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  • Mark 7:22 pm on December 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, , desmond, , participant observation,   

    Against spontaneous sociology: Michael Burawoy’s attempt to rescue Bourdieu from Matthew Desmond and what it means for public sociology 

    My notes on Burawoy, M. (2017). On Desmond: the limits of spontaneous sociology. Theory and Society, 46(4), 261-284.

    The work of Matthew Desmond has won enormous acclaim in recent years, with Evicted being a book I recommend to anyone keen to understand the relevance of contemporary sociology. While recognising his talents as an ethnographer and writer, in this paper Michael  Burawoy takes issue with the methodological approach advocated by Desmond, arguing that it represents a form of what Bourdieu called ‘spontaneous sociology’: a return to the naive empiricism of the Chicago school era that confines truth to the field site, presented in the guise of a theoretical revolution. Desmond has made the case that ethnographic practice reminds mired in substantialism, being left behind by what Andrew Abbott describes as a ‘quiet revolution’ in the social sciences: a relational turn which overcomes a dominant tendency where “the object of study is confined to isolated places, bounded groups and homogeneous cultures” as Burawoy summarises the case against substantialism on pg 263.

    Nonetheless, Burawoy argues that Desmond struggles to identify examples of substantialist ethnography, with this purportedly dominant approach servicing to obscure the distinction between what Burawoy sees as the two forms of relational ethnography: “empiricist transactional ethnography and a theoretically-grounded structural ethnography” (pg 263). The former’s rejection of prior theory and comparison (the first seen as getting in the way of a pragmatic ontology of the field site by leaving the analyst bogged down in theoretical debates, the second as inevitably involving groups or places and thus substantialism) render it unable to grasp “forces beyond the field site that can only be explored with theoretical frameworks and comparative logic” as in structural ethnography (pg 263). Not only are the effects of wider structures circumscribed by this methodological stance, it goes hand-in-hand with a slide into “old style inductive ethnography in which sociological insights emerge spontaneously from the data”. As Burawoy continues on pg 264:

    As a follower of Bourdieu, Desmond insists on the importance of constructing a scientific object that breaks with common sense. Yet his own ethnographies, far from breaking with the common sense of his participants, faithfully reproduce it. His objects of study, such as eviction, spring directly from the experience of his subjects, so that his work exemplifies what Bourdieu et al. (1991, p. 38) condemn, namely a hyperempiricism that abdicates the right and duty of theoretical construction in favour of spontaneous sociology. Paradoxically, the spontaneous sociology of Evicted makes it highly effective as a public sociology of exposé, but it comes at the cost of a critical perspective that would break with common sense and generate convincing policy proposals.

    This slide follows from the rejection of comparison and past theory, falling back on the “the inductivist view that the field reveals insights in and of itself without explicitly engaging relevant literature, which is either dismissed as wrong-headed or ignored”: the ethnographer “mimics the experiences of those he studies” because the resources to facilitate an epistemological break (from common sense) in the construction of the research object have been discarded (pg 266). If I understand him correctly, Burawoy is concerned with the scholarly practice which makes this break possible. If you limit truth to what emerges from the field site then how do you ensure a distance from common sense? I’m not sure if Burawoy is saying it’s impossible but it’s certainly difficult. As he puts it on pg 276, “Desmond departs from Durkheim and Bourdieu for whom prior theorizing is essential for an epistemological shift, a shift from spontaneous sociology to scientific sociology”. In this sense, he’s saying Desmond’s approach runs counter to Bourdieu’s in spite of his invocation of it. He goes on to offer a clear summary of Bourdieu’s approach on pg 277:

    Bourdieu’s epistemological break is based on a two-fold truth—the truth of the participant and the truth of the scientist between which there is an unbridgeable divide. That is to say, participants cannot connect their own world to the scientific understanding of the sociologist. In the game metaphor Bourdieu often deploys, players develop a commitment (illusio) to a taken-for-granted set of all absorbing and incontrovertible principles (nomos) governing the play of the game—while the scientist observing the game from without can see the conditions that make the game possible, conditions that are invisible to the players.

    It follows from this that Bourdieu is “skeptical of participant observation, as it only reveals a partial truth, the subjective truth of the participant, unable of itself to reach an objective truth” (pg 278). Objectivity necessitates distance from the field site of precisely the sort which Burawoy claims Desmond’s approach precludes.

    In the final part of the paper, Burawoy compares the Bourdieu’s public sociology to Desmond’s. The former was predicated on an “epistemological break with the epistemological break” that “establishes the conditions for a public sociology, a sociology that engages the public”, something which the insistence on distance from subaltern common sense had previously precluded (pg 279).The latter involves a “synergy of public and professional sociology, each bolstering and inspiring the other”, seen in Desmond’s scientific follow ups to Evicted and his copious scholarly end notes coupled with huge dissemination through popular media (pg 280). Unfortunately, argues Burawoy, it leads to poor policy sociology, producing recommendations which fail to grasp the broader dynamics in place. He writes on pg 281 of the wider social forces which “are invisible in Desmond’s account—forces that have to be unveiled and tackled if there is to be any solution to the housing problem”.

    His objection is that “Desmond’s public sociology, important as it is, is limited to an exposé of the lived experience of housing insecurity”: it can’t get beyond the field site and hence is restricted to disseminating the common sense that is found there. This serves a purpose but it is a limited one. Burawoy ends with a call that resonates with me, stressing on pg 282 that the ‘underlying dilemma of ethnography’ is one of broader importance when the academic workplace is under threat: how do we relate to those we study?

    Especially today, when the academic work- place is threatened by forces beyond, the underlying dilemma of ethnography—that we are part of the world we study—is pressingly germane to all social science and the academic world more generally. So we have to develop an understanding of our relation to those we study. We cannot confine ourselves to processes within the field site but must recognize how they are tied to the past and thus to the future, as well as to social forces that establish their conditions of existence. We cannot broach these problems without inherited bodies of knowledge—theories—that we continually reconstruct. That is what gives meaning and distinctiveness to sociology.

    Reflecting on this a day later, I feel I should stress how much I like Matthew Desmond’s work. I regret the slightly click-baity header I gave these notes, though it does seem appropriate for the point Burawoy is making in his critique of Desmond’s cultivated atheoreticism. It would also be interesting to link up the argument Burawoy is making here to the critique Archer and Donati make of Mustafa Emirbayer’s relational sociology, as there’s a lot of overlap.

  • Mark 9:48 pm on December 7, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , bourdieu, , , practical intellectuals, ,   

    The missing history of the practical intellectuals 

    One of my pet hates is the legacy of the ‘intellectual’, with its connotations of heroic figures speaking truth to power. This is recognised even by those who seek to retain the notion, as was the case with Foucault’s project “to break with the totalizing ambition of what he called the ‘universal intellectual'” as Bourdieu ably described it in his tribute to the philosopher after his death:

    For him, the critical vision was applicable first of all to his own practice, and in this respect he was the purest representative of a new kind of intellectual who has no need to mystify himself as to the motives and themes of intellectual acts, nor to foster illusions about their effect, in order to practice them in full knowledge of their cause.

    Political Interventions: Social Sciences and Political Action, Pg 139

    For words to have influence, for knowledge to make a difference through speech, intellectuals require a platform. It is a platform which by its nature, facilitating a broadcast mode of one to many, can only be occupied by a chosen few. The figures who have occupied such platforms linger on in our imagination of the public role of the humanities and the social sciences, even amongst those who explicitly repudiate the role. This is problematic for many reasons but one which I’ve been reflecting on recently is how it marginalises other modes of intellectual engagement with the world and the people who undertake them. For instance Ann Oakley describes the often overlooked history of women ‘practical intellectuals’ on 4703 of her Father and Daughter:

    We’re quite ignorant about the connected histories of women ‘practical intellectuals’, who combined learning, action and public policy. We don’t know the extent to which interlocking networks of women reformers/ researchers/ social scientists/ practical intellectuals have operated in different countries at different times and with what consequences. For example, the Swedish social researcher and reformer Kerstin Hesselgren was trained as a sanitary inspector at Bedford College in London in the early 1900s (having already learnt nursing and home economics and, most extraordinarily, acquired a certificate as a barber-surgeon). She practised her passion for research-based social reform by being one of the first Swedish women MPs, the first female factory inspector in Sweden, the instigator of many social investigations, a prime mover in the first social workers’ union, and a network-builder for women across political parties and classes. When the Swedish government set up a Committee on Women’s Work in the late 1930s, Hesselgren was its Chair, and another social scientist/ reformer/ politician, Alva Myrdal, was its Secretary. Networking, especially women’s networking has, like friendship, been neglected as part of the story of 20th-century social science. A childhood exposure.

    The reach and influence of these networks was remarkable, as well as the obvious solidarity which characterised them. Though the manner in which they have been overlooked invites many explanations, I find it hard not to wonder if the oversight would be so pronounced were it not for the residual hold which the (usually male) public intellectual, pontificating from on high, retains on our imagination of how learning and action can be combined.

  • Mark 12:55 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: aggregates, , bourdieu, , , , , , ,   

    Pierre Bourdieu, liberal thought and the ontology of collectives 

    Well over a decade ago, I was due to start a PhD in Political Philosophy looking at ideas of the individual within liberal thought. There are many reasons why I ultimately moved into a Sociology department instead, though my lack of regrets about this choice hasn’t stopped me occasionally wondering what might this thesis might have looked like. It occurred this morning when reading a collection of Bourdieu’s political writings (Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action) that one likely outcome would have been a subsequent study on liberalism’s difficulty with collectives. As Bourdieu writes, reproduced on pg 58:

    Liberal philosophy identifies political action with solitary action, even silent and secret action, its paradigm being the vote ‘acquired’ by a party in the secret of the polling booth. In this way, by reducing group to series, the mobilised opinion of an organised or solidaristic collective is reduced to a statical aggregation of individually expressed opinions.

    The difficulty posed by collectives concerns the empirical refutation of this often unstated principle. Actually existing collectives, with all their emergent mess, make it difficult to reduce group to series by methodological slight of hand. The noise and assertion which characterise them challenge us to treat them as collectives. But the broader edifice of liberal thought is dependent on melting collectives into aggregates:

    Political action is thus reduced to a kind of economic action. The logic of the market or of the vote, in other words, the aggregation of individual strategies, imposes itself each time that groups are reduced to the state of aggregates – or, if you prefer, demobilised. When, in effect, a group is reduced to impotence (or to individual strategies of subversion, sabotage, wastefulness, go-slows, isolated protest, absenteeism, etc.), because it lacks power over itself, the common problem of each of its members remains in a state of unease and cannot be expressed as a political problem.

    How should we conceive of the relationship between individuals and collectives? Much of what I’ve done in the last ten years is ultimately motivated by this question. This paper last year explored the biographical constitution of social movements under digital capitalism, arguing that ‘distracted people’ have much more inconsistent trajectories of participation, with implications for the emergent characteristics of social movements themselves:

    Social movements often make an important contribution to the normative order within social life but how are their dynamics changing under conditions of social morphogenesis? It is clear that the emergence and normalisation of social media entail affordances for mobilisation that have important implications for social movements. However there is little agreement upon precisely what these implications are and whether they can or should be evaluated in general terms. This chapters takes a novel approach to this question, exploring the technological dimensions of social morphogenesis and their consequences for the ‘distracted people’ who comprise social movements. Using the relational realist theory developed by Margaret Archer and Pierpaolo Donati, I offer a novel account of the constitution of social movements that invites us to ask questions about the emergence and durability of new movements that are obscured by alternative theoretical approaches which fail to recognise both the emergent and relational constitution of collectives.

    At some point I’d also like to pursue these issues at the level of cultural representation. For instance in the representation of mindless hoards posing a threat to the liberal order:

    The relation between individuals and collectives plays out at many levels. My concern is to reclaim it as a meta-categorical feature of discourse, such that the connections between these different levels can be explored. I’m still rather far away from doing this, but at least the ambition is relatively clear to me now.

    • Dave Ashelman 2:22 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      My lack of scholarship on what I call “dead French philosophers” is something that I freely admit to. Coming from American sociology, it’s not something that we have a lot of exposure to. A current colleague of mine is deep into Bourdieu and has turned me on to some of his benefits (albeit, I do not agree with everything he says – yet). Since Bourdieu however, others I’ve read have had this same critique. My own work on Neoliberalism as a social movement seems to be supported by the Bourdieu idea, and there have been many since who have had the same critiques.

      Which brings me to the importance of Sociology understanding how economics and neoliberalism works. I went and got a Master’s degree in economics solely so I could learn how economics works, especially under neoliberalism. It was hard work, and there was a lot of math (which luckily I’m good at), but it was worth it. Sociology too often writes about economic conditions without a basic understanding how economics works. And I see a lot about neoliberalism within a Neomarxist framework without any acknowledgement of the deep roots between economics and neoliberalism.

      Both neoliberalism as a social movement and economics as a discipline think in aggregates. Homo Economicus, the basic unit of economic analysis today, has no social location. It has no gender, race, class, or anything else “social.” In both economics and neoliberalism, Homo Economicus is a purely rational actor, and society is made up of an aggregate of purely rational actors. This is still taught in economics courses around the world today. And if it sounds a bit Weberian, it is: the main founder of the neoliberal social movement, von Mises, praised Weber’s Rational Action Theory, as did Karl Popper, another founder of the neoliberal social movement. Nicholas Gane also wrote about this in his 2014 paper: “Sociology and Neoliberalism: a Missing History” (Journal of Sociology Vol 48(6).

      Sociologists should also read Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” and Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom” to understand how neoliberalism sees collectivism. For the Neoliberal social movement, ANY form of collectivism – including democracy, is bad (remember Homo Economicus). Hayek specifically called for economic systems to supersede ANY other forms of organizing society. Friedman did the same. Karl Popper developed his methodologies to specifically turn this dogma into “science” to make it more palatable to politicians (like Reagan, Thatcher and Pinochet). Today, neoliberal ideas permeate our culture on all levels beyond just the economic.

      So Bourdieu was on to something – collectivism is bad, and aggregates are good in the neoliberal mindset, and it has become a set of cultural practices. You’ve sold me more on Bourdieu. Thank you.

    • jayspencergreen 2:27 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      Is Bourdieu discussing Sartre there, because the descriptions are practically identical to the account of group-individual relations that Sartre explores in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (and, in relation to elections, in his essay “Elections: A Trap for Fools.” It’s a fascinating field that I don’t think is necessarily limited to political philosophy (or sociology). My reading has taken in Mancur Olsen, Colin Crouch, Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, purely on foot of reading Sartre. I shall have to check the PB essay too. 🙂

    • Mark 4:52 pm on March 8, 2017 Permalink

      Not explicitly but I noticed the same thing! I guess the distinction doesn’t belong to Sartre but Bourdieu seems to be using his language there.

      What would you recommend from the authors you mention? I know Colin Crouch quite well but I’ve never read the others.

    • Mark 4:53 pm on March 8, 2017 Permalink

      You’re welcome – I’ve only recently become sold on him myself!

      Not for the first time, you’ve left a blog comment which I think deserves to be a blog post in its own right.

  • Mark 11:44 am on March 3, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , bourdieu, , , , , , ,   

    Pierre Bourdieu, post-war Algeria and the existential conditions for collective action 

    In an early essay on post-war Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu reflected on the existential experience of the urban sub-proletariat and its political significance. This is reproduced on pg 16 of Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action:

    Habituation to prolonged unemployment and the most casual and poorly paid work, along with the lack of any regular employment, prevent the development of a coherent organisation either now or in future of a system of expectations towards which all activity and existence can be orientated. For want of possessing this minimum grasp on the present that is the precondition for a deliberate and rational effort to grasp the future, all these people are prey to incoherent resentment, rather than inspired by a genuine revolutionary consciousness; the lack of work, or its instability, go together with the absence of perspective on hopes and opinions, the absence of a system of rational projects and forecasts of which the will to revolution is an aspect. Enclosed in a condition marked by insecurity and incoherence, their own vision is generally itself uncertain and incoherent.

    I’m immediately struck by the parallel between the experience he describes and what I write about as distraction in digital capitalism. As he puts it on pg 17, “Everyday life is experienced as the result of a kind of systematic plan dreamed up by a malign will”. People become objects to which things happen. Life becomes episodic, lacking in continuity. What narrative unity people experience is one of frustration, recurrent attempts to exercise agency being denied by forces that are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The tempo of life undermines the capacity to gain purchase upon the conditions of existence, impeding any capacity to reliably pursue a change in them, let alone overcome the obstacles inevitably encountered in such a pursuit. From pg 17:

    With steady work and a regular age, with the appearance of real perspectives of social advance, an open and rational awareness of temporality can develop. At that point, the contradictions between over-ambitious expectation  and available possibilities, between opinions offered on an imaginary level and real attitudes, disappear. Action, judgements and aspirations arrange themselves as a function of a plan of life. it is then, and then only, that the revolutionary attitude takes the place of escape into dreams, fatalist resignation, or a raging resentment.

    Could anyone recommend material I could read which explores this issue in greater depth? I’m immediately struck by how Archerian this Bourdieu seems. Or perhaps how much Archer was influenced by the Bourdieu of this period. But my broader interest is in how “disintegration and disarray supply a favourable soil for ideologies of passion, and possibly retrograde ones” (pg 19). How can distracted people be mobilised?

    What I take Bourdieu to be saying is that collective action, if it is to be sustainable, necessitates a grounding in a degree of regularity within everyday life. The existential conditions of individual life, in a way shaped by but irreducible to the material conditions, provide a basis upon which different forms of collective action become more or less feasible.

    • Andreas Schmitz 11:48 am on March 3, 2017 Permalink

      Nice one!

      Best Andreas

    • Benjamin Geer 12:53 pm on March 4, 2017 Permalink

      There’s a lot more about this in the last chapter of Pascalian Meditations, “Social Being, Time and the Sense of Existence”.

    • Mark 3:36 pm on March 7, 2017 Permalink

      Ah I got so distracted by my enthusiasm for the early chapters I never finished this! Will return to it.

  • Mark 10:53 am on November 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , bourdieu, , , ,   

    The Relative Autonomy of Symbolic Mediation 

    A quick note on the Wacquant workshop. We’ve turned to habitus and he’s offered the unproblematic claim that we always encounter the physical world through the prism of symbols. Social relations generate symbolic relations which are deposited in the body, shaping action in ways which serve to reproduce or transform social relations. It would be impossible to dispute this. However there’s a relative autonomy to symbolic mediation which is too easily overlooked. There are time lags, contradictions and path dependent biographical effects. There’s also a voluntaristic aspect, as we’re inclined towards searching for new ideas in ways which challenge, contextualise and complicate the existing symbolic resources we’ve accumulated that shape our world view. I’ll do a proper post on this at a later date but the point of disagreement between the approaches taken to the person by the idiosyncratic strand of CR I follow and Bourdieusians has never seemed clearer to me.

  • Mark 10:41 am on November 1, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bourdieu,   

    The Philosophical Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu 

    I’m at an interesting workshop being given by Loic Wacquant on the practical application of Bourdieu’s social theory. An aspect that has really stood out to me so far is Wacquant’s presentation of Bourdieu’s work as a philosophical sociology.

    The point is partly biographical, with Bourdieu’s transition into social research being a response to his national service in Algeria. As Wacquant puts it, “What happens if a philosopher of science stops philosophy of science and goes to do empirical research?” His commitment to social research represents an “emotional coping mechanism” in response to what he witnessed in Algeria, leaving him unable to be content with what he saw as the apolitical quietism of the philosopher. This biographical movement shaped his intellectual trajectory because it left him drawing on classical sociology and anthropology as intellectual tools to inform the practice of social research, as opposed to a conceptual fund to be drawn upon in preparation for research. The result was, argues Wacquant, a disregard for the dichotomies and dualisms which loom so large in doctoral pedagogy.

    The intellectual consequences of this are what fascinate me though. This is how Wacquant describes the approach that follows from this, uniting the incredible range of his empirical concerns through a shared meta-theoretical impulse:

    Take a classical question of philosophy (e.g. where do categories of judgement come from?) and historicise it, by finding a particular setting where that question is raised in terms of the character of that setting and answer it in terms of the character of that setting.

    I find this a compelling idea. This is a wonderfully succinct and compelling expression of how the interface between sociology and philosophy can be conceived. This is something I’ve thought about a lot, as someone who came close to doing a philosophy phd before moving into sociology and in some ways has never felt entirely at home on either side of that divide.

    It also contrasts with Margaret Archer’s interpretation of the same question. In an interview I did with her recently, in which we discussed her time working with Bourdieu in Paris, she suggests that what unites his corpus is fundamentally methodological: he was a theorist who used empirical research to test and refine the core categories of his thought, a cluster of concepts ultimately centred around the notion of ‘habitus’.

    Regardless of which interpretation is accurate, I like the conception of theorising that Wacquant is offering. Bourdieu was both a philosophical sociologist (though Wacquant does not use this term) while also being an “anti-theoretical theorist”. He argues that people often deploy Bourdieu without using his ideas. If you can strip out the Bourdieusian language from a given paper without effecting the argument then his ideas have been used as a theoretical idiom rather than as conceptual tools. As he puts it, “if nothing has been lost by removing them then nothing has been gained by using them.”

  • Mark 10:01 am on May 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bourdieu, , distinction, orwell,   

    Before Bourdieu, there was Orwell 

    I love this little passage, quoted on pg 172 of Zizek’s Trouble in Paradise:

    We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed … The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class-distinctions means abolishing a part of yourself. Here am I, a typical member of the middle class. It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions. All my notions –notions of good and evil, of pleasant and unpleasant, of funny and serious, of ugly and beautiful –are essentially middle-class notions; my taste in books and food and clothes, my sense of honour, my table manners, my turns of speech, my accent, even the characteristic movements of my body, are the products of a special kind of upbringing and a special niche about half-way up the social hierarchy. 31

  • Mark 2:12 pm on March 28, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , bourdieu,   

    An Archerian reading of Bourdieu: the reflexive imperative as the normalisation of hysteresis 

    I’ve just cut this out of a paper I’m working on. It’s not up to scratch and it doesn’t really contribute anything to the development of the paper. But it’s an idea I’m planning to return to in future, so I’d be interested in any thoughts people have about it. I hadn’t actually compiled the bibliography for this yet but get in touch if you’d like info about a reference in the text. 

    In this section I provide an overview of Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity, focusing upon the role of cultural variety in shaping reflexive deliberation. To do this, I wish to borrow a metaphor from the Bourdieusian theorist Will Atkinson and use this to consider the role of categories in internal conversation. Atkinson invokes the metaphor of a flashlight to illustrate the disjuncture between the objective and subjective fields of possibility which confront a subject. His phenomenological reconstruction of habitus[1] seeks to explain “the limits of the conceivable range of possibilities” in terms of the power of habitus for “illuminating in consciousness, like the beam from a torch, only a circumscribed arc of social space and leaving the rest in the unknown, unthinkable darkness” (Atkinson 2010: 104). My contention is that this metaphor can be usefully be reclaimed from the use made of it here and that what Atkinson (2010: 52) describes as “the full weight of accumulated categorization” can usefully be reconceptualised in terms of the generative mechanism through which cultural variety influences reflexive deliberation. If we understand culture, following Archer (1985, 2011: loc 3696), as the “repertoire of ideas for construing the situations in which [subjects] find themselves”, we are left with the question of how their ensuing influence accumulates biographically. Atkinson’s (2010) metaphor of the flash light nicely captures this as a synchronic relation, in which the subject’s perception of the possibilities available to them are filtered through a prism of ‘accumulated categorization’[2], but it lacks an account of the diachronic i.e. past ideas which subjects have incorporated into their mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders[3] exercise a conditioning influence upon present action, one result of which will be the reproduction or transformation of the stock of mental representations influencing future deliberations. 

    The question remains however as to how this ‘categorization’ accumulates. As Atkinson (2010: 52) admits, the “precise contents of the habitus and how it generates conscious thought and intention … is never really elaborated in a systematic way, leaving it open to the charge of being an explanatory black box”. I’d suggest that Archer’s (2003, 2007) account of communicative reflexivity cracks open this black box by elaborating upon how the stock of mental representations is reliably reproduced through the dynamics of external conversation: trusting similar others, circumscription of internal dialogue and privileging the shared present (Archer 2007: 270-281). The decline of the contextual continuity necessary for communicative reflexivity[4] progressively erodes the shared mental representations which are necessary for internal conversation to be externalised, seeking confirmation and completion by trusted others, in a manner experienced as subjectively worthwhile (Archer 2007: 84-85). The decline of contextual continuity exercises an independent influence upon the likely stock of potential interlocutors, given the time taken for relationships of this sort to be established and the relative immobility likely necessary for them to be retained[5]. This accounts for the fragility of communicative reflexivity in contemporary circumstances. Even were someone is born into circumstances precipitous to it, the likelihood of those circumstance both remaining stable and a subject remaining within them is increasingly low. As Archer (2012) and Carrigan (2014) both illustrate, one important vector of change is the transition of students to university, leading to a transformation of the students themselves and implications for their web of familial relations and ‘home’ friends at the time of entry.

    With the decline of communicative reflexivity comes the necessity of recognising the different modes through which cultural structures are mediated at the level of personal reflexivity. The failure to do this can be seen in debates out the ‘split habitus’ and ‘intra-habitus’ contradictions. For instance Mouzelis (2007) invokes the ‘intra-active processes’ then can ensue when a subject finds themselves under the influence of a habitus with ‘two fundamental aspects’. Friedman (2015) discusses Bourdieu’s ambivalent treatment of ‘long-range social mobility’ and its implications for reflexivity, something which he recognised in his own life when writing in an auto-ethnographic mode but relegated to the periphery of social analysis in the lives of others in his description of ‘hysteresis effects’: mismatches between habitus and field, a disjuncture between objective demands and subjective capacities, leading to negative sanctions from others within it. The notion of hysteresis has natural scientific origins, gifting the term with connotations of change and time lag (Grenfell 2014: 128). As Friedman (2015) notes, Bourdieu began to explore hysteresis effects at the level of personal life in his later work, leaving it an open question as to whether this investigative thread might ultimately have led to a revision of the concept of habitus. After all, Archer’s (2007) account of the ‘demise of routinisation’ could be translated into Bourdieusian terminology as a thesis about the normalisation of hysteresis[6]. Rosa’s (2013) notion of an intra-generational pace of change describes the same trend. In Archer’s words: “change is now too rapid and appropriate practices now too evanescent for inter-generational socialisation to take place” (Archer 2007: 41).

    While Bourdieu implicitly maintains the stability of the field and relegates a mismatch to an ‘effect’ at the level of subject, Archer (2003, 2007) instead conceives of changing characteristics of the social context (continuity, discontinuity and incongruity) and their relation to the different modes through which the reflexive capacities of subjects can be exercised. In doing so, the relation between the objective and subjective is opened up in  way much more amenable to investigating their interplay than is the case when a homology is assumed and its absence is regarded as an outlier. Under conditions of contextual continuity, there tend to be a mutually reinforcing relationship between cultural variety and social circumstances. Our repertoire of ideas for construing our situations find confirmations in the characteristics of those situations and in the ideas of those with whom we discuss the choices faced in them. Dependence upon concepts does not entail determination by concepts and so there’s not necessity here but rather conditioning influences operative via a number of pathways (structural, ideational, relational, biographical). The result is that our access to cultural variety is heavily circumscribed, something which practitioners of communicative reflexivity are liable to accept and work to reinforce[7]. With the emergence of contextual discontinuity, this mutual reinforcement between the socio-cultural and the cultural system begins to loosen, as novel opportunities force subjects to look beyond interlocutors for guidance. Furthermore, the influence of established variety within a stable context diminished because of the growing tendency for subjects to move beyond and between milieu as they sought to take advantage of these opportunities. In some cases, new ideas encountered might support established ways of doing things within a milieu, but in others cases they might lead a subject to feel they have no choice but to move beyond it. Under these circumstances, cultural variety may still be circumscribed within a particular milieu but subjects are more likely to move between milieus and thus ‘take’ variety with them when they move. With the growth of contextual incongruity, cultural variety began to be encountered within a milieu, such that subjects are confronted with the necessity of evaluating mutually incompatible ideas. Archer (2012) investigates the implications of this for the development of reflexivity but what I wish to stress here is how this encourages some subjects to look towards the cultural system in order to find ideas which help reconcile the conflicts they face. Increasingly, the activity of subjects within a context contributes to an expansion of cultural variety, as opposed to being something brought about by moving between contexts.

    This is a brief sketch at a high level of abstraction, conducted in a micro-sociological register. My focus is on how changes in contextual features generate different modes of mediation of cultural variety which subjects then orientate themselves towards in variable ways. To return to the flashlight analogy: the ‘default’ setting of the beam is heavily circumscribed under conditions of contextual continuity, unevenly circumscribed under contextual discontinuity _ and highly expansive under conditions of contextual incongruity. But why does this matter? It matters because how cultural variety is mediated for any given subject shapes how their objective field of actual opportunities contracts into a subjective field of perceived possibilities. As Archer (2012: 62) notes, increasing cultural variety leads to a greater stimulus towards innovative commitments. But it also increases the challenge of choosing from available opportunities, developing sustainable courses of action and committing to ongoing projects. The wider the ‘beam’ of the ‘flashlight’, the more work that is required to make choices about one’s own future, a predicament generated by the process of cultural morphogenesis described here, to which subjects contribute in turn when they seek more variety in order to resolve it.

    [1] Resulting in something which looks even closer to Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) account of reflexivity than that seen in Crossley’s (2001) parallel attempt to use the intellectual resources of phenomenology to open the ‘black box’ of habitus. However Crossley (2001) takes reflexivity more seriously than Atkinson, who ultimately dismisses it as ‘faux reflexivity’ representing “nothing more than mundane consciousness operating within the subjective field of possibilities given class positions and dispositions but masquerading at the narrative level as action without limits of history.” (Atkinson 2010: 114). He essentially concludes that the concept of ‘reflexivity’ necessarily entails taking professions of agency at face value, as Thomson et al (2002) put it, oddly drawing this conclusion with little scrutiny of how concepts of reflexivity are actually operationalised in empirical studies.

    [2] Though even then the interruption of contingency can lead to outcomes which lead the subject to look beyond the beam of their present flashlight. Brock and Carrigan (2012) analyse a case study in which the highly contingent unfolding of a ‘riot’ will likely lead to personal change for those involved. For more on personal morphogenesis see Alford (1995) and Carrigan (2014).

    [3] See Archer (2000) for a full account of these concepts. My intuition would be that mental representations of the natural, practical and social orders exhibit ascending degrees of durability from the former to the latter, though the unfolding reality of intra-generational climactic change might falsify this assumption.

    [4] Something which begins to fragment with what Harmut Rosa’s (2013) describes as an intergenerational rate of social change and is largely absent with the advent of an intragenerational rate of social change, beyond pockets of sub-culture which have (reflexively) sought to shield themselves from social morphogenesis, as with the religious sub-cultures invoked by Gorski (2016).

    [5] Though of course personal connections can be established and reproduced through digital technology (Baym 2010). Nonetheless, many would raise questions about the meaningfulness of these connections, such as Hill (2015), Keen (2012, 2014), Slade (2012), Turkle (2011) and Zimbardo (2015). Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethnographic accounts paint a more nuanced picture of digitally mediated social relations. See Miller (2013), Miller and Slater (2000), Miller and Sinanan (2013).

    [6] Though this would gloss over other relevant differences, such as a preference for the concept of ‘routine’ given it has no comparable connotation of the social getting ‘inside’ of us.

    [7] By seeking out the similar and the familiar and, to varying degrees, turning away from the dissimilar and disfamiliar. The more contextual continuity recedes, the more active this process by necessity becomes.

  • Mark 4:47 pm on November 29, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , bourdieu   

    Call for Papers: The contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu 


    The contemporary relevance of the work of Pierre Bourdieu
    BSA Bourdieu Study Group’s Inaugural Biennial Conference 2016

    Organised in association with the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol

    4-6 July, 2016,
    University of Bristol

    Pierre Bourdieu has been one of the most influential sociologists of the second half of the 20th Century. His work, which has been translated into more than 24 languages, has had a significant impact on contemporary sociology internationally. Bourdieu’s importance shows no signs of decreasing as newer generations of sociologists unpack and expand his theoretical framework to a wide range of present-day sociological issues and case studies. Nonetheless, previous arguments repeatedly seem to resurface on whether Bourdieu’s ideas – developed over 50 years ago in a different era and the specific context of France – are empirically persuasive today.

    From its establishment in 2012, the British Sociological Association’s (BSA) Bourdieu Study Group has sought to critically examine and extend the application of Bourdieusian social theory in contemporary research. This conference aims to further this endeavour by bringing together international researchers from different areas of inquiry and stages of career who are using Bourdieu. Through doing so, this three day event will highlight and pull together the various complementary ways in which Bourdieu’s intellectual heritage is being developed internationally.

    Keynote Speakers/Panellists:

    Dr Will Atkinson (University of Bristol), Professor Gill Crozier (University of Roehampton), Professor David James (Cardiff University),  Dr Joseph Ibrahim (Leeds Beckett University), Dr Lisa McKenzie (London School of Economics), Professor Tariq Modood (University of Bristol), Professor Diane Reay (Cambridge University), Professor Derek Robbins (University of East London), Dr Nicola Rollock (Institute of Education), Professor Mike Savage (London School of Economics) Professor Franz Schultheis (University of St. Gallen)

    Workshop Coordinators and Discussants:
    Dr Will Atkinson, Dr Michael Benson,  Professor Harriet Bradley, Dr Ciaran Burke  Professor Gill Crozier, Dr Sam Friedman, Professor David James, Dr Joseph Ibrahim,  Dr Nicola Ingram, Dr Daniel Laurison, Dr Lisa McKenzie, Professor Diane Reay, Professor Derek Robbins, Professor Franz Schultheis, Dr Derron Wallace

    All delegates will be able to attend two workshops and have eight to choose from:

    Workshop 1: Bourdieu’s epistemology and the principle of reflexivity
    Workshop 2: Bourdieu’s philosophy of action: habitus
    Workshop 3: The social space: fields
    Workshop 4: How to interpret a multiple correspondence analysis
    Workshop 5: Bourdieu and public sociology
    Workshop 6: Taste, culture, and distinction
    Workshop 7: Bourdieu and visual ethnography
    Workshop 8: Using Bourdieu in educational research

    Call for papers

    We welcome symposiums and individual papers relating to the below theoretical, methodological, and empirical themes of Bourdieu, including:

    •       The Continuing Importance of Bourdieu – why is he relevant/necessary?
    •       Bourdieu and Politics/Social justice and Equality/Public Sociology
    •       Bourdieu and Methodology
    •       Bourdieu and Education
    •       Bourdieu, “Race”, Ethnicity and Migration
    •       Bourdieu and “Gender”
    •       Bourdieu: “Place and Space”
    •       Bourdieu: Culture, Taste and Distinction
    •       Transformation of Habitus/Habitus Fluidity

    A maximum of 75 papers will be accepted for presentation in parallel sessions and a Maximum of 20 posters abstracts will be accepted.

    Steps to follow to participate:

    1) Submission of abstracts: Wednesday 30th December  2015

    Please submit you abstracts through the BSA website: http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/abstract/abstracts.aspx

    The committee will make a selection of participants based on the quality and relevance of the submitted abstracts. Abstracts’ length should be no more than 250 words and should include a title and 3 keywords. Please provide a short biography (50-100 words) in the section marked research. Ensure that you choose a mode of presentation, either oral or poster and select a preferred stream.

    2) Announcement of selected abstracts: February 2016

    3) Online registration opens for accepted papers: February 2016

    4) Registration for accepted papers closes: March 4th 2016

    5) Registration opens for all delegates: March 7th 2016

    Useful Information

    The organisers cannot pay for participants’ travel and accommodation. The following will be provided for all participants: Refreshments and lunch during the conference; an evening meal on the first and second night of the conference.
    Cancellations received up to and including 30 March 2016 will incur an administration fee of £50.
    Cancellations received after 30 March 2016 will not be eligible for a refund on any fees-related registration.
    The Bourdieu Study Group cannot be held responsible for unforeseen circumstances that change the advertised programme.

    Important information

    Registration price will be released soon. Prices will be in line with other large-scale academic conferences. There will be no single day rate, as delegates are expected to attend the whole three days of the event.

    There are a limited number of attendance only spaces. Registration for these places will be open soon at: http://portal.britsoc.co.uk/public/event/events.aspx   Please note, that registering early will not secure you a presentation place, but that once the attendee only places are fully booked, places will only be open for accepted abstracts. Should you want to attend the event even if your abstract is unsuccessful, you are advised to book as soon as possible.

    For academic queries contact: BSA Bourdieu Study Group: bourdieu2011@gmail.com
    For further info contact: events@britsoc.org.uk  or (0191) 383 0839.

    For more info about the BSA Bourdieu Study Group: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/studygroups/bourdieu.aspx, Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/bsabourdieu Twitter: @BSABourdieuSG and join our mailing list: BSA-BOURDIEU-STUDY-GROUP@JISCMAIL.AC.UK

  • Mark 9:40 am on April 14, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bourdieu, , , ,   

    Reframing Margaret Archer’s critique of habitus 

    One of the most contentious aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity has been her critique of Bourdieu’s habitus. I was thinking back to this issue when reading Sam Friedman’s excellent new paper in the Sociological Review on the habitus clivé. It’s a whole dimension to Bourdieu’s work which I was completely unfamiliar with and furthers my hunch that if you continue to develop Bourdieu in a phenomenological direction (along the lines undertaken by Nick Crossley and Will Atkinson) the dispute about reflexivity comes to seem much more about conceptualising social change than it is about theorising subjectivity. I’ll blog about Sam’s paper some more later (and I’m interviewing him for sociologicalreview.com) but I just wanted to share this brief extract:

    Bourdieu did acknowledge that long-range social mobility can be more problematic, however, particularly when individual trajectories provoke abrupt rather than gradual transformations of habitus. During such moments of profound change, when there is a mismatch between one’s (primary) habitus and the habitus required in a new field, Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) argued that a hysteresis effect takes hold

    As a result of the hysteresis effect . . .   practices are always liable to incur negative sanctions when the environment with which they are objectively confronted is too distant from that in which they are objectively fitted. (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977: 78)

    In most of his work, Bourdieu explored hysteresis in terms of habitus shifts wrought by large-scale changes in field conditions, such as that posed by the Algerian War of Independence (Bourdieu, 1979) or the introduction of the 1914 French State Code on inheritance (Bourdieu, 2002: 12). However, in later work (1998, 1999, 2004) he also began to explore how hysteresis is experienced at a personal level, particularly among the socially mobile.

    This makes it easy to recast Archer’s claim in Bourdieusian(ish) language: the intensification of social change leads to the generalisation of ‘hysteresis’ as a condition of social life because past experience fails to provide workable guidelines for present action. It’s under these conditions that, as she puts it, reflexivity becomes imperative. She prefers to use the concept of ‘routine’ rather than ‘habitus’ (partly because she rejects the idea that the social ‘gets inside’ us as opposed to inculcates a tendency to act in a particular way) but accepts that routine (habitual) action predominates under certain conditions, it’s just that she argues such conditions no longer obtain.

    This process doesn’t operate inexorably and not everyone becomes more reflexive in the face of the ‘reflexive imperative’: her differentiation of modes of reflexivity are an attempt to conceptualise the empirical variability we can see in reflexivity and how this might contribute both aggregatively and collectively to the macro-social trends which are generating mass ‘hysteresis’.

  • Mark 6:34 pm on January 15, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, , ,   

    Howard Becker and Margaret Archer share a critique of Bourdieu 

    They just express it in a very different way:

    “Bourdieu’ s big idea was the champs, field, and mine was monde, world—what’s the difference?” Becker asks rhetorically. “Bourdieu’s idea of field is kind of mystical. It’s a metaphor from physics. I always imagined it as a zero-sum game being played in a box. The box is full of little things that zing around. And he doesn’t speak about people. He just speaks about forces. There aren’t any people doing anything.” People in Bourdieu’s field are merely atom-like entities. (It was Bourdieu’s vision that helped inspire Michel Houellebecq’s nihilistic novel of the meaningless collisions of modern life, “The Elementary Particles.”)


    As Becker has written elsewhere, enlarging the end-credits metaphor, “A ‘world’ as I understand it consists of real people who are trying to get things done, largely by getting other people to do things that will assist them in their project. . . . The resulting collective activity is something that perhaps no one wanted, but is the best everyone could get out of this situation and therefore what they all, in effect, agreed to.”


  • Mark 9:54 am on November 9, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, ,   

    On the Street Where you Live: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy 

    This looks really interesting:

    ‘On the Street Where you Live’: Bourdieusian analysis of socio-spatial hierarchy

    BSA Bourdieu Study Group Event

    Tuesday 2nd December 2014

    Key Note Speakers:  Dr Paul Watt (Birkbeck) Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmith) Dr Tracey Jensen (UEL) Dr Simon Harding (Middlesex University) and Stephen Crossley (Durham)

    The relations between the social world and urban space have been of interest to sociologists since the Chicago School’s human ecology tradition. In today’s globalised world, urbanisation is increasingly manifesting itself in people’s everyday lives, expressed through the diverse social, cultural and political space in which class, cultural and gender differences are continuously produced, contested and reworked. The move towards austerity in UK government’s fiscal policy, the weakening of state planning for urban growth and changes in residences from state property to private property has resulted in escalating house prices and the gentrification of traditionally ‘no go’ areas for the middle-class.  Social divisions and sociocultural relationships are becoming ever more spatially generated.

    In Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984) survey data was gathered in Paris, Lille and an unspecified agricultural town. However, Distinction focused on social class and the spatial dispositions and relation to the ‘cosmopolitan metropolis’ habitus of Paris – as major global city – was unexplored (Butler, 2002). Nevertheless, Bourdieu’s conceptualisation of distinction as a relation of social differences is useful in analysing socio-spatial hierarchy of neighbourhoods as well as the wider processes of segregation along preconceived lines of ‘race’, ethnicity, religion or social class.

    Over the last decade urban studies have increasingly drawn on Bourdieusian theory to examine the practices and trajectories of individuals and classes in an urban setting. This event will bring together participants for discussion and debates on socio-spatial stratification on an increasingly middle-class city as well as social exclusion of  the inner-city working classes and the usefulness of Bourdieu’s theory in analysing these issues.


    9.15-9.45 Registration and Refreshments Introduction
    10.00-11.15 Key Note: Dr Michaela Benson (Goldsmith) Place-making? Middle-class residential choice, trajectories and dynamics.
    11.15-11.30 Comfort Break

    11.30-13.30 Panel Key Notes:

    Dr Tracey Jensen (UEL) A Good School and a Decent Cup of Coffee: connecting the mundane desires of parental gentrifiers to the politics of displacement

    Stephen Crossley (Durham) ‘Looking at the family from the inside out’: social space and symbolic power in the Troubled Families Programme.

    Dr Simon Harding (Middlesex University) The Street Casino: Survival in violent street Gangs (London Street Gangs using Bourdieu)

    13.30-14.30 Lunch
    14.30-15.45 Key Note: Dr Paul Watt (Birkbeck) ‘On the Street Where You Won’t be Living for Much Longer’: What Bourdieu Can and Cannot Offer Urban Studies’
    15.45-16.15 Refreshment Break

    16.15-17.15 Workshop Discussions

    Workshop One: Dr Michaela Benson

    Workshop Two: Dr Paul Watt

    Workshop Three: Dr Tracey Jensen and Stephen Crossley

    17.15-17.30 Closing Remarks

    This event costs £28 for BSA student members, £33 for BSA-members and £43 for non BSA members.

    Refreshments and lunch are included

    Early booking is recommended as we anticipate this to be a popular event. There will be 30 places available.

    The event will take place at the BSA meeting room in Imperial Wharf London

    To register for this event please go to the BSA events site

    For further info contact: events@britsoc.org.uk  or (0191) 383 0839

    For academic queries contact: Jenny Thatcher: u0933657@uel.ac.uk

    For more info about the BSA Bourdieu Study Group: http://www.britsoc.co.uk/studygroups/bourdieu.aspx

  • Mark 7:47 am on June 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, ,   

    The Further Sociology of Hipsters 

    Does the word ‘hipster’ mean anything? “Not anymore” says Josh, an “archetypal hipster” quoted in this Guardian article. The word itself obviously has a long history but did its present sense, referring to a diffuse yet uniform sartorial and lifestyle trend in the neoliberal metropolis, ever really have a clear meaning? In its absence, can we take the ‘hipster’ seriously as an identity category? I would have assumed not and yet a Polish friend of mine described having met self-defining hipsters in Warsaw bars. I was sceptical but Morwenna Ferrier describes these encounters in East London (having presumably gone trawling in her local area for particularly earnest incarnations of the trend):

    At Hoxton Bar and Grill in east London, 24-year-old graduate Milly identifies with hipsters: “I mean, that’s why we all live in east London. It just feels so real, like something creative and cool is happening.”

    Manny, a 28-year-old singer who has lived in Dalston for more than five years, likes the sense of community: “Young people haven’t got jobs or work and they need it. It’s like a tribe, like goths. I hope hipsters aren’t dead, because I just signed a year lease on my flat.”

    Miller adds: “We’ve never written about hipsters as a subculture at Vice because I don’t think hipsters are a subculture. However, I do appreciate that people like the idea of belonging to something, so I suppose on that level the idea exists.” As O’Neil explains: “Whoever said [hipsters] wanted to be unique? I think it’s more about wanting to belong.”


    The article ends on an interesting point: “I don’t see why you can’t just be a guy in east London liking the stuff that’s around without being branded as something”. When I wrote about this a few weeks ago, Matt Lodder made the important observation that the category of ‘hipster’ is often used to denigrate adherents of activities that are undertaken with absolute sincerity. So what could be an overriding passion (of the sort that an ethically earnest, Andrew Sayer quoting sociologist such as myself should take seriously) is instead dismissed as obvious artifice. But perhaps the dichotomy here (between passion and pretence) is fallacious – am I preoccupied with the category of the ‘hipster’ because it unsettles the intellectual scheme I’m so invested in? It makes me realise that I frequently come close to the concept of ‘authenticity’ despite this being a notion I find rather absurd.

    One way to preserve the dichotomy would be to consider the expression the author quotes at the end of the article: liking the stuff that’s around. Does passion slide into pretence when it’s lazily selected from the adjacent context rather than searched for? I think there’s something to this thought but it’s not an overly convincing response. The discussion with Benjamin Geer here makes me think I’ll need to read Bourdieu properly before I get a handle on this issue. I’ve had Rules of Art on my shelf for ages and still haven’t touched it. What seems particularly important is the manner in which, as I understand it, Bourdieu addresses definitional struggles by incorporating the contesting parties into the analysis itself. This is Benjamin’s comment on the previous post:

    The question “who is a hipster” is like the question “who is a writer” that Bourdieu dealt with in “The Rules of Art”, in that the participants in the field are engaged in a constant struggle over where the boundaries of the field should be drawn. He called this “conflict over definitions”, or “classification struggle” (as opposed to “class struggle”). Rather than try to impose his own definition on a contested category, he ended up deciding to construct his object of study by including all those who were involved in that very struggle.


    So on this view, the Guardian article and my blog post would presumably figure into our understanding of the concept of the ‘hipster’ rather than being something external to it. From this perspective the initial form of my question starts to seem slightly silly (basically: are they committed to their practices or is it a cultivated pretence?) and it instead leads outwards into a whole network of questions of that are otherwise slightly occluded by the way I’ve setup the issue. How is it that the question becomes intelligible in the first place? I’m going to retrieve the Rules of Art from my shelf and place it on my ‘to read’ pile. I’ll also perhaps restrain myself from any further ruminations about ‘hipsters’ until I’ve read it.

  • Mark 4:27 am on June 12, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, ,   

    A BSA Bourdieu Study Group Event: Are Elite Universities Meritocratic? 

    Are Elite Universities Meritocratic?

    A BSA Bourdieu Study Group Event

    Tuesday 8th
    July 2014 10am-5pm

    Cardiff University
    Committee Rooms, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII
    Avenue, Cardiff, CF10 3WT

    Keynote Speakers
    Professor Diane Reay and Dr. Vikki Boliver

    Bourdieu talks about university being a process of ‘elimination’ for
    those who lack the type of ‘capital’ valued by those institutions. In
    the UK meritocracy is promoted, the idea that one’s position in
    society is determined by ability plus effort rather than background.
    However, despite the gap closing slightly in recent years, young
    people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still much less likely to
    be admitted to higher education and specifically to elite universities.
    UCAS data (2013) shows that young people from the most
    advantaged areas are still 7.5 times more likely than those from the
    most disadvantaged to enter a higher tariff institution. Moreover
    Black and Asian young people are much less likely to receive an
    offer from a Russell group university than their White counterparts.
    In a context where universities are charging up to £9,000 it is
    important to scrutinise their admissions processes. This conference
    will do just that, asking the following questions: Are elite
    universities meritocratic? What role does class and race play in their
    admissions processes? The conference will also consider the
    question of what happens to the minority of disadvantaged students
    that do make it through the system. Overall asking a crucial question:
    Are elite universities –themselves- reproducing inequality?

    To cover expenses, the event costs: £35 – BSA member students; £40 -BSA
    member non-students and £50 – Non-BSA members. Lunch, refreshments and
    a wine reception will be provided.

    To register please go to:


    10:00- 10:30: Registration/Tea and coffee

    10:30 -10:45: Welcome by convenors

    10:45 – 12:00: Dr Vikki Boliver ‘Meritocracy and fairness
    in elite university admissions’

    12:00- 13:00: Lunch

    13:00 – 14:15: Professor Diane Reay ‘Elite universities and
    their centrality in the reproduction of educational

    14:15 – 14:30: Tea and coffee break

    14:30 – 16:00: Panel Discussion- Dr Vikki Boliver (Durham
    University); Professor Harriet Bradley (UWE Bristol)
    Professor David James (Cardiff University) Professor Diane
    Reay (University of Cambridge); Mr Richard Smith

    16:00 – 17:00: Wine reception

    17:00: Close and depart for dinner/drinks

    For further info contact: events@britsoc.org.uk or (0191) 383 0839
    For academic queries contact: Jessie Abrahams: abrahamsjj@cardiff.ac.uk
    For more info about the BSA Bourdieu Study Group:

  • Mark 7:58 am on April 18, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, , ,   

    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.

  • Mark 5:26 pm on April 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bourdieu, , ,   

    Bourdieu meets Marx, Gramsci, Fanon, Freire, Beauvoir and Mills (in Burawoy’s imagination) 

    I came across this interesting project by Michael Burawoy earlier. He conceives of a whole series of imagined ‘meetings’ between Bourdieu and leading political thinkers, elaborating his own understanding of Bourdieu’s work by considering its relationship with important intellectual trends. I’ve only looked through the Mills one so far but these do look very interesting and worth a thorough read:


    1. Sociology as a Combat Sport: Bourdieu Meets Bourdieu

    Bourdieu in South Africa: order meets disorder

    1.  Theory and Pracrtice: Marx Meets Bourdieu

    Resurrecting the subaltern: bodies of defiance

    3. Cultural Domination: Gramsci Meets Bourdieu

    Subaltern crowds challenge authority

    4. Colonialism and Revolution: Fanon Meets Bourdieu

    The state and the people, symbolic violence and physical violence

    5.Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Freire Meets Bourdieu

    Discipline, the canon and the ‘imperialism of reason”

    6.The Antinomies of Feminism: Beauvoir Meets Bourdieu

    Gentle violence, brutal violence and the struggle to empower women

    7.Intellectuals and Their Publics: Mills Meets Bourdieu

    The ‘Realpolitik of reason’ meets the symbolic world of politics

    8.Homo Ludens vs. Homo Habitus: Burawoy Meets Bourdieu

    Bourdieu, symbolic order and the ‘margin of freedom’: four sketches for a theory of change


  • Mark 1:41 pm on April 17, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , bourdieu, , ,   

    The Public Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu (part 1) 

    The thing I like most about Bourdieu is his conception of public sociology. It seems clear to me that Bourdieu was a public sociologist, though others are less certain about this and I suspect it’s not a term he would have chosen to use himself. For a whole host of reasons, I’ve never been massively interested in much of Bourdieu’s work, though am far from antipathetic towards it. However his talks on public sociology had a great impact on me when I read them during the first year of my PhD and I’m rereading them for the public sociology book proposal I’m writing. It might also be a good prompt for me to delve slightly deeper into Bourdieu’s body of work than I ever have in the past (Weight of the World has been sitting unfinished on my shelf for years).

    There are a few key themes in these talks pertaining to public sociology. I’ve engaged with the political issues first because, as I understand the ethos underlying his arguments, it would be deeply misleading to abstract his statements about what public role sociology can and should play from the political challenges which define the context that sociologists inhabit. In this first post I’ll discuss his account of globalisation and advocacy of internationalism as a precursor to another post discussing his direct arguments about the need to challenge think tanks, the public role of social science and the personal challenges of academic activism. Bourdieu sees think tanks as deeply implicated in bringing about ‘globalisation’. He sees this as consisting of “hired thinkers and mercenary researchers … brought together with journalists and public relations experts” (pg 77) and this critique, which I largely share, brings something important to how we think about ‘public sociology’.

    The book of talks I’m basing these posts on is here. If anyone has suggestions for further work by Bourdieu that leads on directly from these themes, particularly the ones I’ll discuss in the second post, they’d be much appreciated. It’s not a big part of my planned project by any means but I would definitely like to read a bit further before I move on to some of the other people I’ll be engaging with.

    The Challenge of ‘Globalisation’ 

    The politics of these talks are rooted in the anti-globalisation movement of the late 90s and early 00s. As such, Bourdieu’s attentiveness to the political rhetoric of ‘globalisation’ is not a surprise. He draws attention to the double meaning of ‘globalisation’: the descriptive sense of a unification of the economic field and the normative sense of the desirability that these changes are supported through economic policy. The slight of hand arises because the former is often used to disguise the latter i.e. economic ‘reality’ is invoked to justify the pursuit of policies which are themselves responsible for the putative ‘reality’. The global market is a political creation, much as national markets had been, arising from “policy implemented by a set of agents and institutions, and the result of the application of rules deliberately created for specific ends, namely trade liberalisation (that is, the elimination of all national regulations restricting companies and their investments)” (pg 84). Bourdieu argues that ‘globalisation’ is a ‘pseudo-concept’, at once descriptive and prescriptive, which has replaced ‘modernization’ as the intellectualised trappings for the ideology of late capitalism.

    However something real and momentous is taking place. Bourdieu is concerned with the capacity of international institutions to “invisibly govern” national governments, which are preoccupied by the management of “secondary matters” and form a “political smoke screen that effectively masks the true sites of decision-making” (pg 91). He describes a “veritable invisible world government” constituted from “the big multinational firms, and their international boards, the great international institutions, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, with their many subsidiary bodies, designated by complicated and often unpronounceable acronyms, and all the corresponding commissions and committees of unelected technocrats little known to the wider world (pg 78). This is a state of affairs that national governments have been wilfully complicit in bringing about, most strikingly those of a putatively social democratic inclination, the conduct of whom has “by extending or adopting the policy of conservative governments” made “this policy appear as the only possible one” giving “regulation measures complicit with business demands the appearance of invaluable achievements of a genuine social policy” (pg 58).

    The Internationalisation of Social Movements 

    It is because of the depoliticisation which accompanies ‘globalisation’, as the arena of decision-making moves ever further from the demos, that social movements must develop the capacity to act at a European level. In making this case, Bourdieu is rejecting what he sees as a manipulative dichotomy drawn between being pro-Europe and anti-Europe, instead rejecting the deployment of the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism in defence of the neoliberal project in Europe. His concern is to develop a capacity to pursue agendas at the european level in order to avoid the tendency to get dragged down by particularistic disputes, given that national governments often act as a ‘smoke screen’ for processes of change which have their origins at an international level. He sees great hope in the multiplication of social movements but great challenges involved in the integration necessary to constitute them as collective actors on the international stage. He offers a lot of interesting suggestions about the practical organisational forms coordination of this sort could take, with the necessity being to “establish a coordination of demands and actions while excluding attempts of any kind to take these movements over” (pg 42). I find his argument here most compelling when he discusses cultural production by social movements:

    There are currently many connections between movements and many shared undertakings, but these remain extremely dispersed within each country and even more so between countries. For example, there exist a great many critical newspapers, weeklies, or magazines in each country, not to mention internet sites, that are full of analyses, suggestions and proposals for the future of Europe and the world, but all this work is fragmented and no one reads it all. Those who produce these works are often in competition with one another; they criticise each other when their contributions are complementary and can be cumulated. (pg 43)

    If you consider the number of radical presses currently operating, with their varying degrees of size and political engagement, it’s hard not to see his point here. The advent of multi-author blogging has intensified this existing process, as the reduction of entry costs to near zero has led to a proliferation of websites which are, individually, a natural response to the question of ‘what to do?’ faced by those hoping to promulgate a counter-hegemonic politics but, collectively, this perhaps serves to fragment the very cultural terrain upon which it is hoped that an alternative ‘common sense’ will begin to take root.

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