Marks as an indicator of class? A critique of Bourdieu’s analysis of academic marking

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

When a student receives the label of “brilliant” on a submitted paper, what does this mean? Pierre Bourdieu, in his manuscript titled Homo Academicus, claims such forms of classification are ultimately societal – or social –, but “performed in the guise of an operation of academic classification, […] through a specifically academic taxonomy” (1988: 207). That is to say, they are labels that reproduce social class through a system of marking intended to separate the ‘high performers’ from the rest. Here, then, academia is said to classify individuals on the basis of their scholarly worth – worth reflected in one’s original social class.

Yet, Bourdieu also notes that higher education and academic success has the ability to move those from the lower into the upper class (52). This appears to contradict what is mentioned in the postscript regarding the parallels between academic and social classification. After all, surely it does not make much sense to state in one instant that higher education allows for social mobility, and in another that the same system reinforces social rigidity.

Here, attention must be given to Bourdieu’s method of study of the institution that is the university – a methodology common no doubt to sociology. A cursory examination of the manuscript reveals numerous tables, each with extensive legends and numbers. The statistics located therein summarize sample findings (obtained from the Annales the l’Université de Paris, Who’s Who, and inquiries to university professors (227-228)) and generalize them to all students and faculty within the university, obfuscating contradictions such as the one abovementioned. Thus, one sees a table complete with grades and social classes, and because of its organization, infers that those getting excellent marks with mentions mainly have fathers in senior administrative positions and/or medicine, whereas those whose fathers are carpenters or technicians have lower grades (203-204).

Lost in the table, however, are the stories of the students being graded. As class discussions, and Bourdieu’s allusion to arts and science professors who have worked their way up (52), have made quite clear, higher education provides a way ‘out’ of a particular lifestyle, such that the working class student may receive excellent marks and comments lauding their worth as a scholar. Similarly, the upper class student may perform poorly, finding no worth in the process of struggling through a course (for this student might have a great inheritance of sorts). Still others may not even care about class distinctions, and may truly be in the university because they believe in learning as a process – one that does not need to have implications for financial and class-based mobility later on. And, finally, some may have had parents who were academics, but whose grandparents had never gone to school – a characteristic of many first-generation children whose parents are university-educated – thus suggesting that the educational level and profession of the grandparent, or of someone other than one’s parents, might also play a role in the way one performs academically, and the type of commentary they receive from professors. Bourdieu’s sociological study of the university makes very little mention of this.

This contradiction in Bourdieu’s text suggests that if one is to do a (social) scientific study of higher education – be it an anthropology of anthropology, a sociology of sociology, or otherwise –, then methods in addition to archival research and interviews must be used. What, for instance, are the life histories of those arts and science professors, mentioned in passing, that were once lower class? What kinds of messages did these labels – many of which were probably along the lines of “excellent,” “great insight,” and the like – send to these professors? And what place does motivation have in all of this – rather than separate individuals based on class, might the university separate individuals, at least in part, on the basis of motivation? Once the economic factors have been eliminated such that one can enter the university (not an easy task for many), it seems the fact individuals, from different socioeconomic classes, occupy the same lecture halls and write the same exams, should bring a certain level of equality in the classroom, such that what one’s father does for a living has a lesser effect on one’s performance, and phenomena like motivation and engagement gain more importance. It would thus be interesting to see what other social scientific research methods reveal.

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