The Public Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu

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. The book of talks I’m basing this post on is here and all the references are from this book.

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.

The Responsibilities of Intellectuals

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

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

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

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

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

Resisting the Rise of Think Tanks 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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6 replies »

  1. Thank you for writing this. I, too, was inspired by like Bourdieu’s vision of the relationship between sociology and social movements, and I was involved in a transnational social movement, ATTAC, that attempted to put these ideas into practice in the early 00s. (In particular, I was involved in organising the short-liived ATTAC branch in London, in Europe’s most neoliberal state.) ATTAC had a “scientific committee” that, I think, helped focus mobilization on certain issues by providing the sort of critical applied social science Bourdieu had in mind. ATTAC had a lot of members in several European countries, and it was certainly a lively movement. More broadly, the alter-globalisation movement that it was a part of organized many public events that involved large numbers of enthusiastic people (a series of European Social Forums that I was involved in, as well as the World Social Forums). However, I think the overall results were disappointing. The implementation of the alter-globalisation movement’s proposals required the cooperation of political parties and governments, which were singularly uninterested in those proposals. Paradoxically, the EU’s now-likely adoption of one of ATTAC’s main proposals, the Tobin tax, has happened only after the decline of the alter-globalisation movement. Did this movement actually have a subtle long-term effect that was difficult to perceive at the time, or was it simply irrelevant to the processes that actually shape state policies? Now I’d like to read some of the sociological research that’s been done on that sort of mobilisation, starting with Geoffrey Pleyer’s book. Maybe now that ten years have passed, it’s easier to assess Bourdieu’s vision of mobilization and how that vision was put into practice.

    • “Did this movement actually have a subtle long-term effect that was difficult to perceive at the time, or was it simply irrelevant to the processes that actually shape state policies?”

      That’s a fascinating question. I got involved in activism around the time the movement was in decline, with the anti-Iraq war campaign being the first I was involved in. Rereading that Bourdieu book left me really intrigued by how the discourse of globalisation dropped from view, at least in my experience, as a framework for mobilisation. I think the specific question you’re asking about particular organisations is VERY interesting but i think it’s also a way into these important broader issues (globalization –> war on terror??) which as far as I can see have been widely overlooked.

      • In 2002 I said to Bernard Cassen, one of the founders of ATTAC, that I was afraid the war on terror was going to completely derail the alter-globalisation movement by absorbing all the energy of the left, and he said not to worry. By February 2003, I had drifted away from ATTAC and was demonstrating in Hyde Park against the invasion of Iraq, and then I started learning Arabic and thinking about an academic career in order to better understand what was going on…

      • would you fancy writing a semi auto biographical post about this, ben?

  2. Hey, I just realized that I totally missed your last comment. Yes, thank you, I’d like to write something like that if I can find the time for it. I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.

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