Margaret Archer on her relationship with Pierre Bourdieu and his work

From this interview in in disClosure: A Journal of Social Theory:

DC: How might you characterize the connection, if any, between your theoretical work and that of Pierre Bourdieu?

MA: Sadly, because he was a good friend. He was very good to me, indeed. This was a not a common experience, for important French professors to be kind to little foreign visiting post-docs. It really wasn’t. So, he was an exception in that sense, and I kind of like put it on record. Therefore, it hurt me, as it hurt many of his research team – people like Luc Boltanski and later Laurent Thévenot, when we came to the parting of the ways. You see, Bourdieu thought, he maintained until he died—and we were good friends, he used to come and stay at my place in London in the 70s and early 80s—he thought that he was putting forward a general theory; general in the sense that it worked everywhere. I wrote an article, which you can check out if you like, in the European Journal of Sociology in 1982, called “Process without System.”

Fundamentally, he was very acute in analyzing the processes of French education, but then he wrongly universalized this by saying that that process was the same anywhere, regardless of the structure of that system. I said, no, I can’t agree. I think the kind of standardization he was talking about was something that a centralized structure monumentally reinforced, whereas in a decentralized structure you could have all sorts of people who didn’t like it, for one reason or another but they could do something about it. Plenty didn’t like it in France either, but could do nothing. Particularly the French industrialists who were coming on the educational scene in the latter part of the 19th century and were finding a very intellectualized syllabus that didn’t help them produce engineers.

Conversely, in England, if you wanted to found what was the beginning of our polytechnics and if you had the money, you just founded one. It could be a school for auto manufacturing or refrigeration. The area where I was brought up, it was manufacturing cement. Well, let’s have a part of the curriculum that is about the chemistry of cement making, then how to make reinforced concrete, so on and so forth. That was why the parting of the ways came. It came over the sociology of education, but more generally it was over the effect of structure on agency.

Featured Image By Alicia Gaudi [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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