Martial Art

Bruce Robbins

  • Science of Science and Reflexivity by Pierre Bourdieu, translated by Richard Nice
    Polity, 168 pp, £14.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 07 456306 8

A recent French documentary about Pierre Bourdieu is entitled, after one of his own pronouncements: La Sociologie est un sport de combat. When he died in January 2002, Bourdieu was widely considered France’s leading sociologist, its most influential intellectual – and one of its angriest men. In an autobiographical fragment published within days of his death (now available as a book, Esquisse pour une auto-analyse[*]), he recalled the ‘stubborn rage’ engendered in him by his experience of boarding-school and the mockery he suffered there, in part for his rural accent and origins, in part for being a ‘bon élève’ who clearly aspired to rise above his fellow pupils. The fragment’s unauthorised publication set off a noisy public dispute, which returned again and again to Bourdieu’s personal combativeness. Even his defenders conceded that he was a ‘génie colérique’ (Michel Onfray) and asked for sympathy for ‘les fragilités d’un sociologue du combat’ (Philippe Corcuff). In the eyes of his philosopher friend Jacques Bouveresse, the politeness of the establishment, which Bourdieu had manifestly failed to acquire, was merely the sign of its immense, taken-for-granted privileges, the very privileges that Bourdieu had spent his life railing against. Others pointed out that he had picked fights with everyone, including some who were no more privileged than he was. And climbing to the pinnacle of the French academic world, at the Collège de France, might be thought to disqualify him from presenting himself as an eternal and uncompromising rebel.

What made this self-presentation so irresistible a target was Bourdieu’s certainty, repeated in book after book, that scholarship boys from lowly provincial backgrounds will invariably sell their souls to the institutions which elevate them, and that their claims to rebelliousness will turn out to be empty: unconscious but self-interested moves in a scripted game. At one point in the film, a young passer-by recognises Bourdieu, stops and tells him, smiling, that his books have changed her life: ‘I thought I was free, but I wasn’t.’ Bourdieu no doubt winced at this summary of his thought, but the filmmakers, despite their unambiguously friendly intentions, did not see fit to cut it. It is not quite a travesty of what Bourdieu taught. In the decades of research he and his collaborators devoted to the study of laboratory working practices, literary and artistic career-making, musical taste, family photography, leisure-time athletics, and above all the apparatus of education, the constant refrain is that social status continues to be transmitted faithfully from generation to generation. Domains like art and science, which might appear to be free from the political and economic constraints operating elsewhere, are in fact structured by an aggressive competition for ‘symbolic capital’ that is neither open nor equitable. In one way or another, things are arranged so that rewards end up in the hands of those who started at the top of the social hierarchy. In short, Bourdieu’s work discovers the law that he himself broke by producing it: that in devious ways social origins reproduce themselves.

However oblivious Bourdieu may have been to the contrary force of his own example, he deserves credit for showing that, on the whole, social origins do reproduce themselves – a simple, indignant premise that sent him off to explore a fascinating variety of archives. In Homo Academicus, for example, he examines student files from an elite girls’ high school which conveniently recorded, next to remarks about the students’ progress, their parents’ professions, and points out a flagrant correlation between the educational level of the parents – what Bourdieu calls their cultural capital – and the talents attributed to the children. Students of petit-bourgeois origins (the poor have already been eliminated) tend to receive adjectives like ‘clumsy’, ‘insipid’, ‘servile’, ‘awkward’ and ‘simplistic’. At the other end of the scale, the daughters of surgeons and professors are described in terms of ‘mastery’, ‘subtlety’, ‘cultivation’ and ‘ease’.

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[*] Raisons d’agir, 144 pp., €12, February 2004, 2 912107 19 9.