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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, 14 January 2016

Introducing Bourdieu

I've recently been rereading some of the chapters in Michael F. D. Young's edited collection Knowledge and Control: New Directions for the Sociology of Education. I imagine for most people this book has passed into oblivion. During the 1970s it was regarded as a touchstone by the kind of sociologist of education that wanted to blether about how knowledge is framed and how this  framing is connected with culture and social class.  My copy has the OU symbol on the front cover proclaiming it an Open University Set Book which I guess was good for sales.

It's a very odd collection and difficult, without some contextual information, to understand why people at the time thought it was so important. Most of the contributions, with the exception of a piece by Nell Keddie, are stubbornly abstract. This is a book written for academic sociologists, not for people who might conceivably meet a child in a classroom. Basil Bernstein's chapter 'On the Classification and Framing of Educational Knowledge' was well-nigh incomprehensible the first time I read it and I can't say that it has improved on re-reading. Perhaps the book's most important legacy has less to do with what it introduced and more to do with who it introduced to an anglophile audience. 

Chapters 6 & 7 are by Pierre Bourdieu and are among the first English translations of his work and, though not Bourdieu's first anglophone exposure, people who know and and care about such things tell me that it was these pieces  that opened the floodgates for the Bourdieu obsession that still grips the British sociological mentality and weighs down the few remaining sociology shelves in Waterstones. I thought I'd revisit one of these Bourdieu pieces  and try to understand why it had such an apparent impact.

Compared to what came later 'Systems of Education and Systems of Thought' is a model of clarity: there are very few "structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures" type locutions. A close reading however suggests that the points being made, which are not particularly deep or indeed particularly novel, could be expressed in about a fifth of the space. Of course all the superfluous material merely illustrates Bourdieu's main point, which is that education takes place within a framework of verbal manoeuvres, rhetorical devices, tropes and frameworks that are somehow given in the culture (of a particular group) and define the permissible  or expected moves that can be made. Thus the people one wants to communicate with  know what kind of thing to  expect and hence comprehend  what they hear or read. Bourdieu sums this up with uncharacteristic succinctness: in order to disagree we have first to agree on what we are disagreeing about. No common framework, no disagreement (cf many contemporary sociological 'debates' which are usually nothing of the sort and consist mainly of assorted, mutually incomprehensible farmyard noises):

"Culture is not merely a common code or even a common catalogue of answers to recurring problems; it is a common set of previously assimilated master patterns from which, by an 'art of invention' similar to that involved in the writing of music, an infinite number of individual patterns directly applicable to specific situations are generated." (192)

So, common cultural patterns, habits of mind and so forth mean that we are able to communicate with other minds  and, more or less, understand the substance of the message. They also give legitimacy to  certain messages in as far as they conform to the (possibly implicit) rules of the game. To take a musical analogy, I begin to understand what Beethoven is doing in the Moonlight Sonata when I  notice that he doesn't really stick to the structure of the standard sonata form. I expect exposition, development and recapitulation and I don't really get that.  But what I hear isn't musically incomprehensible because I can relate it to, or contrast it with, the standard form. This gives it value. The rules are being broken, but not capriciously. There is a point to it all.

All this is pretty obvious and scarcely worth making a fuss about. I can't see anything to object to. If there is anything worthwhile in Bourdieu he must be saying more than this. So now we have to turn to what he thinks is implied by his commonplace observation.

One thing he does is endorse what seems to me to be a very strong claim by the art historian Panofsky that there is a 'genuine cause-and-effect relation' between the mental habits of Scholastic philosophers and the stylistic innovations introduced by the architects of French Gothic cathedrals. The source of this claim is  Panofsky's discussion of the stylistic contrast between the depiction of the Last Judgement  on the tympanum of the Romanesque Autun Cathederal and the equivalents at Gothic Paris and Amiens.

When I first read this I was in no position to dissent. In fact it is likely I would have had no clue as to what a tympanum was or indeed where Autun or Amiens were. Paris I had heard of and even visited once.

Bourdieu, I assume paraphrasing Panofsky, tells us that in the Gothic examples "clarity prevails through the effect of symmetry and correspondence..."  in spite of  "...a greater wealth of of motifs...". There are no illustrations, so we are invited to take this judgement on trust.

I'm no art historian and for all I know Panofsky could be right in the essentials. Maybe mediaeval architects and stonemasons were either consciously or, more likely, unconsciously influenced by Scholasticism in ways that affected the style of their masonry. Or maybe they weren't and a whole set of other influences were at work including, whim, chance and drift. How could we possibly know? At best Panofsky is making a speculative conjecture and nothing more.

If we look at pictures of the three cases it is obvious that Paris and Amiens in some sense look  similar, but there could be many reasons for that. Autun is  physically older and, as far as I can tell, the scale of the tympanum looks smaller (though this is difficult to judge from a photograph). What is indisputable is that the Autun tympanum has been damaged. In fact in the 18th century it was actually covered over with plaster  and during this operation Christ's head was  chipped off. To add insult to injury something was then superimposed on the smoothed surface. We could as well say that clarity was preserved in Amiens and Paris not because of 'symmetry and correspondence' but because they weren't vandalized two centuries ago.

It's really not obvious to me at all that this example establishes anything much about the connection between a specific intellectual framework that is part of  a society's culture and the decorations produced by its artisan stonemasons.  To be sure it would be bold  - and go beyond what can be known - to suggest that it had no influence, but to say that that influence was a 'genuine cause-and-effect relation' is so far from what can be demonstrated as to verge on the ludicrous.

Why all this attention to art history? Well Bourdieu's next move is to turn to the reception of art by different social classes. The point is again obvious: to understand art and say something intelligible about it beyond  expressions of liking or disliking requires the acquisition of some sort of conceptual framework. This is presumably what studying art  history in a formal educational context gives you and he goes on to ask rhetorically "...is taste anything other than the art of differentiating?". This is buttressed by a delightful quotation from a working man: "When you don't know anything about it, it's difficult to get the hang of it...Everything seems the same to me...beautiful pictures, beautiful paintings, but it's difficult to make out one thing from another." Indeed. I feel pretty much the same when I visit the National Gallery. I walk very quickly through the rooms that contain the seemingly vast numbers of paintings of biblical scenes. I simply don't understand the iconography and don't care to spend time learning about it. But so what? I could learn about it if I wanted to by reading a few books and  for anything other than a conversation with a professional art historian this would no doubt pass muster.

Bourdieu takes a rather different view. He asserts that the autodidact is always going to be found out because it is not just a matter of what you know but how you acquired the knowledge: "Because the order of acquisition tends to appear indissolubly associated with the culture acquired and because each individual's relationship with his culture bears the stamp of the conditions in which he  acquired it, a self-taught man can be distinguished straightaway from a school-trained man." (196)

No doubt a graduate of one of France's grandes écoles could sniff out an interloper at 30 paces just as a Wrangler would have seen immediately that Ramanujan wasn't a Cambridge man. But these feats of discernment at the apex of achievement tell us little about what happens most of the time to most of the population. In a population of bluffers I can bluff with the best of them about art history and a dozen other subjects. Of course I would come seriously unstuck if I tried it with the Head of the Ruskin School of Art or even with a moderately attentive undergraduate art historian. But it wouldn't be because I hadn't attended any formal courses, it would be because I don't know very much.

It is certainly true that acquiring the framework through formal instruction makes life easier - especially in technical subjects like mathematics where facility is acquired by practice. But most knowledge acquisition isn't like learning mathematics. A far more serious difficulty for people brought up in families without exposure to intellectual culture or 'higher learning' is simply finding out what there is to know.  But a difficulty is not an impossibility. Richard Hoggart in A Local Habitation puts it rather well:

"For many people what the public libraries gave was as near as they had come until then to a revelation of the possible size and depth and variety of life, knowledge and understanding." (173)

This certainly rings true to me. Coventry Central Library did a pretty good job of  filling the yawning gaps that were all too apparent in my rather patchy secondary education. OK, it probably wouldn't have got me into Balliol, but it was good enough:  I don't recall  when I was an undergraduate anyone being at all interested in whether I knew  Aida from Agamemnon. These kinds of shibboleths just weren't important.

Bourdieu makes a lot of the distinction generated by an academic education:

"The school's function is not merely to sanction the distinction - in both sense of the word -of the educated classes. The culture that it imparts separates those receiving it from the rest of society by a whole series of systematic differences. Those whose 'culture'...is the academic culture conveyed by the school have a system of categories of perception, language, thought and appreciation that sets them apart from those whose only training has been through their work and their social contacts with people of their own kind." (200)

Well, yes, but this is scarcely in dispute. And this is the point: Bourdieu in this article and indeed in a large part of his corpus simply tells us things that are really pretty obvious but by using all the resources of the French academic game playing repertoire makes it sound as though he is plumbing the depths of the universe. To make matters worse  he is also tweaking our noses and  he is quite explicit about what he is doing. In the first few pages of Systems of Education and Systems of Thought' he quotes Levi-Strauss on the the conventions of French academia and goes on to quote Renan on the earnestness (and comprehensibility) of German academic style:

"Will it be believed that, at ceremonies similar to our prize-givings, when in our country oratory is essential, the Germans merely read out grammatical treatises of the most austere type, studded with Latin words." (191)

The joke is on us; we are given fair warning, and by Bourdieu's later standards he tells us clearly what he is about. As John Searle has pointed out - drawing on Bourdieu's own words - at least 20 per cent obscurity is considered compulsory by the denizens of the French academic habitus. Anything less and you won't be taken seriously. The 20 per cent is not supposed to have cognitive content, those who are raised to the game know this:  anglo-saxons who insist on clarity and getting from a to b by the most straightforward route just don't get it.  We play by different  (better) rules, but we can't say that we weren't told.

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