The Big Shiny Mirror That Bourdieu is Holding Up to Academia, Sociology, Himself and All Of Us

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

Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the world of French academia doubles as a rigorous sociological study of sociology itself.  It can also be seen as a sociology of intellectuals (Wacquant 1989, 4-5), as Bourdieu deals with the human aspects of the inner-workings of academia.  At first glimpse it may seem that an irony lies in Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus.  This irony is mainly due to the fact that a prominent sociologist would even aspire to write such a brutal critique of not only the field of sociology but also its place within academia, the students who choose to study it, and the people who get jobs teaching it.  Indeed, in an interview with Loic Wacquant, Bourdieu admits to having written things that were even harsher, which he eventually threw out for fear of creating room for a regression within the field of sociology toward an even more negative purpose (1989: 4).  Further, in Douglas Fischer’s review of the text he argues that Bourdieu’s criticisms of academia come from a place very close to his heart, as he himself was from a humble background and felt he owed his education and subsequent successes as a teacher to the very system he is criticising in the book (1990: 581-591).  Thus, it can safely be said that Bourdieu’s motives for engaging in such a project were noble.   Bourdieu is concerned with sociology’s objectification of others based on “self-interested vision of the social world” (Wacquant 1989: 4) through the façade of scientific study.  His arguments that are often so deeply critical of the new arts disciplines hone in on sociology, but are of course reflective of the state of anthropology as a discipline as well.

However, regardless of Bourdieu’s purpose for writing such criticisms, as a student of anthropology they proved difficult to read for there are many times throughout the text where one can’t help but to begin to question what would be the point of studying in a field that is seemingly doomed to begin with.  Furthermore, Bourdieu is quite clear about the destiny of many of those who wish to teach sociology (of course this would apply to anthropology as well), when he says that they would inevitably be headed toward a “mutilated career” (173), while simultaneously being “liable to resentment” (170).  In reading this, it is difficult not to at least slightly resent Bourdieu himself for being so pessimistic about the state of academia.  Then again, perhaps his negativity regarding the academic institution serves well as a cautionary tale, and should be regarded as such instead of simply an act of extreme pessimism.  Although at time somewhat cynical, Bourdieu’s critique also manages to effectively capture the reality of the state of academia, not only important in France some thirty years ago when the book was written, but also pertinent to the state of academia in today’s North American institutions.

Bourdieu uses reflexivity as a tool; a means to take back individual responsibility within academia.  His critique of the institution, and of sociology itself is highly reflexive and thus Homo Academicus could be seen as a mirror in which Bourdieu is looking not only upon the dire state of the institution but also at himself and at sociology as a discipline.  Both humbling and at times somewhat frightening, Bourdieu examines power structures and social factors that are intrinsically linked yet are also simultaneously engaged in an eternal struggle.  These entanglements are perhaps best captured in the chapter on Types of Capital and Forms of Power, where Bourdieu analyses the ways in which academia (specifically the arts and social sciences) are based around oppositions between specific types of power relations.  These inequalities that result in certain people having much more power than others are created through social factors such as inherited capital (79) and cultural capital that affect one’s ability to achieve social success, and thus create relationships of dominance and subordination (83).  Bourdieu also shifts his focus onto the professors, and argues that success as a professor is related not only to power and status but also the ability to engage in ritual practices that serve to further ensure one’s success.  Such rituals are costly in terms of time sacrifices, where professors who wish to attain success must attend meetings, ceremonies, etcetera, in order to collect “symbolic capital” that serves to prove what Bourdieu refers to as “academic worthiness” (96).  This obviously isn’t possible for just anyone, as many people simply do not have the time or money to attend such events or prescribe fully to the ritual practices involved in the pursuit of successful professorships.

As a final point, it is profoundly interesting that in the postscript Bourdieu looks at grading criteria and provides examples to argue that social factors such as one’s background, where a student grew up, his or her parents’ level of education, and even the way students speak and present themselves physically can affect the way they are judged academically.  In essence, this reads as though if a person is poor, or thought to be unattractive, or from a family that has a lower level of academic capital, he or she is essentially immediately judged far more harshly and thus stands a much lower chance of achieving academic success than a peer whose parents are of a more prominent background in society.  Even more discouraging is Bourdieu’s argument that, in fact, probably professors do not realize they are judging, and thus grading, their students based on such superficial criteria, “because they believe they are making a strictly academic judgement […] the social judgement […] is masked (207).  In light of Bourdieu’s argument that the social judgements that affect grading are not explicit, but rather seem to be subconscious, I’d like to err on the side of caution here in a last-ditch feeble attempt to get a good grade on this and conclude by lying to you and saying that my entire family is highly educated, wealthy, from a prominent background (whatever that may be), and lastly that I am a supermodel.

References:

Fischer, Douglas.  Reviewed Work: Homo Academicus, by Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Collier.  The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 61, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1990), pp. 581-591. Published by: Ohio State University Press. Stable URL: http://0-www.jstor.org.mercury.concordia.ca/stable/1981978

Loic, Wacquant.  For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On “Homo Academicus”. Berkeley Journal of SociologyVol. 34, Symposium on the Foundations of Radical Social Science (1989), pp. 1-29

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