In March and April of 2020 businesses in the USA were forced to shut down, families began quarantining at home, and we began reprioritizing our activities as essential and non-essential. Churches and places of worship discovered themselves in the non-essential category, a designation that many found intolerable. Prominent pastors such as John MacArthur cried foul; worship leader and provocateur Sean Feucht led a traveling worship gathering/protest; and congregations joined the call to reopen in “faith over fear.” Many churches, especially in the white evangelical world, with no extended cooperation and acting seemingly on an intuition, declared that public health guidelines and laws were oppressive and must be defied. Without coordination or planning, the language of “faith over fear” emerged simultaneously across many congregations as if it were already plainly known. This orthodoxy now defines a certain American Christian approach to the ongoing pandemic as well as an antagonistic relationship with a government portrayed as secular and oppressive.
That there was a shared, unspoken belief that came to the surface when facing a crisis suggests a “doxa” held by these communities. Doxa is not what we claim to believe but what we assume to be true without expressing it. Brought into the realm of discourse by the Covid-19 pandemic, these Christians reacted apologetically to the violation of their doxa by constructing their doxic belief into an orthodoxy to be defended.
Like many world events, the Covid-19 pandemic has been described as apocalyptic, a revealing of what was previously hidden. However, it may be more helpful for the field of political theology to argue that such events do not so much reveal what is hidden as prompt us to recognize what is taken for granted. The sociological theory of doxa is a tool that can assist political theology in that task of probing what is given.
This sociological sense of doxa was made prominent by French sociologist, anthropologist, and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and further advanced in Manuel Vásquez’s materialist theory of religion. Doxa is an essential part of Bourdieu’s theory of culture and practice. It refers to an unacknowledged belief confirmed by experience and therefore accepted as fact without being articulated. In other words, it is a category of deeply held beliefs that are taken as given. Doxa has not received as much attention as Bourdieu’s other key terms such as habitus, field, and symbolic capital. Yet it is ripe for application in political theology. Doxa illuminates the connection between culture, belief, and power. As a theory, it can be used to investigate the construction of identity—especially social and religious identity—in relations to dominant groups and the political negotiation of what constitutes tacit rules to the game.
Doxa has a colloquial use more closely associated with philosophy, meaning something widely known and accepted and thus considered common sense. Plato differentiated between doxa, which was opinion, and episteme, which was reasoned and deductive thought. The sociological use discussed here is less concerned with episteme, and renders doxa in this sense as non-discursive or pre-discursive. Doxa is taken for granted such that it cannot be discussed. Bourdieu’s work sets his use of doxa apart from classical, post-Marxist ideology (see dialogue with Eagleton), or phenomenological applications of the term. Manuel Vásquez has argued for a sociological sense of doxa which accounts for the persuasive power of religion to impose its contextual perspective as objective and universal through misrecognition. The sociological use of doxa is not entirely separate from the philosophical, but in contrast emphasizes doxa as unacknowledged and unrecognized (or misrecognized). Bourdieu and Vásquez take doxa beyond the realm of the cognitive and apply it in the practical, embodied, and everyday.
What Goes Without Saying
The sense of limits implies forgetting the limits. One of the most important effects of the correspondence between real divisions and practical principles of division, between social structures and mental structures, is undoubtedly the fact that primary experience of the social world is that of doxa, an adherence to relations of order which, because they structure inseparably both the real world and the thought world, are accepted as self-evidentBourdieu, Distinction, 471
Doxa is subjective belief rendered objective by misrecognition, which is the passive rendering of contingent belief as objective truth. Doxic assumptions about reality are confirmed by experience or left unchallenged and therefore accepted as true. Bourdieu famously summarized that doxa “goes without saying because it comes without saying” (Outline, 167). It is instilled through practice, not discourse, and its sense of objectivity is misrecognized. Doxa is therefore pre-reflexive.
Bourdieu uses the language of a game to describe the fuzzy logic of practice. The field (French: champ, more literally “discipline”) is the social space shared by the players. They deploy their symbolic and social capital on the field, and their navigation of the field is made possible by their habitus, the feel for the game. Beneath all of this is doxa, which are the implicit rules of the game shared by the players on the field, and part of the misrecognition of doxa is the acceptance of the game as objective, more real than a game. This consent to the game is what Bourdieu means by misrecognition: the arbitrary misconstrued as objective. We might describe it as “getting lost in the game,” how in the middle of the action the players forget that the game they are playing is not real life.
Doxa is shared by all the players on the field. Often a doxa is shared even across disparities such as class or race, and here the arbitrariness of doxa is granted objectivity by those playing the game and tacitly participating in the field of struggle. A field can intersect with other fields, or can be broken up into sub-fields, but the doxa—the shared implicit belief in the terms of the field—is what draws its perimeter. So a doxa may be race or class specific, such a “whiteness” or the sense of the “bourgeoisie,” but especially in Bourdieu’s sociology doxa is examined as the shared assumptions or common ground that make struggle possible between differing groups. In this way the doxa may be the belief that both a white police office and a Black Lives Matter activist take for granted that places them on opposite sides of the protest line. That shared doxa makes their antagonism possible; their deployment of social, symbolic, and even martial capital are rendered meaningful by the doxa.
Manuel Vásquez moves the study of religion in a more materialist direction by treating it as an embodied practice embedded in time and place. For Vásquez, the concept of doxa is useful to evade classic hermeneutical approaches to belief and meaning. This pre-reflexive disposition informs the study of culture as shaping knowledge and experience. As a theoretical tool, doxa enables us to understand better how power is constituted. It allows us to go beyond Antonio Gramsci’s criticism of common sense into an exploration of unspoken norms.
The opposite of doxa is the realm of discourse. Here belief is formalized in language and then enforced as either orthodoxy, heterodoxy, or heresy. Doxa’s sense of objectivity may be disrupted by a crisis—such as a pandemic—bringing it to conscious attention. An orthodoxy may then be constructed and enforced to reclaim that objectivity (Vásquez, More Than Belief, 247).
The maintenance of power previously obscured in doxa is more recognizable once fashioned into an orthodoxy. Having given up on doxa misrecognized as “just the way things are,” individuals and groups must now justify and defend the orthodoxy of their positions. Yet power is at work in misrecognition too. Misrecognition of doxa allows religious and political leaders to turn situated subjectivities into universals, which are that much more powerful because, being intuitive and embodied, they draw on a shared tradition and way of life. It is in the interest of those privileged by “the way things are” to preserve the perception of objectivity of doxa. In contrast, those subjected under naturalized structures seek to expose doxa as arbitrary. Things don’t have to stay the way they are. This struggle sits under class struggle, colonial struggle, and the discursive force of liberative movements. Resistance, then, should invite scrutiny not only of military or legal conflict but also conflict at the level of imagination, assumptions, frameworks, and the sense of reality itself and who imposes it.
Use in Political Theory, Religious Studies, and Political Theology
Common sense exerts immense power, so much so that whatever diverges from it typically remains beyond the grasp of intelligibility. And even though common sense can wreak violence on those who embody such divergence, it’s all too often impossible for the rest of us to see our complicity in that systemic injustice.Wigg-Stevenson, Transgressive Devotion, 12
Political thought has already picked up doxa as a helpful tool, and a few scholars are beginning to adapt it to religious studies. Because Bourdieu largely shied away from the analysis of religion in his writing, applications of his practice theory in theology and religious studies have only recently come into shape. Terry Rey has written a helpful summary chapter on “Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion.” Religion and Modern Society by Bryan Turner also offers insight into the application of Bourdieu’s theory in the sociology of religion and politics, devoting an entire chapter to exploring these possibilities while also offering important critiques of Bourdieu’s shortcomings. Ali Qadir has deployed the theory of doxa to examine Pakistan’s legal declaration of the Ahmadiyya as heretics in 1974. Rohit Chopra has analyzed globalization in India by considering neoliberalism as doxa, linking the doxic belief with colonialism. Oussama Cherribi examines politics, religious identity, and the structure of persecution in his book, In The House of War. Perhaps nearest to the work of political theology is Daniel Pilario’s deployment of Bourdieu’s theory in collaboration with liberation theology in Back to the Rough Grounds of Practice.
A political theology of doxa might address the question of how theology constitutes and wields political power. Perhaps most pertinent here are questions of state legitimacy, state violence, and civil duty. At the same time, there are broad possibilities for reflexivity and interrogation of “what goes without saying.” Political theology may take an embodied turn toward the material, practice, and affective dynamic of religious faith and ethical concern. The legitimation of political structures by religious influence could be opened to scrutiny not just in its formal statements but also in the implicit notions and sense of the world that they impose as givens. Overcoming misrecognition and exposing doxa could then become an act of both theological and political liberation.
This work may be especially pertinent given the current labor struggles in academia, as Loic Wacquant notes (Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 24). What is taken for granted: underfunding grad students, exploiting contingent faculty, and the adjunctification of the teaching field all stand to be exposed as arbitrary rather than essential to the field of academia. Nevertheless, the struggle will be over the construction of the orthodoxy of academic labor. Perhaps doxa is a tool that can aid our interrogation of this system from every position: student, staff, professors, and those excluded.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.
Outline and Logic are two of Bourdieu’s attempts to write the same book. Outline invests more deeply in the ethnographic research on which Bourdieu’s theory reflects. Logic is better arranged to demonstrate how the ideas relate and flow from one another. The chapter “Belief and the Body” from Logic is my recommendation for an introduction to doxa in Bourdieu’s schema. His work lays a foundation for much of Vásquez’s in More Than Belief.
Vásquez, Manuel A. More Than Belief: A Materialist Theory of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Doxa for Vásquez is about embodiment and emplacement with a particular focus toward material religion. This work both advances and critiques Bourdieu’s theory, shifts the conversation of practice theory firmly into religious studies, and helpfully draws together the threads of a wide set of theorists tackling questions of lived religion.
Pilario, Daniel. Back to the Rough Ground of Practice. Leuven: Peeters Publishers, 2005.
The liberation theology keystone of “praxis” enters conversation with sociology’s practice theory in Pilario’s outline. He describes his context as “doing theology from the garbage dump,” reimagining field, habitus, and doxa for the struggle of liberation.
Wigg-Stevenson, Natalie. Ethnographic Theology: An Inquiry into the Production of Theological Knowledge. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2014.
Wigg-Stevenson has used doxa and habitus as method and content in her ongoing project to reevaluate the barriers between academic and everyday theologies. Her performance of theology as affect and disposition is a through line between this book and her subsequent Transgressive Devotion.
Rey, Terry. “Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion.” In The Oxford Handbook of Pierre Bourdieu. Eds. Thomas Medvetz and Jeffrey J. Sallaz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, (2018).
Rey introduces Bourdieu’s work, along with some of its context and applications in religious studies, and surveys notable examples, some of which I have mentioned above.