Summary: Liu and Emirbayer, “Field and Ecology”, Social Theory

Liu and Emirbayer were at pains to compare Bourdieu’s field theory and Chicago school’s ecology theory as spatial views of society. There are four sections in this paper. The first section offers brief overviews of important elements in the two theories as members of “spatial theory family”; the second and third analyze their similarities and differences along different dimensions (sociologically fancy substitute for themes); the last section discusses how the two theories can borrow from each other.

Field theory and ecology theory are both “theoretical metaphors for charactering social space” (Silber 1995, as in Liu & Enirbayer 2015). There are three elements in any spatial view of society: actors, positions, and the relations that associates them. [Reflection 1] Moreover, social spaces are different with social system in that the latter doesn’t concern positions but only the roles of actors; different with social network in that the latter only sees structural ties between actors, but has no concern with actors’ shift of positions; different with social structure in that the latter only cares for positions but not actors that occupies them. [For more detailed discussion on this dichotomy, see Reflection 1]

Field and ecology theories are similar in three aspects. First is structural isomorphism – fields become similar in their interaction. In Bourdieu this process is homology, in ecology theory Abbott links different ecologies by hinges (the same actors get rewards in different fields) or avatars (actors create their alternative self in another field?). Second is their conceptualisation of time. Field theory incorporates this dimension by tracing the trajectories over time of social actors and positions they occupy – that is, relations between them. For ecology theory, the focus on interaction itself implies an emphasis on time and fluidity of structures. Finally they are similar in the social psychologies discussions. Habits – unreflective dispositions – comes first, and only when habits are not enough will there be more reflective practices. In conclusion, field theory and ecology theory both conceptualise society as relational and views social relations as structured process.

Field and ecology metaphor are different along five dimensions. First, field theory is devoted to power relations and dominance / subordination pairs. It even has a meta-field of “power of powers”, or the field of power struggle between dominants in sub-fields. It is in this field that the legitimate principle of legitimation is produced [c.f. province head vs. centre head in CCP]. Ecology theory views society more like plant ecology, there are competition but few direct domination. Second, Bourdieu insists fields are inter-connected and are receptive to external influences. But ecology theory assumes social spaces are endogenous, for example they do not research life of immigrants in Chicago city. Thus they concerns more internal interaction than preexisting structures. Third, in field theory social spaces are heterogeneous, but in ecology there is usually one type of actor. [This can be attribute to the second difference – or there will be power. but how about competition? If there is only one actor, no competition, no plant ecology?] Fourth, the two theories use different metaphors in describing [don’t approve this sub-argument – they also have different authors?]. Last, field theory is more abstract in conceptualising than ecology theory. In the former a “space” is not necessary physical, while in the later a “space” is really a space.

How to incorporate field theory with ecology theory? For ecology to learn from Bourdieu, it can take into relations between spaces, heterogeneity of actors in a space, power relations between actors. A good example is Abbott Systems of Professions. For Bourdieu to learn from ecology, it can give more attention to interactions between actors and consider wider range of interaction besides domination/subordination. For example, competition, cooperation, accommodation and exchange.


  1. Although this dichotomy between position and actors resemble the theoretical pair of structure / agency, or objective / subjective, the two authors bridge the pair by adding a “relation” dimension. According to them, on the one hand, Bourdieu also tries to bridge the European objectivism / subjectivism or structure / agency in his field. Three elements here: topological area, organisation of forces, and contestation battlefield. The third is where actors try to make position shift – that is, bridge the changeable with prepositions. They use their habitus to do this. However, since their habitus is also largely predetermined by their position, Bourdieu’s theory is still closer to structuralism / objectivism compared to interactionists’ theory. On the other hand, the second Chicago school – Park and Burgess – build on Simmel’s concept of reciprocal relationship and proposes interaction as “the fundamental social process”. This is a characteristics of ecology theory.
  2. Liu’s own PhD thesis on Chinese lawyers is an empirical application of this integration of field theory and ecology theory. He defines two fundamental processes: boundary-work and exchange. Boundary-work includes boundary making, boundary blurring and boundary maintaining. This happens between different legal professions in legal field, legal profession and state. Exchange is exchange of resources.
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