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Why do we need the concept of social field?

October 22, 2013

An additional note by John Postill on the concept of social field. To appear in forthcoming volume by V. Amit (ed.) Concepts of Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation. Oxford: Berghahn.

See also Postill, J. forthcoming. Fields as dynamic configurations of practices, games, and socialities. In V. Amit (ed.) Concepts of Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation. Oxford: Berghahn.

NB – This is work in progress. For the final version, please refer to the published volume in due course. Last updated 23 October 2013.


A social field is an organised, internally differentiated domain of practice or action in which unequally positioned social agents compete and cooperate over the same rewards. Commonly associated with the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the concept of field is, in fact, of diverse ancestry.  Any comprehensive account of its history must consider at least three other lineages, including inter-organisational theory (DiMaggio and Powell), social psychology (Lewin), and the Manchester School of anthropology (Gluckman, Turner) (Postill forthcoming).

This concept deserves inclusion in a volume devoted to sociality for the following four reasons. First, because it broaches a central problem in social theory since Durkheim and Weber, namely the growing complexity and differentiation of modern societies into specialist domains such as politics, law, journalism, or sport (Benson and Neveu 2005). Moreover, in contrast to differentiation theory concepts such as Luhmann’s societal ‘subsystems’, the notion of field (a) does not make the deterministic assumption that modern fields will always tend towards greater differentiation; in some cases, the opposite is true, for instance, when a field like academia becomes less autonomous from the field of government (Hallin 2005), and (b) human agency and sociality are integral to the concept of field, they are not erased as occurs in Luhmann’s highly abstract systems theory (Gershon 2005).

Second, while notions such as community or network skirt around the question of power, the concept of field is based on a relational account of power. In other words, different agents bring to the field uneven amounts of economic, social and cultural capital, and this makes them relatively dominant or dominated in relation to other field agents.

Third, the concept of field invites us to explore the distinction between social action and social practice, two notions that are often conflated in the literature. In its well-known Bourdieuan variant, a field is an enduring domain of habitual practice. By contrast, in the Manchester school of anthropology tradition, fields are often volatile, rapidly changing domains of action, for example, following a leadership crisis in a 1950s rural African setting (Turner 1957).  In other words, the concept of field suggests a potentially fruitful ideal-type distinction between sustainable spheres of practice (e.g. art, sociology, charity) and unsustainable spheres of action (e.g. protest, war, disaster relief) as two poles in a practice/action continuum.

Finally, unlike community, network or public sphere, the notion of field is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Field is an inherently neutral term with in-built resistance to the kind of normativity that has rendered emotive notions such as community or nation practically unusable as theoretical concepts (Postill 2008). That is to say, it is a concept that sheds light on the way things are, not the way things ought to be within a specific domain of human life. This allows us to investigate the empirical actualities of a given social process or phenomenon with an open mind, without imposing on it our communitarianism, networked horizontalism or critical rationalism.  In short, there are no signs of ‘fieldism’ on the horizon.


Benson, R. and E. Neveu (eds.) 2005. Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field. Cambridge: Polity.

Gershon, I. 2005. Seeing like a system: Luhmann for anthropologists. Anthropological Theory, 5(2), 99-116.

Hallin, D.C. 2005. Two Approaches to Comparative Media Research: Field Theory and Differentiation Theory, in R. Benson and E. Neveu (eds) Bourdieu and the Journalistic Field. Cambridge: Polity.

Postill, J. 2008. Localising the internet beyond communities and networks, New Media and Society 10 (3), 413-431.

Postill, J. forthcoming. Fields as dynamic configurations of practices, games, and socialities. In V. Amit (ed.) Concepts of Sociality: An Anthropological Interrogation. Oxford: Berghahn.

Turner, Victor W. 1957. Schism and Continuity in an African Society: A Study of Ndembu Village Life. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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