Pierre Bourdieu and the 2012 Quebec Student Strike: the limitations of theory and its pessimistic lessons

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

For Bourdieu, the university is a symbol of higher education, representing both a social and a symbolic field which can be analyzed to demonstrate not only the mechanisms that govern the relationships between administration, students, faculty, and other actors and strictures that are in some form linked with the university, but also the operation of institutional processes within the university that contribute to the perpetuation of the dominant social order.

One feature of such analysis, according to Bourdieu, demonstrates how the position of a particular actor (a senior faculty member, for instance) within the hierarchy of the academic field determines his or her position in relation to not only the problems within the university, but also in relation to larger political events and issues that define the political landscape of a society. In the case of the May 68 crisis, Bourdieu argues that the affect of inflation in education helped to produce a class of junior teachers and lecturers, who were not able to get tenured full time professorial positions, as well as a class of disillusioned students, who were unable to get jobs promised to them because of the depreciating value of their university degree. Being situated at the bottom of the academic order, these two groups together formed a dissenting movement that sought to not only question this form of academic practice, but also, by threatening to leave the academic rat race, undervalued faculty and students sought to establish alternative goals that would “more or less completely redefine the game and the moves which permit one to win it” (p. 172). On the other hand, the full-time professors, being positioned in the upper echelons of the academic establishment, were more interested in upholding the status quo because they recognized that any disturbance of the system could potentially threaten their investment in the profession with which they identified, forcing them to lose the symbolic and economic privileges that their profession provided.

For Bourdieu, the university also represents an apparatus that redistributes forms of symbolical capital among multiple classes of a society. The assignment of grades, for instance, functions as a mechanism for redistributing forms of symbolic capital, triggering a sequence of events that can eventually influence how a particular actor is positioned socially and economically within the hierarchy of the social order. Drawing on this vision of education, Bourdieu argues that even though greater accessibility to higher education provided more formal opportunities to learn for more people, the social order was left relatively undisturbed because the educational mechanisms that contributed to shaping the composition of class society in France were more or less left unchanged. Even though this form of educational practice still produced so-called “lucky survivors”, who received the employment positions they anticipated upon the completion of their degree, Bourdieu argues that such instances of achievement constitute “a form of symbolic remuneration, comparable to a nominal rise in salary in a period of inflation” (p. 167). Bourdieu also recognizes that there are students who do not acknowledge, because of the market mechanisms that by a form of disguise uphold the symbolic value of university degrees, the diminished worth of their education and their marginal status within the dominant social order. The inability to acknowledge the injustice of inflationary schemes produced by the educational apparatus on behalf of students, according to Bourdieu, not only creates “fantasized alliances between agents holding different positions in social and academic space” at the moment of crisis, but can also “help to create partly orchestrated reactions to the crisis”, which would mask the urgency of a political moment (p. 164).

Nonetheless, Bourdieu’s argument suggests that there are certain historic conditions in place within the structure of the university that contradict the production practices of the educational establishment, generating forms of crisis that position the majority of dissenting actors in opposition to the minority that seeks to maintain the status quo. For Bourdieu, the emergence of crisis within the structure of the university occurs as a result of changes to the rules of participation. These transformations also redefine and bring into question the self-interested purpose of pursuing higher education. In other words, Bourdieu anticipates the occurrence of the crisis by assuming that the subjugated class will recognize the injustice of the new conditions produced by the university. The word ‘contradiction’ in Bourdieu’s analysis of the circumstances required for the occurrence of the crisis signals a form of imminent inevitability of class struggle within the setting of the university. Again, Bourdieu acknowledges that not all students would participate in such struggle, however his analysis suggests that the participation of students is unavoidable. The question is: to what extent? For instance, during the 2012 Quebec student strike, a conflict sparked by proposed tuition increases, student participation varied sharply between anglophone and francophone institutions. According to Bégin-Caouettea & Jones (2014), by March 22nd, 2012, among anglophone institutions in Quebec only eight departments at McGill and six departments at Concordia chose to go on strike, and few of these departments sustained a strike mandate over the course of the crisis (p. 417). Drawing on Bourdieu’s analysis, the question is: in comparison to francophone students, are anglophone students in Quebec somehow more easily susceptible to the disguise of market mechanisms that uphold the symbolic value of their degree, and for which the majority of anglophone students seem willing to pay higher tuition? Bégin-Caouettea & Jones (2014) argue that in Quebec there is a long history of francophone student movements, which since the Quiet Revolution fought for “democratic access to education, autonomy of institutions, secularism and regional representation” (p. 415).

My intention here is to draw attention to the significance of how historical context can shape actors’ approach and reaction to a particular crisis, as well as his or her conception of injustice and perception of self-interest. In other words, despite changes to the rules of participation within the academic space, which can subjugate subordinated actors even further, the historical context responsible for shaping actors’ conception of value, justice, and being can be responsible for creating conditions at the moment of crisis that not only diminish the expression and form of dissent, but also challenge the perception of an event as an occurrence of injustice. Bourdieu’s analysis suggests that the hierarchy of subjugation within the space of the university is more or less evident, which permits him to anticipate, at the moment when unfavorable changes become implemented, the contradictions within the system that will eventually lead to a crisis. He argues against a teleological vision of history while maintaining that there are certain conditions in place that make the university an increasingly politically unstable, and therefore revolutionary, space where at the moment of crisis all emancipatory future visions appear possible.

The pessimistic lesson of the 2012 Quebec student strike, however, suggests that certain historical conditions can reinforce the confines of the existing social order and diminish the revolutionary potential of the university during a moment of crisis. Drawing on my own experience of the 2012 Quebec student strike and the article by Bégin-Caouettea & Jones, I argue that historical particularity can complicate the self-evident hierarchy within the space of educational institution, which potentially can even prevent a full-scale crisis from occurring when the interests of subjugated classes are challenged.


Bégin-Caouettea, O., & Jones, G. A. (2014). Student organizations in Canada and Quebec’s ‘Maple Spring’. Studies in Higher Education, 39 (3), 412-425.


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