PARADOXICAL PRAXIS: MOBILIZING SOCIOLOGICAL OBSCURITY AGAINST OBSCURE SOCIOLOGY

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

 

The lector, a young and impressionable acolyte for Academia, tries to claim innocence. He is no political actor, because he has so little power. He holds just a little capital; he is a tiny cog in a vast machine (116). But in French academia, Bourdieu shows us, there is none righteous. No, not one. Academia is a system of power, where knowledge and information are exchanged as currency, and the precious, privileged few defend their positions against encroaching hordes. The beauty of Homo Academicus is the paradoxical nature of its composition- mobilizing sociological analysis against sociology itself, using opaque language against opaque thinkers and speaking from a position of social privilege to alleviate the inequality from which Bourdieu himself profits.
Before exploring the theoretical content of Homo Academicus, it is fitting to invest a few lines on his prose. It is no secret that Bourdieu writes in extremely dense and obscure language, even when describing concepts that seem to be fairly straightforward. The effect is, to say the least, alienating. Some pages seem, on the first reading, unintelligible. However, no writer adopts a style so intricate and unique without a reason. Is he writing that way to exclude readers who cannot follow the prose? Perhaps quite the opposite. Reviewer Donald Fisher opines that the paragraph-sentences that characterize the book may actually represent “self-conscious attempts to explicate every side of each complicated social relation as thoroughly as possible.” (Fisher 11)
Whether intentional or not, Bourdieu’s writing undoubtedly contains a certain democratic affect. After all, when he invests 1,000 words in a definition, it is typically because of frequent detours to thoroughly explain tangential concepts to the matter at hand. Read generously, this is no obscurity, so much as it is inelegant democracy. The concepts that make up this book are laid bare in all their ugly, inefficient totality- requiring a great deal of time, but no particular specialized knowledge to unpack. Democracy is very much an issue of concern in Homo Academicus, after all. The text concerns the years 1967-1971, which saw monumental changes in the face of French academia, following the demonstrations of the Spring of ’68. What is unclear, at first, is whether the author sees the increasing accessibility of higher education as a step forward or not. After all, he is unambiguously critical of the closed-off nature of academic departments, but he registers little, if any, pleasure at the thought of greatly-increased enrollment in the institutions he studies.
In a book themed so heavily on critique, one may attempt to find a protagonist of the narrative. He has a great deal of scorn reserved for the entrenched department heads and administrators who are concerned mostly with the defense of their discipline against outside influence. However, the young lecturers at the bottom of the department are also culpable for the sins of academia to Bourdieu. The student demonstrators of 1968 onward escape any lionization at the author’s hands- being classed instead as conscious and calculating political actors. The refusal to elevate one party above the others, or attach some moral superiority to one party demonstrates an admirable distance from the events, especially given Bourdieu’s position in the midst of the system he describes. We can ask, then- what does Bourdieu seem to value in academia?
The actual instruction of students plays a very small role in the narrative of Homo Academicus. That age-old question, what is it to do academia, is very much at issue, and unfortunately there is no clear answer here. Bourdieu classifies academics as primarily either researchers or administrators- one concerned with producing knowledge, one concerned with the internal functioning of the department. However, this dichotomy exists within a larger dichotomy- that of social versus scientific departments. These oppositional pairings are almost definitely a residue of Claude Levi-Strauss’ work, and perhaps part of the effort to make ‘familiar’ occupations such as professor, into ‘exotic’ social roles by classifying Frenchmen as though they were remote tribesmen in the tristes tropiques.
Deprived of a definition of doing academia, Bourdieu instead demonstrates what it is to do sociology. He writes that the social sciences and the arts are situated between the two poles of society and science, and therefore in a privileged position to observe and describe the others. Seizing on this mandate, Bourdie mobilizes the specialized ways of knowing and producing knowledge that make sociology unique. The book features numerous charts and graphs, documenting and indexing the members of the French academic elite. There is a special emphasis on family backgrounds and economic class, garnered both from personal research and survey data, then codified for the reader in expansive visual representations.
Within this analysis of academics as a social class, Bourdieu is mostly focused on the way that academic knowledge is reproduced. Reproduction, he says, is the seat of the old guard’s power because they command the resources of hiring and promotion. In this way, the knowledge of a department is defended against heretical outside information. Simultaneously, the knowledge produced within a department is artificially increased in value because the means of its production are kept obscure and inaccessible to the general public.
Obscurity itself is a resource in the University, and Bourdieu mobilizes it for his own study. That is to say, the application of privileged knowledge and ways of forming knowledge are applied to de-mystify the inherently mystical inner workings of a University department. In the English edition’s 344 pages, there are some 20 charts, graphs and classifications all of which are presented without comment as to how they were created, and in a way that would be largely incomprehensible to an uninitiated reader. This is the moment where Bourdieu brings to bear his own expertise and the specialized machinery of his department in order to bring it into the daylight. The tables and charts show fairly innocuous data- fathers’ occupations, average years in a given position, sources of capital etc. but it is the act of exposing that is performative here. Bourdieu harnesses his own position of authority in the field of sociology, to strip away from himself and his colleagues the very source of that authority- the opaque obscurity of a closed and entrenched University. To Bourdieu, this is his function as a sociologist between the social and scientific worlds of the University- in the world but not of it.

References:
Fisher, Donald. (1990). “Reviewed Work: Homo Academicus”. The Journal of Higher Education 61(5): 581-591.

 

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