Notes on: Maton, K.  (2003) 'Pierre Bourdieu and the Epistemic Conditions of Social Scientific Knowledge'.Space and culture, 6(1): 52-65.  Doi: 10.1177/1206331202238962

Dave Harris

Bourdieu suggests that '"epistemic reflexivity" is central to social science.  Reflexivity has an important epistemological potential, to develop a secure basis for social science.  It is deeply connected to his relational approach.  However, there are implications for research rather than for the development of a theoretical closure.

Usually, reflexivity in social science is considered quite differently, following its elevation to a fashionable concern.  It is now used as a marker of distinction and originality, and as a claim for prestige.  Reflexivity possesses different forms and is said to originate in a number of different authors, but there is underneath the basic argument the authors should expose their own knowledge claims and reveal their own assumptions, by locating themselves in social situations.  It's less obvious how this will lead to research, however, and there's a tension between theoreticist elements of discourses, and undertheorised research practices.  There is also little agreement as to what reflexivity actually is, because it has become 'a weapon in struggles over status and resources within the intellectual field' (54).

A common form is autobiographical reflection, which includes a narrative of the author's journey to the research.  However the relation between personal history and the activity of research is usually left unexplained, in favour of a claim to virtue, 'a conspicuous display of acute self awareness'.  The genre also exhibits 'hermeneutic narcissism and authorship denial', based on the claim that facts are inseparable from the observer and their culture, and featuring 'an uneasy awareness of social differences between the observer and the observed'.  This is academic guilt, which could be seen as 'a self aware and apologetic version of Bourdieu's "scholastic reason"' (55).  One result is that knowledge shrinks into ever decreasing circles, leaving only authors disclosing knowledge about themselves [hermeneutic narcissism], or a denial of self where the researcher simply conveys the voices of the observed.  Gellner is cited as arguing that a collage results, a multiplicity of voices, although the author is mercifully still there.  Indeed, we are sometimes invited to 'hunt the author'.

These forms are 'sociological, individualistic and narcissistic'.  In the first, it is the social relation of knowledge that predominates, not its internal epistemic relation.  The emphasis is on who does the knowing or the objectifying, a sociological account rather than an epistemological one, and even here, we know little about how social position actually affects knowledge claims and results—'thicker methodology (or, more accurately, method) but thin epistemology'.  In the second case, reflexivity appears as a personal effort to overcome bias, and the limits of biography, 'a romantic and humanist emphasis on subjective commitment'.  It becomes more important to demonstrate that your heart is in the right place rather than to generate some collective methodology.  In the third case, the individual author intrudes to become the major focus, and this seems to be no limit to what might be considered relevant about the author: this culminates in the 'confessional forms of autobiography where the researcher becomes also the researched' (56).

Actual practice shows good intentions, but more dubious effects, since the obsession with the author means that little else is seen.  This can be helpful in opening up new areas for critical examination, but as epistemological tools it is limited.  The political effects are also dubious, because the activity is so individualised—the main effect seems to be to emphasise individual status and maximize symbolic capital, without disturbing the field as a whole.  This makes such practices curiously conservative rather than critical.  They obviously resonate with individualism politically.

Bourdieu offers a different approach—epistemic reflexivity -- and this pervades the work.  The idea is to show the affects of the field as a relatively autonomous influence which positions people according to social space and culture.  Actors are positioned in a relational way within specific fields of practice, and it is this that determines their viewpoints.  This explains the partial nature of the actors view of the game.  Actors struggle to impose their own partial views on others in order to gain status and resources.  The problem then becomes one of overcoming these effects of the field, and Bourdieu has to argue that his own analysis is more than just another partial viewpoint and strategic attempt to maximize capital.  Epistemic reflexivity is the answer, 'a means of underwriting rather than undermining scientific knowledge'(57).

His distinctive contribution can be seen by reference to the diagram below. 

All three relations are involved in the generation of knowledge, but Bourdieu particularly focuses on 'the objectifying relation', while other sociologies focus on the social relation, and philosophy has traditionally focused on the epistemic relation.  The point is to make the objectifying relation the object for analysis of itself, an 'objectification of objectification', and this is epistemic reflexivity.  It is both collective and non narcissistic.  Considering bias, Bourdieu says that there are three kinds -one emanating from social origins and coordinates of the researcher, one from the position in the intellectual field, and one from the scholastic elements of the field, the '"intellectualist bias"'.  The field itself produces the last two effects on the knower.  The field itself displays an 'collective scientific unconscious embedded in intellectual practices', and personal reflexivity will not expose these, but produce instead '"a thinly veiled nihilistic relativism"'[58, quoting Bourdieu and Wacquant's Invitation…].  The important issue is the relation between persons not their biography. Such analysis must also be a collective enterprise conducted by the social scientific field rather than particular individuals, in the form of a collective subject doing reflexivity.  This will make it 'epistemological, collective, and "fundamentally anti narcissistic"'[same source].

However, there is a tendency for this approach to revert to individualistic reflexivity after all.  Despite the emphasis, the practice often turns on 'methodological individualism' after all, because there is no genuinely collective means to undertake epistemic reflexivity, only individuals seeking to maximize their symbolic capital.  What is needed is some genuinely collective dimension, [what Maton calls something supra individual, and he is going to root this in Durkheim and Popper]. What Bourdieu offers is reflexivity about objectification, but not about epistemic relations themself.  We should extend the work to do so.

In practice, epistemic reflexivity leads to 'recursive regress' as well (58), although commentators are more responsible for this than Bourdieu.  Even Wacquant refers to Bourdieu developing reflexivity himself, as in Homo Academicus.  Such individual analysis [by 'gifted' individuals, Maton says!] is not a very good guide to collective practice, as Bourdieu himself admits.  There is no way to escape the position of the analyst, nor to stop the regression, where a reflexive account of the production of some knowledge must itself then become subject of a further enquiry and so on ad infinitum.  Narcissism awaits, as the reflexive author takes centre stage, and we see this with commentators who often supply us with Bourdieu's biography.  In this way, the position 'made us avoid intellectualist bias only by succumbing to intellectualist preoccupation'(59).  It is not at all clear where we should stop, [unless there is some argument that we attain purity by continual reflexivity], and it is always possible for someone else to continue the reflection—'a battle of the reflexes'.  Relentless attempts to break with the past results.  What this shows is that there are no collective means for reflexive analysis.  As a result, we never move to epistemology as such.

Key factors for Bourdieu are the scientific habitus and the autonomous intellectual field, but both of these are social conditions.  The first refers to the need to socialise scientists so they acquire suitable dispositions.  But what is the status of these dispositions, and how do they structure knowledge?  [This leads to a reference to Bernstein -- developed by Maton here].  The autonomy of the field seems to depend on the internal organization of things like journals and committees [and fundraisers these days] in preserving collective intellectual activity.  Again we seem to revert to individuals and their reflexivity, and the inevitable starting point of the social position: 'we cannot transcend the effects of a field by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps'(60).

The nature of knowledge itself has been neglected in the emphasis on objectification.  Knowledge has 'a structuring significance of its own in shaping the validity of knowledge claims' (61), beyond objectification.  This 'key epistemic relation' is missed in Bourdieu, and this explains the tendency to sociological reductionism.  What is lacking is 'a supra-subjective, non social basis for transcending the effects of fields'.  There must be something 'intrinsic' and 'essential' in knowledge, although Bourdieu seems 'fixated on the arbitrary'.  There are 'non social interests in producing knowledge', and intellectual practices' are not completely oriented to social interests—'intellectual commitments are more than this'[the same impossibility arises with gaining non social evidence for this, of course].  There is a will to truth as well as a will to power, and intellectuals are not just obsessed by maximising their capital.  Knowledge is clearly 'socially laden' but not 'socially determined'.  This could be misrecognition, but Bourdieu's work itself has a more than strategic value - it has 'practical adequacy to what we know of the social world'[attributed to Sayer—horribly circular].  Some theories really are 'better at explaining the social world than others' (61-2).  [And then a moralising bit of common sense - 'to avoid intellectualist bias by seeing bias everywhere is to know the symbolic profit of everything and the truth value of nothing']

Bourdieu himself argued strongly against such claims to disinterestedness, and used a focus on social interest deliberately to provoke a rupture with conventional understandings: he says himself it is provisional. [BdieuWPapers.html]  In other words, his critique has a clear location in an intellectual field.  As these ideas have become important in Britain, however, the provisional [rhetorical] nature of Bourdieu's sociologism has become lost.  It now needs to be developed rather than institutionalised.  Capital theory should not just be abandoned 'as the competitive logic of the intellectual field tends to encourage'(62).  Instead, 'we need to add the concept of epistemic capital, the ability to better explain the (social) world', despite the dangers of proliferating capitals.  Intellectuals use such capital to gain 'epistemic prophets, that is, better knowledge of the world'.

The production of knowledge is epistemic as well as objectifying and social, which means a realist stance towards the world independent of knowledge.  Popper is used here to argue that the scientific method is intersubjective, but it produces objective knowledge and aims at practical adequacy.  Scientists themselves may act subjectively or selfishly, but we can still end with 'disinterested outcomes (practically adequate knowledge), for scientists have an interest in disinterestedness'.  Engaging in intersubjective procedures can bring 'epistemic profit', and even Bourdieu argues that personal motives can produce scientifically proper behaviour.  However, are epistemic profitability does not arise just from the social organization of the field, but from the  'intrinsic structuring of knowledge formations'.  Bourdieu himself saw mathematics as a field with its own compelling forces which govern subjective activity.

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