Personal Leadership Narrative

Personal Leadership Narrative

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Author: Robert Jon Peterson

To provide a personal leadership narrative that weaves my personal philosophy of leadership with  theoretical elements present in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

In the following leadership narrative, I will attempt to outline my philosophy and beliefs regarding leadership as seen through the theoretical lens provided by Bourdieu’s general science of practices concerning the relationship between culture and power.  I will begin by outlining my philosophy of leadership and the three, core beliefs I maintain as a leader within the field of education.  Next, I will provide a brief summary of Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, and field and how they work together to form a general science of practices.  I will conclude by analyzing how Bourdieu’s theory of practice has become a source of action in my ongoing development as a leader.  Overall, it is my goal to create a personal leadership narrative that clearly reflects my philosophy of leadership, yet also gives voice to the powerful theory associated with the work of Pierre Bourdieu and how concepts like habitus, capital, and field apply to my practice as a leader in education.

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Personal Leadership Narrative

Robert Jon Peterson

University of St. Thomas


Personal Leadership Narrative

            The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once stated, “The mind is a metaphor of the world of objects” (  Bourdieu, like other social theorists before him, realized that the mind was a powerful tool for examining the subjective and objective aspects of human, social interactions and analyzing the dynamic relationship between culture and power within society.  Influencing Bourdieu’s work were thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Weber, Louis Althusser, Emile Durkheim, Jean Paul Sarte, and Claude Levi-Strauss.  As a result of their collective efforts, Bourdieu was able develop his own unique theory and concepts to help explain the relationship between culture and power (Swartz, 1997).

In the following leadership narrative, I will attempt to outline my philosophy and beliefs regarding leadership as seen through the theoretical lens provided by Bourdieu’s general science of practices concerning the relationship between culture and power.  I will begin by outlining my philosophy of leadership and the three, core beliefs I maintain as a leader within the field of education.  Next, I will provide a brief summary of Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, and field and how they work together to form a general science of practices.  I will conclude by analyzing how Bourdieu’s theory of practice has become a source of action in my ongoing development as a leader.  Overall, it is my goal to create a personal leadership narrative that clearly reflects my philosophy of leadership, yet also gives voice to the powerful theory associated with the work of Pierre Bourdieu and how concepts like habitus, capital, and field apply to my practice as a leader in education. 

Philosophy of Leadership

Core Beliefs

Educational leaders of the 21st century are working to find their collective way through a myriad of political, economic, social, and ethical challenges facing them, and the people they serve.  My philosophy of leadership centers on inspiring in others a passion for life long learning and creating opportunities for the intellectual and social development of the people around me.  To achieve the dual goals of inspiring in others a passion for life long learning and nurturing their intellectual and social growth as human beings, I maintain three, core beliefs as an educational leader.

First, I believe it is essential to use both qualitative and quantitative methodologies for constructing knowledge and facilitating understanding of social phenomena.  Employing both methodologies in data collection and analysis provides leaders in education with information about the people they serve and, more importantly, aids in generating ideas of how critical educators can better serve learners.   Strategic utilization of antonymous data, and the ensuing dialectical tensions arising between adherents of both the qualitative and quantitative methods for collecting and analyzing data, can support professional discussions; many of which center around creating productive efficiencies within the programmatic, design cycle of: conducting an annual needs assessment, establishing of program targets, program development, program implementation, and program evaluation. 

I believe grounding professional discussion and decisions in antonymous data is best practice within the field of education for it allows subjugated conflicts to arise within an organization like a school.  When subjugated conflicts arise, it is the responsibility of the leader to engender dialogue and find resolution to the tension.  I believe the institutionalized resolution of antinomy provides impetus for social progress in the field of education.  The history of education in the United States of America bears that point out in legal cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education and it is the kind of social progress that I want to lead as a critical educator who utilizes both qualitative and quantitative data.

Second, problems are complex in the 21st century milieu of education.  Social, political, economic, and ethical divisions, embedded in societal constructions of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and language, add to the increasing difficulty of finding common, philosophical ground on how to best provide our nation’s people with a world class education.  As a leader, I believe collaboration, dialogue, and teamwork are primary strategies for quickly identifying and analyzing complex issues arising from differences in how institutionalized systems of power express their dominance over groups of people who have, historically, been marginalized. 

Through collaboration, dialogue, and teamwork, critical educators can break down societal barriers constructed by institutions, like schools, and build a unifying, educational super culture that will support the diverse, and ever-changing, needs of 21st century teachers and learners.  Collaboration, teamwork, and dialogue are cornerstones for building a firm, organizational foundation for generating the institutional and community based conversations needed to solve complex issues in education and, hopefully, the broader society of the 21st century.  As a leader, it is my moral obligation to use collaboration, dialogue, and teamwork to facilitate conversations that will change the world around me.

Building leadership capacity is a third central belief of mine and a key component for creating an environment supportive of life long learning and its reproduction within the cultures of school and society.  Building capacity in others to emerge as leaders, in their own right, is a critical part of leading a group of people toward a common goal.  Building leadership capacity in followers requires asking the right questions, actively listening, taking time to reflect, and demonstrating an ethic of care in one’s words and actions. 

A primary tenet of building leadership capacity in an organization, therefore, is creating authentic and purposeful relationships with various individuals and stakeholder groups.  As a leader, my responsibility is to create authentic relationships, across diverse cultural and political landscapes, built on others’ perceived trust in my ability and/or capacity to lead and grow future leaders and lead them toward a common goal.  Furthermore, I strongly believe in creating leadership opportunities for historically underrepresented voices in my organization to participate, on a leveled playing field, in a civil discourse that respects diversity, demands equity and integration, and is culturally proficient in supporting the hopes and dreams of all learners.  As a leader and critical educator, this is a commitment that I strive to make everyday.

Overall, I believe in using data to drive decisions, addressing problems through a collaborative, team, and dialogue based approach, and building leadership capacity as a leader in my organization and in the field of education.  My core philosophy of leadership is to inspire in others a passion for life long learning and establish opportunities for people to grow as intellectual and social beings.  In the following paragraphs, I will describe my conceptualization of Pierre Bourdieu’s general science of practices with specific analytical emphasis placed on the concepts of habitus, capital, and field and how these ideas work in conjunction to form a theory of practice for my leadership.    

Bourdieu’s General Science of Practices


            In order to understand Bourdieu’s general science of practices, one must first come to grips with three, theoretical concepts: habitus, capital, and field.  In Swartz (1997), Bourdieu provides a firm description of what he calls habitus.  Swartz quotes Bourdieu as defining habitus as

A system of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed

to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize

practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at the ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. (p. 100)


Swartz (1997) continues to describe Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as one that seeks to, “evoke the idea of a set of deeply internalized master dispositions that generate action” (p. 101).  According to Swartz habitus is, for Bourdieu, a theory of action that is not predetermined by existing structures present in society but, rather, represents constructed ways of knowing, stemming from practical dispositions internalized through one’s social interaction with the world, how to transfer knowledge into action within the ambiguous and uncertain landscapes provided by various social situations encountered as one moves through time and space.  Swartz (1997) describes Bourdieu’s understanding of the relationship between human agency, which is inherently subjective, and the more objective constructs provided by everyday social life, as one that is, “…practical rather than discursive, prereflective rather than conscious, embodied as well as cognitive, durable though adaptive, reproductive though generative and inventive, and the product of particular social conditions though transposable to others” (p. 100). 

            Overall, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus can be broadly understood to serve two, primary purposes.  For one, habitus operates as Bourdieu’s attempt to formulate a theory of culture as practice.  Habitus provides greater space for human agency and practicality, or strategy, in the selection of how to act within certain social situations.  Culture is not merely a common code nor is it a system of ideas, beliefs, or values (Swartz, 1997).  Rather, culture is a, “practical tool used for getting along in the social world” (p. 115).  Habitus is a means for conceptualizing the practice of culture within a variety of social settings nascent to the experienced world.  Habitus also provides us with a practical, and strategic, sense for how to act and move within a social world governed by the dynamic relationship between each of our subjective, lived experiences interacting with the objective world around us.

            Second, habitus serves the purpose of associating practice with a more classical notion of the term habit (Swartz, 1997).  By utilizing the word habitus to describe the nature of the relationship between human agency and the social world, Bourdieu effectively reintroduced the concept of habit in a more general sense.  Bourdieu’s broader conceptualization of habit, as more than simply the rudimentary and somewhat automatic responses to everyday life, helps to expand the notion of practice as habit to include a great variety of interpersonal interactions found in, “…habits of economic, political, religious, and domestic behavior; habits of obedience to rules and to rulers; habits of sacrifice, disinterestedness, and restraint” (Swartz, 1997, pp. 116-117).  By associating practice with the classical sense of the term habit, Bourdieu is working to establish a cultural theory of action that durably describes, on a more general level of understanding, a set of dispositional strategies for taking practical action within the social world throughout the entirety of one’s life (Swartz, 1997).


            For Bourdieu, there are primarily four types of capital that exist.  The first is economic capital which refers to the availability one has to commanding economic resources such as cash and others forms of financial assets.  The second type of capital, according to Bourdieu, is social capital.  Representing social capital are the various resources derivative of the networks of associations and relations of power we have with other individuals in society.  Social capital is the aggregate resources, actual or potential, available to us via our membership in different groups and made active through our participation, or interaction, with networks of institutionalized and non-institutionalized networks of relationships.  The third type of capital is cultural capital.  Bourdieu associates cultural capital with the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and education attained through familial and social relations.  By attaining increased cultural capital through the educational system, as an example, one has the capacity to develop a higher societal status.  Finally, Bourdieu identifies symbolic capital.  Denoting symbolic capital are the resources attained through honor, recognition, and/or prestige (Swartz, 1997).

            For Bourdieu, each type of capital functions as a “social relation of power” (Swartz, 1997, p. 73).  People draw upon the material, social, cultural, and symbolic resources available to them in order to sustain and improve their positions in society (Swartz, 1997).  Bourdieu’s description of capital leads one to a broad understanding of the capital/power dynamic as a relational struggle over who has control over the valued resources, or capital, available to oneself, and others, in the various spheres of society where one exerts influence.  Furthermore, Bourdieu links a general conceptualization of labor as a means for accumulating, investing, and converting various types of capital, under certain conditions, as a means for sustaining and/or increasing ones positional status in society.  

            Cultural capital, in particular, addresses the multiple forms of noneconomic goods and services available to people in differentiated and non-differentiated societies.  Swartz (1997) describes Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital by stating

His concept of cultural capital covers a wide variety of resources including such things as verbal facility, general cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, information about the school system, and educational credentials.  His [Bourdieu] point is to suggest that culture (in the broadest sense of the term) can become a power resource.  This occurs when cultural markets emerge where investors exchange currencies, strive for profits, and, in the case of educational credentials in recent years, suffer from inflation. (p. 75)

Bourdieu continues his description of cultural capital as existing in three different states, which include the embodied, objectified, and institutionalized states (Swartz, 1997).  In the embodied state, the individual apprehends the meaning of cultural capital through their internalized understanding and appreciation for different forms of cultural goods such as language, music, and scientific formulae.  Internalization of cultural goods takes place as the individual embodies the form of the cultural good through their participation in the process of meaning making with the objective world and, more specifically, the family within which they are situated and raised. 

 In the case of obtaining cultural capital through the objectified state, Bourdieu describes the process of power acquisition as existing within one’s knowledge of how to refer to objects present in the person’s cultural surroundings.  Such objects could be works of art, scientific instruments, and/or books requiring specialized, and culturally embedded, skills and abilities used in sustaining positional cultural power and increasing status in society. 

The third, and final, state of cultural capital appears in an institutionalized form.  Specifically, Bourdieu references the present educational and credentialing system that accompanies the individual’s ascent toward future labor production within a job market (Swartz, 1997).  Through the process of investing in a child’s education, for example, the parent has the capacity to reap profit from the market through the conversion of economic capital, used to help attain higher levels of education, certification, and transference of labor into cultural capital.  Bourdieu surmises that the educational system is a center of cultural production and reproduction in which the affluent gain greater positional power in society through the institutionalized relations of acquiring cultural capital via formalized schooling processes, curricular selection, and pedagogical influence (Swartz, 1997).

The three states of cultural capital form part of Bourdieu’s overall theory on the four types of capital available to people.  Economic, social, cultural, and symbolic capital are all ways of expressing one’s relational power in society.  For Bourdieu, the function of capital is to serve as an objectified means for acquiring increased positional status in society through the accumulation, investment, and conversion of capital resources into socially situated relations of power. 


            In terms of Bourdieu’s general science of practices, the concept of field operates as a visual metaphor (Swartz, 1997).  According to Bourdieu, field helps to define the structure present in the social setting in which habitus functions.  Swartz (1997) quotes Bourdieu as defining field as

A network, or configuration, of objective relations between positions.  These positions are objectively defined, in their existence and in the determinations they impose upon their occupants, agents or institutions, by their present and potential situation (situs) in the structure of the distribution of species of power (or capital) whose possession commands access to the specific profits that are at stake in the field, as well as by their objective relation to other positions (domination, subordination, homology, etc.).  (p. 117)

Fields are areas in which actors, competing for positional advantage with one another, struggle to control and establish monopoly over the production, circulation, and appropriation of goods, services, knowledge, and/or status (Swartz, 1997).  Fields are also, “structured spaces that are organized around specific types of capital or combinations of capital” (p. 117).  Many fields exist, such as the intellectual field, as frameworks for the competition over economic, social, cultural, and symbolic capital nascent to a given field. 

Bourdieu develops the concept of field in an attempt to correct the subjectivist and objectivist ways of traditionally conceptualizing the relationship between culture and power.  For example, Bourdieu utilizes the concept of field as a corrective against positivism.  He articulates the corrective by describing the concept of field as a way for relationally thinking as opposed to simply rationally thinking.  Empirical realities manifest themselves in terms of their relations with one another rather than as properties which define certain categorizations of experienced phenomenon.  Oftentimes, the relations present within a specific field are in conflict with one another and represent struggles for greater power in social life (Swartz, 1997). 

Bourdieu also develops the concept of field as a way to better understand class and material relations.  Bourdieu posits that fields mediate the context within which classes function in society and provide the structure with which people engage in materialist relations with one another (Swartz, 1997).  This is not to say that Bourdieu entirely foregoes a classist notion of the structure of modern society, but is meant to highlight the important role that fields play in providing the “structured structures” of relational power that is expressed through the combination of habitus and capital within a given field.

Finally, Bourdieu uses the concept of field to refute idealistically based perspectives of cultural practices (Swartz, 1997).  Socially constructed conditions of struggle shape cultural production when one utilizes the analytical lenses provided by Bourdieu’s concept of field.  Demystifying the “neutrality” of the production of cultural practices, situated within social and institutional systems of knowing about the objective world, Bourdieu’s concept of field functions as a discourse in opposition of the positivism and idealism present in the fields of both sociology and education (Swartz, 1997).  Overall, the concept of field functions as a means for thinking relationally about the manner, and the context, in which culture is produced and reproduced and how habitus and capital combine to form relations of power. 

General Science of Practices

            Bourdieu’s general science of practices involves the dialectical intersection of habitus and capital, operating within a given field.  Action, therefore, is the result of class specific dispositions operating within the auspices, or structures, provided by competitive arenas which Bourdieu calls fields (Swartz, 1997).  Practice is the outcome of the combined relationship between habitus, capital, and field.  In Swartz (1997), Bourdieu is quoted as stating that practices cannot be, “deduced either from the present conditions which may seem to have provoked them or from the past conditions which have produced the habitus…[but from their] interrelationship” (p. 141).  In Bourdieu’s general science of practices, reductionism of habitus, capital, and field are subordinate to the development of practical action between the three concepts as established within any specific point in time of their interrelation with one another.  Power, then, becomes the expression of the interrelations between particular types of class habitus and capital formation, functioning within structurally governed fields found in society. 

Sociological research should, therefore, focus on three items according to Bourdieu.  First, research must involve the analysis of particular fields of practice and examination of their relation to the broader field of power and how different fields, such as the arts, become subdominant in relation to fields like law.  Second, research should be conducted to uncover the structure of “objective” relations present between the practices of various fields and between the individuals and/or groups competing with one another for various forms of capital and eventual dominance within a field and between fields.  For example, how are the various forms of capital accumulated, invested, and converted within a specific field and to what extent are they the product of the interrelationship between class habitus and field?  This question presupposes the need to examine the dominant and subdominant positions of the participants operating within, and outside of, a particular field.  Third, future sociological research ought to consider the role played by class habitus and how the respective positions of agents of any given class based relation influence the development of capital within the field of struggle (Swartz, 1997). 

Overall, analyzing Bourdieu’s general science of practices involves the uncovering of the various dispositions, or class habitae, internalized by agents and expressed through the use of various forms accumulated, invested, and converted capital by said agents who are, ultimately, competing for power within a field of struggle.  A critical point in the theoretical framework provided by Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, and field is the notion that culture is derivative of social interaction, and oftentimes is embodied in the struggle over the measn for expressing power and dominance over individuals and/or groups.  In the following paragraphs I will attempt to explain how Bourdieu’s general science of practices has had an impact on my development as a leader in the field of education.

General Science of Practices as a Source of Action

It is difficult to summate, in words, the impact that Bourdieu’s work has had on my recent, intellectual development and how it has been a source of action for me as a leader.  Bourdieu’s general science of practices, and more specifically the concepts of habitus, capital, and field, is a relatively new theoretical framework for me to work with, as I was introduced to the theory during the later part of my coursework within the cohort.  In the paragraphs to follow, I will explain why I believe, however, that Bourdieu’s theory offers an interesting opportunity for me to incorporate my work as a leader in the field of education with becoming an emerging leader within my family. 

First, I believe that the Bourdieuian theoretical framework of the general science of practices allows for an in depth and critical analysis of the nature of power.  I, like Bourdieu, believe that power is the expression of relational dominance of one person and/or group over another.  I believe the expression of power is a prevailing phenomenon present in the field of education.  As a leader, I am committed to better understanding how power is expressed and the conditions under which it operates to either include or exclude various individuals and groups within a field.  Power is easily used and too frequently abused and, for me, it is essential that I better understand how to wield my power in a manner that is consistent with my ethics and moral understanding of what it means to be an educator who believes in inspiring in others a passion for life long learning through the utilization of qualitative and quantitative data, problem solving through collaboration, dialogue, and teamwork, and working to build leadership capacity within my organization. 

Second, I believe the Bourdieuian model for understanding the relationships existent between culture, and how it is produced and reproduced through the socialization of internalized class habitus, and capital will be useful for me as a leader in education.  We live in a diverse world in which various agents operate within, and outside of, fields of cultural production.  I firmly believe that the assets or forms of capital we each bring with us, based on our family, education, and social standing, have a tremendous impact in how we compete with others for future resources.  It is readily apparent to me, as an administrator at a high poverty, high needs, urban high school, the importance of being thankful for the opportunities I have been provided to achieve personal and professional success.  Likewise, it is crucial I keep in mind the tremendous responsibility I have in creating opportunities for other agents, less fortunate than myself, to compete on a leveled playing field for increasingly scarce resources.  Clearly, the formal schooling process advantages the few, to the detriment of the many, and I believe I can change that as a leader in education by using theoretical concepts like habitus, class, and field to determine how culture is produced and reproduced within schools. 

Lastly, I believe that Bourdieu’s theoretical framework can function as the critical link between my role as a leader in education and my role as a leader in my family.  As early as next summer, I am anticipating a new leadership role as a holder of the title of Leiataualesa, a chiefly, matai title in Samoan family and society.   As such, it is critically important that I link the foundational aspects of my leadership philosophy as an educator with that of my family.  I am hoping that Bourdieu’s general science of practices will offer me the chance to better understand what it means to be Afa-Samoa or, a half Samoan person who identifies his leadership as being a father, husband, and man of his family, people, and organization.  It is my desire that I will be able to bridge my experience being a leader in Samoa, and in my family, with being a leader in education.  In the process, I would like to blaze a new trail of social theory of leadership that will help others, like me, grow into their own culturally embedded identities and roles as persons of color living, working, and breathing their personal, narratives in their respective organizations, fields of professional occupation, and familial settings. 

In summary, my thinking as a leader has developed and grown as a result of my exposure to the theory of Pierre Bourdieu.  Although I have only been working with Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, and field for a short time, the knowledge I have gained has helped me to see what it means to be a leader in a new and interesting way.  For sure, Bourdieu’s theories have helped to stretch my thinking and will provide me with new ways of approaching my practice, and action-taking, as a leader in education and as a future leader in my family.  In closing, I would like to thank professors Fish and Brookfield for providing me with the opportunity to write my personal, leadership narrative and also for taking great care in teaching our cohort what it means to lead with integrity, grace, humility, and a touch of creativity.








Good Reads.  Retrieved online April 23, 2012 from


Swartz, D.  (1997).  Culture and Power: the Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.  Chicago: The

            University of Chicago Press.

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