• Analysis

A multi-lingual approach to theory building

12 April 2022

In the last decade, many scholars have challenged the Eurocentric and colonial nature of curricula and research methodologies taught in universities around the world. More specifically, they have challenged the fact that social theories are often taught in English and predominantly reflect structures of thought from ‘Western’ intellectual history. This blog post reflects on a project conducted at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong (AUW), Bangladesh that challenges this dominant model by way of proposing a multilingual approach to the building of social theory.

To give some context, the AUW is an independent, international liberal arts university with an enrolment of more than 1000 students from 20 countries across Asia and the Middle East. While English is the language of instruction, most students at this university speak at least three languages, with some speaking up to six. Within such a context, the potential for critiquing and re-invigorating theoretical concepts via language is significant. In this project, I gave an undergraduate class of 20 students two exercises. The first exercise asked the students to translate Bourdieu's concepts of habitus, cultural capital and cultural field into their own native language. I asked them to reflect on whether or not there were any differences between the understood or accepted meaning of these concepts and the meanings of the words they’d chosen as equivalents. Finally, I asked them if these new terms impacted Bourdieu’s original theory in any way. The second exercise extended on the first by asking the students to think of metaphors, images, and concepts within their native languages that could be used to generate new social theory related to structure and agency (one of Bourdieu’s key concerns).

What follows are some selected examples for each exercise. The first example is Wolof, a dialect spoken in Senegal, West Africa. For cultural field, the student noted that “the Wolof definition has the sense of power, structure and responsibility present in the English definition, but it also adds the rights a person has in addition to the duties. It also puts emphasis on interactions in a space, and in relationships to people.” The student then provided the following observation on how language could impact a change in the theory itself: “Translating the concepts created by Bourdieu in Wolof gives these concepts a sense of personal interaction. The Wolof translation shows us how the system behind the language structure puts [an] emphasis on a sense of belonging to a certain community and shared upheld values. Wolof is a language that hardly ever detaches an action from someone to the impact it has on other people. Therefore we can say that the culture behind the language is entrenched in the relationships between and amongst one’s peers.” The student then offered the following new definitions. Cultural field refers to the “ways of leading, ruling, doing, exercising responsibilities and rights of an individual that make him/her act a certain way in a setting.” Cultural capital refers to the “cultural properties and their usefulness to their owner within a specific social structure,” and habitus refers to “a person’s identity and actions towards their responsibilities shaped by the way he/she was brought up.”

A second example used Syrian Arabic. For her, habitus became “a term which is related to being and existence.” There were two aspects to it: “the first aspect is how people see themselves, how they create their personality, and how they deal with themselves. The second aspect is related to the existence of an individual in a specific society, how he or she engages in the society and what he or she provides and/or takes from the society.” She also added a third aspect, which was that it referred to the “social norms and tendencies which structure individual behaviour and thinking.” Cultural capital was “a term that indicates a value related to the social norms within a specific culture. The individual is responsible for the existence of this value, also it’s connected to the social norms which lead to people’s thinking and behaviour.” Cultural field is a “network or set of relationships which could be cultural, religious, educational, or related to ritual. It’s also the area where an interaction between the society and individual happens, and it influences their power.” In terms of how language could impact theory, the student made the following comment: “According to the Arabic language, capital has two meanings. One of them is value and the other is ‘central region’ which is a more common usage. Capital indicates the most important city in a specific country, often a place or site which connects the other regions together. This reminds us that each concept is inherently connected to the other: habitus, capital and field rely upon each other. Similarly, in Arabic, the ‘field’ means a big area which has a lot of things such as flowers, trees, plants and animals, and the field is where interactions between them take place. This again reminds us of the ways in which each notion is bound up with the other.” In terms of habitus, the student felt it was more about the “being” of an individual, and this existential aspect wasn’t necessarily clear in Bourdieu’s definition.

For the second exercise, the student from Senegal said that in her native language of Wolof there is a concept of Tourando, which means namesake. The full metaphor is as follows: Jeul sei jourom niwari jiko tourando, meaning “to take the seven traits of one’s namesake.” Once someone has a namesake, they have to take care of them at all times. Sometimes parents give their kids to their namesakes and say, “ay yam lanioula laaj,” which literally means “we’re asking you for his/her bones.” The idea behind this is that the namesake keeps the person under his/her care until his/her grave. The student identified a related metaphor also: “Njeuk joudd, njeuk baax,” meaning “the first born is the first one to be good.” In other words, the first born of a family has to set a good example for the younger siblings to follow. The student then developed a possible theory based on both of these phrases: “In Wolof-speaking social settings, the chronological place of an individual within the family (and the naming of that individual) defines their role and responsibility within the structure towards the younger members. It also applies to the bigger social structure that is the tightknitted community [usually a village]. When there is a problem in these areas and the stakeholders do not know how to solve it, they refer it to the eldest of the village to solve. Therefore we can say that the amount of respect given to an individual and the heaviness of that individual’s responsibilities are directly related to their age. Their age is a measure of their wisdom.”

A Vietnamese student discussed the concept of “su tham hoi,” an idea similar to that of guanxi in the Chinese context. Su tham hoi means to spend time with others in order to cultivate relationships. She generated from this concept a basic theory related to structure and agency: “If individuals want to maintain relationships within Vietnamese society, they must spend their own time to visit, talk, share their experiences and difficulties in their life with others, and understand others. If individuals have energy [spiritual energy] and brotherhood, they can create meaningful relationships and overcome difficulties.” The image she offered was one of hard-working farmers that were often depicted on Vietnamese currency. For her, this “patriotic” image, through depicting the working environment of farmers in Vietnam, signified the “co-operation and social connection amongst the farmers in achieving collective goals.” Based on both the concept and the image, the student extrapolated the beginnings of a social theory: both physical and spiritual labour are potent forms of social capital (in Bourdieu’s sense) within the Vietnamese context.

As evidenced by these brief examples, the translation of social theory between different language systems is a process that has the potential to challenge old perspectives and open up new ontological positions. It is my hope that this project will invite further collaboration and elaboration of this difficult task, in ways that are potentially meaningful to your own contexts. Naturally, such a task will bring about further questions, such as: how can we take the diversity of multilingual knowledge seriously within teaching and research? How could the examples mentioned here serve as a starting point of critique for other students and scholars in different locales?


I’d like to invite teachers and educators to try a similar experiment in your own classrooms. However, instead of Bourdieu’s ideas, perhaps you could begin with an important idea or theory relevant to your own field of study or you could invite one of your students to share an important notion (or metaphor) within your own cultural context. I would love to hear what wonderful results may spring from any such process.

Author’s note

Dr Tiffany Cone is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. Her research focuses on psychological anthropology, visual anthropology and higher education and pedagogy. Prior to her current position, she was an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Please note that this blog refers to material from my published work about this project. If interested, feel free to read the full article as below.

Cone, T. 2019. The Worlding of Words: Post-monolingual education at the Asian University for Women. In V. Anderson & H. Johnson (Eds.), Migration, education and translation: Cross-disciplinary perspectives on human mobility and cultural encounters in education settings. Abingdon: Routledge. https://