Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: A Commentary on the Postscript

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. [Postscript, The Categories of Professorial Judgement, pp 194-225]

The final chapter of Bourdieu’s book takes a painstaking but illuminating look at the role that language can play in the academic field through professorial judgement. He examines two separate case studies to drive home his argument and to tie together many key thoughts articulated throughout the book. Firstly, he examines the academic files of a cohort of students at an école première supérieure in Paris. His second case study involves the careful analysis of obituaries of École Normale Supérieure alumni. Through these case studies, Bourdieu aims to demonstrate that the academic taxonomy found within these judgements play a pivotal role in not only the classification of students and colleagues, but in the articulation of academic power and the reproduction of academic hierarchies discussed in earlier chapters. Bourdieu argues that the judgements he discusses are an excellent way to understand the organizing principles of the academic field (195).

His first case study involves the examination of the marks, professor’s comments and the inherited social capital found in a female école normale supérieure (197-198). By doing so, Bourdieu remarks that students with more inherited social capital tend to have less pejorative remarks attached to their work than those who come from more humble social origins. He also discusses the ways in which these remarks are structured with euphemisms to seem like the comments are academic and neutral in nature. For example, he discusses the role of euphemistic terms like “vulgar”, which in a standard context would incite anger in the person to whom the term is applied. He also discusses the use of qualifiers such as “just about” in the comment “just about correct” which also serves as a euphemism (204-205).  These euphemisms are legitimised through arguments that the epithets apply to the person’s work rather than the person themself and that the person can still improve. What is hidden is the fact that the judgement is levied in part through the professor’s interpretation of the student’s bodily hexis, on which the social origins of the student is imprinted (200). As such, the “academic” judgements that the professor is giving are in fact socially informed.

This is not to say that all professors have sinister intentions and intend to hold back students from lower classes. Bourdieu believes that a critical part of the system is that professors believe it is a necessary part of academic life and that their comments are purely academic in nature (206). The structure of professorial judgement is in itself reproduced through the act of applying these judgements and only functions if the agents in the system truly believe in it. These arguments of legitimisation help the actors to do so.  Over time, students also learn to classify themselves and each other in this way and perpetuate the very taxonomy that they are classified by (207-208).  The reference letters Bourdieu examines demonstrate how this taxonomy can select the next generation of professors through the use of euphemism quite clearly (209).

This taxonomy is also seen in the second case, which deals with the obituaries of deceased normaliens. He notes how social origins are conveyed through the obituaries, as well as how these obituaries demonstrate the hierarchy of professorial virtues such as academic asceticism, which Bourdieu credits to be part of a contradiction in  academia. Academics commonly praise the ideas of intellectuals like Marx, and aspire to such freedom in thought; however, the further they move into the academic field they find themselves more constrained by its rules, hierarchies and norms. The refusal of honors and recognition found in academic asceticism in this case is a symbolic refusal of the system they find themselves in and a way for actors to have a sense of freedom in thought(223).

Overall the obituary acts as the final judgement of the professor by the community that they were a part of and a judgement of their virtues through academic taxonomies. Only those who truly excelled in the academic field are able to escape this taxonomy in their obituaries. Despite this seeming inescapability of the academic taxonomy, Bourdieu cautions against assuming that there is a mechanical causal relationship at play. For example, the ambitions of actors in the field must also be taken into account as they can predetermine the judgements that will later be passed on them. Ambitions therefore are one way that actors have agency in the academic field, as limited as it may be (216).

An interesting notion of predisposition pervades this chapter. It seems as if Bourdieu is arguing that to some degree you have a certain set of career paths you can follow which is reinforced by professorial judgements. The only agency he allows is your own ambitions, which are also judged. The only escape from these judgements and this path is to truly excel or to exit the system entirely. As there was no time for discussion in class, it may be productive to carry out some of this discussion here. Do you agree with this? Do you feel that the academic field we currently find ourselves in operates in this manner?

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One thought on “Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: A Commentary on the Postscript

  1. I appreciate that you bring the question of today’s academic context and the extent to which the translation of certain unconscious value judgments take form in otherwise “professional” or descriptive commentary. It is interesting that professors are assumed to believe this kind of commentary helps students better themselves, when Bourdieu seems to say that often these are textured with the priorities of social reproduction rather than an interest in evaluating scholarly merit.

    In some sense, I think this does continue today. Students who fail to conform to stylistic norms and other formal expectations of faculty members -to speak nothing of faculty members’ expectations of hearing their own voice in one’s argument, though these are never far away- may find themselves subject to criticism. Using an informal register that would be the product of growing up in certain social conditions can often clash with what is expected in the spoken and written language of the classroom or seminar. Though perhaps less than in the context Bourdieu was studying, a certain decorum is expected by many professors from their students. Bourdieu’s theory of language is also useful here for understanding the way social hierarchies of language go deep in the way they affect what we see as insightful commentary, as opposed to unrefined rhetoric.

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