Pierre Bourdieu: Economism is a form of ethnocentrism

pierre bourdieuEconomic Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu is very rich and brilliantly enlightening, as well as non-univocal, and theoretically and intellectually multifaceted.
Reflecting on his great contribution to the field, which he preferred to call “Economic Anthropology”, his classic The Logic of Practice (1990; open access below) has recently sprung to my mind. In this book Bourdieu explores questions such as the interplay between structure and practice (a phenomenon Bourdieu describes as habitus), the manipulation of time, varieties of symbolic capital, and modes of domination, social categories of classification,  ritualized exchanges, and more.
In the following excerpt from The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu elaborates — in his unique way of writing — on the concept of Economism, its logics and practices. As the great theorist, Bourdieu discusses the topic paving his own challenging trajectories and terminology. 

The academic economist claims for himself a monopoly on the total point of view and declares himself capable of transcending the partial, particular viewpoints of particular groups and avoiding the errors that spring from the ‘fallacy of composition’. (p. 28)
The ‘rational actor’ theory, which seeks the ‘origin’ of acts, 
strictly economic or not, in an ‘intention’ of  ‘consciousness’, is often associated with a narrow conception of the ‘rationality’ of practices, an economism which regards as rational (or, which amounts to the same thing in this logic, as economic) those practices that are consciously oriented by the pursuit of maximum (economic) profit at minimum (economic) costFinalist economism explains practices by relating them directly and exclusively to economic interests, treated as consciously posited ends; mechanistic economism relates them no less directly and exclusively to economic interests, defined just as narrowly but treated as causes. Both are unaware that practices can have other principles than mechanical causes or conscious ends and can obey an economic logic without obeying narrowly economic interests. There is an economy of practices, a reason immanent in practices, whose ‘origin’ lies neither in the ‘decisions’ of reason understood as rational calculation nor in the determinations of mechanisms external to and superior to the agents. Being constitutive of the structure of rational practice, that is, the practice most appropriate to achieve the objectives inscribed in the logic of a particular field at the lowest cost, this economy can be defined in relation to all kinds of functions, one of which, among others, is the maximization of monetary profit, the only one recognized by economism. In other words, if one fails to recognize any form of action other than rational action or mechanical reaction, it is impossible to understand the logic of all the actions that are reasonable without being the product of a reasoned design, still less of rational calculation; informed by a kind of objective finality without being consciously organized in relation to an explicitly constituted end; intelligible and coherent without springing from an intention of coherence and a deliberate decision; adjusted to the future without being the product of a project or a plan. And, if one fails to see that the economy described by economic theory is a particular case of a whole universe of economies, that is, of fields of struggle differing both in the stakes and scarcities that are generated within them and in the forms of capital deployed in them, it is impossible to account for the specific forms, contents and leverage points thus imposed on the pursuit of maximum specific profits and on the very general optimizing strategies (of which economic strategies in the narrow sense are one form among others). (p. 50-51)
Economism is a form of ethnocentrism. Treating pre-capitalist economies, in Marx’s phrase, ‘as the Fathers of the Church treated the religions which preceded Christianity’, it applies to them categories, methods (economic accountancy, for example) or concepts (such as the notions of interest, investment or capital) which are the historical product of capitalism and which induce a radical transformation of their object, similar to the historical transformation from which they arose. Economism recognizes no other form of interest than that which capitalism has produced, through a kind of real operation of abstraction, by setting up a universe of relations between man and man based, as Marx says, on ‘callous cash payment’ and more generally by favouring the creation of relatively autonomous fields, capable of establishing their own axiomatics (through the fundamental tautology ‘business is business’, on which ‘the economy’ is based). It can therefore find no place in its analyses, still less in its calculations, for any form of ‘non-economic’ interest. It is as if economic calculation had been able to appropriate the territory objectively assigned to the remorseless logic of what Marx calls ‘naked self-interest’, only by relinquishing an island of the ‘sacred’, miraculously spared by the ‘icy waters of egoistic calculation’, the refuge of what has no price because it has too much or too little. But, above all, it can make nothing of universes that have not performed such a dissociation and so have, as it were, an economy in itself and not for itself. Thus, any partial or total objectification of the archaic economy that does not include a theory of the subjective relation of misrecognition which agents adapted to this economy maintain with its ‘objective’ (that is, objectivist) truth, succumbs to the most subtle and most irreproachable form of ethnocentrism. […]
By reducing this economy to its ‘objective’ reality, economism annihilates the specificity located precisely in the socially maintained discrepancy between the ‘objective’ reality and the social representation of production and exchange. It is no accident that the vocabulary of the archaic economy is entirely made up of double-sided notions that are condemned to disintegrate in the very history of the economy, because, owing to their duality, the social relations that they designate represent unstable structures which inevitably split in two as soon as the social mechanisms sustaining them are weakened.” (p. 112-3)

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press. (open access)

Join the Economic Sociology and Political Economy community via
Facebook / Twitter / LinkedIn / Google+ / Instagram / Tumblr



  1. Mainstream economics knows no other concept of moving forward than capitalist “development” and it defines it in terms of cash, cash credit and now credit-less digital transactions. Pre-capitalist/ under-developed/ tribal/ ethnic/ caste-based traditional systems could not organize themselves on advanced HRD basis without money/ capital/ profit. Capital intensification and capital density is increasing day by day while living labor is being pushed out of the eco-systems. Even cooperatives in India need greater and greater doses of “capitalization”! Privatization at the cost of loss of personality is driving people away from socialization. Even socialization is hijacked by capitalist through organization. Economism is the oxygen of modern day man and business man: “One dimensional” beings devoid of politics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s