Vol 2 No 1 Spring 2018

Science and Politics: A Response to Burawoy, Heilbron, and Steinmetz

As these two critical responses show, the most controversial claim of my essay was that the popularity of Bourdieu’s social science is “a function of the generally prevailing social situation”1 in academia, rather than a result of its explanatory power. Far from embodying a superior science, Bourdieusean theory, I argued, is an ideology of sociologists. My critics, especially Heilbron and Steinmetz, disagree. For them, a reflexive sociology that examines its own conditions of possibility provides both a better social science, and a more credible link to political action, than “antiquated Marxist schemas.” Michael Burawoy, in contrast to Heilbron and Steinmetz, agrees with the central thrust of my analysis of Bourdieu’s sociology, that it fares poorly on explanatory grounds, and that its success cannot be reduced to its scientific power. In fact, he goes further than I do, suggesting that Bourdieu’s sociology adumbrates a class project of the intelligentsia. However, he rejects my method of critique. On the one hand, “I reduce Bourdieu’s sociology to a poorly executed positivism,” but at the same time “I reduce Bourdieu’s politics to insulation in the academic field” (3). But how can one “simultaneously be a positivist and an engaged intellectual — the one requires autonomy from and the other embeddedness in the wider society” (3).

As the following response makes clear I remain unpersuaded by these critiques. Pace Heilbron and Steinmetz I see little evidence that Bourdieu offers a superior scientific method for sociology. Pace Burawoy, I believe that Bourdieu’s explanatory weaknesses are closely linked to his political ones. Indeed, how can there not be a tight link between explanatory power and political relevance?

What has become clear to me in the course of this discussion is that the really central issue in the debate concerns whether or not the main problems of sociology are resolvable “sociologically” or whether, rather, they depend on overcoming the political isolation of the intelligentsia in advanced capitalism. That I have been able to state this issue more directly is largely due to my critics, and for this I owe them a sincere debt of gratitude.

Sorry, but this article is available to subscribers only. Please log in or become a subscriber.