chapter  4
14 Pages

Public relations and society: A Bourdieuvian perspective

ByLee Edwards

This chapter explores the interaction between society and public relations using the framework of fields, capital and habitus proposed by Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist who focused on the social mechanisms through which individuals and groups were positioned in society. His seminal work, Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984) provides an account of how taste, operationalised in the context of a specific set of norms, values and attitudes, which he called habitus, and demonstrated through the possession of various assets (social capital, cultural capital, economic capital), serves to distinguish between groups in French society and generates a hierarchy of social positions. His work has been applied to a range of other cultural contexts, and while the forms of capital change depending on the specific context being addressed, the longevity of his ideas has demonstrated their quality and applicability beyond France (see, e.g., Gayo-Cal et al., 2006; Bennett et al., 1999; Aldridge, 1998; Crossley, 2002; and Everett, 2002). This book illustrates how the effects of public relations work are felt deep within

the fabric of society and affect our habitus: the beliefs, values and attitudes that we hold about our roles as consumers, voters, citizens, students, academics, and a host of other identities. The starting point for this argument is that public relations is not a free-floating, neutral occupation, isolated from its social context. On the contrary, it is loaded with value judgements: PR itself is a ‘culture’ with its own mores, standards and value judgements of what is and is not good ‘PR’ (Pieczka, 2002; see also L’Etang, this volume). These are reflected in the value placed on different types of communication by the profession, and in the messages that practitioners develop, which ultimately shape our perceptions of the world. At the same time, research on public relations practice in different countries and

cultures (Sriramesh & Vercˇicˇ, 2009; see also Hodges, this volume) demonstrates that the socio-cultural environment in which public relations is enacted also affects the way the profession evolves. This effect is exercised through the individuals that join

the occupation, the organisations for whom PR work is done, and through PR’s status in relation to other occupations in the broader economic field. This chapter reflects more deeply on these dynamics, using Bourdieu’s framework

of fields, capital and habitus as the theoretical lens to examine the mechanisms through which this mutual influence takes place. The theoretical arguments are illustrated using research findings from two studies of PR in the UK. The first was a case study of PR activity in a large commercial transport operator, Roule, based in the north of England. As a participant-observer, I spent three months with the Corporate Affairs team in 2007, interviewing them and their colleagues, observing their interaction with other areas of the company, and noting the processes through which their work was executed (Edwards, 2009, 2008). The second study was a yearlong investigation of the professional experiences of Black and other minority ethnic PR practitioners in the UK industry, carried out in 2009 (the Diversity study).1 Data sources comprised 34 interviews and seven group interviews with BME practitioners, eight practitioner diaries and a variety of documentation from the top 10 UK consultancies and the two national industry bodies, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Public Relations Consultants Association.