by Pierre Bourdieu.
Translated by Peter Collier. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.
xxvi, 345 p. Reviewed by

Hervé Varenne,
Teachers College, Columbia University
in Teachers College Record 91: 263-65

For those who have followed Bourdieu's career as he grapples with the construction a powerful sociology of education, this book will be familiar. Here again is Bourdieu's infamous style, here again are controversial insights well worth the struggle. Yes, we could ask him to get an editor. To which he would answer, in a style one hope will not be imitated,

"the concern to control his discourse, that is the reception of his discourse, imposes on the sociologist a scientific rhetoric which is not necessarily a rhetoric of scientificity: he needs to inculcate a scientific reading, rather than belief in the scientificity of what is being read--except in so far as the latter is one of the tacit conditions of a scientific reading" (p. 28).

We must take this point to heart.

Bourdieu applies himself here to the world of French intellectuals as they relate to the university system. In a preface to the English edition, Bourdieu does argue that the analysis has nothing specifically French. Still, for an American audience, reading Homo Academicus will certainly be equivalent to reading an odd ethnography of French institutions.

But Bourdieu does not develop the theory of culture that his methodology now requires. In fact, the theory of France as France is so underdeveloped that a French reader, with no guidance about the specificity of the case, and with no personal experience of other institutional arrangements, may never notice that the details of the processes described are not of universal relevance. There is no extensive discussion of the historical roots of the French system and one would not be too far off the mark to see in this one of the worse form of the atemporal sociological stance that takes contemporary happenstance for universal humanity. To transform this account of homo academicus francophonus into one of homo academicus americanus would be a major venture for which Bourdieu offers precious little guidance.

But let us grant Bourdieu that he is serious in his search for universal sociological processes. Let us appreciate his insistence that one will not understand modern societies if one does not understand the way "education" is inextricably tied to the most general matters of social structure. For Bourdieu the sociology of education is not a secondary discipline. It is the core of any sociology. We must be thankful for this affirmation even if, after reading this book, those of us who are related to universities, either as professors, students, researchers, users of research, etc., are left uncomfortable as we are reminded that there are tricks to our trade that cannot quite be stated in the settings when the university is most like a university, when it advertises itself, when it publishes formal criteria for belonging, when it evaluates students or elaborates complex formal "procedures for promotion and tenure." The American tricks are not the same as the French tricks. The French equivalent of the Ph.D. is practically useless for a career in French academia. An American Ed.D., however, is not equivalent to a Ph.D., and a Ph.D. from Podunk State is not equivalent to one from Stanford. We already knew that getting a degree from Yale is not equivalent to getting one from the City University of New York. Bourdieu reminds us that there is much more work to conduct here.

There is much here also that should not be replicated as it fails to address problems which cannot be set aside. In many ways, Bourdieu is a very classical sociologist in that he sets his work as a scientific description of a system that he does not evaluate. He is extremely insistent on this, going so far as to underline that his role is that of a reporter of "facts of evaluations" and that he will not be held accountable for evaluations made by readers. This is altogether disingenuous, given his common usage of words like "power," "capital," "nepotism," "crisis," "heretics," "collusion," words that are systematically used in settings, like titles or introductory paragraphs, where they cannot be quotes. Bourdieu has too strong a voice to pretend that he is simply "being scientific" unless he assumes that social science is necessarily leftist (obscurantism being the necessary qualification of "rightist," "bourgeois" expression). His analysis of the position of sociologists at the institution where his career started, an analysis that explains quite convincingly the marginal position of sociology and anthropology as they struggle with the other "faculties" for funding and prestige, their necessary association with leftist politics, and so on, neces- sarily devalues itself unless it is its own subject. The book, and the career of the author, are too available as an example of what the book is about for Bourdieu's disclaimer to carry any weight. A "purely scientific" analysis--to the extent that it solely focuses on mechanisms of an institution and not on either its goals or its place within larger social systems--is either radically destructive ("this silly/evil behavior has got to be stopped") or else it is incomplete. A university is not simply a mechanism to reproduce itself. If it is a mechanism, it is a mechanism for something else, some thing or things which it does not control but for which it is accountable. Take for example Bourdieu's paradoxical instance that his abominable style is not simply a symbolic act of institutional identification, that it is made necessary by the requirement of teaching the reader the scientific stance. Here we have a case where an apparently un-motivated symbol (illegible prose) is presented as being motivated because of its place within a larger system. This is either complacency or it is a sign that some social process is at work over which Bourdieu has no control. Bourdieu must say that his style is motivated or else he will be dismissed. This is true of the university as a whole. Its arcane rituals are motivated, but not by itself. Thus they cannot be understood simply by looking at the careers of people within the institution. If this is all that is done, then the behavior does look undefensible and the strategies so reprehensible that an ethical vocabulary to describe them is appropriate. But this is what should not be done. The "goals" of the university, that is the uses to which it is put by those who are not "of" the university but are in control of it, cannot possibly be bracketed. The reader has the power and anyone who addresses him, or her (but Bourdieu does not feel the need to pay this homage to American righteousness), must respect this power. Only so can the author attain the goal which the reader, by buying the book, has assigned to him.

March 3, 1996