Pierre Bourdieu on Marriage Strategies


Societies, virtually by definition, are in the business of social reproduction. They maintain institutional forms and cultural patterns more or less intact, though not of course unchanged, as their individual members age and die and the young are acculturated and assume adult roles. Social reproduction also takes place at the family level—through the social and biological processes entailed in family succession— but there the outcomes owe much more to fortuity, to the luck of the draw. Nonetheless, families become adept at doing the best they can with whatever hands they are dealt—if need be bending the rules, hedging, bluffing, and coercing. How they do so is highly contingent on each society's circumstances and cultural repertoires, but traditionally marriage decisions offered the principal opportunities and held the major potential risks. The case study of family marriage strategies in a village of the French Pyrenees by Pierre Bourdieu, excerpted below, gives an exceptionally lucid and illuminating dissection of this domain of life—as it had persisted perhaps for centuries and into the 1950s and 1960s.

Pierre Bourdieu was born in 1930 in a Béarn village of the Atlantic Pyrenees like that described. He held an appointment at the University of Algiers in the 1950s, during the years of colonial conflict leading up to independence, and his early research was on Algeria. From 1964 he taught at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales and later also at the Collège de France as professor of sociology (succeeding Raymond Aron), and became one of France's most prominent public intellectuals—exercising an influence that would be virtually unknown among English-speaking sociologists. His major interests, in some respects prefigured in the present study, concerned aspects of cultural reproduction, particularly how educational systems reproduce class and privilege. His major works include Distinction (1979), The Logic of Practice (1980), and The Rules of Art (1992). He died in January 2002 at the age of 71.

The case study excerpted below was published as “Les stratégies matrimoniales dans le système de reproduction,”Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations (Paris), vol. 27, no. 4/5 (1972). The translation, by Elborg Forster, appeared in Family and Society: Selections from the Annales, edited by Robert Forster and Orest Ranum. © 1976 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press. The excerpt is from pp. 122, 124–125, and 132–141.