

He advances the bold claim that all cultural symbols and practices, ranging from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science, and philosophy – indeed to language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions.

While Swartz notes that Bourdieu grounds these propositions in Marx and Weber, there are distinct echoes here of Nietzsche and Foucault.  There is little doubt, however, that Bourdieu is productively interested in joining Marx with Weber:

Bourdieu remarks that it is Max Weber “who, far from opposing Marx, as is generally thought, with a spiritualist theory of history, in fact carries the materialist mode of thought into areas which Marxist materialism effectively abandons to spiritualism.” Bourdieu sees Weber offering a “political economy of religion” that brings “out the full potential of the materialist analysis of religion without destroying the properly symbolic character of the phenomenon.”

This theoretical synthesis has obvious relevance to Paleolithic hominids who were exploring supernatural aspects of mind through material productions that — viewed only in terms of economy — may seem prosaic.  As I review archaeological debates about behavioral modernity, I am finding that Bourdieu’s ideas shed new and unexpected light on how seemingly mundane objects may be ritually charged and symbolically loaded.

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