Bourdieu and sociology as a self-serving ‘science of the hidden’

Dave Harris

We can see in Rancière’s critiques of Marxism  hints of some familiar sociological themes, for example where it is argued that Marx seems to have mediated his personal experience of reformist worker organizations through a system of pre-established elite tastes.  Rancière hints that we might trace these back to Marx's own social background, and to his location as an independent scholar.  We could easily see these tastes as habitual, that is located in a Bourdieuvian habitus, which explains their uncritical and immediate, effortless, application to the issues.  Similarly, Marx's decisions to reconcile his political disappointment with his own scholarly ambitions, and to find fulfilment in the British Library, could be understood as a classic example of how subjective ambition is reconciled with objective possibilities, although in Bourdieu's work this process normally cools people out of academic work, not the reverse.  In these circumstances, it is perhaps surprising to find Rancière critiquing Bourdieu and his sociology with the same energy that he displayed in his attack on Marxism.

For Rancière,  Althusser and Bourdieu had conspired, despite their differences, with other philosophical traditions like Platonism, to provide an account of how the masses must necessarily misrecognize their true position:  the masses are caught in an ideology which renders them ignorant and incapable.  This ideology serves the purposes of the dominant groups because it serves to prevent fully adequate analysis of the social relations which support domination. Even those experts who criticize universities, while belonging to them, or who support radical politics, still do not believe that the masses can emancipate themselves. This puts them in alliance with more conservative advocates of order and orthodoxy.

Rancière considers a range of work in Bourdieu;  the studies of leisure in France, as well as the studies of French elite universities.  He even briefly discusses the more anthropological work on Kabylian culture.  Misrecognition runs like a scarlet thread throughout all this work, for Rancière (2004).  Universities reproduce privilege for the dominant groups , but this goes on behind the backs of those being educated in schools and in universities themselves. ( see for yourselves Bourdieu's early conference papers,(referenced as Sociology Research Group)  Bourdieu et al. on 'the Inheritors', Bourdieu and Passeron on social reproduction). They are prone to see success as the result of particular ‘gifts’, Bourdieu and his associates argued, although there is a hidden connection between educational success and the possession of cultural capital.  Universities can thus pose as open to everyone, operating on the basis of merit alone, but they conceal how their very operations turn privilege into merit.  This works so well that most people exclude themselves in advance from even applying to universities, on the familiar grounds that university ‘is not for them’.  The masses do not need actually to be failed by university entrance systems, because they already rule themselves out, in a hidden correspondence between ‘personal’ ambition and the requirements of universities to reproduce the social relations of dominance: Rancière sarcastically notes that 'the examination dissimulates, in its dissimulation, the continuing elimination that dissimulates itself in the school that pretends not to eliminate' (Rancière 2004: 172). Bourdieu’s evidence for this seems to work backwards—comments of an assessor are used to describe 'the reality of ... practice', and are supported by all sorts of other reports of experiences of examiners, comments about literature classes, and feelings of shame exhibited by proletarian students.

Seeing these processes as hidden clearly leaves a role for the expert analyst again, who alone can explain that the university curriculum is a ‘cultural arbitrary’, not something designed rationally in any national interest, and that the notion of ‘the gift’ is a myth.  Nevertheless, the whole notion of hidden processes and forms of discrimination actually could be produced by experts, using  a combination of backwards evidence, and, as we shall see, deeper disciplinary loyalties and dispositions.

Bourdieu’s (1984) massive study of leisure patterns in France, Distinction, is equally open to doubt. Rancière offers some good if not unfamiliar rebukes  for the use of questionnaires to pin down tastes.  For example in attempting to show how taste for music varies by social class, Bourdieu did not actually play any music to respondents, but rather asked them questions about musical types.  The results confirmed for Bourdieu that the lower orders were unable to appreciate elite music.  For Rancière however, music can transcend class barriers, and he cites a musician in Kant's day who successfully pretended a Mozart opera was mass entertainment and gained a proletarian audience.  At the current time, Rancière notes,  there has been much mixing of musical genres, so that classical music appears as 'a disco hit tune, a movie soundtrack, or in the background of a commercial' (2004:186). These examples are sufficient to make us question the concept of allodoxia, Bourdieu’s term, (borrowed from Plato), for misrecognition which specifically involves attempting to apply familiar categories to new situations -- the example usually given is ethnocentrism. Given the abstract and leading questions Bourdieu asked, it is 'No surprise, [that] the workers answer en masse that classical music is not for people like them, [and] show only limited knowledge...  whereas distinguished people claim that "all music of quality" interests them, [and] know all of the titles' (2004: 187). Overall, it is the interviewer that has supplied the meanings, while claiming that 'he lacks the disposition' to do so.  The results only confirm 'what the sociologist already "knew" in elaborating the question'(2004: 189). The exercise itself widened social differences, and brought about 'the suppression of intermediaries, of points of meeting and exchange'.

These charges are familiar, and have been much debated in discussions of Bourdieu, and, indeed, in Bourdieu’s own work.  Bourdieu has surely never been a naive empiricist, and he has always said that the point is to use empirical data, with as few illusions as possible, in order to test and develop theory.  Distinction is well-provided with material for a more sympathetic reading, for example when Bourdieu rejects offering ‘the smug display of data and procedures which is usually regarded as the best guarantee of scientificity’ (Bourdieu 1984: 503).  He was well aware that ‘certain categories were extremely heterogeneous, as regards both their objective characteristics and their preferences’ (1984: 505). He knows that ‘a survey by closed questionnaire is never more than a second best, imposed by the need to obtain a large amount of comparable data on a sample large enough to be treated statistically.  It leaves out almost everything to do with the modality of practices…’(1984: 506). It is a matter of trading the loss of precision for a gain in systematicity. The goal is to test hypotheses about the relations between choices in tastes, to explain the ‘disparate data mechanically accumulated by “Data Banks”’ (1984: 506). He is also well aware that other methods are required, and, indeed, uses them: an initial programme of ‘extended interview and ethnographic observation’ (1984: 503); ongoing observations of real situations and questioning; ‘Only a research diary could give an adequate idea of the countless choices’ (1984: 507).  Finally, there is a determined attempt to enable ‘the informed reader’ to check the ‘analyses of correspondences, the dimensions of the table the number of questions and total number of corresponding modalities, the number of individuals, the nature and coding of the table, the list of variables, a description of the hypotheses underlying the distinction between active and illustrative variables, a list of the specific values and the rate of inertia...’ (1984: 507)

Rancière simply asserts that all respondents must be producing 'audience effects' ( that is, answering in ways which will please the interviewer) , although as far as we can tell, he has never interviewed any of Bourdieu’s respondents, or any other contemporary members of the French public for that matter. Pellettier (2009: 141) says that Rancière’s discussion of Distinction is a caricature, yet she says he was discussing only its 'performative effect'. This is surely rather curious and apologetic -- it will be the performative effect of a caricature, not the real thing? She also supports Rancière’s denial of misrecognition as a real process by asking 'Yet who are these people who believe schools offer equality of opportunity?  Who believes giftedness is divorced from social background?’(2009: 139). Bourdieu, like all sociologists must have been well aware of critics who indignantly defend ‘commonsense’ against sociological analysis, so as to confirm ‘intuitions or already known facts’ (1984: 506). If we are allowed to translate Rancière into our own experiences, as suggested, it might be added that in my personal experience, working in non-elite institutions, quite a few people believe in both educational equality of opportunity and ‘gifts’: apart from any naivety, it is underpinned by being a professional ideology for lecturers, as Bourdiueu says, and an alibi for failing students. It does seem to be applied unevenly -- more people think mathematicians have gifts, for example. I would bevery surprised if Pellettier's students did not think this too -- must make them very perceptive at the IoE!

However, Rancière has another point to make about sociological methodology.  Regardless of any technical merits, it displays a deeper commitment: the whole argument suggests that there are special objects of study called symbolic practices which only sociology can study because they are autonomous enough not to be grasped by economics or philosophy. They display the effects of complex interactions of social fields. This claim of special expertise lay at the heart of the founding claims of sociology, Rancière argues, and is still essential to fight off rival disciplines.

In order to patrol sociology’s boundaries, philosophy must be read as ideological, especially Kantian aesthetics as we shall see. Marxism was seen as reductive, overemphasising the role of the relations of production, and both Marxist economics and philosophy were conclusively recaptured by seeing them as elements of the doxa, Bourdieu’s borrowed term for the set of taken for granted beliefs that seem to be a natural description of the social world: philosophy reproduces aristocratic tastes, and Marxism becomes  part of the general disenchantment of the bourgeois world, as particular cases 'of the economy of symbolic practices'.  (Rancière 2004: 168). In the case of the masses,however, empirical studies are required of their opinions how they are ranked.

Sociology has always had its own political baggage, however.  It imagines its concepts to be neutral and  scientific , especially the ones about the universality of ‘the social’, the formation of social bonds.  Rancière (1974: 12), in his Maoist phase, points out that this notion actually began in

a  historically determined political problematic.  It is this problematic which, in the second half of the 19th century, gives sociology its status and position in the ensemble of practices employed by the bourgeoisie during this period to mould the men necessary to  the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production.

Rancière’s  methodological and political critiques are therefore linked. Sociology wants to be a science, and denounce the activities of markets, but can only be so if it fails to acknowledge its own role in making arbitrary social relations into necessary ones.  Bourdieu’s science might quibble about  ‘positivism’ or ‘empiricism’, but shares their attempts to stabilize reality by developing logically tidy concepts  and denying political volatility by establishing fixed ‘objective’ categories of social experience.  Here and elsewhere, it is possible to detect more than a hint of Foucault, as we shall see, especially the suspicion that all academic discourses have social political and organizational dimensions, and it is the latter that play a major part in both constraining and developing them.  Rancière sees that it was PCF orthodoxy that stabilized Althusser’s discourse, and Bourdieu’s commitment to the sociological enterprise that stabilizes his.  How Rancière’s discourse is stabilized will be discussed below.

Tastes and aesthetics

The dispute with Bourdieu gets even more hostile when considering the 'Postscript: Towards a "Vulgar" Critique of "Pure" Critiques' in Bourdieu (1984). This piece is guaranteed to antagonize philosophers since it claims openly to be able to explain philosophical arguments in terms of sociological categories.

Bourdieu argues that the concepts of philosophy seem to be abstract ones, derived from careful reading of earlier philosophers, and then worked up by creative thought.  However, some philosophers have clearly reproduced political and social circumstances in their thought – and Plato’s defence of Athenian social order is the favourite target here, for Bourdieu and Rancière. Mostly, though, philosophers imagine they can rise above the effects of their own social locations altogether. The theory of pure taste refuses to discuss the psychological or sociological basis of the key distinctions it makes, although it can be referred to 'an empirical social relation' nonetheless (Bourdieu 1984: 490). In particular Kantian theories of the aesthetic appear as:

totally ahistorical, like all philosophical thought that is worthy of the name… [It is] perfectly ethnocentric, since it takes for its sole datum the lived experience of a homo aestheticus who is none other than the subject of aesthetic discourse constituted as the universal subject of aesthetic experience (1984: 493)

This is easiest to see in the ways in which mundane tastes become implicated in notions of rank and worth. An object which 'insists on being [simply] enjoyed' is particularly threatening to the human power of suspending judgment, for Kantians, because it reduces us to mere animal experiences -- 'a sort of reduction to animality, corporeality, the belly and sex' (Bourdieu 1984: 489). It also reproduces the status differences between people, since these are qualities '”which by no means confer credit or distinction upon its possessor”' (1984: 489, quoting Kant),so only vulgar people display them . This indicates  that ‘there is an [eternal, natural] opposition between the cultivated bourgeoisie and the people…  barbarously wallowing in pure enjoyment’ (1984: 490).  This particular opposition is necessary to negate popular pleasures in order to affirm social superiority—and the system is not broken by the occasional carnivalesque episode or exception.  This aesthetic is also an occupational ideology for artists, and the notion of pure intellectual activity has the same effect for ‘philosophy professors’ who want to find their place between aristocracy and labour and so develop a legitimizing ‘typically professorial aesthetic’: that also explains their activities in ‘hunting down historicism and sociologism’ (1984: 493). Social dimensions and roles are misrecognized or denegated [their presence is denied] in this image of its conceptual purity.

The legacy of Kantian approaches appears in the more concrete ‘high aesthetic’ , the working system of pure taste in contemporary France, that is to be researched and explored empirically in Distinction. The high aesthetic emphasises the forms of aesthetic experience over contents.  Good taste is expressed in a commitment to formalism, an emotional detachment , discerning discrimination based on an informed grasp of the formal properties of films, paintings or literature. It deliberately distinguishes itself from the ‘popular aesthetic ‘ based on emotional response, empathy and enjoyment of content. The two approaches are illustrated well by actual responses generated by Bourdieu showing to respondents from different social classes a photograph of a old woman’s worn hands.  A manual worker expressed immedate sympathy with the suffering represented by the gnarled fingers, whereas a Parisian (elite) engineer showed ‘An aestheticising reference to painting, sculpture, or literature...[which indicates]... the neutralization and distancing which bourgeois discourse about the social world requires and performs. “I find this a very beautiful photograph...It puts me in mind of Flaubert’s old servant-woman”’ (Bourdieu 1984: 45).

Rancière will have none of the sociologism, as might be expected, and explains away the worker’s response as an audience effect again.  Bourdieu’s account has ominous echoes of Plato and his insistence that only those who enjoy lives of extended and cerebral leisure can ever break with tastes limited by necessity , or do philosophy.  Kant is used by Bourdieu, after some tactical re-reading,  to set up criteria which can be tested, for example whether tastes focus on the form of the object or its function, and Rancière sees this as positivist and wholly inappropriate as we saw. As before, the method squeezes out any heterogeneity or mixing of tastes. There is no recognition of struggles to recuperate minor cultures or desacralize higher ones.  Utopian political philosophy is also ruled out, of course.  Bourdieu seems unaware of past efforts to introduce the masses to classical music, in the example already noted, and he dismisses efforts the other way around, so to speak. When rebellious students demanded the study of popular texts on their university courses, Bourdieu saw this only as a confirmation of class tastes in students, wanting to take revenge on their professors, or a confirmation of the superior tastes of the most knowledgeable bourgeois, who can manage vulgarity with distance.
Bourdieu argues for the complexity of social relations but always reduces them to social classes and their distancing procedures, ignoring the possibility that any conflict is merely 'a quarrel between generations…  [a consequence of] years of apprenticeship or popular rites of bourgeois maturation' (Rancière 2004: 193).  The insistence on constant practices of distinction to repair social boundaries makes the bourgeoisie act like simply rational ‘economic man’ after all.

This reintroduces the claim made above that although Bourdieu might seem to disapprove of the system that upholds the ‘opposition between the cultivated bourgeoisie and the people’ (1984: 490), he comes to support this  opposition nonetheless. There is the same dilemma as before – is Bourdieu dissimulating or is it that he misrecognizes the influences on or consequences of what he says? Can we add Bourdieu to those inellectuals who misrecognize, unlike the perceptive workers of 1830s France or the shrewd respondents to Bourdieu's questionnaire?

Above all, for Rancière, aesthetic sensibility cannot be reduced to social class closure nor domesticated by the language of experts. He argues that Kant’s Critique of Judgement, appearing a year after the beginning of the French Revolution, was designed to address the issue of managing freedom and equality with the compulsion of duty.  The intention was to develop a new kind of 'equality of sentiment', a real dimension for the abstract equality of rights (2004: 198).  Opponents of equality were arguing that it had to be limited because people did not possess equal competence and social capacities, especially among the brutal working classes.  Kant never saw this gap as an absolute one—the judgement of taste was formerly universal, and it could transcend the cultural divides between the dominant and the supposed revolutionary alternative. Kant insisted, for example that we can still judge the beauty of the form of a palace and feel pleasure, without having constantly to remember the suffering of those who built it.  This denies any eternal splits between culture and nature.  It is a utopian concept, but it offers 'the fragile promise of a freedom gained beyond the opposition between working class savagery and civilized barbarism' (2004: 198-9).

Rancière (2012) was to develop the notion of the aesthetic as an area offering a unique equality between people in his later work, through figures like the carpenter in 1830s France who can appreciate the beauty of the finished wooden floor, and fantasises, just for a moment, that he owns the large and beautiful house on which he has been working, or the factory hands who develop poetic pleasures in the countryside on their days off.  Such sensibility grounds demands to be treated as fully human, even if these borrow the dominant ideological terms and categories, like those of humanism. Even ideological discourses can lead to 'an aesthetic and militant passion for reappropriation': ‘allodoxia can lead to heterodoxia’(2004: 99).

Rancière’s interest in aesthetics was to develop into another series of publications.  It is beyond the present piece to summarize this work in any detail.  In Rancière (2002), for example, he assesses the potential of non-representational painting in particular, as having escaped the disciplining conventions of artistic schooling.  Art has become autonomous, and therefore potentially universal.  However, there is a paradox in that the non- representational forms look remote from everyday life, ‘heteronomous’, and this clearly limits their appeal to non-specialists.  Rancière (2011b) begins with a critique of radical forms of theatre that set out to involve the audience.  There we find the same division between the ignorant and the knowledgeable, preserved even while attempting to undermine it.  The work also includes, incidentally, the familiar admiration for the avant-garde over the popular when it comes to cinema, potentially the most democratic of modern art forms as long as heavily pedagogic intentions are avoided. 

It is clear that these critiques make connections with the critiques of pedagogy in The Ignorant Schoolmaster, and this could be read as a perfect demonstration of the principles recommended in that book, where one learns something thoroughly, and then proceeds by relating it to more and more unknown things.  There are harsher criticisms, however, based on Badiou’s rebuke to Deleuze: whatever new material is sought, the same concepts and arguments seem to reappear, in a definite ‘monotony’, a suspicious essentialism.  Whereas Deleuze’s work constantly demonstrates the ‘clamour of Being’, we might be able to accuse Rancière of endlessly demonstrating the clamour of equal intelligence.

Finally for this section, we might note that Bourdieu had a last word in his critique of the radicals of May 1968, published in 1988, although his views must have been known by Rancière at the time.  Bourdieu saw the mainspring for staff involvement in the revolt as impatience with the slow and uncertain processes of promotion through a hidebound hierarchy dominated by non-radical academics like Claude Levi-Strauss. Impatience led to a number of practical forms of rebellion in the formation of alternative career paths outside the conventional university system, often involving popular writing to develop media careers. Radicalism could be seen ‘as a compensatory strategy’, as an escape from the academic market (Bourdieu 1988: 20), and Marxism can act as a ‘last resort’ (1988: 21).

There was also an attempt to develop interdisciplinary work as a sideways move. Rancière (2006) refers to his own work as an ' in-discipline' as part of his critique of Bourdieu’s discipline-based orthodoxy .  Bourdieu (1988: 117) refers to Barthes as an example of breaking with disciplines in order to exploit a new position in the scholarly field, but it could easily be Rancière. Barthes celebrated his prophetic role, and saw himself as political, anti authoritarian, esoteric, scientific, subversive, applying new techniques to texts.  He was a chameleon, deploying 'peremptory subjectivism' to 'wash himself clean of the plebeian crime of positivism . ...deliberately esoteric,  and... through an interpretation itself instituted as literary work ... [claiming to be] ... situated beyond the true and the false’.


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Sociology Research Group in Cultural and Education Studies (eds) (1980) Melbourne Working Papers 1980. University of Melbourne

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