Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Commentary on Chapter 2

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. [2, The Conflict of the Faculties, pp. 36-72]

In this second chapter of Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that political inclination is dependent upon one’s position in the academic field, and not vice versa. Distinguishing between three hierarchically arranged fields of power, he places the academic field in a middling position between the political and social fields. He posits a hierarchy of the faculties, in which those at the top are closer to political power. Bourdieu supports his argument using empirical data gathered through publicly available sources, presented in tabular form.

University professors, Bourdieu argues, are subordinate in the field of power to managers of industry and business, but are nonetheless “holders of an institutionalized form of cultural capital,” and therefore culturally dominant with respect to writers and artists (36). These academics, especially those at the top of the social hierarchy, present higher percentages of “indices of social integration and respectability” (36-37). Bourdieu claims that “the structure of the university field reflects the structure of the field of power, while its activity contributes to the reproduction of that structure.” (40-41) Thus, university professors have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The degree to which they do is dependent upon their position within that field.

According to Bourdieu, two antagonistic principles of hierarchization are at play in the university field: “the social hierarchy, corresponding to capital inherited and economic and political capital actually held, is in opposition to the specific, properly cultural hierarchy, corresponding to the capital of scientific authority and intellectual renown” (48). Bourdieu holds that the first of these “becomes increasingly dominant as we ascend […] the hierarchy extending from the science faculties to the faculties of law or medicine” and that the latter, “which is founded on the autonomy of the scientific and intellectual order” (48), increases in the opposite direction. At this end of the spectrum, individuals tend to display a “rejection of everything which enforces respect for the status quo” (51).

Bourdieu also discusses how the university field reproduces itself. Specific mechanisms ensure the integrity of the institution, including nepotism (56) and “co-optation techniques” that “always aim to select ‘the [successful] man’ , who is envisaged differently according to different practitioners (58).

Borrowing from Kant, Bourdieu names the ‘higher faculties’: theology, medicine and law, which are claimed to be those “most directly controlled by the government” and which “train agents to be able to practice without questioning” (62). These practitioners, whose roles in society are regarded as providing essential services which must be dispensed in a uniform manner, are endowed with a “technical competence guaranteed by laws” (63), from which it follows that their behaviour must follow a certain standard, and is thus not open to debate. The stark contrast between these practitioners and those at the opposite end of the spectrum, the so-called “intellectuals”, stems from the fact that “a body of ‘authorities’ cannot present itself in a state of disarray, as intellectuals may, without compromising its capital of authority” (65). As a result, these ‘experts’, in order to maintain their authority, must reproduce it. They represent, “knowledge in the service of order and power” (68) , as opposed to those in the science and especially the arts faculties, who stand for “knowledge confronting order and power” (69).

What is most fascinating about Bourdieu’s analysis is that it reveals that the higher one’s position in the field of academic power, the greater the conformity required. The type of training required of doctors and jurists appears to be a type of brainwashing, where the “best practices”, as taught, are to be accepted without question. This calls into question the notion of academic freedom and integrity, and causes one to wonder whether authoritative figures can really be trusted, given that they are embroiled in the game of politics. The fact that the function of the training of the “right wing of the parliament of knowledge” (Kant, quoted in Bourdieu, 63) is to produce “agents able to put into practice without questioning or doubting” (63) is also telling of the arrogance often encountered by patients in the offices of clinicians, who dispense medical and non-medical advice as if it were indisputable law.

We are reminded of the recent scandal, discussed in class, involving a professor at Concordia University, whose research claimed that asbestos was not a hazard to human health and that any claims to the contrary were based on “strongly held feelings”1 . This occurred at a Centre dubbed “The Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research”. A perusal of the webpage of that institution reveals that its “ultimate goal is to strengthen exchanges between industry and academia”2, which leads one to suspect that it is in fact a mouthpiece for industry to assuage the public of any concerns they may have regarding companies’ products or practices. As discussed in class, having recognized the weight and symbolic value attached to science, these business-people recruit researchers and adopt “scientistic language” in order to “block questioning and criticism” and “disguise the pathways to power”. Not dissimilarly, GMO lobbyists have recruited academics to publish and publicly emphasize the safety of GMO products 3.

As was discussed in class, public visibility and being answerable to the media often comes at the cost of academic freedom. We should only hope that the left wing of the parliament of knowledge, the “opposition audience” described by Kant in the chapter’s introductory quotation, and, according to Bourdieu, consisting of we in the arts faculties, should actively voice their “severe scrutiny and objections”(36), and that these should be heard.

1 http://montrealgazette.com/news/concordia-to-review-asbestos-report
2 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html?_r=0

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3 thoughts on “Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Commentary on Chapter 2

  1. I think he would also argue that conformity can be found among intellectuals farthest removed from the pole of economic and political power (i.e., the “arts faculties”). All are complicit in the game of accumulating cultural capital.

  2. Pingback: Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus | Learning Change

  3. Very interesting – although, one would still need to conform within the context of an area of academia that is one of those areas further removed from the establishment, for example, a philosophy or sociology faculty.

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