Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Commentary on Chapter 4

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. [Chapter 4, The Defense of the Corps and the Break in Equilibrium, pp.128-158]

Up until chapter 4, Homo Academicus largely deals with the internal relationships within the university and affiliate organizations that participate in the perpetuation of academic power. This chapter sets out to examine what happened to this status quo in 1968 once a growth in the numbers of students prompted increased hiring that, in turn, forced the habitus of hiring practices and the order of succession to break down, dividing academic generations along lines of power.

The main argument of this chapter is that professors defended against the effects of the growth in the number of students and dissent from within the faculties without coordinating with each other. Professors’ practical decisions for hiring were guided, without any coordination between themselves, by a set of implicit criteria, which were more or less hierarchical, to defend the social constants of the professorial body. Bourdieu warns against assuming coordination either in the form of individuals pursuing a universalized self-interest or in the form of a collectivity of individuals perfectly in tune to a shared will. Instead, Bourdieu proposes that individuals are socialized and build up a habitus or intuition according to their position in the field of power, and thus the results should not be misconstrued as the result of merely individual or structural factors (150-153).

The fundamental principles of social hierarchy in the academy have not changed significantly since the 1968 movement (he later explains that what it did change in that moment is the mode of behaviour of professors when the elite were threatened). Previously, the behaviour of professors was oriented towards preserving a status quo, but in this time of relative crisis, a spontaneous solidarity towards the elite emerged as the conflict cut across lines that were previously drawn and policed, but not made explicit. In all this, Bourdieu says, it is hard to see any way of creating an order where recruitment and promotion would operate on the basis of efficiency and pedagogical or scientific merit (158). As I mentioned in class, we might create parallels between this anti-intellectualism of the university and an anti-efficiency habitus we could attribute to large corporations.

Many general lines of questioning are opened up by this chapter. The language of objectivity is clearly used as a means to criticize academia on its own terms, but what is its potential for creating a radically different anthropology, given its association to Euro-American hegemony and colonial ideology? This line of questioning seems to resonate strongly with debates in postcolonial/anti-colonial theory: can the mimetic adaptation of the colonizer’s tools uproot the deeply embedded relationships of colonialism? This said, Bourdieu does deserve some credit for providing an interesting case study of criticizing the institutions of which he was a part of, if only from a somewhat marginal position.

Another interesting line of questioning is to ask what kind of ethics are produced by turning the epistemological weapons of science against itself, and the powerful people and institutions that control its production? Or alternatively, who should we be studying if it inevitably means objectifying them (even as we objectify ourselves)?

Some important criticisms emerged from the discussion of this chapter. In making this move against academic power inside academia, many aspects of the story are seemingly left by the way side, and many swathes of actors marginalized. Even a generous reading of Bourdieu creates a struggle to situate common people, the effects of increased demand for university degrees in the broader market, and the actions of the French government as well as the bureaucracy in producing the increase of students and the events of May 1968. These are a bit beyond what Bourdieu’s methodology suggests his main goal was, but are nonetheless key points in building an objective narrative of the (dys)functioning of the French university field in the 1960s.

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