Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 July 2017
While verbal expressions, whether oral or written, sometimes fail to convey all that we wish to, and as precisely as we want to, this is seldom viewed as a limitation inherent in language itself. More often than not, it is attributed, with some justification, to a lack of adequate skills on the part of the speaker or author. Just as often, the fact that theoretical expressions in the social sciences are linguistically mediated is something that is taken for granted and regarded as unproblematic, while it is in the conceptual framework of the theory being considered that the source of any shortcoming or of power that the expressions carry is located.
However, the role of language as a constitutive element in the practice of theory has been framed, refl ected upon and even critiqued in diverse ways in certain intellectual traditions, including discussions with reference to forms of sociological thought. And this is not surprising, since a close intermeshing of thoughts and words, and their amalgamation in conceptual vocabularies, has been a staple of representations of the social world in most social sciences. Yet the expectation that words would, in some sense, deepen our understanding of the world we live in, and that they may take us closer to the truths of human social existence, is one whose realization is considered, perhaps today more than ever before, as being extremely complicated. For we are being sensitized to the fact that the journey to and fro between words and the world is complex, uncertain and even impossible according to some schools of thought.
In what follows, I first unravel the threads linking words and the world in certain prominent forms of social theory as a backdrop for identifying some distinctive features of Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical practice and theory of practice. I then outline the main events and salient features of a contemporary episode in working- class history, in order, next, to discuss how far the features of Bourdieu's theory enumerated earlier, and his political perspective, can deepen our understanding of the events described. Finally, I refl ect briefl y on the general assumption that theory provides some sort of a grip on social reality.