Bourdieu Chapter 3

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. [Chapter 3, Types of Capital and Forms of Power pp. 73-127]

Bourdieu’s chapter 3 concerns the ways in which power and capital are created and sustained in academic settings. While surveying several forms of power related to renown and social condition the most attention is paid towards institutionalized relationships among faculty, students and staff in the university which he identifies as academic power. Fundamental is the notion that capital breeds capital; social position strongly correlates to one’s ability to navigate powerful tracts of mobility within the administration and other bodies of university. What follows is a survey of power forms, analysis of how they are acquired, and that time is the fuel for this machine.

The predominant concern of the chapter is the notion of academic power. Academic power arrives int two forms. The first stems from one’s ability to navigate and dominate systems of professional reproduction (78); the notion that through sitting on selection committees, departmental associations, executive bodies, and other institutionalized replicatory bodies one can influence their own trajectory within the hierarchy of the university as well as influence others’ paths. This then leads to a tacit understanding of reciprocity among individuals: you write a reference for my student here and I’ll recommend your work in a column or review there (86). Exchange breeds obligation. The second from is merit, however there is less social weight given by the institution to the ability of producing innovative work. Instead, much like many bureaucracies, mobility within the system is influenced by a complicated intersection of patronage, politicking, and the maintenance of rivals.

Adding to this dynamic, universities are in a reciprocal relationship with their own students. The more graduates produced, the more renown the institution may carry. The better quality of graduates the better the renown of the institution and the more renown the institution has the more social capital is produced for said graduates. One can consider the amount of resources spent by schools on recruitment as evidence to the lengths at which some universities will strive for top students while in the midst of still establishing the respectability of their brand.

Fuelling this system is time. Students see their education as an investment requiring time to do degrees and publish works. Patron academics exercise their power in the influence of the careers of their student-clients through the management of dependent’s expectations of socio-academic mobility and the “objective probabilities” of advancement (89). The balance involves managing the advancement stream of students who can bring their patron academic power while ensuring those students do not usurp the position. Students then conform to the requirements of the institution as long as their own advancement seems likely.

As a result there is a willingness to play the game and stay loyal; in so far as one’s own mobility does not take too long. Students, much like their masters, have a tendency towards mercenary intellectualism within the temporal economy of knowledge production. Like the Landsknechte, if the costs prove too high (in terms of time) a new master may be readily available; however should the student’s loyalties come into question too often the student can become ostracized or worse, seen as a threat to be mitigated by wasting their time, i.e several years of their lives, by blocking their institutional advancement. Noted during the class discussion was that in the United States the average length of a PHD was fourteen years which almost requires the promise of employment at the end of such a tract lest there be a failure on the return of investment.

The student understands that their own potential renown depends upon the institution and academic ‘head’ to which they pledge their allegiance; effectively seeing themselves as an inheritor of an intellectual order of self replicating legitimization (102). In effect there exists a circular tendency of reproduction of a cultural status quo exemplified by this notion: I study what matters and what matters does so because I study it. Academia in this sense then creates its own justifications for existence and that institutional rationale is deeply entrenched in an individual’s social privilege based heavily on membership in the petit-bourgeoisie exercised through what schools one attended and what professor one is able attach themselves to.

Power within the university is not static. Representative of the ability to innovate one’s own place within the institution is the figure of the lector; a figure Bourdieu identifies as a heretic to the regime of academic power whose social significance comes from their deviation from the standard schema of capital production (105). By carving out a specialized niche, often in an insurgent faculty, the lector is able to slightly circumvent time-economy by developing a parallel social power outside of the university. Even within academia and the time economy the lector can advance on their own merit, however heresy does not permit one much access to canonical chambers so their mobility is less dependable. What is more dependable is the lector’s access to external social capital through private publishing, journalism, and more direct engagement with social authorities (112). This notion of socially useful knowledge is reflective of broader shifts in societal relations with academia and elicits a salient question brought up during discussion; as universities are more or less publicly funded, how can they be justified to those who lack the social capital to attend, but are still compelled to pay taxes for their upkeep?

Starting to shake the foundations of academia and discussed in Bourdieu’s closing of the chapter is the competition posed by external bodies that can claim the title of cultural legitimiser (122-125). Independent research institutions and the ability to publish in popular publication poses a sort of existential threat to the power order of academia. These alternative career paths and forms of capital production beyond that of university professor emerge for both prospective students and current staff. In class, we discussed the case of Jared Diamond who has quite effectively navigated this emergent tendency of using popular literature of questionable academic merit, in his case books such as Guns Germs and Steel, to access societal renown that he could then use to secure a position within the university. While lacking the traditional forms of academic power in terms of administrative orchestrating or independent scholarly research of some merit Diamond is none the less able to ‘win’ the game of securing a stable and well paying position that enhances the societal weight of the institution but bucked the order of succession. I would hazard a guess this to the chagrin of some of his colleagues who followed the traditionalist tract but still find their own social capital enhanced through their institutional allegiance to the same school as the insurgent Diamond.

A key conclusion from  this chapter is that knowledge production does not occur in a vacuum. The adage of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’ is quite dead in my view, if it ever did indeed exist. There is an intent that guides the trajectory of careers and the kind of knowledge that is produced is reflective of that system. Hardly a conspiracy hidden behind oak panel doors I feel now more than ever before both students and their professors, and by extension universities as whole are quite transparent of their desire to accumulate capital, social and otherwise. What is unique to contemporary times is the departure from the aristocratic tradition of the French university system; already in decline at the time of Bourdieu’s writing. As noted during our discussion academic patrons are rarely training their direct replacements from a cadre of socially similar clients. Instead the democratization of academics through more varied opportunities for potential students from a variety of backgrounds means a diversity of interest, capabilities, and thought. That said, democracy like any other social system is a means of distributing power and capital.


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