For a Sociology of Science

Pierre Bourdieu

In this seventh blog post, I will analyze the role of science in the light of the pertinent considerations made by Pierre Bourdieu (2000, 2001) in this regard more than 20 years ago. In fact, this author thought about education, intellectuals and academia at least since 1982 (40 years ago) and the publication of his Homo Academicus, in 1984. I will also reflect on some more recent notes made by Bruno Lemaitre (2016, 2020).

© Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022


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In the prologue of “Towards a Sociology of Science” (2001)[1], Pierre Bourdieu states about science and the autonomy it had gradually conquered from religious, political, economic powers, and even state bureaucracies – which had been, in his view, greatly weakened at the beginning of the 21st century:

«(…) The social mechanisms that were installed as [science] asserted itself – such as the logic of competition between peers – run the risk of being placed at the service of ends imposed from outside; submission to economic interests and media seduction threatens to join external criticism and internal slander – these are certain “postmodern delusions” – to undermine confidence in science and, especially, in social science. In short, science is in danger and therefore it becomes dangerous.» (Bourdieu, 2001: 7)

Departing from this motto, the author makes a historical and sociological analysis of science, with the aim of leading scientists to better understand the social mechanisms that guide scientific practice. Bourdieu proposed the concepts of habitus and field as an epistemological break, to resolve the antinomy objective-subjective of the social sciences, uniting social phenomenology and structuralism, by theorizing the inculcation of objective social structures into the subjective mental experience of agents through a set of cognitive and somatic dispositions – giving rise to a doxic relationship between subjective action structures of the agent and objective structures of the social field. The exact, natural and life sciences are guided by paradigms that are naturally different from the social sciences. If interdisciplinarity between them can occur at the level of results and is more difficult at the conceptual level, it is even rarer from a methodological point of view. Another necessary condition for the occurrence of interdisciplinarity is attitudinal: respect for the discipline and specialization of the other researcher, tempered with humility to listen, reflect and learn. In social sciences, Sociology’s objects are, most of the times, representations, ideas, values and meanings – it has been clear since the birth of the social sciences that these and other objects of the social and cultural worlds (such as those of Anthropology) require their own methodologies to be evaluated, which escape the recurrent but outdated illusion that quantitativism is more scientific, which derives from the laboratory tradition. Further on, Bourdieu underlines, on the role of Sociology:

«(…) Sociologists, at different levels, have opened Pandora’s box, the laboratory, and this explosion of the scientific world as it is presented brings out a whole set of facts that strongly call into question the scientific epistemology of a logicist type such as I have evoked [above] and they reduce scientific life to a social life with its rules, constraints, strategies, artifices, domination effects, cheating, theft of ideas, etc.» (Bourdieu, 2001: 13)

Science de la science et réflexivité

The realist, sometimes even disenchanted, view that sociologists came to give of the realities of the scientific world led them to propose relativistic, even nihilistic, theories that oppose the official representation of science. However, this questioning is always fruitful. According to Bourdieu:

«(…) this conclusion is not fatal and we can, I think, associate a realistic view of the scientific world with a realistic theory of knowledge. And this, on the condition of making a double rupture with the two terms of the epistemological pair constituted by logicist dogmatism and relativism that seems to be inscribed in historicist criticism.» (Bourdieu, 2001: 13-14)

Since it is indisputable that the scientific world is a social world, we can ask whether it is a field analogous to other social microcosms (artistic field with its semiological activity, literary field, legal field, etc.) and, if this is not the case, which specificities define it, as well as the irreducibility of the history it engenders? One of the several difficulties posed by such an analysis resides in the fact that the legitimacy of science and the legitimate use of science are permanent reasons for struggle in the social world and within the world of science itself – therefore, what we call epistemology runs the risk of being just a form of a justifying discourse on science or on a position in the scientific field, or even “a falsely neutralized repetition of the dominant discourse of science about itself” (Bourdieu, 2001: 17).

A structural-functionalist view of the sociology of science not only contributed to scientific knowledge, but the “new sociology of science”, which is now socially dominant, was also built over it. However, the first view did not make “the slightest reference to the way how scientific conflicts are resolved”, accepting the dominant logicist definition of science and limiting itself to it (Bourdieu, 20001: 25). Kuhn (1972) introduced a discontinuous philosophy of scientific evolution in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, breaking with the positivist tradition, and alternating between periods of “normal science” and “revolutions”. For Bourdieu, Kuhn takes to the extreme the contestation of universal standards of rationality already prefigured in the philosophical tradition, which had evolved from Kantian “transcendental” universalism to an already relativized rationality, although he rediscovers the Kantian notion of the a priori with the notion of paradigm, but in a sociologized sense as in Durkheim. This scientific theory was appropriated by students, who turned it into a specific revolutionary message against academic authority at a given juncture. Academic authority can reproduce class and gender structures, the privilege and hegemonic power of elites, legitimizing them as science.

Bloor (1983), basing himself on Wittgenstein, proposes a theory of science according to which “rationality, objectivity and truth are not very comprehensive sociocultural norms, conventions adopted and imposed by particular groups”, resuming the concepts of “language games” and “form of life” (Bourdieu, 2021: 33). Bloor then enunciates causality, impartiality, symmetry and reflexivity as four major methodological principles to be followed in order to build a sociological theory of scientific knowledge. Collins and the Bath School highlight “the interaction between scientists in and through which scientific assumptions are formed; more precisely, they highlight scientific controversies and the non-rational methods used to resolve them” (Bourdieu, 2021: 35). Analyzing authors such as Gilbert and Mulkay (1984), Latour (The Pasteurization of France, 1988[2]), Jane Tompkins (1988), among others, Bourdieu ends up criticizing the previous positions for referring to a laboratory microcosm and for ignoring a series of structural fittings, the relational position and the correlative position effects that only a global theory of scientific space allows us to understand. The point where all perspectives coincide is the field where antagonistic points of view meet and integrate, thanks to rational confrontation.

Bruno Lemaitre

I will also ponder here, in addition to Bourdieu’s notes, the considerations regarding gender (also approached by Bourdieu) and, above all, narcissism made, much later, by Bruno Lemaitre (2016, 2020)[3] (with a particular focus on the life sciences, in his case):

«Science requires many different skills, and it is regrettable that recognition often goes to the storytellers or the dominant males of the community.» (Lemaitre, 2016, 2020)

Storytellers produce narratives – in some contexts, marketing can go further than scientific credibility. It is also good to remember (as does Lemaitre) that women continue to be a target for symbolic violence within society and academic institutions alike[4]. In his essay, Lemaitre further explores the link between narcissism and science. He points out that the observation that many of the great figures in science were also very narcissistic makes this a sensitive subject, with many gray areas. However, the prevalence of this personality type in science and the current crisis of values ​​affecting it (as well as the society in general) turn the subject relevant.

To clarify this issue, it may be helpful to underline that narcissism exists on a spectrum, with most individuals being in the middle of the scale and some cases straying to the extremes (such are the cases of grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism), just as we should distinguish the so-called “good narcissism” from “bad narcissism”.

The “good narcissism” is connected to a good self-esteem and a healthy self-concept that generate self-confidence and can, to a certain extent, correspond to the healthy enthusiasm that must guide all the activities that we are passionate about, it leads to curiosity, a desire to improve, to know more and do better, and to communicate well what is done, without ethical mishaps or atypical and opaque resources, or dubious methods. “Bad narcissism” corresponds to seductive and charming individuals (sometimes reaching futility), with a (finely or poorly disguised) grandiose sense of self-importance, lack of empathy for others, excessive need for admiration and attention, general self-referentialism and a lack of scruples in the attainment of their goals. While it is true that the diagnosis and scores of narcissism have increased in individualistic western societies (as opposed to collectivist ones, such as most Asian societies) and especially among young people, or leaders and managers, it is also true that today we have more instruments to assess it[5].

Both Bourdieu’s and Lemaitre’s reflections seem informed and contemporary, and it is convenient to keep them in the back of our minds when we venture to do science at the arrival of the second quarter of the 21st century. Again the individualistic, economistic, narcissistic imperatives and the heavy institutional wheels threaten and effectively crush, with bureaucratic efficiency, the scientific enthusiasm, motivation and the noblest functions of science – among which are a quasi-ludic appetite for knowing more, questioning and comparing, a profound commitment with rigor and with ethical practice, humanistic progress, the authenticity of gestures and the honesty of words, the deepening of reflexivity and knowledge (favoring a superficial mediatization of science in its place), collaboration and the promotion of social change, starting with scientists themselves.

Watch below the documentary film by french director Pierre Carles, Sociology is a Martial Art (2001), with subtitles. For three years, Carles accompanied Bourdieu to seminars, interviews in radio and tv broadcasters, social gatherings, talks etc. in an attempt to make Sociology known and, in particular, the daily life of a “public intellectual” and sociologist such as Bourdieu, while showing his “thinking in action”. According to Bourdieu, Sociology is a martial art or a combat sport, not a tool for validating the decisions of the ruling elite. People would need Sociology to understand the origins of dissymmetries, of real violence, and rebelling, seeking a way out of the economic fatalism of the hegemonic ideology.

 

Sociology can be ludic as well: seven years ago, Master’s students at the State University of Ceará (Brazil) began to develop the non-commercial card game “Symbolic Struggles”, to reflect on social inequalities based on the theories of Pierre Bourdieu – you can learn more about their project HERE and HERE.

 

*Please find the portuguese translation of this post on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página


References

[1] Bourdieu, P. (2002). Science de la science et reflexivitè, Cours au Collège de France 2000-2001, Paris: Éditions Raisons D’Agir. [trad. Pedro Elói Duarte (2004). Lisboa: Edições 70.]

[2] The Pasteurization of France — Bruno Latour | Harvard University Press.

[3] Lemaitre, B. (2020). An Essay on Science and Narcissism: How do high-ego personalities drive research?. EPFL Press.

[4] Documents (dges.gov.pt).

[5] Does a narcissism epidemic exist in modern western societies? Comparing narcissism and self-esteem in East and West Germany – PMC (nih.gov).


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