Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Objectifying the Academic Object.

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

Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus is an ethnological and sociological “analysis of the academic world” (xi). Inspired by the “political positions or trade-union affiliations” held among France’s academics during the events of May 1968, a period of social and academic unrest, Bourdieu contextualizes his theoretical investigation of the academic world and demonstrates that the opinions and stances adopted by academics during this period correspond to “the interests directly associated with their position in the academic field” (xvii-xviii). At first glance, Bourdieu’s work appears to be a theoretical review of a specific historical moment and period of academic transformation. However, as the students of the ANTH 630 seminar realized, Bourdieu’s “structuralist and constructivist” approach towards the study of the academic and their position in the university field, which affords them “the propensity to theorize or intellectualize”, addresses the core concerns of the seminar and is applicable to the contemporary university institution and standards of knowledge production within the discipline of anthropology (xiii-xiv). The book’s inspiration and approach towards the study the university field, which is intimately bound to the construction of academic habitus, encourages the critical reflection of scholars and reveals that the supposed objective qualities of academic discourse is not impartial, but the by-product of an academic’s conformity to university norms and their position in the university’s hierarchy (29). Bourdieu’s work discloses the “relation between power and knowledge” and is an opportunity for anthropologists, and other academics, to question how different scholars, methods of research and intellectual perspectives are endorsed and invalidated by the mechanisms of power located throughout the microcosm of the university’s social structure (Fisher 591; Bourdieu 104-105).

Within his work, Bourdieu presents the academic to readers as an object, in order to emphasize that an academic’s authority and claims to objectivity are not the inherent qualities of an individual, but the result of constructed and academically sanctioned properties that characterize the scholar and the scholar’s position in the structured space of the university field (19-24). The university field, which is hierarchically organized, is the by-product of positions of power, or academic capital and prestige, which are “obtained and maintained by holding a position enabling domination of other positions and their holders” (84). In addition, this academic power is maintained by rigorous “selection and indoctrination” processes (40-41). These processes or stages of succession include completing the sequences of career related achievements, such as the thesis and publication, which affords the academic credibility and access to more prestigious positions within the academy (88). These processes also include, and in most cases require, an ambitious scholar to seek a supervisor throughout their academic career (94). This relationship, familiar to all aspiring graduate students, establishes “relations of dependency” and reinforces the academic power and authority of the supervisor (90-95).

The powerful supervisor, who monitors the progress of their student, and ensures that their student respects the university field’s “order of succession”, has the power to suspend or license their student’s academic work, career and reputation as a legitimate scholar (84-87). In order for a student to progress within academia and obtain their own academic capital, the student respects the hierarchical order of the university and conforms and adopts the sanctioned properties, or characteristics, of their supervisor and other established academics within their field. The properties that the aspiring academic adopts are summarized by Bourdieu through the concept of habitus; “a system of shared social dispositions and cognitive structures which generates perceptions, appreciations and actions” (279). This system, which students and professors maintain by conforming to the established habitus and associating academic capital to positions within the university, reinforces the structural power dynamics of the university field (91-95).

These examples of power relations found within the university field are only a portion of the structural patterns presented by the theorist. However, seeking a supervisor and successfully completing academic career criteria, in order to accumulate academic capital and be recognized as a legitimate scholar, is a familiar and accepted process among scholars and should be critically considered. For a reader who has already invested into the academy, and unconsciously, as Bourdieu argues, adopted the habitus of the university field, the aforementioned academic career processes clearly explains how power and conformity shape and legitimize an academic’s career and distinguished position within the university (91). Most importantly, this dynamic directly influences the production of knowledge, which is the central concern of Bourdieu’s investigation and attempt to stop scholarly knowledge from being “an instrument of power” (16).

The power structure of the university field and the adoption of the habitus of “the academic order which has produced” and legitimized a conforming scholar negatively impacts the production of knowledge (116). The hierarchical power structure of the university field and the temporal qualities of an academic’s career has the potential to impede research, as a scholar must gain academic capital in order to acquire the right to engage in types of research and disseminate data to the academic community (104-105). In addition, the adoption of academic habitus diminishes the potential to develop alternative research methods and perspectives, as the scholar is conforming to the properties and standards of already established academics (104). The power dynamics of the university field determine who can be recognized as a legitimate scholar and what constitutes valid research (104-105). Bourdieu’s work reveals that the standards of academic objectivity, which are associated to the scholar and their discourse, is not objective, but subjectively constructed by the mechanisms of power and conformity that exist within the university (29).

Bourdieu does not provide readers with a method of manoeuvring or resolving the power dynamics of the university. However, as Bourdieu aims to “exoticize the domestic”, meaning that the theorist wants academics to critically engage and understand the academic world they currently inhabit, he provides readers with the opportunity to consciously question what motivates their research questions, methods and conclusions (xi). For the graduates of the ANTH 630 seminar, Bourdieu’s work made it possible to review how power and conformity within the university field influences the production of anthropological knowledge. By reflecting, for example on university grades, it became clear that anthropology students learn the standards of their discipline through the evaluations of their professors, who have adopted the field’s habitus (201). Early indoctrination, and the steps towards obtaining academic capital, which require conformity to the field’s properties, informs how an anthropologist conceptualizes of the discipline and the type of field research and interpretations that qualify as appropriate anthropological research (40-41). Realizing that anthropological authority and authorship are influenced by positions of power and conformity upsettingly indicates that new methodological and theoretical perspectives are potentially being suppressed and that innovative developments within the discipline are being hindered. Additionally, the knowledge that power dictates an anthropologist’s scholarships suggests that anthropological field observations and theoretical interpretations may be inaccurate, conservative or biased.

Bourdieu’s work is an example of academic “intervention” as it encourages scholars to reflect on their current position within the university field and review what processes or standards inform their research (Wacquant 2). Bourdieu’s work has the potential to inspire radical changes regarding academic standards and research. However, academics must honestly reflect on their position of power, what constitutes the standard for academic research, who can participate in the production of this knowledge and by whom this knowledge is validated.

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

Wacquant, Loïc J.D. “For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On “Homo Academicus”. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 34: 1-29.


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