Academic Essay: The Relationship Between Structure and Agency on How Foucault and Bourdieu Conceptualised(By: Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud)


According to Debra Marshal (2012), there are two basic types of Sociological Perspective that sociologists use in their work for every single day and every single research they do. The first perspective is the Micro perspective, which looks at small-scale interactions between individuals, such as conversations and group dynamics. This micro prospective also looks at the concept of what sociologists call agency. The agency is not as the word indicates a business that represents one group of people when dealing with another group, or a government organization where you want to find out some information such as the National Crime Agency or Animal and Plant Health Agency.

The term agency in sociological point of view is the individual’s ability to make choices in society, these choices are not guided by anything but their own desires, needs and their own wish, and it is the concept of free will. It is the ability that allows individuals to make decisions in his/her world that they want to make and it is all about an individual’s choice.

On the other side of the equation, the second sociological perspective is the Macro-Level, which looks at the large-scale of social processes, such as change and the social stability. This is where most of the sociologists concentrate and direct their attention and efforts towards the idea of how the structure influences the individual. In other words, does the structure or do those social forces that exist outside of the individual have any impact on the decisions that individuals made, as well as their choices and wishes. This is where most of the sociologists agreed that the structure has always much bigger influence on the individual choices, wishes and decisions.

As a result, most of the sociologists of today, even though there are still some of them who do not agree or believe that the structure has a big role in the choices that individuals able to make in their lives. This refers that still there is a debate about structure versus agency, which is to determine whether an individual enjoys free choices or it is the social structure that limit the choices and opportunities available.

Therefore, this essay will address the work of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, by answering the question of how these philosophers conceptualized the relationship between structure and agency. The text will also compare, contrast and analyses the ideas of Foucault and Bourdieu, as the two men share the background of being French National intellectuals. The essay will finally argue the fact that they have some similarities, although most of their sociological views differ.

In other words, the essay will compare and discuss the differences and similarities by illustrating the distinct ontological positions of Foucault and Bourdieu. Although, the text cannot account for all ontological distinct positions and research questions of their entire bodies of work. In this essay, it is only limited to concentrate some chosen chapters from Foucault’s ‘’The Foucault Effect (1991), as well as ‘’The History of Sexuality’’ (1980). The chosen chapters from Bourdieu are ‘’Pascalian Meditations’’ (2000) and ‘’Magnified Image’’ in Masculine Domination (2001).

Foucault and Bourdieu

Michel Foucault was a great French philosopher, historian of ideas and social theorist. Foucault is generally accepted as having been the most influential social theorists of the second half of the twentieth century. His work is widely read and accepted within the field of sociology, as his theories address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a method of social control through societal institutions.

Pierre Bourdieu was also a great French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist. The central themes of Bourdieu work are that culture and education, which he stated as the central affirmation of differences between social classes and in the reproduction of those differences. His work was primarily concerned with the dynamics of power in society, especially how power is transferred and social order maintained within and across generations.

Other Philosophers and Social Researchers

In this topic of sociology the generally acknowledged definition is the scientific study of social behavior. From the time of its early stages, sociology has been concerned with the question of whether society determines the individual or individuals determine the society. Theorists such as Karl Marx, Talcott Parsons and Max Weber see society as a system which delivers or provides basic means of societal dealings and follows certain ends, which determines the individual’s chances and set its goals or direct it by invisible or hidden goals.

On the other hand, there are some other theorists who argue vice versa, such as Erving Goffman and George Mead. These theorists argue that it is always the individual that acts in the direction of certain ends and constructs connotation in process with other individuals, and it is the totality of these interactions which in conclusion structure the society. However, both Foucault and Bourdieu used different strategy and approaches, where the former focused on how the human sciences discover the subject and later shape or construct the individual. He argued that the opportunity of the individual and the constraints of the society shape the subject’s good knowledge and judgement construct its will (Foucault, 1970). On the other hand, the latter position argues that all human beings are historically structured agents (Bourdieu 2000).


According to the question of the relationship between Foucault and Bourdieu, and how they conceptualize the similarities and differences between the two French philosophers in regards to structure. This essay will conceptualize the idea and the ontological concept of Bourdieu, which is the Habitus. When defining the word habitus, it is the central term of Bourdieu’s work, and it expresses the essence or the basic and most important idea or quality of his view on the structure. The term habitus is one of Bourdieu’s most influential concepts, which is the way societies becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting depositions. Bourdieu defined habitus as a structure which is structured by the experiences in the social life of the individual, and in other words, structures the field in which the individual moves.

According to Bourdieu (2000) describes the practical knowledge which is the product of its agent’s history. This ‘’social life of the individual’’ refers that habitus is formed through a social, rather than individual processes. It is not also immovable or permanent, it can be changed from the historical period or under un-predicted circumstances. More precisely, habitus means according to Bourdieu ‘’it is an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted’’ (Bourdieu 1977). This sentence refers that habitus figures out or shapes our communal and social biosphere and on the outside social structures shape our habitus. But at the same time structure which is the habitus can be removed or reshaped in a way. For instance, in the social class, someone from working class community can change his/her social status through education and knowledge.

In that case, Foucault and Bourdieu both agreed that other human beings’ relationships always rules the norms of behavior and how speech is formed (Foucault et al 1988:22) as well as Bourdieu 2000:217). In a way they revealed that structure determines individual’s social life. On the other hand, Bourdieu contradicting when explaining habitus which is the structure as neither a result of free will, nor determined by the structures, but then again shaped by a sort of interaction between the two over time. Whilst, Foucault insisted by challenging that the idea of power is exercised by the people or senior groups by way of the act of domination or coercion. As Foucault indicated ‘’power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither it is a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society’’ (Foucault 1999). This ‘’power is not an institution, and not a structure’’ refers that power is everywhere, it is dispersed and pervasive.

In order to understand the concept of structure and how Foucault and Bourdieu defined in terms of power let us go back to Foucault’s term ’Governmentality’ as well as Bourdieu on ‘Symbolic Violence’. Although both philosophers, despite what they believed or referred to, they disagreed their views on how people can respond to domination or power. For example, governmentality is a reasoning way of governing best through tolerance and wisdom. As the element of sovereignty indicates which is to employ rules and regulations in order to be obeyed by the citizens or the people of the state (Foucault 1991).

On the other hand, Bourdieu’s symbolic violence refers the undetected or unnoticed power by people who are subject to it, because of what Bourdieu called Doxa. This term ‘’Doxa’’ refers the social constructed rules and regulations and how people perceive or consent it as the natural order (Bourdieu 2001). According to the above arguments of the two men there are similarities on how people act universal rules. On the contrary, there are differences in the terms used and how historical rationality explained.

The Agency

The individual’s ability to make choices depends the existed outside forces which determine and controls the individual’s choices and ability to make decisions. If this is the case, how Foucault and Bourdieu examined the freedom of the agency, when it comes to the concepts of governmentality and symbolic violence. Firstly, Bourdieu explained historically if the individual experiences or remains over a long time of period to a state of powerlessness, it is the person who gives up to gain power from his/her habitus (Bourdieu 2000). This indicates that people always adapt the status quo, and believe that they cannot able to change their world, because of the surrounding external forces or the structure itself, Bourdieu called this the symbolic violence.

However, Bourdieu noticed people who believe about themselves that they have not a credible future, are likely to contradict their discourse. Bourdieu explained the way in which these people break with the knowledge of their world acquired in their habitus, because they decide to enter into a new formulated world of their own. This is a world of dreams and fantasies because they do not want to surrender by conforming the structure. He finally acknowledged the power controls these people, because in their habitus they have a limited power to exercise in order to make or determine their desires, wishes and choices. According to Bourdieu, the symbolic power holders create the discourse with the aim of constituting their powers, and this makes some lives more verified than others, because of the social capital and the social recognition (Bourdieu 2000).

Foucault on the other hand, explains in his book of the History of Sexuality that ‘’whether the agent speaks up or silences on the topic of sexuality, the discourse of sexuality is reproduced’’ (Foucault 1980). This ‘’discourse of sexuality is reproduced’’ refers that to speak up and tell the reproduction of discourse will exist, so as the silence won’t change the discourse of sexuality. But changes can be possible through major structural changes such as rebellion or war against the structure. Foucault’s mission is to trace down what he called the discursive fact, which is to oppose how something put into discourse in order to prevent the controlled behavior of the individuals. Whilst, Bourdieu mission is the opposite, which is to change how the behavior of individuals explain structure.

In conclusion, in regards to structure and agency, this essay compared the work of Bourdieu and Foucault. The essay argued how their views differ in many ways as well as their similarities. It is interesting to mention that Foucault and Bourdieu share the French post-modern and post structural intellectual context. The essay argued the correspondence between Bourdieu and Foucault which are the terms of the symbolic violence and the govern-mentality where Foucault is more pessimistic than Bourdieu. And finally, the essay explained how Foucault not refer the individual but the whole society about the structural change. On the other hand, Bourdieu pays attention to the individual.

Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud. Department of Politics and International Studies. The University of Warwick.,

Reference List

Foucault, M. (1998). Technologies of the Self. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press.

Foucault, M. (1998). The History of Sexuality. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Foucault, M. (1991). The Discipline and Punish. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Foucault, M. (1991). The Foucault Reader. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Burchell, G. (1991). The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2001). Masculine Dominations. Oxford: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Pascalian Meditations. Oxford: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1992). Language and Symbolic Power. Oxford: Polity Press.