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A conversation between myself and @benjamingeer about a Bourdieusian approach to understanding alt-academia

I thought others might find this interesting. I’d certainly be interested in hearing people’s perspectives on what we were discussing. I’m in bold, Benjamin is in italics. 

Does the situation of skholè still obtain in the accelerated academy?

This is a great question. Maybe an answer could go something like this, focusing on the distinction between scholastic thinking and practical sense: When I’m sitting at my desk, reading about bullfights (which I know only from books, having never seen one), I have considerable distance from the urgencies of the world of bullfights. Even if I only have ten minutes to read about bullfights while preparing a lecture I have to give in an hour, I’m still treating the bullfight as an object of scholastic contemplation. It’s not me fighting the bull. But if my colleague walks in and announces that he’s just published an article in that journal I’ve always wanted to publish in, and which has always rejected my submissions, and I’m overwhelmed with jealousy, I have no such distance. My reaction comes from my practical sense. The accelerated academy reduces the amount of time available for skholè, but that reduced time can still be time spent in a scholastic relation to the object of study. But how little time can we get away with? What happens to academics when they no longer have time to read?

Thanks Ben, that responses makes a lot of sense to me in terms I’ve been writing about as cognitive triage. So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right? Your point is that an erosion of the former doesn’t necessarily preclude the latter. But is there a tipping point at which it starts to render it so peripheral that it largely becomes impossible?

And does this preclude scholarship? Or are there other forms of engagement which can produce knowledge which are congruent with the temporalities of the accelerated academy? Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be. But they seem obviously distinct, even if I can’t specify the basis of the distinction.

The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive, offering faster & iterative forms of engagement which allow knowledge production without detachment. The ethos of the pirate sociologist perhaps: https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/03/towards-a-pirate-sociology/

“So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right?”

Yes! Your habitus is adapted to the kinds of thinking that go on in your field. They’ve become second nature for you. So you can turn on that kind of thinking any time, even for a few minutes, just as a skilled pianist can sit down any time, at any piano that happens to be handy, and play. But to acquire that habitus, you have to go through a long, gradual process of adaptation and integration into a field, which in academia means spending a lot of time reading about and thinking through ideas and problems that are considered important in your field. I think that in the humanities and social sciences, the main time when people get to do this is during their PhD. But if time for reading and thinking becomes very scarce after the PhD, what happens? Perhaps people’s academic habitus is durable enough to allow them to keep repeating the same patterns in teaching and writing, year after year. But original thinking, or serious engagement with other people’s original thinking, must become very hard to do.

“Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be…. The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive….”

I’m guessing that it depends on the objective relation between the people involved. Today I got an email announcing the latest issue of a journal I’ve published in, and as usual I had absolutely no interest in any of the articles. Whereas when I saw the title of this blog post, I was immediately interested, and in the post you brought up a lot of things I care about. I’m guessing that these shared preoccupations reflect a homology between our positions in academic fields. Given that sort of objective relation, I think you can have a great interaction with someone, whether it’s in person, via email, or on social media. On the other hand, getting trolled, or just subjected to everyone’s relentless self-promotion, clearly isn’t going to do you any good. What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.

I feel like social media aren’t really designed to facilitate these kinds of connections. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out who to follow on Twitter, and Twitter’s suggestions of academics for me to follow usually aren’t much help. I could imagine a social media platform that does something like the analysis in Homo Academicus, where Bourdieu identifies a whole group of scholars like himself who, at a particular historical moment, had similar positions and career trajectories. But then I’d worry about it selling my data…

“What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.”

I couldn’t agree more with this but it’s a theoretical question that interests me. Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…

“Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…”

I think it’s both. In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that in the 1960s, young academics whose professional aspirations were based on the old mode of academic recruitment were surprised and angry when it didn’t work for them. The shock of this hysteresis of habitus led them to question the previously taken-for-granted social structures of academia, and then those of society at large, and some of them then became leaders of the mass uprising of May 1968. I take this to mean that a person’s habitus and social trajectory can predispose them to become more reflexive.

You and I both have unorthodox career trajectories. We occupy peripheral positions in the landscape of academic institutions, in sort of no-man’s-land between the worlds of research and of applied technology. Simultaneously insiders and outsiders, we have an intuitive feel for how academia works, but we lack the total investment (illusio) of those who occupy dominant positions. I think sort of position is ideal for developing reflexivity. Bourdieu studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but as the son of a provincial postman, he felt like an outsider there. However successfully he adapted and gained access to the centres of academic power, his trajectory would never be the same as that of someone whose parents were normaliens. This experience of being different no doubt had a lasting effect on his habitus, helping him to gain the reflexivity needed for a study like The State Nobility.

I see what you’re saying but the impression I’ve got from reading the Pascalian Meditations thus far is that Bourdieu conceived of the university as consistently solely of students and professors. He may have had conditions which were epistemically conducive to understanding the rules of the academic game, but does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations? I’m not sure if I’m being unfair, but it’s the thought I keep coming back to & relates to what you’re saying about our respective positions as people who are not students, professors or researchers in the straight-forwardly post-doctoral sense.

“does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations?”

I don’t think it does. Although I think Bourdieu’s initial trajectory has something in common with ours, his experience of universities was also very different, and not just because he ended up in a dominant position in his field. For one thing, I think French universities in the second half of the twentieth century enjoyed greater institutional autonomy, and were more firmly under the control of professors, than universities in most other parts of the world. Perhaps struggles between administration and professors weren’t as big a part of his experience as they are of ours. And France hadn’t (and still hasn’t) introduced precarious, low-wage academic employment on a large scale, as the US has, or subjected academics to anything like Britain’s REF.

Bourdieu was definitely concerned with threats to the autonomy of academic fields, including ‘the more and more frequent recourse of university research to sponsorship, and of the creation of educational institutions directly subordinated to business’ (The Rules of Art, 344-45). He explored some of this in The State Nobility, but that book is mainly about individuals’ academic careers, and about the field of academic institutions, rather than about considering each institution as a field in itself. His response to these threats was to call for cultural producers to engage in a collective struggle for ‘power over the instruments of production and consecration’, and I think that’s more relevant than ever. In his day, that meant things like creating his own academic journal. Today I think we need to do much more, and I think projects that seek to transform the economics of academic publishing, like the Open Library of the Humanities, are part of that.

I think it’s important not to limit Bourdieu’s theoretical tools to the ways in which he himself used them. It’s tempting to get frustrated with him for not being interested in some of the things we’re very interested in today. But it’s inevitable that his horizons were different from ours. We can ask a lot of questions about reflexivity and autonomy that he never asked, and that’s as it should be. It could be very interesting to try to find out what sorts of habitus and social trajectories are likely to give people insight into universities as organisations.

So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context? That fits very nicely with Margaret Archer’s critique of Bourdieu which I think is pretty much uniformly misunderstood. Her problem isn’t with the sociology as much as the unthinking transposition of it from a very particular kind of centralised and relatively stable structural context.

A further thought: in The State Nobility, the people who don’t succeed in their academic careers end up as schoolteachers. Bourdieu emphasises that the division between those who succeed and those who fail is often arbitrary, but he doesn’t envisage any academic future for the rejects. All they can do is try to convince themselves that they’re content not to do research anymore. But now there seems to be a greater variety of non-academic or quasi-academic positions in and around universities, occupied by people who, in one way or another, are turning their knowledge of academia to their advantage. A lot of this seems to involve various kinds of servile roles (such as selling advice about how to game the system in order to succeed as an academic). But I’m wondering whether it’s possible for such a position to lend itself to autonomous research. In particular, if nobody expects you to do research at all, you’re under no pressure to publish, and this might make it possible to do certain kinds of ‘slow’ research that would be more difficult for others to do. And getting back to your theoretical question, what would make someone in such a position want to do something like that, while others don’t?

That’s exactly why I’ve been interested in alt-academic careers since I first came across them (as well as the practical concern of being fairly sure I wanted one) – what I’m now realising is how theoretically significant this is for academic labour and academic self-conception. An obvious empirical question: do alt-academics seek to consecrate their research as research? If so, how do they do this?

‘So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context?’

Yes, and I think that in general, as insiders in any context, we’ve internalised certain assumptions about what sorts of things are important in that context. That’s part of our insider’s habitus. For Bourdieu, reflexivity in social science requires a constant, conscious struggle against our habitus. We need all the objectifying tools that social science has to offer, such as ethnography and statistics, to make gains in that struggle. He used those tools to gain some reflexivity about the academic world he had been initiated into, but his reflexivity had limits.

I think one striking example of this is his relative neglect of the topic of religion. Despite having developed field theory through an engagement with Weber’s ideas about religion, and despite using all sorts of religious metaphors (‘consecration’, ‘theodicy’, ‘prophecy’, ‘heresy’), he didn’t pay much attention to religion itself in his research. I have a suspicion (though no direct evidence) that this was because, like many French intellectuals of his generation, he assumed that religion was a spent force, one that had become nearly irrelevant. It must have been easier to hold that view in France than in many other parts of the world, especially at that time, and perhaps if he were alive today, he would see things differently.

I used to read a lot of critiques of Bourdieu, but I ended up finding it a tiresome activity, because they nearly always turn out to be arguing against straw men, and usually it’s clear that the authors have read very little of what Bourdieu actually wrote. I suppose that many have read a bit of Bourdieu for the sole purpose of dismissing his ideas, ‘as a shortcut towards visibility more convenient than producing work of their own’, as he says in Pascalian Meditations (in the section ‘Digression: a critique of my critics’). I’ve just had a quick look at Archer’s critique in Making our Way Through the World, and it seems to be based on a common caricature of the concept of habitus, which Bourdieu rejects in that same passage, and which takes habitus to be a ‘monolithic’, ‘immutable’, ‘inexorable’, and ‘exclusive’ principle. I rather think Bourdieu saw habitus merely as a guide to improvisation, much as a song is a guide to a jazz musician’s improvisation. It makes certain things more likely and other things less likely, and provides ready-made categories that can be used to make sense of new situations, but in no way does it rigidly determine thought or action.

About the consecration of the work of alt-academics, this just occurred to me: perhaps in the old days, academics whose work was too heterodox (e.g. because they didn’t fit neatly into any academic field) would simply be ejected from academia. Or if they were very lucky, like Bourdieu, they might be able to cross over from one field to another (from philosophy to sociology in his case). But nowadays, they might also get a ‘second chance’ in alt-ac jobs. If those jobs really tend to be populated by such individuals, and if they still want to do research and publish, it stands to reason that they would need to engage in a struggle over the means of consecration. The question of how they do it is a good empirical question.

that’s very interesting, thanks. I’m certainly becoming much more open-minded since engaging with Pascalian Meditations.

I wonder if the key problem is how to avoid the research being construed as effectively a hobby. the desire to avoid playing the game of seeking high-status journal publications is definitely one factor in the alt-academic discourse but, without this consecration, what’s the status of the work that’s not being written up? I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?

‘I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?’

I think that would definitely be a place to start. Bourdieu placed a high value on understanding the author’s point of view: what were the alternatives the author faced? In his examples of revolutions in fields, he often talks about authors who were confronted with a field divided into two opposing camps, and who rejected both of them. I’m wondering whether a refusal to choose between ‘high-status journal publications’ and ‘work that’s not being written up’ could lead to new forms of research and consecration.

Personally I want to keep publishing, but since I no longer need to care about how a publication looks on my CV, and since I don’t think aggressive peer review adds much value, I don’t care how high-status the journal is. It’s more important to me that it’s an open-access journal and doesn’t make me wait a year for a decision, and it’s even better if it’s interdisciplinary. My feeling is that the consecration that matters happens after publication in any case, if it happens at all.

I would also like to reclaim the respectability of doing work as a hobby. In historical terms, all scientists did research as a hobby until very recently. Today, someone like Charles Darwin wouldn’t be able to spend thirty years working on the theory of evolution before publishing it, because no institution would fund him for that long. He was able to do it because he was independently wealthy, and science was a hobby for him. But perhaps alt-ac careers offer another way to do science as a hobby, and thus to escape the pressure to publish quickly.

But I’ve had the argument put to me that the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions. There’s something self serving and dismissive about this but I’m worried there’s also an element of truth to it.

“the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions”

The history of science shows that this is not true. I’ve mentioned Charles Darwin, all of whose scientific work was done as a hobby. Some other examples are Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Henry Fox Talbot, and Ada Lovelace.

“I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances.”

One doesn’t need to be a salaried researcher to publish in scientific journals. Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking papers during his seven years as an employee of the Swiss patent office.

But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.

I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances. Your work is taken seriously if it can garner engagement by others (particularly outside of the academy) even if it lacks formal consecration within it.

“But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.”

I think it depends on what kind of research you want to do. If you need a particle accelerator, you probably have to be a professional scientist. But in the social sciences and humanities, a lot of research is done with nothing more than a PhD plus time, thought, publicly available data, and a bit of computing power. Time seems to be the scarcest resource for academics. I actually have more time for research now, with an alt-ac job, than I had when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor.

I think it’s important to distinguish between academic fields and academic institutions. Perhaps the biggest barrier to what I’m suggesting is the illusion, promoted by academics and academic institutions themselves, that having an academic position equals participation in an academic field. I think this is a bit like when priests say that there is no salvation outside the Church.

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