I’LL SHOW YOU MY EPISTEME IF YOU SHOW ME YOURS (OR EVEN IF YOU DON’T): A REVIEW OF BOURDIEU’S HOMO ACADEMICUS

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

In his book on the constitution of French academia as it was revealed in the epistemic space opened up by the crisis of May 1968, which challenged the previously unquestioned “correspondence between the objective structures and personal internalized structures” (or doxa, p.182), Bourdieu offers us an account which is at once empirical, theoretical, and methodological. It is empirical in that it is a detailed analysis of the specific historical and structural conditions leading up to the crisis, which are particular to the French university. It makes a theoretical claim that the structural relations made salient by his analysis have generalizable principles – about temporal and scientific power, their relation to knowledge production, and the dynamics of institutional reproduction – which hold true across instances (other universities in other times). The theoretical bleeds into the methodological as Bourdieu must import the core principle of his analysis – that no situation is reducible “either to the structural forces of the field or to individual dispositions” (p.150) but is conditioned by the agents’ contingent position within “rival principles of hierarchization” (p.11) which operate in any field – into his own scientific project. In other words, Bourdieu’s critique of the tacit political determinations of academic life and of the lack of reflexivity about its knowledge production is at once a topical exposé and a methodological demonstration. His book, then, is as much about objectifying the structural relations effective in the French academic field in the late ’60s (and of the changes it was undergoing) so as to extract, beyond its empirical specificities, its relational principles, as it is about objectifying the process of objectification itself, thereby rendering visible “the operation of construction of the object” (p.7).

Most of Bourdieu’s analysis is channeled through the discursive opposition between poles – between “scientific” and “ordinary” knowledge (ch.1), between political power and cultural prestige, between academic (institutional) power and scientific (oriented towards research) power, between orthodoxy and heresy – with the occasional reminder that actual relations are in fact progressively distributed between them (see, e.g., p.181). The important distinction of which this caveat reminds us is the one found between what Bourdieu calls epistemic space – constructed by the researcher, with finite properties selected for the purpose of scientific analysis – and empirical space, which contains the real objects the constructions are meant to represent. Bourdieu’s critique here is not of the epistemic reductions of scientific investigation themselves – which provide both rigor and transparency – but of the manner in which they can be mistakenly transposed to the empirical domain. In the social sciences – which navigate between common criteria of the social world and “scholarly” one’s of scientific research – this confusion can be particularly problematic. The epistemic construction, by selecting a finite set of properties, creates the conditions for epistemic clarity. The object constructed therein “contains nothing evading conceptualization,” a “self-transparency [that] is the corollary of reduction” (p.23). When the carefully objectified constructions of scientific deliberation are mixed in with the “ordinary” knowledge of empirical common sense, the result is a space of “partial objectification” (p.4) leading to “semi-scholarly taxonomies” (p.12), reductive subjectivist interpretations, or generalized and unexamined anthropomorphized collective categories (pp.149-150).

A key problem which this relation between scientific and ordinary knowledge uncovers – and one that is inherent to the academic field – is that the epistemic work of construing categories of understanding, a contingent and arbitrary process in and of itself, acquires objective reality in its institutionalized form, which becomes the ground for “the classificatory strategies through which the agents aim to preserve the space” (p.18). In other words, there is always a naturalized pre-condition to both political contest and knowledge production which is itself the result of tacit, unexamined epistemic work. In the case of knowledge, Bourdieu’s solution is to objectify objectification. In the case of “politics,” it is to examine the structural pre-conditions which affect the field of power one must negotiate from a given position within the field, and the aggregate of habits and embodied pre-disposition which one is socialized into from their respective positions (“habitus” and “hexis,” respectively). Where purportedly detached scientific knowledge mixes with politics – which is the structural given of the academic field, and the particular terrain of the social sciences – Bourdieu will “choose systematic circumlocution” and opt for “synoptic” and “epistemically polyonomous” concepts – i.e., incorporate in the act of classification and nomination both the “system of relations which characterizes it objectively,” and the competing viewpoints (p.27). In other words, he will disengage from the symbolic struggle for nomination – the struggle for the legitimacy provided by having one’s viewpoint naturalized and one’s epistemic designations misconstrued as empirical ones – knowing full well that both “practical knowledge of the social world” and “symbolic competition . . . obey . . . a reductionist tendency” (p.14), through the coherence reached for in alliances across domains as well as through the polarizing divisions effected by opposition which “cuts into the vagueness of relations” (p.181).

Bourdieu’s overarching analytical point is that there is no purely deterministic structural mechanism nor individual willful calculation and manipulation of circumstance, but an aggregate of embodied socialized habits (habitus) implicitly working towards the safeguard of the respective fields on which their reproduction depends. As already explained, the contest takes place both on the overt grounds of the pre-existing field, and in the epistemic work which constructs the objective ground on which the contest takes place. The orchestration is emergent – i.e., a pattern that is enacted within a particular set of historical and relational contingencies. The subtle yet crucial distinction which Bourdieu labors at throughout the book – one situated somewhere between, and in the marriage of, structuralism and constructivism (p.xiv) – is one which has grown out of the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge – later dubbed Science and Technologies Studies – and Feminist scholarship, who, in their dedication to mapping out both the material and discursive contingent conditions of possibilities behind normative claims and their effects, have argued that it is not only knowledge that is socially constructed, but the facts themselves (Roosth and Silbey 2009; Law 2009), leading to a gradual move from epistemology to ontology (see Mol 2013; cf. Bessire and Bond 2014; Weinberg 2009 traces a genealogy of this thought back to Garfinkel and his ethnomethodological colleagues (p.295, footnote 2)).

Whatever side one chooses in that particular discussion – a debate which does sometimes resonates with Bourdieu’s “symbolic struggle of nomination” – the ultimate point is that the epistemic work performed tacitly within academia is more than an epiphenomenon to the material conditions of our lives, but has an objective existence with real political import. Careful objectification, epistemological vigilance, attention to the interests inherent in one’s own structural position, and the desire to produce a science valuable for its renunciation of “social benefits” (Bourdieu 1988, p.16) are certainly all powerful strategies towards decolonizing social sciences. However, as Bourdieu makes clear, producing objective knowledge about power – by highlighting the doxic nature of another’s epistemic viewpoint – is itself a form of power, and one inevitably situated in competing fields of interest. In the end, whether one chooses – as an anthropologist, since that is the central object of this seminar – to defuse the political charge of scholarly intervention by objectifying the conditions of its production, or to accept its potential potency and take the ethical leap of faith by putting it squarely in the political field (and hopefully in the “right” place), is perhaps a question that is best left without a systematic answer – as long as one remains attuned to the constitutive effects of both those interventions and the temporal power they contribute to reproducing.

Work Cited

Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique: Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41 (3): 440–56.

Law, John. 2009. “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” In Bryan S. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Sociological Theory. Blackwell Publishing.

Mol, A. 2013. “Mind Your Plate! The Ontonorms of Dutch Dieting.” Social Studies of Science 43 (3): 379–96.

Roosth, Sophia, and Susan Silbey. 2009. “Science and Technology Studies: From Controversies to Posthumanist Social Theory.” In Bryan S. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Sociological Theory. Blackwell Publishing.

Weinberg, Darin. 2009. “Social Constructionism.” In Bryan S. Turner (ed.), The New Blackwell Companion to Sociological Theory. Blackwell Publishing.

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