Marx’s and Bourdieu’s Theories of Class and Power

Human relationships are never superficial, and many theorists develop their statements to understand society, power, and classes. People take specific positions, use available resources, and follow the established norms. In the middle of the 19th century, Karl Marx, together with Friedrich Engels, developed political and economic thoughts about class hierarchies. His approaches were frequently supported and criticized during the last several centuries, and Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas remain the strongest ones. Bourdieu (1985) questioned Marx’s “false solutions” about “class-in-itself” and “class-for-itself” and offered the concepts of “habitus,” field, and symbolic domination to explore social fields’ construction. This essay aims to compare Bourdieu’s and Marx’s arguments and discuss the validity of criticism relying on the current knowledge. Despite the rationalism of Marx’s class theory, Bourdieu’s introduction of habitus, field, symbolic, and cultural concepts contribute to learning social inequality.

Marx is known for his discussions about the importance of classes caused by continuing historical progress and social changes. In the Manifesto, it is said that “all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating class at various stages of social evolution” (Marx & Engels, 1848, p. 6). Even if people are not satisfied with such a state of affairs, they cannot avoid or neglect this diversity, and Marx gives a clear explanation of this certainty. Society is accepted as a whole, and there are “two great hostile camps,” namely Bourgeoisie (who own production means and buy labor power) and Proletariat (who own nothing and sell their labor power) (Marx & Engels, 1848, p. 15). Marx’s class theory proves that hierarchies are related to production processes and depend on social biases. The principle of structuralism is objective and outside; thus, people are not able to change or remove it but promote their class consciousness and ruling ideology.

Bourdieu does not want to accept the fact that social classes and hierarchies cannot be avoided and aims at developing another theory. He describes Marx’s tradition as “class on paper” where similar positions are available to all people according to their interests, practices, and abilities (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 725). Instead of treating classes as probable that “present fewer hindrances to efforts at mobilization than any other set of agents,” it is better to define actual classes as groups “mobilized for struggle” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 725). As such, the theory of class is not enough to describe all social interactions and their outcomes.

The theory of habitus (subjective disposition) and the theory of field (objective structure) are more appropriate for society. Bourdieu sees social power not only as an economic concept but also as a cultural one to integrate human skills and habits obtained through life experiences. When people rely on their habitus, they can successfully co-exist in different social environments. Habitus means durable disposition when individuals with the same lifestyles share common values. Compared to Marx, who believes that different outside factors predetermine inequality, Bourdieu underlines the role of every individual. The power of choice is great and leads to either the development of new opportunities or wrong dispositional beliefs. This argument is similar to Foucault’s position, who considers power as a possibility to change and escape from an unwanted environment in response to the made efforts.

The theory of field is another approach to analyzing social relationships and explaining inequality. The field helps structure the habitus with “a multi-dimensional space of positions,” rules, and standards (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 724). There are many fields in the social world like art, education, science, politics, and religion that depend on their specific goals, impact, and resources. Bourdieu needs all these fields as they are characterized by different positions, services, and statuses. Their main feature is that they can exist independently as well as co-exist, promoting competition, exchange of knowledge, and progress. To store and share information, people need equal opportunities, and Bourdieu offers works of art where it is possible to create and use different means of expression. Thus, culture and art competence become the two significant elements in understanding symbolic capital where prestige and reputation manipulate interpersonal relationships.

Any social space contains symbolic values, cultural practices, and goods that people use to promote their cooperation. Bourdieu (1985) offers the concept of symbolic domination to explain how capital and power are distributed. Symbolic power is comprised of the set of tacit rules that are only possible because the objects within a particular social setting can be interpreted in different ways because, like their real-world counterpart, they “include a degree of indeterminacy and fuzziness” (Bourdieu, 1985, p. 728). In contrast, in the Marxist worldview, power is established as the basis of social inequality. At the same time, Bourdieu perceives it as randomly occurring consequences of people failing to adjust their perception of a social construct.

Bourdieu and Marx do not try to introduce new ideas and create a new society as per their standards and attitudes. Relying on his epoch’s achievements, Marx sees people as rich and poor or capitalists and workers, and outside factors and historical progress explain their differences. Bourdieu introduces another way of human development and adds several symbolic meanings to his theories. Fields, habitus, domination, and art competence open new boundaries in his discussion and provide people with hope that inequality is not something they cannot control but something they have to recognize and change.


Bourdieu, P. (1985). The social space and the genesis of groups. Theory and Society, 14(6), 723-744.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Marxists. Web.

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