In the social sciences, Pierre Bourdieu was extremely influential; his models of cultural capital, power, and practice (society and culture emerge from doing) continue to influence how people in the social sciences think today. In terms of understanding science and technology, Bourdieu’s main point is that the social context of science is crucial in understanding how science as a field works, which can be seen in how scientists themselves work. In explaining how science works, Bourdieu also explains why science needs objectivity for the legitimation of its authority.
In the article that you read for today, Bourdieu makes 6 points that explains the social context for science – how science really works, from the perspective of scientists’ actions throughout their professional careers.
- Science is a competitive struggle over scientific authority. In a nutshell, Bourdieu’s social models are an application of Marxist economic theory into the realm of society and culture. If in Marxist theory, the goal of individuals in a market economy is to accumulate economic capital, in society and culture, the goal is to accumulate social and cultural capital. Like in the market economy, however, the game is rigged by the various rules of the game; and like any game, she who makes the rules, wins. In science, as Bourdieu writes, “the scientific field itself produces and presupposes a specific form of interest” (Bourdieu 1999:31). The specific form of interest referred to by Bourdieu is the establishment of scientific authority. What Bourdieu means by the statement that science produces and presupposes scientific authority is that recognition of such authority is dependent upon the interests of other people in the scientific community (in other words, other scientists confirm scientific authority).
- “Scientific authority is thus a particular kind of capital, which can be accumulated, transmitted, and even reconverted into other kinds of capital under certain conditions” (Bourdieu 1999:34). Think of the career path of a scientist, from school as a youth, undergraduate education, and graduate school; each step is an accumulation of a degree, which is a symbolic representation of cultural capital. But the scientific community is not really a level playing field; some scientific institutions are recognized as carrying more cultural capital than others. Bourdieu addressed how this works through his models of social stratification (Distinction) [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distinction_(book) ] , and this is essentially an application of his model of social stratification for science and technology. Moreover, the scientific community determines the parameters by which scientists are judged – this is why scientific authority is a particular kind of capital, a little different than other sectors of society. The self-enforced power of the scientific community as described by Bourdieu parallels the aforementioned Thomas Kuhn’s description of the power of paradigms and normal science. For those whose thinking is outside the box, like Albert Einstein, it is sometimes difficult to gain scientific authority when the community of scientists don’t recognize your accomplishments.
- The structure of science (and how scientific knowledge is recognized as valid) is determined by the different status or reputations of institutions, grants, rank, publications, and all the other things that scientists do. It isn’t just people who are involved in this recognition of scientific authority – scientific bureaucracies (e.g., the National Science Foundation, the aforementioned National Academy of Sciences), universities, foundations, corporations, and other institutions also serve to adjudicate and legitimize this competition between scientists. Doing science isn’t free – scientists need time and access to resources that are provided by scientific organizations, but you need some level of scientific authority to get into the game of science. There are specific strategies for advancement (the accumulation of cultural capital) that are the great concerns for both individual scientists and the scientific community. Think of the earlier example of Traweek’s Japanese and American physicists search for beamtimes.
- The scientific community is not a level playing field. Bourdieu writes: “The scientific field is always the locus of a more or less unequal struggle between agents unequally endowed with the specific capital, hence unequally equipped to appropriate the product of scientific labor accumulated by previous generations, and the specific profits (and also, in some cases, the external profits such as economic or strictly political benefits) which the aggregate of the competitors produce through their objective collaboration by putting to use the aggregate of the available means of scientific production” (Bourdieu 1999:37). This should sound familiar to you, having made it to college. Not all high schools are the same, and not all colleges are the same; but the end result after four years (hopefully!) of higher education is the same – either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science when you are done. But there must be a reason why you chose to come to this college; somewhere along the line, you (and your parents, society, etc.) recognized that this institution of higher education would open more doors than other colleges or universities. Next, think of the role that alumni play in maintaining the prestige and well-being of the college, as well as the social network that recent graduates can tap into for various opportunities. Then finally, think of the socialization that takes place over the four years of college – there is a certain set of cultural values and repertoire that are specific to every institution of higher education, reinforcing particular ways of thinking.
- But the science is also not a static community. In Bourdieu’s earlier points, science would seem to be resistant to change because of the structures of the scientific community. However, because the accumulation of social capital takes place through competition between scientists, science can also be the root of paradigmatic change (scientific revolution). Science is the source of change because of the tensions, contradictions, and instability that comes about through individual (and organizations) competition in science. Changes in the social and political context also add to the instability in science.
- Pure scientific objectivity is impossible. Objectivity, in terms of impartiality, openness to other ideas and approaches, etc., cannot really be possible in science because of the aforementioned competition for jobs, grants, publications, and all the other limited opportunities for career enhancement. Legitimation is gained through recognition by other scientists through the use of recognizable language, questions, and methodologies of the “field.” This defines something that Bourdieu calls doxa (the “knowable”), that both orthodox and heterodox perspectives confine their struggle.
Overall, the key to understanding science for Bourdieu is the recognition that that science as a body of knowledge and scientists as people (both the system and the people) represent themselves in certain ways that are both ideological strategies and epistemological positions that justify their own position.