No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Bourdieu and Organizations

Extending Bourdieu: Emirbayer and Johnson's Framework for Organizational Sociology

Pierre Bourdieu's theory was initially developed through case-by-case examinations of various forms of social organization, ranging from the Kabyle people to education, cultural production, and housing. Emirbayer and Johnson extended Bourdieu's theoretical framework to organizations, introducing the concept of organizations-as-fields. In theorizing, analogy involves comparing similar phenomena in different social forms to develop theoretical explanations. This approach involves using a theory or concept heuristically to organize data, searching for both analogies and differences, and using these differences to reconceptualize the theory. Comparing different social settings generates new insights and challenges for the theory.

Emirbayer and Johnson argue that the relational aspects of Bourdieu's theory have been neglected in organizational sociology. Within Bourdieu's theory in organizational sociology, the concepts of field, capital, and habitus have been used in isolation. This separation is not unique to organizational sociology, because other concepts have been removed from their original theoretical context. Fully incorporating Bourdieu's relational theory into the study of formal organizations is challenging. The dominant paradigm in organizational sociology often prioritizes aspects other than power and domination, hindering the incorporation of Bourdieu's relational framework. The complexity of Bourdieu's theory makes it challenging to apply comprehensively to formal organizations. Specialization in macro- or micro-level analysis and the limitations of available data further complicate the integration of the full theory.

Methods for Capturing Relational Elements in Organizational Sociology

The theoretical potential of a relational analysis in empirical research can be realized by considering multiple methods to capture the relational element within organizational sociology:

  • Correspondence analysis
  • Network analysis
  • Surveys
  • Ethnography

Each method serves the purpose of mapping a field and connecting positions and position-takings within it. Ethnography is particularly well-suited for examining the habitus of different actors in organizations-as-fields. History, although methodologically challenging due to the need to master a substantial amount of historical data and the constraints imposed by disciplinary specialization and historical conditions, is important to incorporate in the research.

Exploring Relational Aspects through Detailed Case Studies

Emirbayer and Johnson suggest that case studies can move from the particular to the general but caution against overlooking the broader system of organizations within which a case is located. Case studies may offer the greatest potential for exploring the relational aspects of Bourdieu's theory in formal organizations. Case studies have the advantage of inductively developing theory and exploring relatively unexplored areas. They can combine various methods and generate detailed data, making them suitable for capturing the complexities.


Challenging Organizational Norms: Bourdieu's Theory in the NASA Challenger Case Study

An example of a case study is Vaughan’s own work about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident and NASA's decision to launch despite engineer objections. The study used Bourdieu's theory as a major part of its explanation, combining it with neo-institutional theory to create "A Theory of Practical Action." The analysis focused on how institutionalized dispositions from the field influenced habitus at various levels (macro, meso, and micro) within NASA, affecting engineers' interpretations and actions.

The central research question revolved around why NASA proceeded with the Challenger launch despite engineer warnings about potential risks. The study uncovered a concept called the "normalization of deviance," where technical deviations initially considered risky became accepted due to repeated occurrences, leading to expanded boundaries of acceptable risk.

The research was historical ethnography, reconstructing structure and culture from archival documents and interviews. Vaughan used an inductive, grounded theorizing approach and applied analogical comparison, drawing from a vast database of NASA documents and interviews.

Empirically defining fields in case studies of organizations-as-fields within larger fields is challenging. Vaughan determined the boundaries of the fields by the relevant actors and the dependent variable, decision-making about Solid Rocket Boosters. Both NASA-as-field and the larger organization field were divided into layered structures based on their roles in the decision-making process.


Relational Analysis in Organizational Sociology: Insights from Bourdieu's Theory

Relational analysis and Bourdieu's concepts played a crucial role in the study. Habitual dispositions (habitus) were shown to connect macro, meso, and micro levels of analysis, and the reproduction of dispositions in nested fields was a key theoretical finding. The data revealed conflict, dominance, domination, and capital not visible in the historical data, emphasizing the importance of shifting the unit of analysis. The theoretical explanation is condensed but demonstrates the power of Emirbayer and Johnson's extension of Bourdieu's theory in explaining complex organizational events like the Challenger accident.


Using Bourdieu's Concepts in Organizational Research on Normalization of Deviance

The factors that explain the normalization of deviance in the years leading up to the Challenger accident, across micro-, macro-, and meso-level influences, were:

  • At the micro-level, the normalization of deviance was shaped by historical events and patterns. The first decision to proceed with a shuttle launch despite anomalies set a precedent, and subsequent launches with anomalies reinforced the perception that such deviations were routine. The social context within NASA, where problems were expected in experimental vehicles like the shuttle, contributed to this normalization of deviance. The pattern of information played a critical role, as signals of potential danger were often mixed, weak, and routine. Engineers believed that each anomaly had a different cause and had been fixed, leading to a cultural acceptance of risk.
  • At the macro- and meso-levels, organizational habitus reflects shared cognitive systems, including institutionalized beliefs, rules, and roles within the organization field. These assumptions and logics ‘trickle down’ through layered structures, shaping individual cognitive processes and actions. In the case of NASA, historical political and economic decisions, such as the transition to a more politicized and bureaucratic organization, altered the organization's culture. Safety and engineer expertise were overshadowed by a focus on schedule, budget, rules, and hierarchy. This shift in organizational dispositions influenced how people perceived and reacted to risks.


Bourdieu's Theory in Practice: Understanding Complex Organizational Dynamics

Historically, these organizational dispositions could be traced back to the broader field of capitalism, competition in the aerospace industry, and educational systems that trained engineers. Engineering education emphasized conformity to rules, the compromise of technical design for efficiency and economy, and the normalization of anomalies in experimental technologies. These institutional logics became ingrained in the worldview of managers and engineers at NASA, shaping their actions and interpretations. They viewed their actions as conforming to professional engineering standards, industry norms, and NASA's bureaucratic imperatives, rather than engaging in deviant behavior.

On the eve of the Challenger launch, a teleconference involving 34 NASA and Thiokol employees from various locations became a site of conflict and decision-making. This event provides insight into the role of power, capital, and reproduction of norms within the organization and organization-as-field. The teleconference was marked by the prediction of unprecedented cold weather, which shattered the consensus about the launch's risk. Engineers from Thiokol in Utah presented an analysis recommending against the launch due to the cold weather. A debate ensued, with the Solid Rocket Booster Project Manager from Marshall Space Flight Center challenging Thiokol's recommendation. Thiokol administrators eventually decided to proceed with the launch, excluding the contractor engineers from the vote. The launch proceeded based on this decision.


Factors Influencing the Outcome

  • History: The normalization of deviance, created through past decisions, influenced the belief that O-rings could withstand damage and were an acceptable risk.
  • Organization Culture: NASA's culture prioritized production pressure, bureaucratic rule-following, and adherence to hierarchy over safety considerations.
  • Cost and Schedule Pressures: The Challenger launch had already faced delays, and the decision-making process was influenced by the desire to avoid the expense of fueling the shuttle if the launch were canceled after midnight.
  • Power Relations: The Solid Rocket Booster Project Manager, by virtue of formal authority and expertise, held symbolic capital within the teleconference. But in the larger organization, his position was defined by the need to meet the project schedule and report the no-launch recommendation to superiors in the decision chain.
  • Social Location: The positions of individuals within the structure influenced their access to information, their willingness to speak, and their ability to convince others. Those with less symbolic capital were often complicit in their subordination.
  • Reproduction of Norms: The participants in the teleconference followed established rules, norms, and past engineering decisions. They reproduced these norms, guided by organizational habitus, which valorized hierarchy and recognized the unequal distribution of power as legitimate.
  • Contingency and Innovation: The prediction of cold weather introduced an unexpected contingency. Thiokol engineers made an unprecedented recommendation against the launch, representing an innovation within limits. In the face of uncertainty, participants fell back on habit and routine, reproducing the rules and norms of the past.


The Challenger case study demonstrates the potential of the concept of organizations-as-fields proposed by Emirbayer and Johnson. Even without extensive government investigations, case studies can reveal the relational aspects of organizations, shedding light on the complex interplay of factors that influence decisions. Interviews, observations, and archival records provide valuable data for understanding the layered spaces and practices within organizations.


Bridging Bourdieu and Organizational Analysis: Uncovering Inequality and Conflict

"The NASA Challenger Case Study demonstrates the potential of the concept of organizations-as-fields proposed by Emirbayer and Johnson. Even without extensive government investigations, case studies can reveal the relational aspects of organizations, shedding light on the complex interplay of factors that influence decisions."

The case study confirms the central tenets of Bourdieu's theory. It shows that the persistence of certain practices in organizations cannot be solely explained by rational actor models; instead, it is rooted in taken-for-granted norms and the reproduction of structures that sustain these practices. Bourdieu's concept of habitus, which allows individuals to inhabit and draw upon institutional principles while also permitting revisions, is illustrated. However, in this case, innovation and change did not occur, and history was reproduced.

The case highlights the importance of the meso-level in Bourdieu's theory, emphasizing that formal organizations can build upon and modify dispositions and schemas from macro-level structures. This suggests that habitus should be investigated as the product of social locations across multiple structures rather than as a single class-based concept. Other research directions could explore how different types of organizations foster or hinder the reproduction of collective beliefs and the role of organizational culture in shaping conformity.

The case study reveals the complex relationship between capital and position within a structure. Symbolic capital associated with position can hold more influence than other forms of capital in formal discussions. The salience of different types of capital may vary based on the hierarchy within an organization, gender, and the formality or informality of discussions.

Integrating Bourdieu's relational analysis into the sociology of organizations offers several benefits. Bourdieu's concepts, such as field, capital, and habitus, can enrich the understanding of organizational dynamics. The case demonstrates that Bourdieu's theory can help explain conflict, competition, resource distribution, and the interactions among organizations within fields.

Bridging Bourdieu's theory with organizational analysis can rejuvenate interest in the study of conflict, competition, and reproduction of inequality within organizations and fields. This integration can provide a deeper understanding of how organizations compete for strategic resources and navigate the complex relationships within and between organizations.



Vaughan, D. (2008), Bourdieu and Organizations: The Empirical Challenge, In: Theory and Society (2008) 37: 65–81.

Create Your Own Website With JouwWeb