Book Review: Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria

Posted on May 20, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments
Pierre Bourdieu, Picturing Algeria. Edited by Franz Schultheis and Christine Frisinghelli. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.  

Reviewed by Muriam Haleh Davis 

[This review was originally published in the most recent issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

In a poignant interview included in Picturing Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu notes that “Yvette Delsaut wrote a text about me in which she very rightly says that Algeria is what allowed me to accept myself.” Indeed, in recent years, Bourdieu’s early fieldwork in Algeria has been regarded as central to his conceptual apparatus. This edited volume features Bourdieu’s photographs from 1957 to 1960, a period that witnessed some of the most violent episodes of the Algerian war of independence. These images are contextualized by excerpts from Bourdieu’s own writings, a foreword by Craig Calhoun, and an interview with Bourdieu himself. The textual excerpts are mostly taken from Le déracinement and Travail et travailleurs en Algérie, two works that have never been translated into English. The volume also includes two essays by the editors that reflect on the relationship between Bourdieu’s later writings, his use of photography, and his experiences in Algeria.  

Bourdieu arrived in Algeria in October 1955, when he was deployed there with the French army despite his well-known opposition to France’s colonialism. He later returned voluntarily to teach at the University of Algiers and conduct fieldwork—fieldwork that was undertaken at great personal risk in the context of the ongoing war. Despite these difficult conditions, he produced work rich in both its use of extensive data and its theoretical reflection on the structural forces that shape attitudes, habits, and reactions to external events. His writings and photographs shed light on the impact of French colonialism on Algerian society, particularly such socioeconomic phenomena as territorial dispossession, the introduction of capitalist forms of logic, and the destruction of traditional forms of social solidarities. 

The photos included in this volume range from shots of agricultural workers to street graffiti to individual portraits taken on the streets of Algeria. A few of them—the photograph of a woman wearing the traditional Algerian haik while riding a motorcycle, for example—are spectacular for their mise-en-scène. Yet for the most part the photos are remarkably mundane, given that Algerian society was caught in the grip of a violent war of independence. Rather than serving as a gloss on the dramas of the Algerian revolution, these photographs capture the daily realities of Algerian life. Placed alongside Bourdieu’s more theoretical texts on Algerian society, they offer insight into the work of a sociologist who reflected on the historical contradictions and structural violence of the war, but who was also implicated in its more quotidian manifestations. The result is a glimpse of Bourdieu’s relationship to Algeria that combines a scientific frame with a familiarity that is almost intimate. Indeed, sections of the book oscillate between the structures of respectful distance, such as history or political economy, and a sense of the daily fabric that is touching, if not personal.  

Reading Bourdieu’s texts alongside the images highlights that photography was a “way of looking” that is echoed in his sociological methodology. Bourdieu himself notes that for the anthropologist and the photographer, “there was this objectifying and loving, detached yet intimate relationship to the object, something similar to humor.” Photography, then, was not only a way to account for the distance between subject and object, but also a way to capture a personal relationship at a particular historical moment. In this sense, the act of taking photos was intimately related to Bourdieu’s notion of a reflexive sociology, which attempted to account for the role of the observer in ethnographic practice. This methodological intervention also sought to navigate between what Bourdieu viewed as the base materialism of Marxism and the depoliticizing tendencies of phenomenology and existentialism. While Bourdieu’s early writings on Algeria are increasingly read alongside with, and as fundamental to, his later work, his engagement with photography remains relatively unknown. This impressive volume seeks to address this lacuna in the study of Bourdieu’s sociological method and personal trajectory.

Bourdieu was initially reluctant to put his photographs on exhibit, fearing that they would be regarded for their aesthetic properties alone. A fixation on the spectacular or dramatic aspects of the Algerian war, Bourdieu worried, would cause his photographs to be viewed separately from his fieldwork. Reflecting that his photography was “interwoven with the relationship that I have had to my subject at any particular time,” he notes, “not for a moment did I forget that my subject is people, human beings whom I have encountered from a perspective that—at the risk of sounding ridiculous—I would refer to as caring, often touched.”  

The format of this volume goes a long way toward assuring the reader that Bourdieu’s own method of thematically classifying his photographs has been respected. The chapter headings reflect his organizational choices, a possibility facilitated by the fact that he “had begun to tentatively combine pictures and texts.” The volume is divided into sections—including “War and Social Transformation in Algeria,” “Habitus and Habitat,” “Men-Women,” “An Agrarian Society in Crisis,” and “The Economics of Poverty”—whose themes will resonate clearly with those who are familiar with his writings. The last photographic section, “In Algiers and Blida,” is an image sequence with no text. In it, we get a glimpse of how the political and historical weight of colonization affected the totality of economic and cultural structures in Algeria, while also generating new strategies for adaptation and resistance. 


The other additions—a thoughtful foreword by Craig Calhoun, along with an introduction and interview by Franz Schultheis and concluding remarks by Christine Frisinghelli—locate Bourdieu’s work in an analytical, historical, and methodological framework. Curiously absent from these reflections, however, is the continued relevance of Bourdieu’s oeuvre for postcolonial Algeria. This silence is particularly notable given the fact that these photos were put on exhibition to commemorate Algeria’s fiftieth anniversary of independence. Indeed, there are moments in the text where Bourdieu’s reflections from 1962 continue to resonate strongly, whether it is his observation that the National Liberation Army adopted methods from the French colonial state, his remarks on the bureaucratic structures that weigh heavily on daily life, or his analysis of how widespread unemploy- ment shapes subjectivity and notions of self-worth. These continuities are certainly worth noting—if only to follow up on Bourdieu’s claim (and hope) that the war was “profoundly revolutionary” and pointed to the “beginning of a new world.”

The continuities between 1962 and the present are significant for Europe as well, and this volume brings out the continued relevance of both Bourdieu’s analysis of actions that may appear to “reject” Western civilization and his later work on Europe’s economic orthodoxy. In the foreword, for example, Calhoun highlights Bourdieu’s linking of his writings on neoliberalism with his earlier Algerian research. This is one of many fascinating moments in the volume where the colonial framework of Bourdieu’s fieldwork speaks to broader problematics. For example, when Bourdieu documents how the war “devastates sociological realities”—focusing on gender norms, forms of calculation, and the value on honor—we see how social phenomena respond to episodes of extreme violence. At a moment in which “colonial studies” often seems barricaded o from sociological phenomenon writ large, it is an important intervention.

Bourdieu himself has been placed awkwardly, and belatedly, in the domain of postcolonial studies due to his experience in Algeria. Here, his criticism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, who seemed to him to exemplify an irresponsible revolutionary praxis, on one hand, and, on the other, of French liberals like Germaine Tillion, who overlooked the devastating historical effects of French colonialism, is telling. Yet if there is one aspect of Bourdieu’s thought that is absent from this volume, it is his positioning vis-à-vis the French academic field. There is a benefit, however, to focusing on Bourdieu’s personal attachments: we see a rare side of Bourdieu—his regrets (he wished he had kept a diary and often self-censored the more literary aspects of his writings), insecurities (he signed a contract with Kodak in case his academic career failed to pay the bills), and fears (in Algeria he often had dreams that evoked the fear he felt during his fieldwork). The result is an intimate view into Bourdieu’s relationship with Algeria, an ongoing mediation that evolved through the relationship between image and text.

While this volume does not necessarily engage with the critical perspectives that have recently emerged regarding Bourdieu’s work (except in a footnote from Calhoun), it is nevertheless essential reading for those who are interested in the link between colonial politics and ethnographic practices. It sheds light not only on Bourdieu’s own work, but also on the effect of the Algerian war on metropolitan thought. The images could very well speak for themselves, but the richness of the volume comes from their narration by Bourdieu himself. 


Muriam Haleh Davis is a PhD student in the Department of History at New York University.

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