Re-thinking the complexities of ‘culture’: what might we learn from Bourdieu?

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In this paper we continue an ongoing dialogue that has as its goal the critical appraisal of theoretical perspectives on culture and health, in an effort to move forward scholarship on culture and health. We draw upon a programme of scholarship to explicate theoretical tensions and challenges that are manifest in the discourses on culture and health and to explore the possibilities Bourdieu's theoretical perspective offers for reconciling them. That is, we hope to demonstrate the need to move beyond descriptions ‘of’ culture to an understanding of cultures as dynamic, and to show ways cultural practices create contexts that have the potential to foster or impede health.In our early research, largely undertaken in Canada's multicultural context, we sought to make visible the ways in which culture shaped conceptions of health and influenced health practices of immigrant groups. In recent years this focus has expanded to include populations that reflect the cultural and social diversity of our region. From the outset we attempted to move towards a conception of culture as negotiated, unifying, transformative and dynamic. While this position continues to hold appeal we are continually reminded that, despite our leanings towards constructivism, there is salience to the notion of culture as having enduring elements. It is this tension between the view of culture as embodied and enduring and culture as constructed and dynamic that we seek to examine.We explore whether Bourdieu's theoretical perspective offers promise for reconciling these apparently competing views. Using exemplars from our research we share insights that Bourdieu's work has offered to our analyses, thereby enabling us to move towards a view of culture that holds in tension these apparently contradictory positions of culture as both essence (albeit unstable, negotiated) and constructed.

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