In praise of Sociology! Speech by Pierre Bourdieu

In the February edition of Sociology, a previously unpublished translation of a speech given by Pierre Bourdieu, when he accepted his Gold Medal of the National Center for Scientific Research, France’s highest scientific distinction in 1993 was printed. His award speech and the ceremony, in which he presented it, provide what Loïc Wacquant describes as a “triple interest for the history and sociology of sociology”. The speech masterfully illustrates how an influential and shaping figure of the discipline navigated the challenges of science, authority and power and provides an unrivalled insight into the evolution of his theories on group formation and democratic politics. 

The below is an extract from this speech, published by SAGE in Sociology on 28 February 2013. As Wacquant states, this speech is most powerful in its praise of sociology as an influential and pivotal scientific discipline. The below extract feverously put an “emphatic end to the eclipse of Durkheim theory by restoring sociology to its rightful place at the scientific zenith”.[1]

“I can now come to sociology and to the questions that surround it. The first and the most common concerns its scientific status. It is clear that sociology possesses all the main characteristics that define a science: autonomous and cumulative, it strives to construct systems of hypotheses organized into coherent models capable of accounting for large sets of empirically observable phenomena (Bourdieu et al., [1973]1991). But one may wonder whether this is really the issue … We know very well that this question is never raised about most of the canonical disciplines of the faculty of the humanities and the human sciences, or about the least established disciplines of the faculty of science. In fact, sociology is always suspected – especially among conservative circles – of compromising with politics. Now it is true that the sociologist and this is what distinguishes him from the historian and the anthropologist, typically takes as object her own society and that therefore she always runs the risk of investing in her practice prejudices or, worse yet, presuppositions. In reality, this danger is much less serious than appears to the novice: because it is particularly exposed to it, sociology supplies a particularly powerful arsenal of instruments of defense against it.

What is more, the logic of competition, which is that of all scientific universes, brings to bear upon every sociologist constraints and controls that she in turn exercises onto all others. It is the totality of the world sociological universe, in all the diversity of its scientific (and not political) positions and position-takings, which intervenes as a bulwark between each sociologist and the social world: the logic of criss-crossing censorships is such that she cannot surrender to profane seductions and worldly compromises, those of journalism in particular, without running the risk of being excluded from the ‘invisible college’ of social scientists (Bourdieu, 1991a). Such exclusion is a terrible sanction even if it is ignored by the lay public – and by many journalists, who mistake differences in scientific proficiency for differences of opinion bound to cancel each other out. […]

A prerequisite for sociologists, the sociology of the scientific universe seems to me just as necessary for the other sciences. Indeed, it is arguably the most accomplished realization of this ‘psychoanalysis of the scientific mind’ that Bachelard (1938) called for. It gives us the means to uncover the social unconscious, collectively repressed, inscribed in the social logic of the scientific universe, in the social determinants and recruitment of recruitment committees; in the social conditions of the hiring and conduct of scientific administrators; in the social relations of domination, exercised under the guise of relations of scientific authority, that thwart or refrain creativity and inventiveness instead of inciting them, especially among younger scholars; in the national (and nowadays local) networks of intellectual co-optation that protect some from the sanctions of scientific evaluation by denying others the full expression of their intellectual potentialities, and so on. […]I have said enough for you to understand that the ideology of the ‘scientific community’, as an ideal polis whose citizens would know but one goal, the quest for truth, does not really serve the interest of truth. Sociological analysis of the functioning of the Scientific City as it exists, and of all the mechanisms that intrude upon pure and perfect competition and thus impede scientific progress, could greatly contribute to the increase in scientific productivity about which our technocrats are so concerned. What is certain, at any rate, is that scientists – many of whom, especially among biologists, worry about the future of their science as it gets swept away by the uncontrolled force of its mechanisms – cannot hope to gain collective mastery of their practice unless they undertake, with the help of sociologists and historians of science, a collective analysis of the social mechanisms that regulate the actual functioning of their world (Bourdieu, 1997, [2001]2006).[…]

Perhaps sociology is here to remind the other sciences, both by its very existence and by its analyses, of their historical origins, which is the principle of their provisional validity as well as of their fallibility. And it demonstrates that the ever-renewed efforts to found science on transcendent principles are condemned to the circle, evoked by James Joyce, of the self-proclamation of infallibility by a pope whose word cannot be recused on grounds of his infallibility.”

The full speech and its accompanying notes can be found here.

[1]  “Bourdieu 1993: A Case Study in Scientific Consecration”, by Loïc Wacquant, published in Sociology, February 2013


Why Study Social Science

Social Science’s Dangerously Low Profile, and How to Fix It

The Formula

Numerical indigestion: how much data is really good for us?

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x