The first session by Michael Grenfell, titled 'Social Class? Bourdieu and the Practical Epistemology of Social Classification' was an overview and recap of Bourdieu's work for those of us whose brains had gotten a bit stiff. Among other things, he suggested there were three key moments in Bourdieu's approach empirical work. The first concerns the construction of the research object. This means anything the sociologist approaches as an object of study is not innocent. To illustrate, social space is composed of an overlapping and shifting number of fields. Each of these fields operate as if they are an economy, with their own methods of regulation, stakes to fight over, capital to accumulate and strategies that can be deployed in struggle. There are any number of agents active within these fields who occupy certain positions and trajectories and have an interest in struggling for the possession of the capital specific to it. The more capital one has, the greater the potential for reconfiguring the field around their interests. All social phenomena have a position in one or multiple fields and are constituted by their relations to other objects within the field and the overarching dynamics of struggle. Therefore starting point for sociological research is to conceptually locate the object in relation to everything else and not commit the fallacy of treating it as stand alone phenomena.
The second methodological instance consists of three distinct levels. Even though social space is configured through interrelated fields, it is worth bearing in mind that contemporary social formations are organised hierarchically - and this applies to fields too. The wider social field constitutes/is constituted by the economic and political fields, but it is also dominated by them. Even though each field has a certain autonomy and a specificity that cannot be wholly understood with reference to external determinations, who "decides" what is and isn't legitimate tend to be those who are rich in the capital of the dominant fields. The closer a field is to this field of power, the more apparent this domination is, and the more value the cultural capital specific to it has vis other fields. For example, among academic disciplines Economics enjoys close links to the business world, attracts more research monies, influences key decision making and so on by virtue of its position. The same cannot be said of Cultural Studies. Hence sociological research involves analysing this field of power, the relations between the agents competing in the field and the 'habitus' of agents, a "practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play." (Practical Reason 1998, p.25).
Thirdly and crucially is the element of Bourdieu's work Grenfell felt was often overlooked by sociologists - the process of 'self-objectivation'. What this means is turning the sociological gaze back upon ourselves. It follows that if all social phenomena are bound up in the structures and struggles outlined above, so are we. There's no Mount Olympus from which sociologists can observe the social space below, we are as much part of the fields we study as anyone else. Bourdieu is not for a 'sociology of the sociologists' because it's a jolly excuse for academics to churn out more papers no one is likely to read: it is the condition of scientific sociological knowledge. By looking at our own trajectories, positions and interests in academic and other fields we control for the distortions and biases that are the inevitable outcome of a sociology operating in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This can only strengthen the claims our research makes (something, incidentally, that concerns about half of my thesis).
Then came the first of the day's workshops. The first was Raffaella Bianchi whose paper was on musical culture and class in Risorgimento Milan. She looked at how opera was assimilated into the class practices of the nascent Milanese bourgeoisie, of how private boxes at La Scala became a key site for the constitution of common political interests and a new nationalist hegemony to counter the Austrian and Papal domination of Italy. The second was from Will Atkinson who was using Bourdieu to understand class reproduction in a self-stylised individualist age. As education is one of the primary fields where we all begin acquiring the cultural capital that allows us to get on, he was interested to see if class remained a key factor in its accumulation and therefore individual life chances.
After lunch Andreas Bieler gave a talk on European integration and 'Neo-Gramscianism' - but I'll leave that one for a post of its own. So it's to the afternoon workshops. Saleem Izdani Khan gave a presentation on sectarianism and class in Pakistan. This was basically an account of the shifting composition of the Pakistani ruling class and the project of constructing a secular Muslim state in the aftermath of Partition. He also looked at the position of the army and the contradictions arising from Pakistan's backwardness (i.e. feudal basis of much of the ruling class, low rate of urbanisation, regional rivalries, geopolitical positioning, etc.). Considering no one knew anything about Pakistan apart from Saleem, the question and answer session was very thorough.
The final event saw Lisa Adkins give a talk called 'Mobility in a Time of Futurity' which was a complex encounter between Marx and Bourdieu, and one where Bourdieu didn't come off lightly. Adkins critiqued him for ignoring how exploitation and surplus extraction are also fundamental constituents of the social order. He disregards the Marxist understanding of capital as representatives of congealed abstract labour time and deploys capital merely as effort recognised by others in a field. The problem with this, I would suggest, is by treating capital in this meritocratic manner Bourdieu can only really describe the reproduction of the uneven distribution of capitals, but not explain it. For that you need Marx. Adkins went on to look at the composition of abstract labour in contemporary capitalism and argued there were new modes of capital accumulation starting to emerge. With reference to her work on freelance web designers, she described how they made their money. Basically they build websites and charge according to the number of potential hits it would likely generate. In classical terms, the designer is not exploiting their labour power as would a self-employed small business owner, instead earnings are entirely future-oriented, based on time that does not yet exist. I wasn't entirely sure about this myself.
Overall it was an excellent day. All the sessions were high quality and gave pause for thought. And it was good to see plenty of Marxist and Marxisant postgrads in attendance. If this is in anyway representative, it looks like the increasing take up of Bourdieu is paving the way for a sociological comeback of Marx. Afterall, it is impossible to talk about Bourdieu and not have the old beard crop up sooner or later.