Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, Commentary on the Preface and Chapter 1

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. [Preface to the English Edition, pp. xi-xxvi] & [Chapter 1, A ‘Book for Burning’?, pp. 1-35]

In the “Preface to the English Edition” of his work Homo Academicus, Bourdieu makes a brief but compelling case for the necessary use of critical self reflection on the part of academics. What his book attempts to do, he explains, is help shed light on “what is entailed by the fact of belonging to the academic field” and in doing so to aid the researcher to recognize and neutralize the “probabilities of error which are inherent in a position, understood as a certain angle of vision, hence a particular form of insight and blindness” as well as to “reveal the social foundations of the propensity to theorize… to withdraw from the game in order to conceptualize it” (1988:xiii). He argues that scientists must acknowledge that they are themselves within the world and its structures, and that these structures influence the acceptance or rejection of certain representations of the social world (xiv). However, Bourdieu contrasts his position with that of certain (unnamed) postmodernists by suggesting that the recognition of a scientist’s position within social structures and the biases and interests which accompany these positions should not lead to a rejection of science or objectivity. Rather than lending itself to the abandonment of scientific projects and explanations, a scientist can “study the historical conditions of his own production” thereby “reinforcing his capacity for objectification” (xii).

In the first chapter of Homo Academicus, Bourdieu begins his project of turning scientific scrutiny back on the producers of scientific knowledge by detailing the ways both research, researcher, and academic rhetoric are constructed. He also points out the ways science is used irresponsibly to hide conflicting interests and violence (1988:25), allow misunderstandings (21), and deflect doubt about one’s work (31). All providing further support for Bourdieu’s claims of reflexivity being “the principal weapon of epistemological vigilance” (15). Scientists must resist the urge to hide behind scientific procedures and jargon, “to offer oneself as a referee or judge, to negate oneself as subject involved in the field… with the irreproachable appearance of an objective, transcendent subject” (6). Scientists must be diligent and responsible, since the work they produce holds much power. As Bourdieu explains, “In the struggle between different representations, the representation socially recognized as scientific, that is to say as true, contains its own social force, and, in the case of the social world, science gives those who hold it, or who appear to hold it, a monopoly of the legitimate viewpoint, of self-fulfilling prophecy” (28).

This chapter provides an enlightening exploration of the workings of scientific practice and knowledge production. From the examples within, convincing evidence is provided for the necessity of reflexivity in scientific practice, although it occurs to me that awareness of one’s bias and self interest will not lead automatically to a reflexive undertaking of neutralizing these tendencies within one’s work. Indeed, a scientist seeking to be objective can use Bourdieu’s insights to increase “his” objectivity, but what if your goal as a scientist is to gain as much funding as possible? What if a “façade of scientificity” (1988:13) is exactly your aim? Is Bourdieu’s work meant for other scientists to better police each other’s findings? Is it just for social scientists to use in their own work? It is certainly not written with a non-academic audience in mind, so I doubt that his idea is to inspire the receivers of scientific “fact” to question the position of the scientist(s) at its source, but this could be an excellent use of the text nonetheless.

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