Bourdieu in Paris: Universities and a ‘Habitus of Compliance’

By | July 12, 2017

There are few more amenable groups to belong to than those run by my Norwegian friends and colleagues, and few more attractive places to meet than the student quarter in Paris. My brief was open but I chose to talk about the potential for a macro- through meso- to micro-sociological analysis of the deleterious changes currently occurring within England’s universities. I have been asked to do a blog, so here I go, some hours – and an excellent meal – after my talk.

As a scene-setter, I mentioned my often rehearsed and blogged view that post-1970s financial capitalism is characterized above all else by a revised class/command dynamic, in accordance with which that elusive fraction of the 1% of the capitalist executive draws on and deploys its capital to purchase desirable policies from deep within the apparatus of the state. Neoliberalism I take to be the ideological rationalization of this process, ideology here retaining its classical meaning, that is, denoting a perspective or view of the world that reflects the vested interests of a particular group. Neoliberal ideology here provides cover for the (class-derived) exploitation and (command-derived) oppression of the many by the few (plus their allies and co-optees).

I offered a case study. I tracked changes to the teaching of sociology in London’s medical schools, a process in which I was intimately involved. I discerned five phases since sociology was introduced into the curriculum following the GMC-backed recommendations of the Todd Report in 1969. These were as follows:

  1. The innovative phase (1969-1983): this saw the implementation of Todd’s proposals, typically though the appointment of sociology lecturers to the staff of London’s medical schools, and came to its conclusion, I suggested, with Thatcher guru and Hayek disciple Keith Joseph’s insistence that the Social Science Research Council be renamed the Economic and Social Research Council (sociology and its kindred disciplines being undeserving of the label ‘science’). It was an era of imaginative invention. At Charing Cross Hospital medical School (HMS), for example, David Blane and I complemented our lectures with small-group seminars and also sent our students into the community to do survey work, the resultant data giving an opportunity to teach not only hands-on research but basic statistics (e.g. chi square and t-tests). The assessment was via small-group and project-based in-course assessment and a written examination. It proved a tough task (often hostile students had to be confronted and won over) but also afforded a ‘window of opportunity’.
  2. The consolidation phase (1983-1995): this phase was announced by Joseph’s insistence that the likes of sociology were less than social ‘sciences’ and terminated by the description that London HMS’s sociologists comprised ‘a bunch of Ayatollas’. Thatcher’s period of office threatened to impair sociology’s vitality and future, and this impacted on the London HMS. Syllabi stabilized and in some instances contracted; there was little expansion of staffing and vision. London’s Special Advisory Committee in Sociology Applied to Medicine (SACSAM), which reported to its powerful ‘parent’ and university-wide Medical Committee, was the primary means of solidarity and self-defence. Citing Todd and the GMC we were able to exert pressure on recalcitrant institutions. This culminated in a campaign mounted by SACSAM and supported by the Medical Committee to insist that medical students from Cambridge should not (as was common practice) be permitted to transfer to London to do their (3rd to 5th year) ward-based clinical studies because Cambridge did not run a satisfactory (1st or 2nd year) pre-clinical sociology programme. Cambridge would not budge; and after a year or two the Vice-Chancellors of London and Cambridge met, decided in the wake of the Iranian revolution that we constituted ‘a bunch of Ayatollahs’, and opted to override our protest.
  3. The rationalization phase (1995-2006): this phase comprised a rearguard action to sustain gains made during the innovation phase. Pressures mounted for standardization. Mergers characterized this phase, each one requiring a newly fashioned curriculum. Ten HMS were absorbed into four multi-faculty colleges, with St George’s HMS remaining an independent outlier. Much of my own course survived, though the 1998 accommodation of the Royal Free HMS precipitated a sociology-with–epidemiology compromise that mutated into a ‘Society and the Individual’ course incorporating sociology, epidemiology and pyschology. All small-group work was lost, displaced by stand-up lectures to 360 students, and the new course culminated in two short-answer questions in an end-of-term examination. Machine-marking had arrived.
  4. The corporate phase (2006-2010): this phase was announced by the introduction of university fees, notwithstanding widespread opposition and student protest. London’s four core multi-faculty colleges-cum-universities plotted their own futures. The key property here was competition. The ‘big four’ became businesses, and research excellence and employees’ salaries were highlighted. Curricula reforms proceeded apace. SACSAM floated dead in the water.
  5. The neoliberal phase (2010-): the present and ongoing era is epitomized by a privatization agenda, that is, the displacement of public funding by fund-raising in an open and increasingly commercial marketplace. From this much of what follows might be deduced. In terms of teaching, ‘integration’ is the buzz word. Sociologists are losing their courses; after all, anyone can do ‘the social bit’, from epidemiologists to general practitioners.

Five themes emerge from this summary case study:

  • What we have witnessed is a process of system colonization (Habermas), and a shift too in its character – from bureaucratization to commodification.
  • This system colonization has increasing taken the form of McDonaldization (Ritzer), with standardized formats being applied to teaching, examining and the assessment of academic performance.
  • A new and insidious cultural relativity has permeated the HMS environment, making it difficult to provide compelling critiques of the ‘irrationality of the rational’ (Ritzer).
  • Education has ceded crucial ground to the inculcation of work skill-sets.
  • Sociology ‘in’ and to a lesser extent sociology ‘of’ medicine have become progressively tamer.

Having set the scene by means of this case study, I drew on Bourdieu to develop a broader analysis of the changing role of the university academic. I offered a few points of summary of his thinking.

The notion of habitus refers to the mental structures, or schemes, by which people deal with the social world. Habitus is the internalization of the structures that comprise the social world. Thus, it reflects objective divisions around class, gender and age (for example). It varies in other words with an individual’s position in the social world. Those who occupy similar positions will tend to have a similar habitus (giving rise to the idea of the ‘collective habitus’).

Habitus emerges over time and acts like a durable ‘structuring structure’. It comes from practice; and it shapes practice. It predisposes people to think and act in patterned ways, but without determining their action.

Another vital concept for Bourdieu is that of the field. This is best explicated ‘relationally’ rather than structurally. The field is a family or network of relations among the objective positions within it. The occupants of positions can be either agents or institutions. Ritzer:

‘the social world has a number of semi-autonomous fields (e.g. art, religion, higher education), all with their own specific logics and all generating among actors a belief about the things that are at stake in a field.’

A field is an arena of struggle, or competition, with people or collectivities occupying positions and oriented to defending/improving them.

‘the fields is a kind of competitive marketplace in which various types of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) are employed and deployed. However, the field of power (politics) is of the utmost importance; the hierarchy of power relationships within the political field serves to structure all the other fields’ (Ritzer again).

Questions posed by Bourdieu: (1) what is the relationship between any given field and the political field; (2) what is the objective structure of the relations among positions in the field; and (3) what is the nature of the habitus of the agents/collectivities who occupy the various types of position within the field.

The positions within the field are determined by the extent and strength of ‘flow’ of each type of capital (economic = wealth, income; cultural = taste, connections; social = social relations; and symbolic = status). Occupants of positions employ (structured, but not structurally determined) strategies to defend/enhance them.

Bourdieu also used the notion of symbolic violence. The state, he argues, is the site of a struggle to secure a monopoly of symbolic violence. Symbolic violence is a form of what is often called ‘soft power’. The educational system, for example, is a major conduit for exercising power over people.

In the end I drew on these assorted prolegomena to posit a habitus of compliance characterizing teachers and researchers in higher education in the UK. It is a habitus that is the product of Bourdieu’s political field directly shaping the semi-autonomous field of higher education.

I noted the introduction of university fees, initially by Blair’s New Labour regime in 1998 (fees up to £1k pa.); extended by this same government in 2004 (fees up to £3k pa.); then extended further by the Tory/Liberal Democratic coalition in 2010 (fees up to £9k p.a.); and finally extended once more by the Tories in 2017 (fees up to £9,250 p.a.). Fees for international undergraduates have now reached £10-35k p.a.).

Students have become customers in financial capitalism.

I also referred to the Higher Education and Research Act, England, which received its royal assent on 27 April 2017. This Act:

  • heralds the privatization of higher education;
  • removes direct funding of undergraduate programmes in the humanities and social sciences;
  • opens the door to for-profit providers via ‘Office for Students’;
  • requires research to be governed by (utilitarian) ‘impact agenda’;
  • ties raising of fees in the future to TEF (or teaching appraisals of universities).

Universities have become businesses in financial capitalism.

I illustrated the habitus of compliance these changes represented and evoked via a number of fictitious quotations:

‘I need to keep my job’

‘The job description says …’

I’ve been set specific goals’

It’s the stakeholders who matter’

‘Come on, we live in tricky times!’

‘Sociology is a broad church and I’m doing my bit’

‘I’m no collaborator!’

But, I concluded, we ARE, sociology IS, what we – between us – do. As my annotated account earlier of changes to sociology teaching in London HMS showed, the taming process has been profound: many an imaginative and innovative teaching programme has been cut back to an expedient standardized product for easy marketing and consumption. And research is affected too: ‘get another grant in (doesn’t matter what for)’, ‘publish in high-impact journals (doesn’t matter what you have to say)’, ‘never mind about education (it’s credentials and transferrable skills for the workplace that matter)’.

I ended my Paris talk by suggesting a number of hypotheses on financial capitalism, its neoliberal ideology, universities and the future of sociology:

  1. the habitus of compliance will spread;
  2. sociologists will ‘adjust’ their agendas to accommodate the new field of higher education and their weakened capital assets;
  3. the habitus of compliance will ‘subtract from’ public, foresight and action sociologies;
  4. post-classical sociology will cede territory to narratives compatible with the neoliberal status quo.

The worst scenario is what I have elsewhere described as ‘collaborationist sociology’. After my Paris talk however, Tory prime minister May callled a general election and subsequently lost her overall parliamentary majority to Labour leader Corbyn who, if he can eventually displace her, has a very different left-leaning agenda, including abolishing student fees and restoring universities to something of their former autonomy. We shall see.



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