The Reproduction of Anthropology

REVIEW : Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Homo Academicus. Paris : Les Éditions de Minuit. 317p.

 

Bourdieu is interested in this book by constructing a reflexive analysis of the reproduction of domination and of symbolic violence into the field of university. He based his analysis on empirical observation of the May 1968’s crisis and of 20 years of participation in the field. His exercise is then one of ‘objectification’ of the familiar, where his goal is to understand the symbolic class struggles of agents in the university (including himself; he wants to classify the classifier), determined by their habitus.

If his model is true, then who am I? Am I predicable, is my ‘destiny’ predestinated? Or is he trying to create a comprehensive system – with him at the center – of something intrinsically unknowable (here I don’t talk about the academia, but the reproduction of power)? Don’t get me wrong, his reflexive analysis and his attempt of objectifying empirical realities is impressive and contributes in great and diverse ways to the academic knowledge of academic praxis and of the reproduction of power and domination. However, if every agent is the product of its position in the field, at what extent Homo Academicus (1984) a product of his? It becomes quickly circular. This is the challenge of every research project when you do start by accepting the fact that every research project is the product of someone and is not just ‘out there’. My concern is not really about the veracity of his argument, but rather in the possibilities of application of his model (because this is what he is arguing for). Can everything fit into this web of significance that he is constructing, and at what extent? Can we transform every meaningful experiences and processes that one encounter in her life into an indicator? And where does conversations, reflections, friendship or trauma fits? How can we explain those who behave contrary to what they were supposed to? Can we even explain or objectify everything by creating complex concepts of it? Are there questions without answers? Those are few of the question marks that I’m left with after reading Bourdieu’s book.

Nevertheless, many concepts or analysis echoed with my embodied experience of navigating through academia. One of the most interesting to me, and at the same time conflicting, is the way he draws on the relation between individuals and structures. The important for him is not empirical individuals. The question is not ‘who’s who’ or who is the villain and who is the ‘good guy’ in the story. It is much more interesting to understand the structures of power and different relations that ties together epistemic agent, meaning the person characterized by their social position and role in the larger frame. That is why Homo Academicus is not the personal tale of Bourdieu’s path towards academia – although in some context that tale would have been interesting too. In that way, it removes agency as we know it from the individual, but also the responsibility and the idea of benevolence. Meaning that even if some individual have good will or good intention, it will still not be sufficient to change the shape of social relations of power in the field. That is powerful. It doesn’t mean that individual have no agency, but that we have to understand it as the range of potentialities of action inside a certain web of constraints and relations (that is, not much).

How does Homo Academicus relates to the production of knowledge in anthropology? Well, according to Bourdieu, a lot of what fuels the reproduction of the body and of symbolic power is based on aspirations, hopes and expectations. That is, the hope to gain or to maintain a certain position in the field. That implies that you vow a certain recognition to the institution; let’s say in this context to the discipline of anthropology itself, represented by a body of ‘professor emeritus’ and of great scholars. You will have to struggle in the field to gain the necessary cultural (or political) capital to be able to rise into the ranking list (calculated by quantitative indicator, like citation indexes, etc.). That means that teachers and scholars will potentially be incline to go for self-censorship, either in publications or while teaching. Like Bourdieu presented with the example of the May 1968’s crisis (chapter 4), to preserve the body of the field, sometimes it is necessary to enlarge it; but you have to do it while still conserving the body. Meaning, we want more student in anthropology, hence we will present it as an essential discipline who contributed greatly to society, but we can’t alter its content too much as to dissipate it. The result of that, is obligatory classes that are supposed to represent the core of the discipline that are focused on the ‘by-hearth’ learning of dead racist and evolutionist theorist (our great Fathers!), with still ‘cultural eras’ classes and (in some department, like at Université de Montréal) a mystic bow to the four disciplines (archeology, bio-anthropology, linguistics and ethnology). There is a weird relation between fundamentalism and modernism (exemplified by Bourdieu with the Picard vs. Barthes debate (149)), where just like in the liberal social contract one is expected to kill his Father, but then you are supposed to create a new contract with your ‘siblings’. This leads us to questioning the possibilities of critique inside the field; are the new scholar interested in ‘changing the system’ or to secure their own position? How could they secure a position in the field if there were no more field? “Il n’y a pas de maître sans maître”[1] (127), meaning that you couldn’t become great if no one greater was there to recognize (authorize) your position.

Do we really need anthropology? And if yes, why? Is the maintenance of anthropology as a discipline more important to empirical individual (to secure their position in the different fields of power and their jobs (or aspirational career)) or could it really be used or benefits to a greater good (and which) ?

Then again, to conserve the body, a lot of energy will be spent in rejecting bodies from it. The greater moment of purification will mostly happen in the first year of the BA in anthropology (what I am saying? The greater moment of purification happen before the end of high school. Quebec is the province in Canada with the highest rate of students leaving high school without a degree. The rate of student obtaining their high school degree by cohort is between 65 and 75%[2]). No question that University is an institution that is reproducing an ‘elite’. But on what motives are we ejecting student from the reproduction of the discipline anthropology? Bourdieu would say that we base our judgment not only on the contribution or the quality of the ideas of a student, but on the student as a “personne totale”[3], hence on his ethos and hexos. The reproduction of domination and symbolic violence is therefore not to be understood as a mechanic system supported by rational agents, but rather as “des agents socialisés qui, quoique biologiquement individués, sont dotés de dispositions transindividuelles, donc portés à engendrer des pratiques objectivement orchestrées et plus ou moins adaptées aux exigences objectives (…) »[4] (195-196). Meaning that the reproduction of domination is historically situated and reproduce the exclusion of certain types of bodies on axis of structural and systemic oppression such as sexism, racism, ableism and classism.

 

[1] « There is no master without a master », my own translation.

[2] « Diplomation et qualification au secondaire » In Statistiques : Ministère de l’éducation, de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche. Gouvernement du Québec, 2015. Accessed March 16th 2015: http://www.mels.gouv.qc.ca/references/statistiques/indicateurs-de-leducation/diplomation-et-qualification-au-secondaire/

[3] « total self/total person », my own translation.

[4] « (…) socialized agent, that may be biologically individuated, but that are possessing transindividual dispositions, hence, that are inclined to produce practices that are objectively orchestrated and more or less adapted to the objective requirement (…)”, my own translation.

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