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Short outline of the theoretical and historical development and relevance of the

concept of field

John Postill
Sheffield Hallam University
Blog: media/anthropology

Sheffield, 15 March 2010

Although today we associate field theory with the work of the French sociologist
Pierre Bourdieu (1993, 1996), this theory has a far longer history originating in
physics and Gestalt psychology (Martin 2003). In anthropology, the first sustained
usage and elaboration of the concept of field can be traced to the Manchester School
of anthropology (1940s-1960s). Led by Max Gluckman, the Manchester scholars
conducted fieldwork in Central and Southern Africa during the end of Empire. They
struggled with the problem of how to study urbanised localities under conditions of
rapid social and political change. This was a time in which ‘tribal’, linguistic and
other ‘community’ groupings were in flux and new kinds of affiliations were being
constantly made and remade around novel occupational and recreational practices.
Faced with such fluid actualities on the ground, Gluckman and his followers moved
away from the structural-functionalist paradigm then predominant in British social
anthropology and towards historical-processual accounts informed by new concepts
such as ‘field’, ‘network’, ‘social drama’, ‘trouble case’, ‘situation’ and ‘arena’
(Evens and Handelman 2005; Swartz, Turner and Tuden 1966; Turner 1974). The
result was a series of now classic ethnographies published in the 1950s (incl. Mitchell
1956, Turner 1957, Epstein 1958).

By the mid-1960s, two key concepts had emerged from these post-War efforts,
namely network and field. On the one hand, Mitchell, Epstein and others followed
the lead of Barnes (1954) and Bott (1955) and enthusiastically adopted social network
analysis. The hope was that this new method would prove as useful to anthropologists
working in urban areas as the genealogical method had been to the study of kinship in
rural areas (Sanjek 1996). Their investigations crystallised in the volume Social
Networks in Urban Situations, edited by Mitchell in 1969. On the other, Turner and
his associates – some of them in the United States where he had emigrated – had
continued to work on the concept of social field, and particularly on its cognate, the
political field. Their efforts culminated in the volume, Political Anthropology
(Swartz, Turner and Tuden 1966). The starting point was Gluckman’s Zululand
research where he found not the ‘tightly integrated systems’ of structural-
functionalism but rather ‘social fields with many dimensions, with parts that may be
loosely integrated, or virtually independent from one another’ (1966: 3, see also
Epstein 1958). For these authors, political fields can expand and contract as political
processes migrate across group and geographical boundaries (1966: 8). They saw the
concept of (political) field as a way of overcoming the fixity of existing notions such
as ‘political system’, ‘political structure’ or ‘governmental process’ (1966: 27).

By the 1970s, the Manchester School had disbanded and interest in both concepts –
field and network – had declined within the discipline. A notable exception is Victor
Turner’s mid-1970s essay, ‘Hidalgo: History as social drama’ (1974), in which he
uses both field and network to reconstruct a failed uprising in colonial Mexico. Turner
understands this historical episode as a social drama that unfolded across a rapidly
shifting political field made up of the people, institutions and resources mobilised to
assist or thwart the rebellion. Defining political field as ‘the totality of relationships
between actors oriented to the same prizes and values’ (1974: 127), and in line with
Gluckman’s emphasis on conflict, Turner argues that a political field is constituted by
‘purposive, goal-directed group action, and though it contains both conflict and
coalition, collaborative action is often made to serve the purposes of contentious
action’ (1974: 128). Such contentious action is fought out in ‘arenas’. An arena is a
‘bounded spatial unit in which precise, visible antagonists, individual or corporate,
contend with one another for prizes and/or honor' (1974: 132-3). It is an ‘explicit
frame' in which ‘nothing is left merely implied' and major decisions are taken in
public view (1974: 134). In a clear reference to Goffman’s dramaturgical model,
Turner adds that in an arena

[a]ction is definite, people outspoken; the chips are down. Intrigue may be
backstage, but the stage it is back of is the open arena (1974: 134).

Keen to distance himself from game theory and other rational actor approaches
popular among political anthropologists at the time (e.g. Bailey, Barth and Swartz),
Turner emphasises that an arena is neither a market nor a forum, although they can
both become one ‘under appropriate field conditions’ (1974: 134). As arenas change,
so do the geographical boundaries of the political field, expanding and contracting as
the social drama unfolds.

It is difficult to imagine a starker contrast between this conceptualisation of the field

and our present-day understanding of this notion, largely derived from the work of
Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu fields are those slowly changing, established domains
of cultural life in which practitioners acquire a ‘feel for the game’ over many years,
for example, the fields of art, sociology, or boxing. Take Bourdieu's (1996: 52) brief
account of Flaubert's famous Madame Bovary trial, where the novelist stood accused
of publishing immoral materials. At the time of the trial, the Parisian salons, says
Bourdieu, became sites for mobilisation in support of Flaubert. Bourdieu mentions in
passing this episode to illustrate the importance of the salons as points of articulation
between the fields of art, commerce and government, distinguished more by who they
excluded than by who they included (1996: 51-53). Yet he does not consider the trial
to be a political process (or ‘trouble case’) worthy of detailed analysis in its own
right, as Turner and other Manchester scholars may have done. Bourdieu focusses on
the slow-moving, cumulative changes that take place within an established field
(Swartz 1997: 129, Couldry 2003), not on potentially volatile, unpredictable processes
such as trials that often migrate across fields. The Parisian salons, brasseries,
courthouses, and so on, provide Bourdieu with a relatively fixed spatial matrix of
objective relations – a socio-physical backdrop to a slowly changing field of practice
(see Bourdieu 1996: 40-43).

This contrast should not make us lose sight, however, of the areas of broad agreement
between the Bourdieuan and Manchester approaches. First, both Turner and Bourdieu
use the metaphor of game to refer to the field whilst rejecting rational actor models of

human agency. Second, despite popular misconceptions of Bourdieu as a theorist
who neglects social change at the expense of social reproduction, both Bourdieu and
Turner study social fields diachronically and resist the structural-functionalist idea of
fields as self-regulating entities. Third, both scholars place conflict at the heart of their
field theories, but whilst Turner is interested in group-driven conflicts that spill over
established fields, Bourdieu is more interested in the field trajectories of individual
agents within a given field.

In my own recent anthropological work I have sought to synthesize both field-

theoretical models in order to study internet activism in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of
Subang Jaya (Malaysia). Although the Manchester scholars conducted fieldwork in a
very different part of the world (British Central Africa) and under radically different
historical conditions (the end of Empire), the conceptual issues they confronted were
strikingly similar to those I faced on returning from fieldwork in postcolonial

Like rural migrants in the booming urban areas of post-War Africa (Epstein 1958),
many present-day suburbanites find themselves in densely populated settlements with
inadequate social and public facilities. The result is the mushrooming of ad-hoc
initiatives seeking to resolve the more pressing problems (Postill 2008). New suburbs
such as Subang Jaya are ideal settings in which to rethink our current dependency on
‘community’ and ‘network’ as the paradigmatic notions in the study of how local
authorities, firms and residents around the globe are appropriating the Internet to
pursue parochial goals. These are frontiers where newly arrived people, technologies
and ideas shape one another in unforeseeable ways. Over time new forms of
residential sociality arise out of this flux as local stakeholders strive to ‘produce
locality’ (Appadurai 1996).

In such unsettled conditions, any attempt at positing an existing ‘local community’

being impacted upon by a globalising ‘network logic’ (Castells 2001) is doomed.
Instead, my focus in the forthcoming monograph Localizing the Internet is on how
variously positioned field agents and agencies in Subang Jaya (residents, politicians,
committees, councillors, journalists, and others) compete and cooperate over matters
concerning the local residents, often by means of the Internet. I call this dynamic set
of projects, practices, technologies, and relations the field of residential affairs, and
in the book I develop an anthropological account of its uneven development from
1999 to 2009. Adapting Bourdieu, I define this field as a domain of practice with its
own ‘fundamental laws’, field-specific forms of capital and irreducible logic. Yet I
extend the analysis beyond the remit of Bourdieu’s field theory by means of the
Turner-inspired discussion of two social dramas that broke out in 2004 and were
played out across a range of face-to-face and internet-mediated arenas.


Appadurai, A. (1996) 'The Production of Locality', in A. Appadurai Modernity at

Large. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barnes, J. A. 1954 "Class and committees in a Norwegian island parish". Human

Relations 7: 39-58.

Bott, E. 1955. "Conjugal Roles and Social Networks." Human Relations, 8:345-84.

Bourdieu, P. (1993) The Field of Cultural Production. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. 1996 The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field.
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Couldry, N. 2003 'Media Meta-capital: Extending the Range of Bourdieu's Field

Theory', Theory and Society 32(5-6): 653-677.

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Martin, J. L. (2003) ‘What Is Field Theory?’, American Journal of Sociology 109: 1-


Mitchell, J. Clyde. 1956. The Yao Village. Manchester: Manchester University Press
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Mitchell, J. Clyde (ed). 1969. Social Networks in Urban Situations. Manchester:

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Postill, J. 2008. Localizing the internet beyond communities and networks, New
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