Bourdieu'sociology and the coding-dojos

Bourdieu and the coding-dojos.

WTF is Pierre Bourdieu?**

Pierre Bourdieu was a french sociologist from the late 20th century whom I’ve recently discovered on Okiwi’s slack, a developer community from Bordeaux.

During a very lively conversation about Sandro Mancuso’s vision on the management of his career, Emmanuel Gaillot said :

The theme of the “entrepreneur of your own career”, including the success or the failure of it, is somewhat recent, even in the computer sciences environment. And this rhetoric is set by the current system, not some disruptives parts of it. Without going into the technicalities of knowing if it is intentional or not, this oratory’s main function is to maintain the current existing system by justifying its inequalities as if it was something normal and natural. For now, the saying is “there are some who sleep and others who work”. Before, it was “there are some who do what they preach and others who never listen”. Even before it was “Some are strong, some are weak.”

When someone says that you must take charge of your career when you are a developer and make it sound both very important and easy at the same time, given the current market, I’ll gladly ask you to think about our social status when we say that : gender ? Skin color ? Sexual orientation ? Religion ? Age ? Parent’s CSP ? And so on.

Shortly after, Romeu talked about it again in a series of tweets on the theory of Bourdieu’s sociology (here in blog version)

While you are here, I recommend you to read wikipedia’s article on Bourdieu.

The main concepts of his work are :

  • The cultural capitals
  • The centrality of the habitus
  • The hexis
  • The symbolic capital and symbolic violence.
  • A social world where symbolic violence has a central role and actively maintains the status quo by legitimizing power relationships. Lower-ranked people feel they are actually less pertinent or able than higher-ranked people.
  • A social world divided in fields where agents interact.

The cultural capital

Karl Marx inspired Bourdieu in his writings a lot (he stated several times that he didn’t consider himself a marxist). Both agree to the fact that the difference between two social status directly comes from the difference of their wealth. The more wealth you have, the more dominating your social status is in society. The difference mainly resides in that Marx talked essentially about economic wealth (heritage, salary etc.) while Bourdieu adds another type of wealth : the cultural capital.

The cultural capital is all the symbolical elements you gain by being a member of a specific social class. It can be assimilated (incorporated), taught or even objective (tangible).

It can be :

  • A taste for philosophy (incorporated)
  • Abilities (incorporated)
  • A degree (institutional)
  • A sports car. (tangible)

The cultural capital is what creates the feeling of a collective identity and a feeling of belonging to a group, but is also a potential massive hurdle towards the ascension of the social hierarchy. On the contrary, the ability to earn cultural capital through huge work makes the opportunity of a promotion a lot easier which would result in a better wealth.

The habitus:

Through his socialisation and his social trajectory, an individual will gain by mimicry a whole set of behaviours, reactions and perceptions. But the habitus is not an automatic mechanism which guides our actions like rails guide a city train, it acts more like the grammar of a native language. This grammar is acquired through socialisation and allows the individual to build an infinite amount of sentences to manage everyday life situations even without mimicking the exact same reaction to an external event.

Thus the habitus is organized because it is a product of socialisation but also structuring because it creates an infinite amount of new practices. According to Bourdieu it is a group of “structured structures predisposed to work as structuring structures”. The habitus structures thoughts in society, members of the same social class lived similar experiences, it explains the similarities of thoughts in those classes.

The habitus is not unchanging. The social trajectory and some introspection can lead to a habitus evolution. We can conclude that habitus is not a self-made product nor a product of the structure but rather a mix of both which structures each behaviour and perception.

Those predispositions are really general but we can raise some factual elements who comes directly from habitus :

  • The physical stance
  • The vocabulary
  • The turns of phrases
  • The ability to stay calm or use violence.

The hexis

The hexis is the expression by and in the body itself, or at the closest, of its habitus.

It’s the corporeal form of the habitus, your non-verbal communication, the tone of your voice or the target of your gaze during a conversation. It also represents the corporeal incarnation of the social structures as it occurs to the individual, and it is particularly noticeable when the individual is feeling uneasy. Let’s say that a introvert trainee is being lectured by his manager because their work is not making any progress :

  • They are shaking
  • They are stuttering
  • They are looking at their hands while talking.

All those symptoms are part of the hexis which are the manifestation of their habitus that taught them to physically submit when the situation requires it.

In a broader sense, the hexis also applies to the dressing style, the haircut or the tattoos.

Bourdieu and the social fields

The concept of fields is originally an analogy inspired by physics which compares the social universe to an electromagnetic field: an electron in the field is part of the field, it is both a subject and an actor and it contributes to the balance of the conflicts it creates.

A field is a system which contains agents and his social positions structured internally from domination relationships. Thus, it is an arena of power relationships and domination where agents fight for the ownership of different forms of capital, a capital being what is valued by his agents. Here capital can be of cultural nature, as discussed earlier, but also of blunt vital money/wealth

Fields can be disjointed, included or excluded from each other. They are organized horizontally and vertically while acting independently. They are the arena of social struggles.

Activities develops inside a field following its rules where each agent is an electron which alters , at its level, the orientation, the form or values of this « flow ». Inside, the ability to interact with this flow depends directly on the habitus of each agent in that particular field. The Habitus depends on the field it is applied to. For example: in the software developer world, it’s considered prestigious and respectable to work on a popular open source project, it’s not as popular or respectable if you are a lawyer. The Bourdieusan field of lawyers will have social norms different from the field of developers.

It is worth noting that it is really difficult for a human group to organize freely of every domination structure. Relationships of dominations and social scales will “naturally” emerge inside it. It will seem natural because we’ve been used to domination structure since our youngest age.

Symbolic capital and symbolic violence

The symbolical power is the structure of an implied power that we all use on each other unconsciously.

The properties that are usually attributed to symbolical power are :

  • being a man
  • being white
  • being tall
  • being cultured, knowledgeable
  • occupying a prestigious position
  • wearing a suit
  • being articulate, using correct grammar
  • showing signs of what we think is smart, clever.
  • Economic capital
  • Cultural capital
  • Social capital

The more symbolic power an individual will have, the more he will be unconsciously judged as powerful and the more we will unconsciously submit to him.

It is this unconsciousness quality that makes it pernicious. This power structure isn’t inflicted by the dominant on the dominated. It is likely that the dominant is not even aware of the violence, because the dominated is self-inflicting it. We are programmed to react to those characteristics and to submit to them. The word can appear quite strong/powerful but it has been proved true, most notably by Berkeley’s sociologist Paul Piff , that we are more inclined to trust someone who displays a higher socio-professional status than ours.

And to rub salt in the wound, the dominated will not be prepared to understand this problem and will never be prone to empathy for those who have less symbolic power.

Example : “He never had any problems speaking in public or finding a job → It is very easy to speak in public”

But it is not everything

Photo of ugly white guy in a suit

Here is an example of a heterosexual white male in suit who has not much symbolical violence (well if you know The Office US), even though he has symbolical power by his status of a white heterosexual american male.

The symbolic violence is a mix between habitus and symbolic power.

If someone with a strong combination of the capital forms works with the average person in those aspects, naturally a structure of domination will appear between them. And the quality of work perceived will be naturally better for the one who has more power.

What about us, developers?

Let’s now talk about how this applies to us and the coding-dojos.

Our Bourdieusan field

The field we are interested in is the developers one. This field is a sub-field of the computer science one, and it has its own sub-fields like front-end developers or those who use functional languages. Each one occupies a spot which can be either dominant or dominated, or either conservative or innovating. The internal struggles that labels our field are for example :

  • What is the best language?
  • What is the best organisation method?
  • Should we do tests?
  • Micro-service or Monolith?
  • Vim or emacs?

I am sure you can find at least 200 other struggles. These internal struggles are happening through articles, consulting assignments, books, proof-of-concepts and so on. All those conflicts are what makes in my opinion our field of work interesting.

Together, our field of practice evolves when agents have enough symbolic capital to convince many people that the new way is the best way. Why ? Because of their symbolic capital, they are trusted, their opinions are highly valued, and they have a much wider audience.

Developers’ social space

Bourdieu describes a strong link between social positions and social practices. In our case, we can easily see that those at the top of the social ladder are those who have the stronger influence on the Bourdieusian field of the developers.

I think of many developers profiles who have a large impact on the community:

  • Those who give conference presentations.
  • Those who write books and articles.
  • Those who host and organize conferences or workshops with the community.
  • Those who do consulting jobs for tech firms.
  • Those who code in open-source.
  • Those who coach teams
  • Those who manage and/or mentor junior developers
  • Those who read books and articles.
  • Those who are good at crafting catchy manifestos

Those people do not have an innate skill for technical literature and surely didn’t follow an event-organization training either. From their socialisation within our own field, they have acquired cultural dispositions by meeting other people. They wrote because their peers and their mentors wrote, and that seemed the social norm to them.

Did you already hear at work: ” They are a bad developer, they don’t keep themselves up to date ” .

Then you find yourself in a situation where your cultural capital spurs you to spend time at home working on pet projects and unconsciously, you start feeling superior to those who don’t have the same social norms in our field.

Another symbolic violence that we encounter very frequently would be the spreading of common cultural references. Here is an example. This parodic account shares jokes about DDD lexicon. It’s not particularly funny, but you have to know DDD stuff to get the jokes, if you don’t know DDD, you’re not part of the joke, and you feel excluded.

The popularity of this tweet is outstanding. The people who interacted with the tweet are architects, software consultants, CTOs, writers, never run-of-the-mills developers. This type of communication is a vector of symbolic violence, where a subset of developers take the opportunity to share that they speak the technical jargon.

What about the coding-dojos then?

When I arrived at my job in a consulting firm in Paris, coding-dojos were happening both one noon and one evening per week.

It was a group activity happening outside work hours where we were training to solve easy computing problems by swapping peoples every 8 minutes.

The idea was to train for the Test-Driven-Development and discover new languages.

I never thought about why I felt I had to take part in those workshops and also why I felt a certain pleasure to do it. The reason was that I wanted to invest some of my time to progress on technical subjects and to discover new languages. In hindsight, I now understand 4 years later that I really wanted to imitate my peers and mentors and that this participation was a means for me to socialize and learn the abilities and reflexes of developers I perceived as more skilled and to elevate my habitus.

Once I moved to Bordeaux, I decided to host the coding-dojos of Okiwi’s community. I wanted to be part of the community, to share these practices of Test-Driven-Development and clean code.

Another positive effect was that it allowed me to train to give formations. One more time, we can see that through the prism of our Bourdieusan space I was reusing what I had learned during the coding-dojos workshops and I would spread the conversations and social rites that I had seen at my previous job. Thus I was increasing my social status relating to our field → I was slowly becoming a conference host or workshop host.

And now, what should we do ?

One trademark of our community that shocks me since I read Romeu’s article on Bourdieu (link) is the tendency to demonstrate our cultural capital at every single occasion. Here are the situations I’ve encountered recently:

  • During a pair-programming session, to solve a problem with a junior dev in Java, an architect said : You see, I would do that easily using Scala with some pattern matching”. Great, you announced to everyone that you code in Scala, you quoted concepts that the junior developers do not know. But of course, you don’t explain it to them.
  • During a coding-dojo with developers of all levels, a senior said “It would not have worked if we had applied the calisthenics”. It might have been right, but unconsciously he is using his cultural capital to enforce his superior social status. He read some technical articles and name-dropped obscure concepts.
  • Some name-dropping of semi-celebrities of our field : “As my friend Sandro mancuso says, … ” → I frequent people really high on the social ladder of the developers. A variant : “Kent once told me not to do that”, “Kent who ?” “Kent Beck of course, don’t you know him ?”
  • “You should do katas to learn a language” → implying that if you don’t do it, you won’t become a good developer.

All those situations are real situations I’ve encountered recently and I probably missed most of those displays of cultural capital which all are examples of symbolical violences between dominated and dominants in our field.

###Following this, I decided that I would add rules to my coding-dojos

  • Firmly prevent all enunciation of keywords, concepts or names that aren’t directly explained. We only quote what we explain and we prevent the situation where a developer with a smaller habitus feels forced to ask for an explanation about a term or worse when they don’t ask at all because they are too ashamed to do it.

  • Don’t quote other languages when it is not useful.
  • Don’t force yourself to the others by telling them what to do.
  • Don’t interrupt people.
  • Let people try stuff.
  • Prefer using the socratic method to help people solve their problem.


We live in a system who, consciously or not, nurture this social hierarchy and exercise a power of symbolic violence which helps to legitimise it. To fight against it, it is necessary to understand the current social mechanisms and to expose it.

Sources :

Written on February 10, 2021

Philosophie Coding-dojos