This paper takes as its focus the concept of “field“, which has received relatively less attention than Bourdieu‘s other concepts such as “cultural capital” and “habitus” in the sociology of education. The development of the concept is outlined to present Bourdieu’s understanding of higher education as a field consisting of cognitive and structural mechanisms that mediate sociopolitical and economic forces while simultaneously reproducing fundamental principles of social stratification. As an illustration of its widespread application, Bourdieu’s framework is applied to develop an analytical understanding of institutional strategies developed by South African universities during a period of political instability. Drawing insights from the South African case study and Bourdieu’s empirical research, the article concludes that Bourdieu’s theory may be seen to have transcended more simplistic conceptions of universities as closed systems detached from the sociopolitical complex or as mere reflections of external power relations. However, the strict relational nature of Bourdieu’s framework and his concept of the “arbitrary” have placed limits on the extent to which his theory can offer a more in-depth account of the relationship between higher education and society.
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