On Pierre Bourdieu Part 2: Systems of Domination

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book, Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says that the central focus of Bourdieu’s work is how in a given culture the systems of domination reproduce themselves in such a way that it seems natural and obvious, so that there is no resistance and so that neither the beneficiaries nor the non-dominant people recognize the forces at work. The hope is that understanding the way these systems operate will give us a chance to affect change that benefits them even if there is a loss to the dominant elites. The need for this should be quite obvious as we watch elites in the US, the UK and other more or less democratic nations slowly drive us to collapse while authoritarian governments survive. Change is not without its own dangers, of course.

Swartz opens with this sentence:

Culture provides the very grounds for human communication and interaction; it is also a source of domination. P. 1.

As an example, Bourdieu spent a lot of energy studying the education sector. He himself was an outsider, born in 1930 to a working class family in a small town in southwestern France. He began his studies in rural schools and only at the age of 19 did he move to Paris to continue his studies, first in a prestigious Lycée and then at the top French school, the Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he studied with and under many of the leading French intellectuals of the day. Although some of his fellow students were from similar backgrounds, including Michel Foucault, most were upper class Parisians. This no doubt gave impetus to his study of the way French intellectuals reproduce their dominance across generations. Swartz explains:

Educational institutions secure partial autonomy from political intervention and economic constraints by establishing their own criteria for legitimation and by recruiting and training their own personnel—that is, by securing control over their own reproduction. P. 77.

This should be obvious. Academia has been reproducing itself this way since it began, and it seems logical and natural that new teachers would begin by learning from experienced and knowledgeable teachers. But it is far from universal, we in the US are in danger of treating it as a factoid, a given, and taking it in isolation. If we did that, we might add the fact that people like to hire people who are like them, so we would draw the conclusion that this is a problem because it tends to exclude people who aren’t like existing teachers in some unacceptable way, such as gender or skin color. Or we might say that it is good because it removes the government from the academy regardless of whatever flaws there might be.

Bourdieu embeds the fact in a theory. The theory is that society is organized to reproduce itself in a natural and unthreatening way, so that members of society, elites and others, don’t see the machine at work and are strongly inclined to accept things as they are. When we see it this way, we ask different questions. For example, we see clearly how legacy admissions to elite universities serve the goal of perpetuating the domination of the elites. Their children get an edge that is invisible to most people; only the smart kid from Enid OK who didn’t get into Yale sees it, and people write her off as bitter. Then legacies get an edge in taking power in government, corporations and other sectors, including education.

A 2011 survey of 30 top universities found that legacies had a 45% greater chance of admissions that non-legacies. Even when legacies are reasonably competent compared to the other applicants, this advantage is a natural way to recreate the dominance of the existing elites. I don’t doubt that Chelsea Clinton is bright, though obviously Jared Kushner is a tougher call. The point is that Clinton and Kushner are certain to reproduce the attitudes and politics of their parents. Their slots at Stanford and Harvard did not go to equally qualified people from non-elite backgrounds, and the same is true of all the slots that went to the legacies. On the other hand, I’m just sure both Clinton and Kushner see themselves as hard-working meritocrats, succeeding because they are special.

But that isn’t all we can see. The elites don’t like the idea that they don’t get to influence academia. They intend to deploy their wealth as they see fit (the link is to my post on oligarchy in democracy, and may be of interest for further links), and aren’t interested in hearing from the rest of us; they don’t want democratic control of anything. Thus we get charter schools that can easily be used to teach kids that society is organized to facilitate the capitalist mode of production and that joyful participation is the way to succeed in life. If you don’t succeed in this way, you are a loser who deserves to suffer. If this schooling is successful, the profits and losses are irrelevant to the rich.

The rich have led the way in bringing business methods into the university. Today the focus is on job-oriented education as a replacement for liberal arts, in other words on vocational training instead of learning to think clearly and objectively. Education, if that’s the word, becomes a consumer object, with the student as consumer. As in business, the goal is to drive down the costs of labor, hence the use of miserably-paid and abused adjuncts. Meanwhile endowments grow repulsively big. We can easily see Yale and Harvard as hedge funds with a few attached schoolrooms, dorms and gyms.

But Bourdieu’s question is merely the apex of a framework. There is a broader and deeper analysis of society that establishes the framework, and makes it easier to apply to a wider range of strategies and rationalities supporting the central point, that societies and especially elites are organized to reproduce themselves and their dominance as covertly as possible. The carceral state is the tool for dealing with the dissidents and the non-conformists.

6 replies
  1. matt says:

    You describe a fact of every dominant society until they concentrate power, land, or money to the point where the lower class has no other option but to revolt.

    This time I think “the Fall” will be different.  The dominant system now functions in every corner of the globe so their is no rival system/culture to challenge it from “the outside.”

    And, the masses have little to no power to “revolt.”  Despite how having a locker stocked with guns makes a “preper” feel safe in the US, the Police State need only the GPS coordinates of his location to mitigate his miniscule threat by remote means.

    Some environmental, nuclear, biological, or extraterrestrial (asteroid/meteor) disaster will have to be big enough to unseat central control of the financial and military system for their to be a reset… and even after that, one has to ask whether the surviving humans would just organize again in the same hierarchical manor as has been done from time immemorial.

    Until then,  the only way “out” if you are poor (and lucky enough to live in a non-oppressive Nation State) is to move into the hinterlands and acquire a minimal portion of productive land to support your self “off the grid.”

    …I’m full of cheer, aren’t I?…  must be the holidays….



  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Studying at the Ecole Normale Superieure would have been like being thrown into the rip current off Ocean Beach with instructions to swim out of it.  It is one of the Grandes Ecoles, specialist colleges of higher education for the French elite, outside of the normal public university system (such as the Sorbonne and other Parisian universities).  Attendance or teaching at them defines the academic creme de la creme.  There are dozens, for science, engineering, social studies and teaching, business and public administration.

    Bourdieu not only did well, he rose to the top: a post at the College de France, France’s most prestigious intellectual establishment.  But like a working class kid attending Oxford in the 1950’s or a kid from Pittsburgh beating out Shrub for admission to Yale, it would have been a difficult social experience for the outsider.

    • Ed Walker says:

      As an additional handicap, he’d grown up speaking the local Gascon dialect, and so would have had to become fluent in Parisian French.

    • Paul Handford says:

      The “difficult social experience” for working class kids at Oxford remained a likelihood well into the 60s, at least, as I can attest.   Kids from the provinces have “vulgar” accents;  their cultural horizons are all too constrained— in a word, they are, and usually feel, provincial indeed.  The legacy folks, by contrast, are (or at least seem) at ease, familiar with it all— they behave as though they own the place.  And then it dawns on you that, of course, in a sense, they do.  Lots of inertia there, all right.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Legacy admissions to elite public and private schools are an important way in which elites maintain their status.  Among other benefits, attendance at elite schools, such as the Ivy League or Public Ivies (e.g., Berkeley, Michigan) confer lifetime benefits, as do membership in elite fraternities, sororities and secret societies, such as Skull & Bones and Porcellian.

    Top companies, for example, sometimes limit their hiring of MBAs to those from the top 5 B schools; the DoJ has a distinct preference for hiring from the Ivies and Public Ivies, as do top private secondary schools.  Some careers are virtually of limits from the get go without the right resume.  It’s all very begat, begat, begat.

    Trump’s tax plan, not surprisingly, further entrenches elites and their top schools.  Taxing graduate school scholarships makes attendance at public and private Ivies all but impossible for working and middle class scholars, making already moribund upward mobility even harder to achieve.  Taxing school endowments will be hard on all but the already most well-endowed, limiting competition from below and limiting the value of their degrees relative to the elites.  How Trumpian.

    From a brief summary on legacy admissions:

    Ivy League and other top schools typically admit legacies at two to five times their overall admission rates….While the preference is quite common in elite universities and liberal arts colleges, it is quite controversial, with 75% of Americans opposing the preference.

  4. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The metastasizing of the MBA, its infiltration into walks of life far removed and antithetical to business models and so-called business ethics, seems to be an implementation of the Powell letter’s priorities.  It’s a take-over by stealth of education (as Dick Cheney said, personnel is policy), and running it according to business priorities and methods.  It’s a separate subject, but one that fits in well with how elites maintain their status.

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