Scholarship and Practice

by johnmccreery

In The Scholastic Point of View, Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Nov., 1990), pp. 380-391, Pierre Bourdieu writes,

I believe that there is a sort of incompatibility between our scholarly mode of thinking and this strange thing that practice is. To apply to practice a mode of thinking which presupposes the bracketing of practical necessity and the use of instruments of thought constructed against practice, such as game theory, the theory of probability, etc., is to forbid ourselves to understand practice as such. Scientists or scholars who have not analyzed what it is to be a scientist or a scholar, who have not analyzed what it means to have a scholastic view and to find it natural, put into the minds of agents their scholastic view. This epistemocentric fallacy can be found, for instance, in Chomsky (1972), who operates as if ordinary speakers were grammarians.

If Willem Schinkel is right, in the second of the papers that Kvond sent to Carl and Carl as sent to me, this is precisely the position that Latour rejects when he criticizes Bourdieu by calling him a “classical sociologist,” who claims to know more about what is happening than the actors involved in the events that the sociologist analyzes. Schinkel appeals to Foucault’s archeology of knowledge as a way of finding the common ground shared by Bourdieu and Latour. In my view, however, he could have turned more simply to Mikhail Bakhtin, who in “A Letter to the Editors of Novy Mir” remarks that all cultural understanding is based on dialogue made essential by the fact that we all have blind spots that we learn about through others’ observations.

That said, I find what Bourdieu says here not only provocative but very much in tune with, for example, the work of Kahneman and Klein in their studies of decision-making behavior, freed from the assumption that decision makers enjoy the scholar’s leisure to assess the merits of competing ideas in a playful mood freed from the pressures of urgent decisions. At the same time, I also find Latour’s pointing us to the material stuff (our bodies, our tools, our works of art or objects of worship) that affects human behavior very useful, indeed.

Would it not be more useful to focus on how to combine these perspectives than to engage in the sort of nitpicking analysis of an academic Punch-and-Judy show that Schinkel provides?

Just asking.


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16 Comments to “Scholarship and Practice”

  1. Bakhtin’s point is also made by various ‘standpoint’ theorists from feminist epistemologists to critical race theorists (its roots are more distantly in Hume), and I agree it’s maybe a more elegant move than Foucault. But I like how Schinkel takes both Bourdieu and Latour seriously, and I don’t mind him triangulating on Foucault; the move makes more sense in terms of the French intellectual context than Bakhtin or the standpointers would, and it opens up all sorts of interesting connections.

    If there’s a villain of the piece in terms of nitpicking it’s Latour, I think, who very consistently straw-mans classical sociology and ‘the modern constitution’ to punch out open space for his agenda. I like what he’s up to also, but there’s a lot more overlap of it in Durkheim and Bourdieu than his rhetoric allows. And his resurrection of Tarde, who was a right mess of simpleminded grandiosity, as the road not taken verges on the perverse. But I must admit that I have not made a serious study so these must just be taken as provisional impressions.

  2. My impressions are also provisional. I have read a fair amount of Bourdieu but none at all by Latour, whom I know only through second-hand references. My thought here is that in what I read by and about these two authors, there are two perfectly compatible big ideas: (1)from Bourdieu, that the common scholastic practice of observing behavior and assuming a set of ideas to explain it projects scholastic leisure and priorities in what is likely to be a wholly unrealistic way and (2) from Latour, that the material apparatus involved in human behavior deserves a closer look for the way it may help to shape that behavior. Serendipitously both are relevant to the paper I gave last week in Taiwan titled “Why do the gods look like that?” focused on the tangible qualities of Chinese god statues in a religious context that is highly ritualistic but largely free of dogma.

  3. JM: “(1)from Bourdieu, that the common scholastic practice of observing behavior and assuming a set of ideas to explain it projects scholastic leisure and priorities in what is likely to be a wholly unrealistic way”

    Kvond: Bourdieu’s larger, over all point (and it is brought out in the third Fuller essay I sent Carl), is not just that the scholastic view is epistemically flawed, but that this neutral gaze, this leisure, is purchased through class relations into which the scholarly view has investment. Its not just that the scholarly view is skewed, but it is skewed in a very particular direction, a direction with social and moral consequence.

    So when someone inspired by Latour says something like “Let objects speak!”, what Bourdieu wants to say, “When “objects” speak, clients are speaking (silently).”

  4. I find nothing to disagree with in what Kvond says. I will say, however, that it is immaterial to what I have said about the utility of the ideas I have picked up from the authors in question.

    To me what Bourdieu says is important because he points to a fact important to people who hope to earn a living outside the academy, as soldiers, business people, or football players, for example. We are frequently called upon to make decisions based on less than perfect information and to act in situations where pausing for scholarly reflection would lose us the game, the business, or even our lives. The failure to take account of these circumstances is a glaring flaw in theories of practice that assume a degree of rational calculation that is frequently simply not possible.

    To me it is not particularly interesting what Latour was thinking when he developed ANT; not least because, my admittedly secondary sources tell me, he has now given up on ANT. It is, however, important that by directing attention to the material apparatus that shapes social life, including but not exclusively in science, he has stimulated work like that of Donald MacKenzie, who in Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed demonstrates convincingly how information technology has contributed to the radical restructuring of financial markets, not only by increasing the speed of transactions but in numerous other, more subtle ways as well.

    Did you know, for example, that prior to the introduction of networked financial institutions, security prices were quoted in quarters of the currency in question? Why quarters? Traders on noisy trading floors could hear the difference between, for example, “8 and a quarter” and “8 and a half.” Smaller units were ruled out because they were too easily mistaken. Financial data delivered on computer screens makes it possible to see and bid in percentages of a currency unit: “8.19” vs. “8.22”, for example. The result is arbitrage conducted in relation to smaller fluctuations in security prices. Making money on smaller fluctuations, combined with a false sense of security created by Black-Scholes formulas’ dependence on the assumption that fluctuations would be normally distributed, fueled the trading bubble that has almost wrecked the global economy.

    For moving people like Mackenzie to do the research they do, I can forgive Latour, even if he behaved in the way Carl says that he did.

  5. (@3) Right. The bourdieuian comeback to Latour’s critique about classical sociology’s penchant for imagining that it can get beneath the surface of relations to what’s ‘really’ going on (which is a healthy point to make for humility’s sake) is, what makes you think you know what’s speaking when you speak (which is another healthy point to make for humility’s sake).

  6. (@4) I agree that’s good stuff, but any Marxist will tell you you have to look at conditions of practice and so would Bourdieu (with one foot in Marx), so while Latour may be an important proximate influence for work we admire I’m not sure he’s needed for this, exactly.

    Btw I mostly love Latour, I’m just not buying some of the marketing whizbang.

  7. I still don’t know what “Let objects speak” means. Or how objects have been silenced all the while. Isn’t the critique of description (and that is all that is going on) the attempt to assess what is going in description other than simply what the description itself is claiming/doing. Is the Latourian model much more than “Hey, all that human-orient stuff that you say is also going on in description, isn’t really going on so much”? Isn’t Latour’s correction something more of an amputation, as if we couldn’t keep our eye on BOTH human forces and objects at the same time.

  8. Like for instance:

    “Did you know, for example, that prior to the introduction of networked financial institutions, security prices were quoted in quarters of the currency in question? Why quarters? Traders on noisy trading floors could hear the difference between, for example, “8 and a quarter” and “8 and a half.” Smaller units were ruled out because they were too easily mistaken. Financial data delivered on computer screens makes it possible to see and bid in percentages of a currency unit: “8.19″ vs. “8.22″, for example. The result is arbitrage conducted in relation to smaller fluctuations in security prices. Making money on smaller fluctuations, combined with a false sense of security created by Black-Scholes formulas’ dependence on the assumption that fluctuations would be normally distributed, fueled the trading bubble that has almost wrecked the global economy.”

    This is really cool. I love it. But is THIS the story of the economic crisis? Is this not a tendency to feel that in grasping this QWERTY-like fact we have grasped something ESSENTIAL to what caused the crisis? Ahhh, THAT’S what happened.

    I do think that knowing this is quite valuable, but in a certain sense sociology (and philosophy) is narrative building, and the sheer “utility” of ideas, as JM refers to it, has to be read in larger context I believe.

    The vertical dimension of power that is missing from Latour might very well get us to notice all kinds of objectile interindices (and that is a good thing), but it also causes, or can cause a forgetting. The forgetting that utility ultimately has to be linked up to meaning, and meaningfulness.

  9. “The forgetting that utility ultimately has to be linked up to meaning, and meaningfulness.”

    Normally I’d agree, but oddly enough I just started to read Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity by Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon, in which they argue that the importance of ritual is precisely not in meaning but in practices that enable the subjunctive ‘as-if’ finessing of boundaries in a fundamentally meaningless and fragmented world. In contrast the search for meaning, filtered through the idea of a deeper ‘sincerity’ or authenticity beneath or apart from the formalities, is a search for an elusive and illusory wholeness. (They blame the Protestants.) I see this point and it looks compatible with Latour to me.

  10. This is why I used the doublet “meaning, and meaningfulness”. Rituals indeed are meaning-ful, though they are not reducible to what they “mean”. They are performative recursions which enact a circulation onto which meaning itself can take root and ground itself, and as such also operate or feed off of the coherension of that meaning (the collectivity of beliefs, their inter-relation). They perform the wholeness that coherence itself offers at another level. This is the “ulility” of ideas, aside from their mere functionlity of results. The wholeness and the search for meaning are not exclusve of each other.

    It is for this reason that the mere “ulility of ideas” has to be found not only within their results but in their performative cohension, something that Bourdieu’s “habitus” also helps us see. It is not just that the wholeness is “illusionary” and thus must be given up in some sort of sobriety. It is performative, it is operative, always. And must be included in the awareness of what we are doing.

  11. Or Carl, to put it another way, or to attack the issue from a different direction, I see no empirical or even theoretical justification to conclude that the world is “fundamentally meaningless and fragmented”. Instead it is in my view cohesive, operant, and depending on how you read the concept of “meaning” (and I read it semiotically in terms of differences that make a difference), meaning-ful.

    I would also add that those that read the world as “fundamentally fragmented” do so because they find it meaning-ful to do so.

  12. Sure. They’d say you are deep within an epistemological prejudice, as we all are. Yours is the one with the cohesive world, so you read everything in terms of meaning and meaningfulness. But the point of the book as I understand it so far is to radically decenter that prejudice and argue that from a different prejudice, the one with the fragmented world, ritual is a way of doing, a framing of action, that enables the creation of social worlds in the subjunctive mode as a practical response to chaos. This is done not because it’s meaningful, but because it’s practical. Of course we can read this in terms of meaning, but it would be a reading-in.

    The dominant current in both anthropology and religious studies has been a search to clarify the meanings of rituals, to show the ways in which their symbols encode and evoke systems of cultural discourse. It is our contention, however, that such an approach risks being blinded by our own assumptions, all strongly influenced by what can perhaps be termed a post-Protestant or post-Enlightenmentvison of ritual action as a referent for meaning whose true essence resides only beyond the ritual itself… (p. 4). It is ultimately our own prejudices, our own inability to see the ever presence of differences in life – difference that ritual continually mediates – that leads us to reduce ritual to a representation of the sacred [that is, the meaningful]…. It is… our own sincerity – as a form of framing experience and action – that leads us to frame ritual actions in sincere terms, in terms separate from and no longer in continual mediating presence with everyday life (p.7).

    In a sense meaning comes after a coherent world has been ritually stabilized; it’s a luxury. They seem to be arguing that to forget this risks demolition of our foundations.

  13. Carl: “Sure. They’d say you are deep within an epistemological prejudice, as we all are. Yours is the one with the cohesive world, so you read everything in terms of meaning and meaningfulness.”

    Kvond: My main point was not epistemic, it was that EVEN granted a fundamentally fragmented world, the projects of ritual and meaning are no mutually exclusive, but neither are they as you say, a post stablized world of ritual. The meaning (let’s say semantic meaning, coherence of beliefs) does not float atop a ritualized base, but rather is in constant negotiation with it, and an expression of it. The ritualized form is embraided in the meaningful expression. EVEN if our world is assumed to be fragmented, our rituals of cohesion are positive acts of body building, and not just things that “blind” us to differences. I agree that they are mediating presences, (or better, operations), but they are not categorically separate from meaning exchange. There is no dialectic, so to speak. Or, the idea of “luxury” that you use is a loaded, and unwarrented one. And the notion of “foundation” as opposed to living quarters and then ornament, insufficient. The foundation is woven through.

    In any case, the use of ideas (their utility) employs not only a functional product, but also a performative expression which brings the world and others into coherence, which means that their factuality is only a part of their value. There full meaningness is embodied.

    To this I additionally say that instead of a fundamentally fragmented world, our is a cohesive world of operational change and constant semiosis. The same ritual formations apply. Its just that the they are not reduced to the level of a mere illusion, but rather are seen as part illusion, and part participation.

  14. (@8) Of course it’s not THE story. I used the word “fueled,” didn’t I? Takes more than fuel to make a fire.

    Just for fun, though: Another of MacKenzie’s little gems is the importance of what he calls the “trader’s ear.” Here we have the modern trader glued to his computer screen. At the same time, however, he is listening to what is being said around him, to get a sense of how other trader’s are reacting to the news he has just seen or if they have just seen something that he has missed. This, I speculate, may be a contributing factor to herd-like behavior in the market.

  15. (@9) Carl, I’m glad you mentioned Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity by Seligman, Weller, Puett and Simon. I managed to have lunch with Bob Weller, who teaches at BU, a couple of times while we were in Cambridge MA minding the grandkids. Since you like physical metaphors (the ontologies as mobiles response from you Dad is brilliant), you might ponder an image that occurs in Weller’s earlier book Resistance, Chaos And Control In China- Taiping Rebels, Taiwanese Ghosts And Tiananmen (1994). The meaning in ritual is, he suggests, like chemicals in a saturated solution. What precipitates from them depends on the circumstances and whatever else is added to them.

    Vic Turner had observed way back in the 1960s that ritual symbols frequently embody what he described as a fan or penumbra of often conflicting meanings. But Weller’s image has the advantage of envisioning the possibility that the effective meaning of rituals can vary dramatically from person to person and case to case and imagining a mechanism that is more than simply choose this model or that one depending on the situation. The idea that there is a chemistry of meanings in which you can start with two or more “elements” and wind up with something totally different — like the water that results from combining hydrogen and oxygen — is intriguing.

  16. John, that’s neat that you know him. I was thinking of you while flipping through the intro. I’m not sure when I’ll ever get to that other book but it looks great.

    I love the image of a fan of meanings and the chemistry of meanings even more so.

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