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How German Communication Research Discovered Bourdieu but Missed His Potential for the Study of (Populist) Political Communication

How German Communication Research Discovered Bourdieu but Missed His Potential for the Study of (Populist) Political Communication
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Abstract

Starting with an outline of Pierre Bourdieu’s reception in German-speaking communication research, this article identifies an important omission: his writings on politics and the corresponding symbolic struggles. In particular, the field of research on political communication could profit from the approaches outlined in these publications. This is exemplified by research on populist communication, which has become one of the most important topics in the field of political communication. This contribution argues that, together with Bourdieu’s theory of social class, his conception of politics could be a fruitful way to understand current (right-wing) populism, with its construction of “the people,” its particular claim to representation, as well as its social-structural basis and appeal to certain groups. However, there are several barriers immanent in the dominant approaches in research on political communication that can be understood from the history of the field and that have hindered the adoption of such a perspective in German-speaking communication research.


The reception of a scholar’s work, particularly from other disciplines, is always selective. This is an almost tautological claim, because scholarship always involves the selection of earlier research that new theories and studies can build on. What shapes this selectivity, and how different selections lead to different outcomes, are the more interesting questions. This article describes a case of selective appropriation across national, linguistic, and disciplinary borders with a complex pattern of openness and closure: In international comparison, German-speaking communication research1 is somewhat open to social theory, but less open to the approaches from Francophone sciences de l’information et de la communication and to more semiological approaches.2 Political communication is a field within (German and international) communication research that is somewhat less open to theories of society and rather internationalized, but mostly oriented towards Anglophone literature.

This contribution is a historical analysis of this status quo and an essay at counterfactual history: It tries to locate some of the blind spots arising from this disciplinary and cultural constellation, to explore its historical roots, and to speculate what could happen if German or international research on political communication had opened up to the more (socio-)semiotic concepts from French social theory. It describes how German communication research discovered the work of Pierre Bourdieu but missed his potential for the study of political communication. It then illustrates the unused potential of his work for this field, using the example of his writings on political sociology and the phenomenon of populist communication as one of the important concepts (or buzzwords) in recent research on political communication.

If we want to make the most of our analysis of political trends and contribute most to current debates, we should perhaps be prepared to cross several borders: from nomothetic toward interpretive or semiological, constructivist or performative perspectives; from political science (and maybe psychology) as the most important external discipline(s) from which concepts are borrowed toward sociology; and from a cluster of Anglophone (and Germanophone, Dutch, Scandinavian, etc.) literature and scholars toward the Francophone sphere. However, there are various barriers to the adoption of such approaches stemming from the history of German-speaking communication, which will be discussed below. Taken together, this contribution is an invitation to reflect on past and future paths in German-speaking and international research in political communication, both to the field itself and to everyone interested in the history and sociology of the field of communication research.

A Very Short History of Pierre Bourdieu’s Reception in German Communication Research

German-speaking communication research has been characterized historically as a field that has turned from normative, individualist, interpretive, and historical perspectives towards empirical social science.3 Those who were not willing to follow this turn or were later dissatisfied with the mainstream of effects- and variable-oriented research, had several possibilities

Conclusion teilweis auflösen und hierher verschieben

  1. Festhalten an der alten historischen Schule, die jedoch als konzeptionell altbacken, wissenschaftliche unergiebig, da deskriptiv angesehen wurdeFesthalten an der alten historischen Schule, die jedoch als konzeptionell altbacken, wissenschaftliche unergiebig, da deskriptiv angesehen wurde. renewed niches for historical scholarship

  2. Critical theory or even orthodox marxism; conservative to centrist social democrats; Habermas from left wing of Frankfurt School to “state philosopher” of the FRG and template for analysis of discourses

  3. later constructivist social theory and epistemology: Gesellschaftstheorie/alternative Erkenntnistheorie: hier zunächst Luhmann und radikaler Konstruktivismus, die ihre "Radikalität" nicht in Kritik des Status quo ausleben, sondern in der Kritik eines naiven Realismus und alltagsnaher Begrifflichkeiten; sie wurden jedoch auch zunehmend als unfruchtbar angesehen - alles ist konstruiert, man kann über Codes und Beziehungen zwischen Systemen (Interpenetration, Irritation, Entdifferenzierung) streiten, aber wie weiter?

  4. even later (starting in the 2000s) Bourdieu - or Giddens, Schimank - structure and action. Bourdieu kommt da als Rettung: dynamisch, akteursbezogen, mit einem gewissen kritischen Potenzial, das aber eher ausgeblendet wird

but more importantly for social-theoretical approaches, have remained—not so much for various critical schools4 but for social systems theory,5 which still somewhat reverberates in journalism studies or theories of the public sphere. Furthermore, although a Habermasian conception of public discourse would certainly be categorized as normative,6 it is mainly used as a template for the empirical study of actual discourses.

Bourdieu is not so much read as the “political” intellectual or “activist” investigator of misère and suffering or of neoliberalism or as “communication theorist” (see below), but has been considered in German communication research (most notably in Munich) from three different perspectives:7

  1. as the analyst of cultural distinctions,8 to study the homology between social class and media use;9

  2. as the field theorist and surveyor of scientific and other fields,10 to describe the structures and trajectories in the field of communication research11 and to analyze the journalistic field;12 and

  3. as the theorist of social practices and of the practical sense,13 to conceptualize journalistic or digital practices or practices of media use.14

Another topic and perspective in Bourdieu’s work has been largely neglected: his earlier writings on politics that analyze how political concepts and discourses acquire their meaning in symbolic struggles and the power of such discourses to constitute social reality.15 These writings, mostly published in the 1970s and early 1980s and often in Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, may be grouped together with other texts on the social role of language in general, on “what speaking means”16—not only in terms of denotations proper, but more importantly, who is and feels entitled to speak, how different ways of speaking practiced by different groups are valued, and how speaking brings about social reality—and on symbolic power as such.17

vs. emphasis on content analysis and measurement of “manifest” meaning (https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007/978-94-007-0753-5_552 erste Erwähnung in D?) or analysis of codes and programs; communicative power in quantitative distribution of objectively measurable mentions of topics, actors, and opinions, not in the relationship between communicator, recipients, and message and the specific meaning arising from this constellation as in what may be called Bourdieu’s “theory of communication.” Or no actual concept of power, only mutual irritation (constructivism, reception of Luhmann).

Potential of couterfactual history using the example of the recently much discussed topic of populist communication

A Very Short History of Research on Populist Communication

To the best of my knowledge, the concept or phenomenon of populism had not received considerable attention in the discipline of communication research until the 2010s, with a small number of publications in the 2000s (most notably by Gianpietro Mazzoleni18). Subsequently, research quickly moved from a small number of publications investigating the relationship between journalist and populist logics19 to a strongly networked field (at least in Europe) that was able to take stock of its common activities and accomplishments in a number of collective volumes and special issues.20 In the European context, my impression is that of a consolidation and convergence toward a perspective that is very much in line with the most prevalent approach in political communication research as a whole: Populism is conceptualized rather formally as a combination of dimensions that can then be operationalized in standardized content analyses and questionnaires in order to explain the occurrence of populist messages and attitudes or related constructs. By combining the concept of populism with other constructs, usually from the repertoire of political communication, journalism studies, and media or social psychology, the degree or frequency of populist communication from certain sources can be explained by differences among political actors or media outlets, the effect of populist messages can be investigated in experiments, and correlates of populist attitudes—such as low trust in the media—can be identified. German-speaking researchers are certainly among the main actors in the field who follow this paradigm.21 This leads to highly cumulative research efforts but also, almost inevitably, to a number of blind spots and rigidifications, such as

  • that certain phenomena are more or less taken for granted (or even essentialized) instead of their discursive constitution in detail, such as “the” people, “the” elite, the in-group, the out-group, etc., perhaps even “populism” itself being analyzed;

  • the relative neglect of overarching social contexts (classes or milieus), trajectories or biographies, and overall ideologies or worldviews, often in favor of a strictly experimental logic of stimulus and response or analyses including a small number of pre-existing attitudes and covariates; and

  • the dominance of quantitative over qualitative, interpretive, biographical, historical, iconographical, etc,. studies with a focus on meaning, performance, narrative, style, symbolism, etc.

Somewhat distinct from the dominant paradigm, albeit not completely disconnected from it, other researchers have emphasized the performative, discursive, or stylistic aspects of populism. At the same time, they have also established a more explicit connection with communication, discursive practices, and the media (however, mostly outside the German-speaking region22). This sets them apart from other strands of populism research that remain very vague with regard to these aspects or is mostly interested, for example, in political theory, party strategies, or electoral behavior.

Based on this characterization of current research on populist communication, we can now turn to the question of what would happen if we brought it together with Bourdieu’s political sociology.

Vous Avez Dit ‘Populiste’? Bourdieu’s Political Sociology and Populist Communication

Bourdieu on representation

In the current and subsequent sections, we will depart from a kind of straw man, a stereotypically naive understanding of populism which is, however, only a caricature of actual preconceptions about populism in public and academic discourse. We will not attribute these conceptions to individual authors but introduce them to provide a Bourdieuian criticism and give them a Bourdieuian turn, also in order to discuss why German-speaking communication research has not taken that turn.

One simplistic idea of politics would assume a static political space constituted by voters’ more or less fixed ideologies or policy preferences, and by the strategic positioning of political parties that maximize their votes. If certain voters no longer feel represented, for example, by European conservative parties shifting toward the center or social-democratic parties neglecting the interests of “the working class” in favor of identity politics, new parties can position themselves in these gaps, for example, right-wing populist parties representing conservative workers—or so this explanation goes.

Whether it is “the working class,” “the people of Padania,” “the Hindus,” or simply “ordinary people,” it would seem as if groups that feel disadvantaged and unrepresented (at least relative to their actual number and role in a country) are desperately looking for some representatives (most often a single person more or less supported or appointed by a party or movement): The group “creates” the representative, i.e., chooses this figure to represent them.23 However, as Bourdieu argues, politics is only possible because actors have their own conceptions of the social world which can be confirmed or changed in political discourse, and are often diffuse. There would be no struggles over the description of the social world if everyone had a precise and infallible idea about their social position and affiliation to social groups, and if actors were not capable of identifying themselves with different descriptions. However, such struggles would also be pointless if, independently of their social position, everyone could find any description similarly plausible.24

Surely, Bourdieu postulates a homology between political space and the space of social inequality25 (which he described in a particularly useful way for the explanation of certain current populist movements, as I will discuss below). A given group of persons will find certain political offers of representation more plausible and attractive. However, he describes how the representative also creates the group in the full sense. Someone speaks for a group, represents it, but it only fully exists and can be mobilized by virtue of this representation—in the extreme, this relationship between constitution and representation, between delegation and mobilization, is circular.26

The aspiring representative invests some symbolic work (in the form of words, theories in the broadest sense, rituals, and other symbolic means) and thus, a way of seeing the world and living in it that has often only been vaguely felt (often as discontent), which now becomes manifest and allows groups to recognize commonalities where a unifying principle had not been seen before.27 A group as a mere aggregate recognizes the representation and authorizes the representative, who then manifests and embodies the group, and draws their power from the ability to mobilize it.28

Bourdieu often expresses the logic of political representation (and of any kind of investiture) in religious and magical metaphors: the mystery of ministry, political fetishism, or social magic.29 Representatives sacrifice themselves, ostentatiously giving up their person, and creating another, a social one, such as “the people.”30 For example, when police searched the headquarters of his party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon famously exclaimed: “La République, c’est moi!” and “I am more than Jean-Luc Mélenchon, I am seven million people!”31

Bourdieu’s analysis of the constitution of groups by their representation is not too different from discursive conceptions of populism.32 However, the connection with his concept of habitus allows for a quite substantial analysis of the schemata of perception and evaluation that are specific to social classes and other groups, which make certain offers of representation and certain strategies for representing social reality and representing social groups acceptable to them.

If such a strategy works out, the result seems very natural: Not only the represented but also political opponents, commentators, and even researchers will be convinced, for example, that “ordinary people” are no longer taken seriously by established political actors and that they feel their concerns are neglected—and this presupposes that this “people” of ordinary citizens exists (even if it is not the whole population) and that there is something to be concerned about (even if one does not share the concerns). In line with Bourdieu’s general emphasis on reflexivity in the (social) sciences,33 researchers should therefore reflect on how they might reproduce the very categories constructed in claims to representation, and how their research inevitably contributes to the ineluctably politicized constitution of social reality.

The rather abstract discursive theories of how populists establish an equivalence of different demands and articulate them with regard to an antagonism between the people and an elite34 could thus be refined and extended in different ways based on Bourdieuian theories.

However, these discursive theories of populism à la Laclau and Mouffe have also been neglected in favor of ideological definitions35 in research on populist communication in the German-speaking countries and in the larger academic networks it is embedded in (this is probably the case because such research is more open to empirical science than political theory and to research that positions itself as value-free rather than explicitly political, e.g., post-Marxist). In this context, the analysis of populist communication mostly starts with the centrality of the people,36 not with its construction, and explanations of effects starts with the priming of social identities,37 not so much with how they are constructed and appropriated in the first place. Only the exclusionary part of the construction of the people is sometimes posited as a central dimension of populism.38 As indicated above, this also leads to the risk of contributing to a “theory effect”39 that (co-)creates and essentializes the very social phenomena that a theory, ideology, or discourse describes—such as “the people” of nativist populism as the natural, pre-existing basis of sovereignty and exclusion.40

The latest slogan by the German right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), “Deutschland. Aber normal.” (“Germany. But normal.”) would probably not be coded as “people-centrist,” maybe not even as manifestly exclusionary or anti-elitist in a standardized analysis, following an ideological approach that defines populism as, for example, based on the dimensions of people-centrism, exclusion, anti-elitism, and popular sovereignty. Why a party would remind voters of the obvious—in which country they are running—can of course be explained with the nativist positioning of the party. But why would voters identify with being “normal”? From the perspective of an ethos of originality in classes with a larger amount of cultural capital, being “normal” amounts to being boring and inauthentic. The slogan only makes sense if someone feels that their conventional lifestyle is being challenged by political change, their status threatened, and their achievements devalued by the recognition of minorities or structural changes in the economic field—as is the case with the declining parts of the petty bourgeoisie or skilled workers.

When communication researchers attempt to explain the success of populist leaders and the formation or confirmation of populist attitudes, it may seem as if everything is a perfect fit: They identify the preexisting attitudes, the features of populist messages or of the election programs, and the social-psychological mechanisms that have to come together in order to convince voters that a populist politician or party represents them, or a message appeals to them.

However, when Bourdieu describes the dialectic of representation, he also emphasizes the dilemma of empowerment and disempowerment. Modern political fields and symbolic production follows a division of labor: There is a separation between, on the one hand, the specialized production of cultural, political, religious, etc., offers, the struggle for the symbolic means of representing society,41 and the monopoly of symbolic power and, on the other hand, a consumption which is largely limited to recognizing the types of offers and identifying with some of them.42 With regard to political representation, this creates a dilemma, in particular, for the most disadvantaged groups: Even their representatives have to make concessions to conventional political language that is detached from their experience, that is not their own language but a “borrowed” one that censures and euphemizes the description of social reality—which creates a distance between the representatives and the represented.43 Representatives, having the symbolic means and access to the means of communication that the represented lack, can even disempower and betray those who, to gain more power, have themselves represented, and appropriate the represented groups, usurp the resulting power as a means to their own ends.44 The resulting feeling of powerlessness and resignation is rarely addressed in research on populist communication, whether this feeling is driven by negative coverage of populist actors as self-interested or by more direct contact with their messaging, which may feel inauthentic to some citizens or as a misrepresentation of their situation, experience, and identity.

German-speaking research in political communication is to a large degree basic research (at least in comparison to applied research that would be directly applicable to, for example, strategic political communication), but is often interested in topics that are acknowledged as social problems in the political, journalistic, and academic mainstream (such as the rise of populism). More or less adopting the definition of such problems as they circulate in public discourse, the research being conducted usually does not propose immediate solutions but reveals relationships that become relevant in the search for causes or answers to these established problems. It is my impression that German-speaking communication research has also tended to shift from research whose relevance was grounded in ideological controversies and in journalism education, such as research on the effects of journalists’ political attitudes on media content or on the quality of private and public broadcasting, to research that is useful for the solution or prevention of social problems, such as research on health communication or prevention of extremism. A theory on the dialectic of populist representation would only very indirectly fit this schema. Analyzing how populists can symbolically dispossess and disempower their constituency might be relevant for a criticism of authoritarian populism, but not the most obvious topic in a field mostly oriented toward an analysis of the immediate causes of a phenomenon that is socially defined as relevant.

Bourdieu on the possible class basis of populism

Sometimes, a rather unfruitful understanding of populism as pure opportunism, a weathervane of public opinion,45 or the politics of “simple solutions” appealing to the uneducated masses, as politics that is or attempts to be “popular,” etc., still circulates in public discourse. Bourdieu’s sociology of education should warn us not to assume that education, as it is actually practiced, would simply endow young citizens with certain necessary competences. Very often, they are rather only registered than conveyed by the education system and acquired earlier or outside school by a population that is then selected by institutions of higher education.46 It would also be classist to assume that a lack of formal education automatically drives people into the arms of problematic varieties of populism; it would be undifferentiated to assume that all types of populism have to be prevented by education; and it would be illusionary to assume that illiberal populism can be overcome with whatever kind of education that is offered here or there. However, that populism must have something to do with certain “popular” classes seems to be conventional wisdom.

And vous avez dit « populaire » (did you say ‘popular’)?47 Bourdieu analyzed how the understanding of “the popular” is prone to (unconscious) manipulation according to one’s interests and prejudices, prone to condescending views, but also to an unreflected affirmation of what is the ambivalent product of symbolic domination.48

A simplistic narrative on the causes of right-wing populism in particular is that of right-wing populist parties as the “new working class parties,” since left-wing parties, with their turn toward “identity politics,” have driven their former voters into the arms of the extreme right.49 In contrast, Bourdieu’s conception of social space can help us disentangle the various influences on populist attitudes and the sometimes inconsistent findings on the social-structural basis of populism (even if we focus on Central European right-wing populism).

When the social-structural and cultural conditions of right-wing populism are investigated, this usually takes one of two forms:

  • an analysis along single variables, most often for descriptive or illustrative purposes (e.g., a comparison of the intention to vote for a right-wing populist party by gender that is presented in the context of a more encompassing argument) or as covariates or control variables in more complex models, or

  • an analysis along certain key theses or concepts, such as the “losers of modernization” or “cultural backlash” theses, the idea of a silent or noisy counter-revolution to the “silent revolution” of cultural change toward post-material values, or of a new divide between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism.50

Even analyses based on the second type of explanation do not always draw on an elaborate conception of social structure, often quickly proceeding to the measurement of the variables implied in the hypotheses, and publications in communication research touch upon such theses only very briefly, if at all. The first type is more common in the field—if any social-structural covariates or control variables are included at all. Quantitative research in political communication often focuses on other variables and relies on age, education, and gender as proxies for more complex influences of social status and socialization, mostly without specifying any conceptual underpinnings or causal mechanisms. Research on the role of the media for right-wing populism mostly remains detached from analyses of social-structural causes, and German-speaking research on political communication in general has not developed a substantial tradition of social-structural analysis, whether Bourdieuian or otherwise.

Bourdieu has contributed at least two important aspects to a fruitful analysis of social inequality: multiple dimensions of social inequality and the role of trajectories in addition to positions.51 First, he described social classes not only in terms of their economic status or role in the relations of production, but in terms of the distribution of different forms of capital (he found economic and cultural capital to be most relevant in the context of his analyses of habitus and lifestyle). The cultural dimension of inequality also manifests itself in a homology between social positions and the structure of schemata of perception and evaluation that then result in differences in lifestyles and in different political and media choices. Second, he drew attention to the role of social trajectories (experienced or expected upward or downward mobility of individuals or whole fractions of classes) in addition to current positions in shaping people’s schemata of perception and evaluation, in particular, their views of society and their place in it, and consequently also of politics.

Without mentioning right-wing populism as a concept, Bourdieu also distinguished between a liberal and a reactionary type of conservatism (or one that abhors established politics and is fixated on the hypocrisy of the ruling class) and explained this difference by the different expectations of traditional and declining classes—whether or not they see a chance to preserve or improve their position.52

One of the few analyses of right-wing populism that explicitly and strongly relies on Bourdieu’s conception of social structure has been published by German sociologist Cornelia Koppetsch.53 In a somewhat transformed Bourdieuian social space, she identifies three different groups, who, due to different perceptions of contestation of the established social order, decline, or insecurity, tend to support right-wing populism: the conservative upper class, the traditional middle class, and the precarious lower class. Without discussing the explanation and its merits in detail, it seems promising to consider the common and differential appeal of right-wing populism to several classes54 and the alliances (and fault lines) in a multidimensional social space, instead of a single class or a small number of variables. If such a perspective were combined with a Bourdieuian analysis of practices of media use, we would be able to better understand audiences of populist communication in the context of social-structural and media-related opportunity structure of right-wing populism.

German-speaking communication research often follows a variable-based logic of analysis instead of a holistic one (thinking in terms of the additive influence of individual properties instead of complex situations, ways of living, or worldviews with interconnected elements) and is more often interested in pre-existing attitudes instead of social-structural positions or even trajectories as independent variables or moderators. A Bourdieuian conception of social class, based on the specific combination of different features of social inequality and elements of lifestyles or evaluative schemata, is at odds with this logic..55 In cases where a more holistic, typological approach is chosen, the German-speaking tradition of milieu analysis and consumer typologies is quite influential.56 Both in sociology and market research, the search for models of social differentiation that reflect a presumed pluralization and individualization of lifestyles leads to the development of typologies of milieus that did not always ignore Bourdieu’s conception but were increasingly disconnected from his original theories. Communication researchers have established a wide variety of typologies ranging from classifications that are more or less exclusively based on patterns of media use and mostly data-driven (sometimes, but not always at the intersection of academic and commercial audience research) to theoretically informed conceptions of milieus that include social status and political orientations.57

There are thus three reasons for the hesitant adoption of Bourdieu’s theory of social class and trajectories in German-speaking communication research, in particular, in political communication: the dominant variable- and attitude-based logic; the frequent use of cross-sectional or experimental designs and the neglect of biographies and trajectories; and the fact that the rather small “niche” of typological and lifestyle analysis is already occupied by other, often specifically German conceptions.

Bourdieu on charisma and legitimacy

One last time starting with a naive preconception, we may attribute the success of populism to some natural charisma of its leaders, their talent for communication or even manipulation, and a style that is naturally appealing to the masses. Again, one would not attribute this view to specific scholars but in some publications on populism, authors seem to explicitly or unreflectedly imply that populists must somehow be particularly skilled communicators.

Max Weber had introduced the concept of charisma as an extraordinary quality that is ascribed to a person who is therefore recognized as a leader. He already added that it is completely irrelevant how this property would be evaluated from an observer’s standpoint—what matters is how it is judged by the “charismatically ruled.”58 Bourdieu refers to Weber’s conception of charisma (and to Marx’ analysis of fetishism) in his analysis of political representation.59 He emphasizes two aspects of representation that ultimately lead to this ascription of unique qualities that seem to exist on their own terms, to take on their own life: the idea of forgotten or ignored work of representation and its relationality.

The work of representation not only consists of communicative efforts and institutional processes to establish a certain vision of society and certain categorizations, but also to convey a sense of the legitimacy of the representation. The power of the representative is then based on certain pre-existing or more newly established beliefs that are produced and reproduced in a given field, which in turn lead to the belief in the representative and their claims, to their recognition by the (potentially) represented; and the stronger the belief that the claim is not arbitrary and that words do not produce but only describe reality, the stronger the relation between the represented and the representative and the belief in their claims.60

Without recognition, any claim to representation or power is nonsense: “[Le roi,] c’est un fou qui se prend pour le roi avec l’approbation des autres”—someone claiming to be the king is usually considered “crazy,” unless everyone agrees that he is the king (and it is still strange or mysterious, as Bourdieu reminds us, how someone can transform into a king just because people believe in him, his legitimacy or qualities, and in the vision of social order that justifies his power).61

If the represented accept the claim of representation, it is because the social categories it is based on have begun to appear self-evident. To use them seems to describe social reality, not to manipulate it. And the representative appears as the natural incarnation of the represented group. All the work that was necessary to establish the claim to representation can then be ignored or forgotten.

The political field does not have any clear rules or authorities that would legitimate the ways of legitimating power and thus constantly fluctuates between legitimacy by science and by plebiscite, between technocracy and democratic will, the force of conviction that something is true and the force of recognition by a mobilizable social group.62 Political claims are not so much to be judged against a fixed reality, as their “truth” depends on who utters them: If one is in the right position, a description or prediction has the chance to become true (in the extreme case, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy) and a promise can be kept by virtue of the beliefs and size of the relevant groups and due to the right institutional resources.63 This is a leader’s political capital which can take several forms: institutional (the symbolic, personal, and material resources temporarily transferred by an organization to its officials in return for loyalty to the organization or its positions) and personal (their prestige and popularity).64

While notables slowly accumulate their political capital over a whole life, the capital of “charismatic” (or heroic, prophetic) leaders is acquired in a situation of crisis, when the established institutions cannot provide answers, and is legitimated retrospectively if the rhetoric of crisis and the resulting mobilization are successful.65 If populism is always related to crises in one way or another, Bourdieu would most probably agree with those who emphasize that a crisis is not simply given as such but performed.66

This personal authority is, however, only possible through a group that authorizes it—and this in turn authorizes the group in their identity and unity: An actor speaks out what had been ignored or only had been tacitly felt, the pre-linguistic and pre-reflective dispositions in a population—sometimes theatrically in order not to let it pass over to silence again—and this resonates with the group if this discourse matches those dispositions.67

Thus, there is probably no single populist habitus that speaks to every group to be represented, only different types of leaders who can underscore their ability to represent the people with how they display a certain type of personality and with how they present a vision of society in a given historical situation. And this claim of representation appeals to parts of different classes who are attracted to a specific style and political vision due to their specific dispositions, their schemata of perception and evaluation.

German-speaking (and international) mainstream research on political communication often sees populist leaders only as “sources” of messages whose “manifest content” or effect is to be analyzed, not as socially located, symbolic, admired (or hated) figures. Maybe this shows an understanding of “modern” social-scientific research (as opposed to a past with supposedly merely “individualist” and not actually “analytical” approaches) as necessarily abstract, generalizable, and thus impersonal, and the attempt to distance oneself from interpretive, “subjective,” not actually “empirical” research.

Certainly, research on political communication is often, but not always, centered on the individual, in the sense that theories and studies focus on individual attitudes and political action. Only a few researchers in political communication strictly follow Luhmann’s “anti-humanist” theory of social systems to analyze the relationship between politics and the media. However, the interpretive analysis of the symbolic character of individual populist leaders and of their claims may be met with skepticism in German-speaking communication research, because it may be seen as a case study that is not clearly “empirical” (but “essayistic,” “impressionistic,” merely “descriptive,” etc.) and of questionable generalizability.

In the often rather prosaic and formalist research on political communication, it would be necessary to rethink one’s style of research and to break with one’s habitus to a certain degree in order to follow Bourdieu’s somewhat paradoxical approach to the analysis of the social magic of representation: It is necessary to look at politics with a disenchanted regard in order to be again astonished that it works and how it does, to see what is only based on appearance and belief, but with real social consequences. And it is necessary to analyze in interpretative studies how crises are performed, how leaders try to authorize themselves, and how claims to power realize themselves if, together with the right styles and pre-linguistic dispositions, they produce charisma—or how this all fails.

Conclusion

Bourdieu’s reception in German-speaking research on political communication has probably not only been hindered by the field’s increasing orientation toward Anglophone literature and publication outlets and the neglect of Francophone contributions (his writings on politics have been translated to German and English over time, so accessibility is not the main barrier). While his works on social structure and cultural practices have been cited in studies of media use, research on populist communication is more media-centric than interested in social structure, starting with either the communicator or the message and investigating that message or its effects in a variable-based logic (in which single constructs, not elaborate social theories, are used to explain differential effects—if experiments do not completely dispense with covariates).

The rather centrist to conservative climate in German-speaking communication research during the Post-World War II and Cold War eras may also continue to affect today’s definition of the field as value-free (or normative mostly in the sense of applying legal standards, liberal-democratic principles, and widely shared journalistic professional norms), with a certain distance toward critical and more or less openly left-wing schools (including, for example, the Essex school of discourse analysis and populism research associated with Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe). Although Bourdieu can be read as a “pure” social theorist instead of an activist or critical scholar,68 and although his concepts can be used for the most conventional empirical social-scientific research, terms like bourgeoisie, domination, capital, etc,. may still have some connotations of class struggle or armchair leftism and are not quite part of the usual vocabulary of German-speaking research on political communication.

Bourdieu’s emphasis on trajectories would also suggest more biographical studies or retrospective life-course analyses (or long-term panels if feasible) that would study changes in social position and related expectations, changes in media use, and evolving political attitudes. Such approaches are rare in a field of political communication research that mostly uses experiments, cross-sectional surveys, and shorter panel studies. As one of the major fields in German-speaking and international communication research, political communication is highly competitive and thus incentivizes designs that allow for quick and efficient data collection.

The social-scientific turn in German communication research has been welcomed by its proponents as a sign of renewal for a discipline that had been discredited by its political conformity during National Socialism and as a path toward academic legitimacy by means of scientification. On the other side, this development has led to a reluctance toward anything that has either a literary or art criticism, historiographic, or “grand theory” feel to it. Quantitative social scientists may find correspondence analyses and other statistical data in Bourdieu’s publications, but also pages of jargon and long analyses of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, photography in rural France, or Heidegger’s worldview, and comparisons between political preferences and the taste for certain types of cheese. This is in stark contrast with the literature usually cited in the field—papers that review previous research, introduce a number of concepts, and deduce a few hypotheses, followed by a methodological section, the results, and a number of rather straightforward conclusions.

While typical studies in political communication may acknowledge that many concepts are contested in political discourse and that symbols or statements can be ambiguous, typical methods often require researchers to treat meaning as more or less fixed or the range of meanings as closed, for example, in standardized questionnaires or content analyses (which is, of course, perfectly legitimate in many contexts). A performative perspective or one that is based on symbolic struggles starts one step earlier, with the strategies and contexts in which those meanings are elaborated. It does not only ask, for example, how central “the people” is in political discourse or in individual political beliefs, but how it is constituted.

To adopt Bourdieu’s concepts in research into political communication and populist communication may be a way to smuggle some ideas of performativity into the field, maybe bypassing Laclau and Mouffe or to take them along on the way, and also to bring German-speaking Medien- und Kommunikationswissenschaft and Francophone sciences de l’information et de la communication closer together. After all, Bourdieu is already a household name in some parts of German-speaking communication research, while the Essex scholars are not.

In this overall context, introducing Bourdieu’s approach into research into populist communication seems like a worthwhile experiment, of course, without being the answer to everything. Theorizing populism in terms of his theories puts the phenomenon in the context of an overall theory of society and social practice, of social fields and symbolic struggle. This prevents us from reinventing the wheel by developing ad-hoc hypotheses on populism or conducting atheoretical research that only has a very formal definition of populism as its basis. However, to make Bourdieu’s concepts actually useful to the study of populist communication, we will have to close three gaps:

  • In Bourdieu’s writings on politics and symbolic struggles that have been cited above, the role of the media is hardly discussed and his major publications on the media focus on the heteronomy of the journalistic field and its power over other fields of cultural production and the political field, on the homogenization and doxa of the field, not on its role in symbolic struggles.69

    1. Bourdieu’s analysis of “the popular,” “les classes populaires,” political contestation, representation, and mobilization grapples noticeably with Marxist theory, its theory effects, and the working class as the most interesting and relevant group to be politically constituted—a point of reference that is still relevant in Laclau’s and Mouffe’s work. They, however, leave the focus on the working class behind and emphasize that it is not predetermined which groups can be and are mobilized by populism and integrated into the politically constituted “people” in a given historical situation. Much of today’s research on populist communication is certainly not overly concerned with Marxism and social class, and it cannot assume its audience to be familiar with corresponding conceptions of political struggle. So, if it decided to add Bourdieuian class theory to its analytical repertoire, it would perhaps have to find more familiar points of reference to introduce its approach.

  • A more substantial analysis of populist communication would have to move from a general theory of political representation and/as symbolic struggle to the analysis of concrete strategic political practice, which the theorist of strategic practice, Pierre Bourdieu, did not provide himself.

Unfortunately, German-speaking research on political communication is a rather ahistorical field. There is not much interest in the field’s history, maybe because the presently prevailing form of empirical research (with canonical methods, now facilitated by handy online tools, massively increasing volumes of data and computing power, etc.) is seen as the end of history or as the right path to progress by ever-accumulating knowledge (the right path that was taken when speculative, subjective, or ideological schools had been overcome). Theories like Bourdieu’s may be adopted in such a field as a repertoire for timeless concepts to be cast into fixed scales, but also offer the chance to study historical changes in social structure and in the political or journalistic field, and to identify the preconditions and opportunity structures for the success of populism—the chance for a theoretically informed social-historical and historical-reflective turn.


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Comments
49
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Jefferson Pooley:

it’s an interesting point about Bourdieu’s greater feasibility in terms of a reception in German pot local communication, vs. Laclau and Mouffe, but the reason for making this point in the first place isn’t clear—or isn’t motivated.

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Jefferson Pooley:

elaborate, perhaps, what you mean by “economical” here: efficient, or cheap, or something else?

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Jefferson Pooley:

its own sentence or footnote? And: Do you mean “however, a few researchers…”?

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Jefferson Pooley:

consider a footnote or a separate sentence

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Jefferson Pooley:

this language of a variables approach could be profitably introduced earlier in the paper

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Jefferson Pooley:

I will mention this in our overall remarks, but this important point that B does not explicitly address right-wing populism could be mentioned earlier in the paper. The relationship between B’s approach to politics and its (1) overall relevance to political communication and/or (2) its specific relevance to populism, could be clarified in the paper.

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Jefferson Pooley:

This analogous distinction between liberal vs. reactionary conservatism in B’s thought should be revealed earlier—in line with the comment above

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Jefferson Pooley:

I follow your argument here, predicated on your claim at the beginning of the paragraph about the mainstream’s misleading self-definition as basic/fundamental, riding as it does on the already-assumed social-problem relevance of the topic. Your point is that this symbolic dispossession point does not lend itself for uptake by the mainstream approach. Still, this could be worded more carefully.

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Jefferson Pooley:

This should be its own sentence or, better yet, sentences, perhaps in a footnote

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Jefferson Pooley:

is “basic” a better word?

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Jefferson Pooley:

This sentence, while coherent and very interesting, is confusing on first read, because the “on the one hand” part consists of three rather complex elements, so the reader is surprised to arrange at “on the other hand” after that serial. Could this be simplified, at least in its initial formulation?

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Jefferson Pooley:

the shift from, in the previous sentence, Bourdieu, to “today’s political field…” is potentially confusing, as it can be read as suggesting that it is Bourdieu who is making the “Today’s..” claim.

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Jefferson Pooley:

same point about the potentially confusing meaning of “ideological” here

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Jefferson Pooley:

as noted above, I wonder if the point (about the scholar-constitution of terms/theories that they are ostensibly using descriptively) could be consolidated with the similar claim above?

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Jefferson Pooley:

relegate to a footnote?

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Jefferson Pooley:

in the context of the flow of the argument, it is unclear what you mean by “ideological definitions”; do you mean masked ideology, in terms of self-proclaimed value-freedom that masks certain ideological commitments to, for example, “the people”?

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Jefferson Pooley:

It’s an important point, but I wonder if it should be brought out as a more explicit critique of the mainstream approaches to populism in political communication research (presumably below?), with the “researchers should” framing removed?

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Jefferson Pooley:

The transition to Bourdieu’s position (and its critique of the “simplistic” position that you have described) is a bit abrupt, and could use some set up

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Jefferson Pooley:

“the figure”?

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Jefferson Pooley:

delete?

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Jefferson Pooley:

should this word be here?

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Jefferson Pooley:

break this last clause out into its own sentence, for clarity?

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Jefferson Pooley:

“depart” is unclear here: do you mean “start from” or “deviate from”? I think the former, but that meaning may not be obvious to readers

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Jefferson Pooley:

“depart” is unclear here: do you mean “start from” or “deviate from”? I think the former, but that meaning may not be obvious to readers

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Jefferson Pooley:

This sentence is quote complex, and would benefit by being separated into two or three sentences.

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Jefferson Pooley:

“untapped”?

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Peter Maurer:

Here it is relevant how one delimits the field. There are notable publications that focus on party/political communication in the 1990s and 2000s, for example: Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties' discourse in Belgium. European journal of political research, 46(3), 319-345.

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Peter Maurer:

see comment above. I think it is part of the success of populism that it transcends social class as the “engine” of political consciousness and reconfigures the structure of political cleavages that are dominant in a democracy.

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Peter Maurer:

I think it is important to recognize that in Laclau’s vision, populism is not a class based discourse. He clearly delineates it from Marxism because populism can construe any group as the people that stands against a dominant elite.

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Peter Maurer:

I would change the wording since you are alluding to the economic theory of democracy which is for sure formal and rigid, but also brilliant in its parsimony

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Peter Maurer:

I would be more careful here. There is an untold variety of research about populism that appeared in the last 15-20 years and which understands it as a political discourse and an ideology. Think alone of the work by Kirk Hawkins, Cas Mudde, Bonikowski/Gidron, Gerbaudo etc.

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Peter Maurer:

You might want to mention here as well the recent article by Maurer, P., & Diehl, T. (2020). What kind of populism? Tone and targets in the Twitter discourse of French and American presidential candidates. European Journal of Communication, 35(5), 453-468.

They try to brake up the fixed defintion for a more flexible approach that shows the ideological versatility of populist communication.

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Peter Maurer:

You should not leave aside the French scientific landscape here, for example the notable contribution of Charaudeau, P. (2011). Réflexions pour l’analyse du discours populiste. Mots. Les langages du politique, (97), 101-116. (also in English)

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Peter Maurer:

there is more relevant literature using his approach: Maares, P., & Hanusch, F. (2020). Interpretations of the journalistic field: A systematic analysis of how journalism scholarship appropriates Bourdieusian thought. Journalism, 1464884920959552.

Maurer, P., & Riedl, A. (2021). Why bite the hand that feeds you? Politicians’ and journalists’ perceptions of common conflicts. Journalism, 22(11), 2855–2872. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884919899304

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Peter Maurer:

As a political scientist, I wouldn’t say that elaborate understandings of often very formal PS theories are very predominant in polcom research. Rather, sociology with framing, mediaitzation, and psychology with all types of cognitive theories seem dominant in polcom.

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Peter Maurer:

is this the best term? Maybe sketch out a vision sounds more positive in this context

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Peter Maurer:

There are indeed only a few but given your topic, it would make sense citing this study as a notable exception: Maurer, P. & Sharma, R. (2022). L’usage de narratifs populistes dans les tweets des candidats « contestataires » aux élections présidentielles en France (2017) et aux États-Unis (2016). Revue internationale de politique comparée, 29, 83-106. https://doi.org/10.3917/ripc.292.0083

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Peter Maurer:

This is exactly the point! Should be made clear even earlier when referring to Laclau’s work and the notion of the people.

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Peter Maurer:

cancelled

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Peter Maurer:

cancelled

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Peter Maurer:

cancelled

Carsten Wilhelm:

Again, the position of Bordieu in SIC is fragile as he is “owned” by the dominant strands of sociology and policital sciences. À notable counter-example would be Angeliki Monnier, Diasporas en réseaux. Pour une lecture socioculturelle des usages numériques

Lormont, Le Bord de l’eau, 2018, 192 p.

Carsten Wilhelm:

this implies unproblematic varieties, to which I’d agree, see above, but this could be more transparent in regards to Bourdieu, i.e. how can Bourdieu help us to caracterize these different varietes would be interesting, also in howfar Germany is a terrain very “far” from populism acceptance (due to its history ?) or as my grandfather used to say “all extremes are bad” ;)

Carsten Wilhelm:

Although the fundamental analysis of Bourdieu&Passeron has been true for a while, the education system(s) have been changing a lot, especially towards a competence based approach, trying to answer Bourdieu’s critique in some way, but posing different problems…

Carsten Wilhelm:

This is a problem in general for critical scholars because populism in its positive meaning (for the people against the ruling or dominating political class) has links to studies of alternative media in repressive regimes for example in south America, and rebrnding populism as the Trump,or Bolsonaro kind of populism and their use of “alternative” media becomes then very difficult without letting go of former ideals

Carsten Wilhelm:

from my vantage point this is in accordance with the main strands of the French reception

Carsten Wilhelm:

As a parsonian heritage this does not surprise

Carsten Wilhelm:

The transition from semiotic approaches to Bourdieu is somehow awkward, Bourdieu insisting on evidence based social science and operating from sociology with a clear message : the force of communication does not come from the message or the sign but form the conditions enabling communication

?
Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz:

May be to mention here as a bibliographical note also critical on this point

Matthias Karmasin, Mattias Rath und Barbara Thomas (eds.). Normativität in der Kommunikationswissenschaft. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-531-19015-0

indirectly it strenghens your argumentations: the book is without a chapter specific to “political comunication”

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Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz:

May be to give one example in a foodnote or so?