The Public Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts about the public sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I wrote yesterday about his arguments concerning globalisation and social movements. This provides the political context in relation to which he saw a scholarship with commitment as important. In this post I’m going to discuss what he saw this as entailing in intellectual, ethical and practical terms. As with yesterday’s post, all the material I’m discussing is from Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market.

The Responsibilities of Intellectuals

In an argument redolent of C Wright Mills, Bourdieu maintains that “those who have the good fortune to be able to devote their lives to the study of the social world cannot stand aside, neutral and indifferent, from the struggles in which the future of the world is at stake” (pg 11). However this engagement inevitably poses challenges, as seen in the personal tensions Bourdieu recognises in his own position, 

I have often warned against the prophetic temptation and the pretension of social scientists to announce, so as to denounce them, present and future ills. But I find myself led by the logic of my work to exceed the limits I had set for myself in the name of a conception of objectivity that has gradually appeared to me as a form of censorship. (pg 66)

But what does he mean by ‘censorship’? His target is the notion of ‘axiological neutrality’ which, he argues, represents a “scientifically unimpeachable form of escapism” rather than a necessary condition for social science. Bourdieu calls for a scholarship with commitment, in opposition to a dominant tendency which sees scholarship and commitment as antipathetic. This is a point I found inspiring when I first read it and it has stuck with me since. It’s an important corrective to a tendency Burawoy describes for the original commitments which lead people towards sociology to be marginalised by the pressures of completing a PhD and pursuing a career: 

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

However with these engagements come responsibilities. Bourdieu argues that the intellectual world “must engage in a permanent critique of all the abuses of power or authority committed in the name of intellectual authority”. It must also resist the temptation to “mistake revolutions in the order of words or texts for revolutions in the order of things, verbal sparring at conferences for ‘interventions’ in the affairs of the polis” (pg 19-20).

Resisting the Rise of Think Tanks 

The role of think tanks is too often overlooked or their study marginalised as a specialism. Whereas the case can be made that think tanks were integral to the consolidation of late capitalism, as well as to the neoliberal counter-revolution that began in the 1970s. This is certainly Bourdieu’s view and he calls for resistance to the “paradoxical doxa” produced through the intellectual activity of think tanks:

In order to break with the tradition of the welfare state, the ‘think tanks’ from which have emerged the political programs of Reagan and Thatcher, and, after them, of Clinton, Blair, Schröder, and Jospin, have had to effect a veritable symbolic counterrevolution and to produce a paradoxical doxa. This doxa is conservative but presents itself as progressive; it seeks the restoration of the past order in some of its most archaic aspects (especially as regards economic relations), yet it passes regressions, reversals and surrenders off as forward looking reforms or revolutions leading to a whole new age of abundance and liberty. (pg 22)

As I’ve written elsewhere, the influence of think tanks has expanded rather than contracted in an age of austerity. We should also be aware of the direct and indirect ways in which think tanks are participating in an the project of ‘reforming’ higher education. But how can it be resisted? The first step is to “break out of the academic microcosm and enter resolutely into sustained exchange with the outside world (that is, especially with unions, grassroots organisations, and issue-orientated activist groups) instead of being content with waging the ‘political’ battles, at once intimate and ultimate, and always a bit unreal, of the scholastic university” (pg 24).

This renewed engagement cannot be the work of a “master thinker endowed with the sole resources of his singular thought” but through collective work seeking to “create the social conditions for the collective production of realist utopias” and “joint research on novel forms of political action, on new manners of mobilizing and of making mobilized people work together, on new ways of elaborating projects and bringing them to fruition together” (pg 21). There is also a negative function, involving work “to produce and disseminate instruments of defence against symbolic domination that relies increasingly on the authority of science (real or faked) (pg 20). This would involve critique of neoliberal thought, it rhetoric and mode of reasoning, as well as sociological analysis aimed at uncovering the social determinants shaping its production.

One of the ideas I like most in Bourdieu’s public sociology is the call for giving “symbolic force, by way of artistic form, to critical ideas and analyses”. By this I think he means social scientists collaborating with artists, drawing on other ways of telling about society (as Becker would put it) in order to disseminate critical analysis of the operations of power. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s particular attuned to the role of cultural works in potentially resisting the seemingly irrevocable marketisation of cultural production:

If I recall now that the possibility of stopping this infernal machine in its tracks lies with all those who, having some power over cultural, artistic, and literary matters, can, each in their own place and their own fashion, and to however small an extent, throw their grain of sand into the well-oiled machinery of resigned complicities. (pg 65)

The accumulation of ‘grains of sand’ is not a particularly inspiring theory of change but I suspect it’s an accurate one. We need to disrupt the ‘machinery of resigned complicities’ to open up space for collective action orientated towards loftier purposes. As well as alliances with cultural producers, Bourdieu explores the potential role that social scientists can play in alliance with social movements. He suggests that social scientists could play the role of “organizational advisors to the social movements” as they pursue integration at the international level by “helping the various groups to overcome their disagreements” (pg 43). I think Bourdieu’s vision here has three aspects: scholarship working towards the elaboration of real utopias, constituting a sort of ‘applied research division’ of international social movements and acting as critical voices in public debates in alliance with the agendas of social movements.

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