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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

That old black magic: on Bourdieu again

When I was an undergraduate Bourdieu didn't make the syllabus. There was plenty of verbiage from Continental Europe - Althusser, Poulantzas - as well as the local fellow-travelling demi-gods - who now reads Hirst & Hindess? - but Bourdieu was preumably regarded as just a little outré for tender young minds. 

I only came across him as a postgraduate and then only in the context of what he had written about education and social mobility. With my rudimentary French I stumbled through Les Héritiers and wondered what all the fuss was about. La Reproduction. Éléments pour une théorie du système d'enseignement I have to confess I read in English. Parts of it were, to me, baffling, parts banal, and parts just obviously wrong. All in all I couldn't see what the big deal was - you have to remember that sociology undergraduates of my generation still read  Bernstein, Floud & Halsey, Little & Westergaard, Jackson & Marsden  etc.

We didn't have to be told that there was inequality in educational outcomes and we were used to serious attempts to describe the facts of the matter and empirically grounded attempts to tease out the causal mechanisms. We weren't ignorant of cultural distinctions either. How could we be, coming from the cultural desert inhabited by the English provincial  lower middle-classes. Every time I opened my mouth I knew I was in danger of mispronouncing some strange new word with a Greek or Latin root (the remnants of the Anglo-Saxon diphthongs were a bit tricky too) but somehow I got over it and in any case there were enough of us in the same boat to give those with a genuine classical education a run for their money.

So basically I've never been impressed by Bourdieu and could never see what he contributed. The awe in which he is held in British sociology presents itself to me as one of those enduring examples of how difficult it is to understand other minds. What is it they see that I don't? I've reached the conclusion that the answer is deep in the personal psychology of the admirers: Bourdieu is an obscure object of desire, and, as a much more interesting sociologist once said, there is so little enchantment in the world these days.

For those who feel a need to feed their intellectual rather than their psychological needs, this exchange between Goldthorpe  and the  fellow travellers in the journal Sociologica deserves more attention. It's a pity the forum is a little out of the mainstream, for it reveals that the champions of Bourdieu on cultural "capital" don't have any cogent answers  and can only reply with bluster and irrelevance.

I guess that is what happens when you hanker after that old black magic.


Anonymous said...

Wow nice bit of 'spontaneous sociology' there. Aprioristic - and not surprising as the author fails to apply an 'objective break'. I wonder what dismissing Bourdieu on such a limited reading says about the personal psychology of the person writing this blog. Mmm

Colin said...

As you like It Anonymous. I smell a troll, fol de rol...