Political Field Theory

Visual representation of a field

Political field theory is the application of the more general concept within science of a field to interpreting sociopolitical systems. The idea of a field has long since been used within modern physics to interpret how a pervasive force – such as spacetime or electromagnetism – within an environment can be the cause of change in any given object.1 This idea was then applied to social theory during the late 20th century by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who used field theory to examine how individuals construct social fields, how they are affected by such fields and how they, in turn, try to shape then towards their own interests.2 This more general social theory can then be applied to understanding political systems and the sociopolitical fabric of a society in terms of a multiplicity of differentiated subfields and the influence those fields exert over the actions of their members. In this respect, we are interested in asking such questions as, how the rules are created and altered by the actors? How a single political force may influence the entire social field, or how specific subfields can exert their own autonomy and agenda in the face of external influence.

Field Theory

The origins of field theory come from the physical sciences where one finds varied expressions in electromagnetism, Newtonian gravitation, and Einstein’s theory of general relativity.3 These theories tried to understand such physical phenomena as the motion of objects without some direct interaction, but instead as directed by some pervasive force in the form of the spacetime fabric or an electromagnetic field. Unlike the conventional understanding of causality where variable A somehow directly impacts B, field theory understands motion as structured by a set of forces whose relations create effects that do not reduce to the properties of individual units. This paradigm shift corresponds to a change from substantial to relational thinking in modern science where the object of investigation becomes the system of force relations rather than the properties of particular substances.4

Field theory is a nonlinear relational paradigm in that it is primarily concerned with the relations between actors. It is also holistic and non-linear in that it is looking at the whole environment within which something exists and the distributed set of forces acting on any entity within that environment. The concept of a field stands in contrast to most of social science where the basic unit of analysis is some well-defined set of entities such as institutions, organizations, markets, individuals, and groups. Field theory instead focuses firstly on the whole environment; the field. Field analysis brings these separate units into a broader perspective that stresses their relational properties rather than their intrinsic features and therefore the multiplicity of forces shaping the behavior of each. Social field theory holds that what we see in sociopolitical reality are institutions, actors, cultures, nations but behind these lie fields that shape their actions.4

In a sociopolitical context, the term field may be loosely equated the term regime, where a regime is a system or ordered way of doing things.5 The term regime is an ancient one that was of interest to the Greek philosophers. As Aristotle defined it “A regime is the arrangement of society’s parts, in particular, that of its most powerful parts” he also calls it “a certain ordering of the inhabitants of the polis” or “certain way of life [of the citizens]” The ancients noted that the many different societies and cultures around them took many different forms and had different characteristics. The most striking difference was that between the philosophical and culturally sophisticated Athenians themselves and the authoritarian Spartan society.6 There was a recognition to the variety between societies but also how people within those societies are so strongly shaped by the specific culture that surrounds them. Such a recognition leads one not to focus on the specificities of the individual, but instead to identify how the context or social field within which people find themselves so strongly influences them. Thus we can understand a regime as the organizing structures that shape people’s lives and how this can vary from one location to another, or one group to another.

Social Field Theory

The idea of a field as a powerful tool of modern social science was introduced by the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu in the late 20th century.7 For Bourdieu, social reality is constructed out of the interaction between individuals, without interaction in some form with others, there is no sociopolitical system. What is real is relational, social entities are defined by their difference in relation to others. In sociology, field theory has come to examine how individuals construct social fields, and how they are affected by such fields.7

A field is a set of forces and rules within a specific social context that operate on the individual to influence their thinking and actions. Bourdieu defined a field as, “a field of forces within which agents occupy positions that statistically determine the positions they take with respect to the field, these positions-takings being aimed either at conserving or transforming the structure of relations of forces that is constitutive of the field.”8 For Bourdieu, fields denote arenas of production, circulation, and appropriation and exchange of goods, services, knowledge, or status, and the competitive positions held by actors in their struggle to accumulate, exchange, and monopolize different kinds of power resources. Fields may be thought of as structured spaces that organize around specific types of capital or combinations of capital.9 Each field is governed by a rule set, which Bourdieu calls doxa and defines as the “Universe of tacit presuppositions that organize action within the field.”10 These rules exercise a set of constraints on the actions of the agents; agents within the same subsystem will share a common set of rules. For example, all members going to say mass in church on Sunday will agree that only the priest can talk during the ceremony; this is a rule operating in that field to modulate the behavior of the individual in that context.

According to Bourdieu’s theory, each individual enters into a field with a habitus, which is their particular resources, or what he called capital.11 This capital might be social capital such as the social connections one has; it might be economic as in financial capital; it might be cultural as in our values and education. The habitus is something we almost inherit, through our educational background to our class background, and can influence how we think, talk and act. It is one’s cultural and social acquired ways of thinking and moving. This habitus or capital of the individual that is essentially subjective becomes manifest and converted in symbols when the individual enters into a field. Your position within the field determines your taste and actions. Those with more capital tend to have a certain habitus than those with less capital; like the distinction between the upper and lower classes or high and low culture.11


Modern sociopolitical systems have evolved into a multiplicity of differentiated sub-fields, with the power relationships within these and between these fields structuring human behavior.12 Examples of these subsystems within the overall field of a society might include business, academic, and science, journalism, art, the military, religious clergy etc. Each field carries its own rules of the game its own social hierarchy its own principles of social distinction for ranking and identifying the prestige of members. According to Dr. Eric C. Hendriks who studies regime theory “regime denotes the way in which social fields, their prestige systems, logic, and conceptions of human accomplishment are differentiated from each other and hierarchized.”12 Dr. Hendriks identifies a number of central questions when analyzing an overall field such as what fields are there and how strong are they? How differentiated is the overall field and how hierarchical is it?

Traditionally a field has been modeled as a square plane with dots placed in this to represent the actors.12 The vertical axis in this model represents the degree of capital that the actor has, where capital is the amount of value they have within that system; if this was politics it might be power if this was a business it might be financial capital etc. Actors higher up have higher prestige, those lower down have less capital and less prestige within that domain. The horizontal axis defines how embedded the actors are within the particular field and with the logic of the field. Those on the left are more engaged. Those on the right are less engaged, as they are on the fringes of the field and more influenced by external forces and the general field of the entire society, in particular, the general political and economic field shared by all of the subfields. For example, if this particular field was the military, if you are on the left of the field you would be a true soldier with your life dedicated to the service of your country, while those on the right may have just drifted into conscription in order to have a job. Those at the top would be high up in the military hierarchy like generals, those at the bottom soldiers.12  

A society will then consist of a great many of these fields. Social fields are environments in which competition between individuals and between groups takes place, such as markets, academic disciplines, musical genres, etc. The overall dominant regime within the society will manifest itself in the outside forces that shape each semi-autonomous field. The most influential regime will be that which is most prominent across the whole system and affects all the different subsystems. For example, if we take the sociopolitical system of a country like Iran all social systems are influenced by the overarching influence of the religion; this overall field exerts an influence on all others. Or in many modern free market sociopolitical systems such as America or Hong Kong, the dominant force is that of the economic sphere where commercial influences extend to all areas, while religion is more of a subset. In other countries such as Russia or North Korea, the political institutions are the dominant regime. Sociopolitical systems will vary greatly in their degree of differentiation, that is to say, how many sub-fields there are and how autonomous those subfields really are. For example, if we take a political system like that of China, China has a long history of field unity, the legal system and military has only a limited degree of freedom from the political legislative. While in another system such as that of France the judiciary, legislative and army are separate entities with their own autonomous sources of influence.12

Regime Change

Political fields are susceptible to changes based on people’s sets of beliefs

As one set of rules are applied to a whole group or whole subgroup while there are different actors in that field, this will mean that the common rules will make it easier for some actors and more difficult for other actors to pursue their interests. For example, in a society where homosexuality is prohibited this makes it more difficult for a member of this group to pursue their desired social activities and maintain a favorable social status, while the rule may benefit those of a more macho mindset that wish to maintain a favorable position.13 By then changing this overall rule it would make it easier to express oneself as a member of the gay community. Thus at any given point in time, some members will wish to transform the existing rule structures and others will wish to conserve them with some form of political struggle pursuing. In such a situation players will make use of their capital and means of power to impose the rules on others that best suit their way of being.13

When actors enter into a field they may try to use their capital to influence and change the rules of the field to their advantage. Fields feature different positions which social actors can occupy.  The dominant players in the field are called the incumbents. They are generally invested in maintaining the field in its current form, as changes to the rules of competition risk destabilizing their dominant position. Fields may also feature insurgents who instead aim to alter the field so they can successfully compete with the incumbents.14 The dramatic change in previously stable fields can come from either successful incumbents or intrusion from other fields, or from government-imposed rule change. If an actor gains satisfaction within a system he or she will gain a vested interest in maintaining that field structure. When there is mutual acceptance by actors within a system there is equilibrium or unity which better enables the social system to deal with external influences. A regime change can be understood as a restructuring of this political field. For example, in the French revolution, the ancien regime of the king and Catholic clergy was displaced in a paradigmatic regime change that gave rise to a republican nation-state and a new kind of citizen with a new set of institutions.

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8. Bourdieu (2005, p.30)

9. Culture and Power. (2017). Google Books. Retrieved 26 June 2017, from https://goo.gl/D5eB5R

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16. regime change – definition of regime change in English | Oxford Dictionaries. (2017). Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 26 June 2017, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/regime_change