Sunday, September 21, 2008

For an Engaged Knowledge [ Pour un savoir engage ] by Pierre Bourdieu

If it’s important, not to say necessary, that a certain number of independent researchers associate themselves with social movements, it’s because we are confronted with a politics of globalisation. (I mean a “politics of globalisation”, I’m not talking of “globalisation” as if it was a question of a natural process.) This politics, largely, operates in secret, in its production and its diffusion. And it’s already a full research task that is needed to spot it before it has been put into effect. It follows that this politics has effects which one could foresee thanks to the resources of social science, but which, in the short term, are still invisible to most people. Another characteristic of this politics – it is partly the product of researchers themselves. The question being to know if those who anticipate from their scientific knowledge the dire consequences of this politics can and ought to stay silent. Or if there isn’t in that a sort of failure to help people in danger. If it’s true that the planet is threatened by
grave calamities, don’t those who believe they know about those calamities in advance have a duty to emerge from the reserve which scholars have traditionally imposed upon themselves?
There is in the mind of most educated people, especially in social science, a dichotomy which seems to me entirely baneful: the dichotomy between scholarship and commitment [both in English, NC] – between those who devote themselves to scientific work, performed according to scholarly methods and aimed at other scholars, and those who are engaged and who take their scholarship to the outside world. The opposition is artificial and, in fact, you have to be an independent scholar, who works in accordance with the rules of scholarship [in English] to be able to produce an engaged scholarship, that is a ‘scholarship with commitment’ [in English].
To be a truly engaged scholar, you must be legitimately engaged, engaged in knowledge. And this knowledge is not acquired except by the work of scholarship, undertaken according to the rules of the scholarly community. Put another way, we have to get over a number of obstacles that are in our heads and that have a way of authorising us to give up: starting with the scholar who locks
himself up in his ivory tower. The dichotomy between scholarship and commitment [in English] confirms the researcher in his good conscience, because he receives the approval of the scientific community. It’s as if scholars believed themselves to be scholars twice over because they make nothing of their science. But in the case of biologists, that may be criminal. It’s equally serious in the case of criminologists. This reserve, this flight into purity, has very serious social consequences. Should people like me, paid by the State to do research, guard the resources of their research zealously for their colleagues? It is absolutely fundamental to submit what one believes is a discovery first to the criticism of one’s colleagues, but why reserve to them the collective achievement and control of knowledge?
It seems to me that the researcher has no choice: if he has the conviction that there is a
correlation between neoliberal politics and the rates of delinquency, a correlation between neoliberal politics and the rates of criminality, a correlation between neoliberal politics and all the signs of what Durkheim would have called ‘anomie’, how can he not say so? Not only is there nothing to reproach him with if he speaks up, but one ought to congratulate him (I am perhaps apologising for my own position) . . .
Now, what is this social movement researcher going to do? First, he shouldn’t go and give lessons – as certain organic intellectuals did, who, not being able to impose their wares on the scientific market, where the competition is stiff, went to make intellectuals among the non-intellectuals, while saying that the intellectual didn’t exist. The researcher is neither a prophet nor a guru. He must discover a new rule, which is very difficult: he must listen, he must research and discover; he must try to help organisations who are dedicated to the mission – less and less strongly, unfortunately, and that includes the trade unions – of resisting neoliberal politics; he must give himself the talk of helping them acquire their tools. In particular the tools to combat the symbolic power exercised by the ‘experts’ engaged by the large multinational corporations. One must call things by their name. [a few sentences on education edited out] Researchers can also do something newer and more difficult: encourage the appearance of organisational conditions for the collective production of the will to discover a political project and, secondly, the organisational conditions for the intended success of such a political project: which will obviously be a collective project. After all, the constituent assembly of 1789 and the Philadelphia Assembly were composed of people like you and me . . . who discovered democratic structures. In the same way, today, one must invent things . . . Of course, one might say: “there are parliaments, a European confederation of unions, all sorts of institutions which are mandated to do this”. I am not going to make a formal demonstration here, but one should insist that this is not what they are doing. One must create conditions which are favourable to the invention [of that political project, NC]. One must help to remove the obstacles to its invention; obstacles which are in part present in the social movement charged with removing them – notably the unions.
Can one be optimistic? I think that one can speak in terms of reasonable chances of success, one could say that now is a fateful moment [kairos in Greek], an opportune moment. When we were in discussions around 1995, we had in common not being listened to and being taken for mad. The people who, like Cassandra, announced catastrophes, they got mocked, journalists attacked them and they were insulted. Now, a little less so. Why? Because work has been accomplished. There has been Seattle and a whole series of demonstrations. And then, the consequences of neoliberal politics – which we had foreseen abstractly – have begun to be visible. And people now understand . . . Even the most narrow and obstinate journalist knows that a corporation which doesn’t make 15% profits goes bust. The most catastrophic prophecies of the prophets of doom (who were simply better informed than the rest) are beginning to be realised. It’s not too soon. But it’s not yet too late. For this is only the beginning, the catastrophes have hardly begun. . . .
A European social movement, in my view, has no chance of being effective unless it brings together three elements: unions, social movement, and researchers – on the condition, of course, that it integrates them, rather than merely juxtaposing them. I was saying yesterday to some trade unionists that between the social movements and the unionists in all European countries there is a profound difference regarding both contents and means of action. Social movements have brought into existence political objectives that the trade unions and parties had abandoned, or forgotten, or repressed.
In particular the methods of personal action: the actors of the social movement return to symbolic practice, a symbolic practice that depends, in part, on the personal engagement of those who demonstrate: a personal engagement which is also a bodily engagement. It’s necessary to take risks. It’s not a matter of walking arm in arm as the trade unionists traditionally did on the 1st of May. It’s necessary to perform actions, occupations, and so on. Which demands both imagination and courage. But I want to say this also: Beware, no union-phobia. There’s a logic of trade union displays which must be understood. Why is it that I speak to unionists of things that are close to the social movements’ view of themselves and speak to social movements of things that are close to trade unionists’ view of themselves? Because it’s only through each of these groups seeing themselves as it sees others that one can overcome the divisions which help weaken groups already very weak. The resistance movement to neoliberal politics is globally very weak, and it is weakened by its divisions: it’s a motor vehicle that wastes 80% of its energy in heat, that is in the form of tensions, frictions, conflict etc. A motor which could go much faster and further if . . .
The obstacles to creating a unified European social movement are of several kinds. They are linguistic obstacles, which are very important, for example the communication between unions and social movement – bosses and management speak foreign languages, unionists and militants much less. Because of this fact, the internationalisation of social movements and unions is made difficult. So there are obstacles tied to habit, to ways of thought, and the force of social structures, organisational structures. What can be the role of researchers in this? That of working towards a collective discovery of the collective structures of invention which will give birth to a new social movement, that is, one with new contents, new goals, and new international means of action.

Translation © Nick Couldry 2002
Original French text © Pierre Bourdieu and Le Monde Diplomatique 2002.

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