BOURDIEU’S HOMO ACADEMICUS: COMMENTARY ON CHAPTER 5

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. [Chapter 5, The Critical Moment, pp.159-193]

The final chapter of Homo Academicus, aptly named “The Critical Moment”, analyzes the events of May 1968, and the convergence of crises between the academic field and the broader social landscape resulting in a mass societal mobilization. 

Bourdieu’s analysis is both discursively complex, and rich in its insights. He at once traces the evolution of a crisis from its origins within the academic institution, and provides an insight on the construction of a societal revolution (or lack thereof). Conversely, he also manages to weave a close reading on how doxic beliefs engendered individuals different reactions and roles throughout the event while materializing inherent contradictions. For Bourdieu, social uprisings don’t occur in a vacuum, nor the awakening of collective consciousness; different individual and structural factors coalesce in order to create a crisis. The different fields, both simultaneously autonomous and conjunct, function within and through fundamental structures, a “independency in dependency” (174) rendering a crisis possible.

The analysis of the crisis necessitates a return to its source: the academic field. The event was brought on by morphological changes to the university field; an increase in the student body led to an increase in teachers being hired, producing a “generalized downclassing” (163): as higher education became more accessible, diplomas and accreditations decreased in value, limiting it’s tangible and symbolic worth. Furthermore, downclassing produced students and lecturers who felt dispossessed, creating conflict between dispositions and reality, particularly in those high in cultural capital. As such, a whole generation of individuals stood outside the old academic order of reproduction. As most changes happened in the humanities, particularly in sociology, it played a critical role in triggering the crisis. On the one hand, the discipline itself holds an “aura of indeterminacy and vagueness” (165) for students’ post-graduate prospects. On the other hand, sociology held a structurally low position in the university hierarchy. This was compounded by the fact that as the discipline itself had a penchant to be critical, a result of dealing with politics and societal theories. Furthermore teachers, hired in haste as a result of growing demands, resented the uncertainty in receiving a position high in academic capital, causing a break in “the chains of anticipated identification” (163) with professors. The homologous subordinate positions held by students and teachers created “fantasied alliances” (164), expediting the development of the crisis. As the university crises penetrated society, others who faced similar conflicts in their subordinate positions in different fields (such as the proletariat and journalists) joined in, fostering mobilization through the synchronization between the various crises.

Despite inherent social and power differentiations between the different fields, strategic use of rhetoric was utilize to unify the various factions and causes. “Time” was another important factor in creating unity. Each field’s temporal rhythms had to converge to a collective time, allowing for the synchronization of a generalized crisis. This acted as a developer compelling individuals to take a stance on the issues, leading to “repressed feelings and judgments (breaking) out into broad daylight” (181). As tensions were revealed, it functioned to “shake the doxa” (ibid) (question the naturalized truths). This created a liminal space in which taboos were broken, and where “all futures are possible for all people” (182). The transgressions upon the symbolic order that were once internalized, were now objectified and revealed; this is what Bourdieu sees is the critical moment in a crisis.

Important to note is that though the mobilization of different agents appeared spontaneous and an outcome of some collective goal, it was not. In fact, much of the protests, manifestos and popular slogans were crafted and orchestrated by those who already had experience in the matter. Furthermore, this illusion of spontaneity masks power differentiations, leading to a control and weaponizing of discourse: “… in the vast semi-anonymous assemblies of these critical moments, the mechanisms of competition for the expression and imposition of legitimate opinion, which, like market mechanisms act ‘in spite of anarchy, in and through anarchy’… (producing) unanimous, monopolistic meaning and its expression” (191). In fact, Bourdieu argues that rhetorical violence was used in silencing diverging opinions. Thus the articulation of this crisis (and perhaps all crises) is never divorced from working within and through power, perhaps providing hints to its failure in fostering a true revolutionary event.

Bourdieu’s analysis in incredibly incisive, even in his failure to situate his role and convictions towards the event. This can prove alarming in a book calling for the necessity of academia to be reflexive. Though this omission is likely accounted for by his rigorous attempt at being objective and scientistic in his analysis (problematic in itself), it would given further insight into his process and results. Also, as pointed out in class, Bourdieu did a close reading of French society during a specific moment in history where many movements and crises were happening worldwide, but omitted any discussion on how different events may have had an impact on France.

Nonetheless, this chapter provided insight in the construction of mass social movements, and elucidated the factors hindering a societal revolution. Diverging social positions, doxa and interests inform the reactions and politicking of various actors thus rendering a “true” collective conscious difficult. This work is also incredibly contemporary, especially when drawing parallels between the French and Quebec student movement and their inability to enact true political change.

While discussing the logic behind barring access to public services in the name of austerity, a classmate of mine argued that by forcing class cancellations, a whole cohort of students may be delayed from entering the job market. As was in Bourdieu’s analysis, this illustrates the importance of the educational system in the systematic reproduction (or halting) of the society

Discussions of student participation in the Quebec student protests drew similarities; those in hierarchically superior disciplines such as law and engineering were not as involved as students in the subordinate disciplines, echoing Bourdieu. While there are divergences in the discourses between the two movements in its rhetoric, class discussion pointed out the fact that student mobilization in both cases was less likely to occur in faculties where jobs were awaiting them (such as in medicine) than those with less concrete futures (as is the case in the social sciences).

Another converging aspect was the general depoliticization of youth occurring after the peak of both crises. Bourdieu discusses how post-May 1968 university elections resulted in a low voter turnout. While rates of participation were greatest in faculties high in academic capital, the opposite was true in subordinate disciplines such as sociology. This, he explicates, can be result of either a political stance through nonvoting, or a result of apathy and dispossession. Conversely, high voter turnout is “an indicator of conformity to, or support for the established university order” (169) and was evident the prestigious disciplines (ibid). Furthermore, high rates were linked to the ability of a discipline to relate itself to a precise profession, in which vagueness and uncertainty about the future were not afflictions. It was pointed out during class that in the case of Concordia students, not only was there low voter turnout at the latest student union elections, but there was no student representation at the Sociology and Anthropology department meetings, even though it was generally expected. If Bourdieu is right, then reason for this is the inability for these disciplines to define themselves beyond the academic realm, offering limited identifications towards which the students can look. While discussing the possibility of Sociology and Anthropology taking a stance to define itself, questions were raised about why hasn’t it been done yet, how it can be done and what are the stakes?

As the old adage goes, the more things change, the more the stay the same.

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