Bourdieu and Laos

Martin Stuart-Fox

It is rare for a country like Laos to provide the evidence for a theoretical critique of the work of a sociologist of the calibre of Pierre Bourdieu, but this is what Boike Rehbein undertakes. It is incumbent on the reviewer, therefore, to review both the adequacy of the evidence and the adequacy of the critique.

About the former I shall have relatively little to say. Rehbein has been visiting Laos since 1994, and has conducted fieldwork at three locations, deliberately chosen to include a traditional village of subsistence farmers, a village undergoing rapid social change on the periphery of an urban centre, and the capital city of Viang Chan (Vientiane). His study of these enables Rehbein to analyse the complex structure of Lao society, and assess the dual impact on it of the conflicting forces of cultural continuity and globalization.

Rehbein focuses on economic structure, noting the coexistence of four ‘sociocultures' within the economic field; politics, particularly the creation of a Lao nation-state and national identity; language, under the impact of globalization; tertiary education; music; and religion. These provide insights into the forces transforming Lao society today, summed up in an overview that Rehbein admits is ‘neither systematic not complete'. In part this is due to the admitted ‘limitations' of his fieldwork, though it ‘remains tentative mainly for theoretical reasons'. So to these we must now turn.

Rehbein is a sociologist well trained in the history of his discipline, who, confronted by the reality of Lao society, found himself searching for an adequate conceptual framework within which to understand what was going on in such a poor, third world society, beset by the forces of globalization. It is to his great credit that this led him to attempt to rethink sociological theory. If the result owes most to Bourdieu, it owes much too to Weber, Wittgenstein and Wallerstein.

From Bourdieu, Rehbein takes two key concepts: field and habitus. A field is a system created by the activities of those contributing to it, taking account of both the social rules that define the field, and the power relations existing between actors. In the society defined by membership of a nation-state, only a sub-set of citizens contribute to any field. For example, children do not contribute to the political field. As citizens contribute to a number of fields (fulfil a number of social roles), fields always intersect with others

The most extensive field is the economic, but it is not for Bourdieu, as it was for Marx, the structure on which all other human endeavour depends. Whereas for Marx the principal social division of class was determined by the mode of production, for Bourdieu social distinctions depend on the ‘cultural capital' (another key term) each individual is able to draw upon to position him/herself in relation to the structure of any field. So in the economic field, the activities of each individual define his/her relationship with all others in the field.

This is where Rehbein goes beyond Bourdieu. In the capitalist economies of Europe, capitalism is co-extensive with the economic field; or to put it another way, all economic relationships form part of a single field. But in Laos Rehbein discovered that the economic field consisted of five intersecting, but structurally distinct configurations or components, which he calls ‘sociocultures', for reasons that will become evident below. He names these the market, ‘taking', patrimonial, occasional and subsistence sociocultures, comprising respectively capitalist entrepreneurs and their workforce; those economically dependent on foreigners and their financial assistance; those constituting the patronage system as it currently exists in Laos; petty traders; and subsistence farmers (who still comprise two thirds of the Lao population.)

What stands in the way of the integration of these sociocultures into a single field are the differences in dispositions (‘habitus') and resources (‘cultural capital') that each person possesses. Habitus, for Bourdieu, refers to the subjective understanding a participant in a field comes to possess in order to act in relation to it. It comprises the set of what cognitive psychologists would call appropriate ‘schemata'. In relation to the economic field, habitus refers to all that in a participant becomes ‘second nature', from norms of behaviour to attitudes and expectations. Habitus is both cultural in its transmission, and social in the way it promotes action that instantiates social relationships and distinctions, and which continuously recreates social structure (in a process that Anthony Giddens has called ‘structuration').

Take the occasional socioculture of petty traders as an example of the influence of habitus. In local markets, many traders sell just what they produce, either when they happen to have more than they require for their own needs, or when they need to raise money for some specific purpose (such as a celebration, or to buy medicine for a sick child.) They do not have a ‘capitalist mentality': they do not trade to make money to invest. Rather they retain a ‘subsistence mentality': they work to satisfy needs, not to accumulate resources. Their activities play no part in a capitalist economy, not just because of the limited resources they can exploit, but also because of the habitus that shapes their thinking.

Market socioculture is capitalist, but is confined to a tiny elite consisting mainly of returned expatriate Lao and Chinese. What Rehbein calls the ‘taking socioculture' (‘foreign dependent' might be a better term) characterises all third world countries, for it is parasitic on the aid industry. The Lao receive gracefully whatever economic assistance is forthcoming. A tiny elite of English-speaking government officials negotiate projects, from which they will personally benefit, not by direct involvement or by covert payment (except for those approving private investment), but through payment for the patronage provided to those who obtain the per diems paid by the project. So the ‘taking socioculture' overlaps with the more widespread patrimonialism practised by Party political and government authorities.

Both market and ‘taking' sociocultures have been created by and are dependent on globalization. Both go beyond what Rehbein, following Ulrich Beck, calls the ‘container model of society', to include participants who are not citizens of the nation-state, though temporarily resident in it. While the market depends on transnational relationships and foreign investment, the ‘taking' socioculture depends on the presence of foreigners within the nation-state (including tourists).

Rehbein traces the evolution of Lao sociocultures from the division of work in the earliest unitary subsistence economic field, to the patrimonialism of the court with its tribute mode of accumulation, to the failed colonial and post-independence attempts to promote a market socioculture, to the equally unsuccessful attempt to create a unitary socialist economic field. The legacy of socialism is not economic, however, but political, for the Lao People's Revolutionary Party has resuscitated and taken control of the patrimonial socioculture, thanks to the habitus that has carried over from traditional concepts of social hierarchy into the strictly hierarchical structure of the Party. Since 1986, the Party has encouraged the development of both market and ‘taking' sociocultures within the economic field, while maintaining a strictly controlled unitary political field.

Rehbein's sociological analysis of Lao political, economic, social and cultural fields is welcome for its attempt to take account of the complexity of Lao and other third world societies, and to refine sociological theory accordingly. What is missing in his account, as so often for social structuralists, is any theory of the causal mechanisms responsible for the evolution he outlines. What we have rather is a series of structural cross-sections linked by historical narrative. What we want to know is how habitus changes within a section of the population to lead them to think and act in new and different ways, which instantiate new social structures in the variety of fields to which they contribute. To understand this we have to focus on the components of cognitive structure, their modes of transmission, and the social forces (sources of social power derived from control over resources) influencing their inclusion and expression in action. Such a process is selective, on a series of levels. It provides a theory of social evolution that explains how shifts in the frequencies of cognitive components occur. It thus treats social change as a population phenomenon, in the same way that changes in gene frequencies are in biological evolution.

Until such time as we have a fully developed evolutionary theory of history, increasingly refined sociological analysis may provide an ever more fine-grained theory of social structure, but it will not tell us how and why that structure is changing in response to the forces, both internal and external, impinging upon it - any more than Linnaean classification provided an explanation for the origin of species.