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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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.

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.

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.

Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus: Commentary on Chapter 2

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit. [2, The Conflict of the Faculties, pp. 36-72]

In this second chapter of Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that political inclination is dependent upon one’s position in the academic field, and not vice versa. Distinguishing between three hierarchically arranged fields of power, he places the academic field in a middling position between the political and social fields. He posits a hierarchy of the faculties, in which those at the top are closer to political power. Bourdieu supports his argument using empirical data gathered through publicly available sources, presented in tabular form.

University professors, Bourdieu argues, are subordinate in the field of power to managers of industry and business, but are nonetheless “holders of an institutionalized form of cultural capital,” and therefore culturally dominant with respect to writers and artists (36). These academics, especially those at the top of the social hierarchy, present higher percentages of “indices of social integration and respectability” (36-37). Bourdieu claims that “the structure of the university field reflects the structure of the field of power, while its activity contributes to the reproduction of that structure.” (40-41) Thus, university professors have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The degree to which they do is dependent upon their position within that field.

According to Bourdieu, two antagonistic principles of hierarchization are at play in the university field: “the social hierarchy, corresponding to capital inherited and economic and political capital actually held, is in opposition to the specific, properly cultural hierarchy, corresponding to the capital of scientific authority and intellectual renown” (48). Bourdieu holds that the first of these “becomes increasingly dominant as we ascend […] the hierarchy extending from the science faculties to the faculties of law or medicine” and that the latter, “which is founded on the autonomy of the scientific and intellectual order” (48), increases in the opposite direction. At this end of the spectrum, individuals tend to display a “rejection of everything which enforces respect for the status quo” (51).

Bourdieu also discusses how the university field reproduces itself. Specific mechanisms ensure the integrity of the institution, including nepotism (56) and “co-optation techniques” that “always aim to select ‘the [successful] man’ , who is envisaged differently according to different practitioners (58).

Borrowing from Kant, Bourdieu names the ‘higher faculties’: theology, medicine and law, which are claimed to be those “most directly controlled by the government” and which “train agents to be able to practice without questioning” (62). These practitioners, whose roles in society are regarded as providing essential services which must be dispensed in a uniform manner, are endowed with a “technical competence guaranteed by laws” (63), from which it follows that their behaviour must follow a certain standard, and is thus not open to debate. The stark contrast between these practitioners and those at the opposite end of the spectrum, the so-called “intellectuals”, stems from the fact that “a body of ‘authorities’ cannot present itself in a state of disarray, as intellectuals may, without compromising its capital of authority” (65). As a result, these ‘experts’, in order to maintain their authority, must reproduce it. They represent, “knowledge in the service of order and power” (68) , as opposed to those in the science and especially the arts faculties, who stand for “knowledge confronting order and power” (69).

What is most fascinating about Bourdieu’s analysis is that it reveals that the higher one’s position in the field of academic power, the greater the conformity required. The type of training required of doctors and jurists appears to be a type of brainwashing, where the “best practices”, as taught, are to be accepted without question. This calls into question the notion of academic freedom and integrity, and causes one to wonder whether authoritative figures can really be trusted, given that they are embroiled in the game of politics. The fact that the function of the training of the “right wing of the parliament of knowledge” (Kant, quoted in Bourdieu, 63) is to produce “agents able to put into practice without questioning or doubting” (63) is also telling of the arrogance often encountered by patients in the offices of clinicians, who dispense medical and non-medical advice as if it were indisputable law.

We are reminded of the recent scandal, discussed in class, involving a professor at Concordia University, whose research claimed that asbestos was not a hazard to human health and that any claims to the contrary were based on “strongly held feelings”1 . This occurred at a Centre dubbed “The Luc Beauregard Centre of Excellence in Communications Research”. A perusal of the webpage of that institution reveals that its “ultimate goal is to strengthen exchanges between industry and academia”2, which leads one to suspect that it is in fact a mouthpiece for industry to assuage the public of any concerns they may have regarding companies’ products or practices. As discussed in class, having recognized the weight and symbolic value attached to science, these business-people recruit researchers and adopt “scientistic language” in order to “block questioning and criticism” and “disguise the pathways to power”. Not dissimilarly, GMO lobbyists have recruited academics to publish and publicly emphasize the safety of GMO products 3.

As was discussed in class, public visibility and being answerable to the media often comes at the cost of academic freedom. We should only hope that the left wing of the parliament of knowledge, the “opposition audience” described by Kant in the chapter’s introductory quotation, and, according to Bourdieu, consisting of we in the arts faculties, should actively voice their “severe scrutiny and objections”(36), and that these should be heard.

1 http://montrealgazette.com/news/concordia-to-review-asbestos-report
2 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/06/us/food-industry-enlisted-academics-in-gmo-lobbying-war-emails-show.html?_r=0

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.

First Book, Fall 2015: HOMO ACADEMICUS

Homo Academicus
By Pierre Bourdieu
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990

http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=2475

The first book in our series for the Fall semester of 2015 is described by the publisher as follows:

homo_academicus_bkIn this highly original work, Pierre Bourdieu turns his attention to the academic world of which he is part and offers a brilliant analysis of modern intellectual culture. The academy is shown to be not just a realm of dialogue and debate, but also a sphere of power in which reputations and careers are made, defended and destroyed.

Employing the distinctive methods for which he has become well known, Bourdieu examines the social background and practical activities of his fellow academics—from Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan to figures who are lesser known but not necessarily less influential. Bourdieu analyzes their social origins and current positions, how much they publish and where they publish it, their institutional connections, media appearances, political involvements and so on.

This enables Bourdieu to construct a map of the intellectual field in France and to analyze the forms of capital and power, the lines of conflict and the patterns of change, which characterize the system of higher education in France today.

Homo Academicus paints a vivid and dynamic picture of French intellectual life today and develops a general approach to the study of modern culture and education. It will be of great interest to students of sociology, education and politics as well as to anyone concerned with the role of intellectuals and higher education today.

The Big Shiny Mirror That Bourdieu is Holding Up to Academia, Sociology, Himself and All Of Us

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the world of French academia doubles as a rigorous sociological study of sociology itself.  It can also be seen as a sociology of intellectuals (Wacquant 1989, 4-5), as Bourdieu deals with the human aspects of the inner-workings of academia.  At first glimpse it may seem that an irony lies in Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus.  This irony is mainly due to the fact that a prominent sociologist would even aspire to write such a brutal critique of not only the field of sociology but also its place within academia, the students who choose to study it, and the people who get jobs teaching it.  Indeed, in an interview with Loic Wacquant, Bourdieu admits to having written things that were even harsher, which he eventually threw out for fear of creating room for a regression within the field of sociology toward an even more negative purpose (1989: 4).  Further, in Douglas Fischer’s review of the text he argues that Bourdieu’s criticisms of academia come from a place very close to his heart, as he himself was from a humble background and felt he owed his education and subsequent successes as a teacher to the very system he is criticising in the book (1990: 581-591).  Thus, it can safely be said that Bourdieu’s motives for engaging in such a project were noble.   Bourdieu is concerned with sociology’s objectification of others based on “self-interested vision of the social world” (Wacquant 1989: 4) through the façade of scientific study.  His arguments that are often so deeply critical of the new arts disciplines hone in on sociology, but are of course reflective of the state of anthropology as a discipline as well.

However, regardless of Bourdieu’s purpose for writing such criticisms, as a student of anthropology they proved difficult to read for there are many times throughout the text where one can’t help but to begin to question what would be the point of studying in a field that is seemingly doomed to begin with.  Furthermore, Bourdieu is quite clear about the destiny of many of those who wish to teach sociology (of course this would apply to anthropology as well), when he says that they would inevitably be headed toward a “mutilated career” (173), while simultaneously being “liable to resentment” (170).  In reading this, it is difficult not to at least slightly resent Bourdieu himself for being so pessimistic about the state of academia.  Then again, perhaps his negativity regarding the academic institution serves well as a cautionary tale, and should be regarded as such instead of simply an act of extreme pessimism.  Although at time somewhat cynical, Bourdieu’s critique also manages to effectively capture the reality of the state of academia, not only important in France some thirty years ago when the book was written, but also pertinent to the state of academia in today’s North American institutions.

Bourdieu uses reflexivity as a tool; a means to take back individual responsibility within academia.  His critique of the institution, and of sociology itself is highly reflexive and thus Homo Academicus could be seen as a mirror in which Bourdieu is looking not only upon the dire state of the institution but also at himself and at sociology as a discipline.  Both humbling and at times somewhat frightening, Bourdieu examines power structures and social factors that are intrinsically linked yet are also simultaneously engaged in an eternal struggle.  These entanglements are perhaps best captured in the chapter on Types of Capital and Forms of Power, where Bourdieu analyses the ways in which academia (specifically the arts and social sciences) are based around oppositions between specific types of power relations.  These inequalities that result in certain people having much more power than others are created through social factors such as inherited capital (79) and cultural capital that affect one’s ability to achieve social success, and thus create relationships of dominance and subordination (83).  Bourdieu also shifts his focus onto the professors, and argues that success as a professor is related not only to power and status but also the ability to engage in ritual practices that serve to further ensure one’s success.  Such rituals are costly in terms of time sacrifices, where professors who wish to attain success must attend meetings, ceremonies, etcetera, in order to collect “symbolic capital” that serves to prove what Bourdieu refers to as “academic worthiness” (96).  This obviously isn’t possible for just anyone, as many people simply do not have the time or money to attend such events or prescribe fully to the ritual practices involved in the pursuit of successful professorships.

As a final point, it is profoundly interesting that in the postscript Bourdieu looks at grading criteria and provides examples to argue that social factors such as one’s background, where a student grew up, his or her parents’ level of education, and even the way students speak and present themselves physically can affect the way they are judged academically.  In essence, this reads as though if a person is poor, or thought to be unattractive, or from a family that has a lower level of academic capital, he or she is essentially immediately judged far more harshly and thus stands a much lower chance of achieving academic success than a peer whose parents are of a more prominent background in society.  Even more discouraging is Bourdieu’s argument that, in fact, probably professors do not realize they are judging, and thus grading, their students based on such superficial criteria, “because they believe they are making a strictly academic judgement […] the social judgement […] is masked (207).  In light of Bourdieu’s argument that the social judgements that affect grading are not explicit, but rather seem to be subconscious, I’d like to err on the side of caution here in a last-ditch feeble attempt to get a good grade on this and conclude by lying to you and saying that my entire family is highly educated, wealthy, from a prominent background (whatever that may be), and lastly that I am a supermodel.

References:

Fischer, Douglas.  Reviewed Work: Homo Academicus, by Pierre Bourdieu, Peter Collier.  The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 61, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1990), pp. 581-591. Published by: Ohio State University Press. Stable URL: http://0-www.jstor.org.mercury.concordia.ca/stable/1981978

Loic, Wacquant.  For a Socio-Analysis of Intellectuals: On “Homo Academicus”. Berkeley Journal of SociologyVol. 34, Symposium on the Foundations of Radical Social Science (1989), pp. 1-29

Barbarians Knocking: Bourdieu, ’68, and The Demand for Demands

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Of Bourdieu’s 1984 offering Homo Academicus, some of the most striking (pun very much intended) and relevant directions that Bourdieu goes in are those in which he discusses the dynamics and mechanics of the May ’68 strike in France.

This brief essay will focus particularly what can be seen as the translation of “the contagion” of broad social unrest undertaken by what Bourdieu refers to as “permanent political institutions” such as political parties, trade unions, the media into forms more amenable to recuperation and redirection or, failing that, derision and demonization. To this end we will address one of the most salient binaries produced by such translations within contexts such as May ‘68 before arriving at a discussion of the supposed raison d’être of the strike and the social movement: the demand.

To address the first point, these seemingly amorphous masses of discontent are filtered through these standing political apparatuses and then carefully rendered into the kinds of reductive binarisms that are digestible by society at large. Bourdieu points to the framing of these binarisms as reflective of the interests of whatever institution happens to be doing the translation. Concerning some of these institutions, in particular politicians and the media – both of which possess a penchant for binarisms, it is temporally relevant, as we will no doubt be seeing a good deal of this kind of rhetoric employed as the Quebec 2015 strike progresses, to look at what is often referred to as the “good protester/bad protester” paradigm. Although there are a dearth of other binarisms both contemporary and historical which could be pointed to (devout/heretical, citizen/barbarian, etc) that have been constructed and painstakingly sustained by the aforementioned permanent political institutions, in the interests of time we will only unpack what the supposed qualities and proclivities of the “good protester” are and how they contrast with their foil in the eyes of said permanent political institutions.

The divisive, overwrought and oversimplified rhetoric of good protest/bad protest is tertium non datur at its most egregious. This kind of myopic binarism is severely lopsided and often translates neatly into binary discourses of commendation and diatribe. To illustrate, a good protester is peaceful to the point of being cordial with authority, articulates acute and specific demands reflective of their reasons for demonstrating, and seeks solutions to grievances which entail the least amount of disruption with regards to the functioning of society. A bad protester is beyond the pale of acceptable protest. Their demands are wild and unrealistic and their tactics seen as chaotic and often violent through the lens of the dominant narrative. In Quebec, they are painted alternately as spoiled miscreants who bite the hand that feeds and malcontented harbingers of orgiastic chaos bent on reducing the world to ashes.

From the vantage point of those concerned with maintaining the status quo, the former articulation of protest is “good” insofar as it can be controlled by directing it through specific institutions whose practices and goals it will internalize whereas the latter is “bad” insofar as it tends to frustrate efforts to co-opt, misdirect or ultimately control it. Where good protest makes space to accommodate the dominant narrative, bad protest impinges upon and, in its best moments, directly challenges or undermines it, tearing away the veil and exposing it for what it is: a carefully crafted ruse maneuvered so as to obfuscate a population’s political power and limit its sense of social and political responsibility. Underscoring all of this is the author’s contention that middle ground can never be acknowledged to exist lest these counter-hegemonic discourses be conferred with a degree of legitimacy, however marginal, which might then take root within popular consciousness.

In a way, “bad” protest seeks the collective fracturing of falsely collective narratives that serve to elicit and thereby produce a clearly defined demand or set of demands. That said, the very practice of issuing demands can be seen as a response to the demand from outside for demands.

There are multiple dimensions at work when demands are demanded. The more particular a demand is, the less broad support it is likely to achieve. While it could be argued that we are all alienated, we are not all alienated in the same ways. To ignore this fact is to largely ignore the many and varied positionalities of the heterogenous actors which comprise any given large scale social movement.

Conversely, when demands articulate positions which aim to be expansive or broadly applicable they often take the form of “vague slogans, abstract manifestos, and formal programmes” (179) and the permanent political institutions of which Bourdieu speaks are quick to deride such dictates as ineffectual, unorganized, and ultimately unrealistic.

Lastly, the logic and language of political demand is tied to capital in particular ways. If your demand is heard, those higher up on the chain will supply some kind of remedy so that we will continue to consent to being governed as, our demands having been addressed, it would appear that we have no rational reason not to. The issuing of demands does the market research necessary to provide the customer/subject with the goods/concessions they require so as for them to enjoy a satisfactory enough experience with the product/government to be content and thereby docile.

To move elsewhere, the ’68 strike was terrifying not just to the university administration but also, as Bourdieu seems to point out, to the more entrenched faculty who displayed a loyalty to their respective institutions that bordered on Stockholm syndrome. Curiously, this faithfulness to the conventions of academia had as much to do with a genuine feeling that the hitherto sacrosanct practices of conferring knowledge and even knowledge itself would be compromised and diluted, as it did with positional concerns. The fear was not just for their own standing but was a noble and principled concern. “If we let the barbarians in” they thought, “they will fell the giants upon whose shoulders stands all knowledge worth knowing”. That, to avoid stagnation and inertia, the evolution of knowledge ought to run in tandem with the evolution of theory and praxis related to its dissemination and that this might be a desirable thing, was a strain of thought which appeared not to have occurred among many of the faculty Bourdieu discusses.

In many ways the above can be viewed as a microcosmic example of societies living in a crisis of imagination. One of the most enduring war cries from the anti/alter globalization movement was that of “one no, many yeses”. In some ways, this concept might still have the traction to stand against the demand for demands. There are points of convergence where many can agree that things must change and a galaxy of particular formulations of how and in what ways they ought to change. Can we imagine for a moment that the one does not negate the other?

In conclusion, to acquiesce to the demand for demands is to play a curious game. On the one hand, a broad reaching demand or set of demands will be much more likely to elicit a broad base of mobilization and on the other, authority will never concede to demands that compromise itself or gravely wound its narrative. Where the demand for demands can be seen as an interpellation returning us to the realm of subjects proper, perhaps it is time to relegate the demand to the dustbin of history and concern ourselves with formulating and enacting practices that choose to ignore the hails of the dominant narrative.

Marks as an indicator of class? A critique of Bourdieu’s analysis of academic marking

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

When a student receives the label of “brilliant” on a submitted paper, what does this mean? Pierre Bourdieu, in his manuscript titled Homo Academicus, claims such forms of classification are ultimately societal – or social –, but “performed in the guise of an operation of academic classification, […] through a specifically academic taxonomy” (1988: 207). That is to say, they are labels that reproduce social class through a system of marking intended to separate the ‘high performers’ from the rest. Here, then, academia is said to classify individuals on the basis of their scholarly worth – worth reflected in one’s original social class.

Yet, Bourdieu also notes that higher education and academic success has the ability to move those from the lower into the upper class (52). This appears to contradict what is mentioned in the postscript regarding the parallels between academic and social classification. After all, surely it does not make much sense to state in one instant that higher education allows for social mobility, and in another that the same system reinforces social rigidity.

Here, attention must be given to Bourdieu’s method of study of the institution that is the university – a methodology common no doubt to sociology. A cursory examination of the manuscript reveals numerous tables, each with extensive legends and numbers. The statistics located therein summarize sample findings (obtained from the Annales the l’Université de Paris, Who’s Who, and inquiries to university professors (227-228)) and generalize them to all students and faculty within the university, obfuscating contradictions such as the one abovementioned. Thus, one sees a table complete with grades and social classes, and because of its organization, infers that those getting excellent marks with mentions mainly have fathers in senior administrative positions and/or medicine, whereas those whose fathers are carpenters or technicians have lower grades (203-204).

Lost in the table, however, are the stories of the students being graded. As class discussions, and Bourdieu’s allusion to arts and science professors who have worked their way up (52), have made quite clear, higher education provides a way ‘out’ of a particular lifestyle, such that the working class student may receive excellent marks and comments lauding their worth as a scholar. Similarly, the upper class student may perform poorly, finding no worth in the process of struggling through a course (for this student might have a great inheritance of sorts). Still others may not even care about class distinctions, and may truly be in the university because they believe in learning as a process – one that does not need to have implications for financial and class-based mobility later on. And, finally, some may have had parents who were academics, but whose grandparents had never gone to school – a characteristic of many first-generation children whose parents are university-educated – thus suggesting that the educational level and profession of the grandparent, or of someone other than one’s parents, might also play a role in the way one performs academically, and the type of commentary they receive from professors. Bourdieu’s sociological study of the university makes very little mention of this.

This contradiction in Bourdieu’s text suggests that if one is to do a (social) scientific study of higher education – be it an anthropology of anthropology, a sociology of sociology, or otherwise –, then methods in addition to archival research and interviews must be used. What, for instance, are the life histories of those arts and science professors, mentioned in passing, that were once lower class? What kinds of messages did these labels – many of which were probably along the lines of “excellent,” “great insight,” and the like – send to these professors? And what place does motivation have in all of this – rather than separate individuals based on class, might the university separate individuals, at least in part, on the basis of motivation? Once the economic factors have been eliminated such that one can enter the university (not an easy task for many), it seems the fact individuals, from different socioeconomic classes, occupy the same lecture halls and write the same exams, should bring a certain level of equality in the classroom, such that what one’s father does for a living has a lesser effect on one’s performance, and phenomena like motivation and engagement gain more importance. It would thus be interesting to see what other social scientific research methods reveal.