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Privilege Checking and Reflexivity

“Here, take a look at this” the activist brusquely instructed me. It was 2009 and I hadn’t been on Twitter for five minutes and already I was stuck in one of the endless storms systems that circulate around the place. I clicked through and met with a privilege checklist. Was I white? Tick. Was I a man? Yep. Well, the strong implication of her tone was, because my pale, privileged carcass did not bear the scars of multiple oppressions I had very little worthwhile to say. Not the best way to greet someone expressing solidarity with and arguing for trans rights activism, but there you go.

I had encountered something similar during my forays into postmodern feminist literature. With the dissolution of ‘woman’ as a unified theoretical subject of the women’s movement, the epistemological hunt was on for a new philosophical foundation. For some comrades, this became the hunt for an ever-purer revolutionary subject. Are you a white woman? Well, black women have it worse than you. Are you a black woman? Well, lesbian black women deal with a whole load of additional crap. And so on. It rests on an idea of situated knowledge, that the more you are oppressed along multiple axes, the more your perspective reveals society as a patriarchal, racist, unjust mess. Or, the more you suffer, the more valid your views and, by extension, the better suited it is to act as epistemological grounds for critiquing society and culture as a whole.

I’m sure a number of readers will find it easy to dismiss this perspective. But it is one deep-rooted in radical politics. For instance, I’m sure many of you are familiar with the prolier-than-thou attitudes common on the far left. Strangely, what tends to be “middle class” and “petit bourgeois” are those things our little Lenins do not understand and cannot control. And that is just about everything. 

I digress. When it comes to the subject of socialist politics, I still believe class is where it’s at. I subscribe to the notion that, to use the old language, class is determined and conditioned by the relationship to the means of production. If you depend on selling your labour power in return for a wage or a salary and you depend on that for a living, you’re in. This encompasses a large number of diverse people, from home owners to council tenants, from PhDs to NEETs, and all genders, all races, all sexualities. Our class collects within itself gradations, differences, inequalities and outlooks. The way we experience ‘being working class’ is conditioned by gender, ethnicity, and sexuality. In turn, how these are lived is also conditioned by class. This is why the labour movement everywhere takes equality and diversity seriously – to adequately reflect and represent the interests of working class people in the workplace and wider society, it must be representative of them too. And, in general, I think it does a good job. The labour movement, after all, is us.

But because of difference and inequality within our class, so defined, I am not willing to chuck privilege checking overboard. Socialist politics has to be alert to these variations if it is to win people over. And it cannot operate with an economistic definition that addresses itself to our class solely around wages, trade unions, cuts, and says we, the socialists, are the proper proles. Simply because precious few working class people think about and identify themselves in those terms. Therefore to think about how we deal with divisions within our class and how we go about addressing them to build a critical mass of politicised working people, we need to pay attention to how we can produce accurate knowledge free of distorting biases that informs the sorts of social change we would like to see. Helpfully, this has a long pedigree in sociological thinking under the guise of ‘reflexivity’, and I think the approach taken by Pierre Bourdieu is, politically speaking, the most useful.

Questions of bias and knowledge production were key to his development of an approach that avoided existing theoretical and methodological problems of sociology while rigorously defending its validity as a discipline. The most persistent of theoretical debates is the tension between agency and structure. On the one hand you have what Bourdieu liked to call the phenomenological approaches: his short hand for subjectivist, micro-level sociologies such as Ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. Phenomenology’s opposite number is objectivism. Relax, this has nothing to do with Ayn Rand. This is simply the species of sociological analysis where the real objects of research are the hidden relations and structures that animate social forces behind the backs of social agents. For example, structural linguistics abstracts structures from language, implying that mastery of it rests upon understanding how the underlying structure operates and not through the use of language as everyday communication.

The two warring camps emphasise their favoured properties while denigrating/suppressing/forgetting the important insights of the other. Bourdieu rejects this dichotomy while acknowledging that the persistence of the controversy lies in part in the explanatory efficacy of each, and how sociology as an enterprise is constituted by social space. Understanding this process of constitution means going beyond this seemingly impermeable dichotomy.

Bourdieu’s approach to mapping social space is especially useful for demonstrating his attempt to overcome duality. Following Marx, social phenomena are treated relationally and not as discrete self-contained objects that occasionally interact with one another. For example, his seminal 1979 study Distinction demonstrates how people and groups are dispersed across social space along the axes of economic and cultural capital. It stands to reason the closer agents are plotted the more they tend to have in common. To illustrate, using economic capital (income) as criteria, groups such as middle management in business and the teaching professions would be clustered together. But, generally speaking, because the educational/cultural capital the latter possesses would tend to be greater, on that axis they would be spaced apart. Their dispositions, the strategies deployed in everyday life, and the circles they inhabit would tend to be distinguished and different from one another.

To these positions corresponds a practical sense, a habitus; a particular mode of being, thinking, and living:

Subjects are active and knowing agents endowed with practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play. (Practical Reason 1998, p.25)

One could theoretically construct a model where predictions concerning the social circles, political persuasion, pursuits, etc. of someone could be made with reference to their positioning. This is not because of an essentialised desire to distinguish, but is rather the consequence of how contemporary capitalist societies are organised. Modes of perception, taste, and evaluation are endowed by social position – they do not cause it.

Now, the coordinates one occupies in social space along the axes of economic and cultural capitals are overlaid by fields. These help constitute and organise social space and their multiplication is potentially infinite. Yet despite their variety, fields possess general laws. Therefore the analysis of one can be used comparatively to interrogate the features of another. Bourdieu argues treating fields as if they operate like economies offers insights about their constitution, their dynamism, and their limits.

As with markets, every field comprises struggles between established actors and newcomers. All struggles turn around stakes and interests peculiar to that field and irreducible to those in others, and fields inculcate and demand a habitus that recognises its laws, knowledges, and stakes. Furthermore, all agents in a field share certain interests. For example, the content of the literary canon (including the concept of the canon itself) is viciously contested by large numbers of novelists, critics, and academics. But an (unconscious) complicity unites them – they accept the rules of the literary game as soon as they agree to participate in the literary field. The stakes of the field, the canon and the merit of the works that constitute it are legitimated at the very moment they are contested and disputed. If new players wish to enter the game they have to pay the requisite entry fee by recognising the rules and the stakes, and investing in them. Even strategies aimed at subverting the conventions of the field are embedded within certain limits. For example, in art the early 20th century avant garde impulse to anti-art and its most famous productions, such as Duchamp’s Fountain, remained a position and a strategy within the artistic game. However radical the work and radical the critique of established art conventions, Duchamp and his rebellious cohort’s work amounted to a strategy within the field, despite themselves. They had no choice but to play the game to make their statement. But for all that, anti-art remained art.

A fundamental feature of fields involves a necessary conceit denying self-interest and masking it through discourses of disinterest and/or self-referentiality (knowledge for knowledge’s sake, art for art’s sake, etc.). However, it is a social ruse, a property of how fields structure habitus and habitus structures fields: the question of self-interest rarely appears in front of the agent in a pure, naked fashion. For example, the habitus of agents who belong to the dominant class more or less share a common social universe and habitus that has a high degree of fit with a large number of fields. Agents possessing this habitus rarely have to think about their actions in an instrumental fashion – all they need do is follow their dispositions. Therefore, the artist who pursues their work “for its own sake” affects a disinterest, an “absence” that is simultaneously the condition that makes taking up a position and maintaining a trajectory in a field possible. It suppresses and masks a procedure of non-economic calculation.

Furthermore, the situation within and between fields is far from harmonious. Because social agents occupy a position, of necessity they struggle to maintain or advance it. Just as a firm must accumulate capital for accumulation’s sake to reproduce itself, agents in non-economic fields have to develop strategies for the same reasons. Harker et al’s excellent collection, An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: Theory Into Practice(1990), makes the point that these fall into two broad types – strategies of reproduction based on the volumes of (the types of) capital an agent possesses, and the state of the instruments of reproduction, that are maintained/governed by a number of (class-based) institutions; and so-called reconversion strategies, which correspond to movements in social space that determine the structuring of overall volumes and distribution of types of capital, and how the relations of dominance between different species of capital are established. This in turn determines the ability and the efficacy of an agent’s reproduction/advancement strategy to convert one type of capital they possess into another.

For example, “our educational institutions are structured to favour those who already possess cultural capital … The schools … take the habitus of the dominant group as the natural and only proper set of habitus and treat all children as if they had equal access to it” (Harker et al 1990, p.87). In this setting the characteristics of the dominant habitus are synonymous with the rules of the educational game – social classification is expressed by ‘neutral’ scholastic classification, social value is transformed into personal value, and the mores of academia are fielded as human dignities. If a child plays the game well and accumulates sufficient cultural capital, this can be cashed in exchange for a lucrative career. In this sense, capital is the foundation of a practical sense necessary for participating in a large number of fields, be they economic or otherwise. For those who do not get on, either because of material disadvantage or conscious/unconscious rejection of the game, few acquire the habitus necessary to work the system and are likely to find themselves in a situation where their disadvantaged position is perpetuated. In sum, this has three effects. The more cultural capital one acquires through education the greater the chances of securing a privileged position. This proceeds alongside the reproduction of the distinctions (in other words, the legitimation of cultural capital, and its conversion), which in turn is bound up with the reproduction of the dominant class.

So society is stratified and convulsed with a bewildering kaleidoscope of struggles on top of and in addition to those that normally exercise ‘conventional’ radical politics. It also follows that because we are inserted into any number of fields, this poses a number of challenges to those who wish to study the origins, operations, and trajectories of social behaviour. Fundamentally, what needs to be questioned – why do you want to investigate and analyse a certain set of practices – seldom is questioned. This stems from what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘scholastic point of view’, a set of unspoken practices scholars and academics must engage in to be recognised as scholars and academics. For this group of relatively privileged people, there exists an ‘epistemic doxa’, a sort of collective unconscious, underlining habitus and field. Just as with other fields, participants do not think through the conditions that make the operation of the field possible. But ignoring this affects the output of scholastic work in a number of ways. For example, the influence of the state, as the primary source of educational funding, often goes unstated in its impact on modes of thought. Because it has the power to define what social problems are, sociology often unreflectively transforms its concerns into sociological problems worthy of investigation.

What Bourdieu seeks to provide is a theory of the conditions of the possibility of knowledge. This should constitute the starting point of any sociological scholarship aspiring to a scientific understanding of the social world. This species of reflexivity goes beyond that typically encountered in ethnography, where the researcher locates oneself in relation to their textual (re)construction of the research process. It requires that the observer critically analyses their social position and their coordinates in social space to the depth normally reserved for the object of the research. In their Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (1992), Bourdieu and his colleague, Loic Wacquant note that social positioning means accounting for one’s background, the position occupied within the academic field (vis other potential positions, actual theoretical and methodological standpoints, other practitioners), and the potential (doxic) knowledge effects of this position.

The last point is especially important. The doxic effects of scholasticism are a bias that constructs the world as a spectacle, a spectacle where its problems are solved through theoretical reflection and not practical action. This is an illusion where the world-as-thought-object is treated as the world-as-is; a fallacy previously noted by Marx whereby the things of logic are taken for the logic of things. It therefore falls on sociology as a whole to be reflexive, controlling for the distortions and biases that are the unintended field effects of how sociology operates in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This buttresses the ‘epistemological security’ of the discipline and strengthens the validity of social explanation. As Bourdieu and Wacquant put it;

I believe that if the sociology I propose differs in any significant way from the other sociologies of the past and of the present, it is above all in that it continually turns back onto itself the scientific weapons it produces. It uses the knowledge it gains of the social determinations that may bear upon it, and particularly the scientific analysis of all the constraints and all the limitations associated with the fact of occupying a definite position in a definite field at a particular moment and with a certain trajectory, in an attempt to locate and neutralise their effects (ibid, p.214).

What Bourdieu provides is not so much a theory but a methodology sociology can turn out upon the world, provided it is equally willing to use these tools on itself. This is none more so clear than when sociology starts to ponder the nature of its relationship to the rest of the social – the stakes of the discipline, and the positionings and trajectories that vie for them come more out into the open. This is especially the case when engaging in partisan research of some sort, where the sociological stakes are often explicitly bound up with political stakes to one degree or another. But sociology itself is an inherently political discipline in a way others are not. To even state the way society really is, as a capitalist society resting on generalised commodity production and the private appropriation of social wealth, is immediately to start contesting those interests who have a stake in society not getting viewed this way.

Hence privilege checking, or reflexivity, is not some kind of political narcissism. It is not about shutting anyone up, least of all well-remunerated columnists for national dailies. It is good practice ensuring biases stemming from privileges and positioning across multiple social fields are screened for when producing knowledge about the society in which we live. And for socialists who are building a movement that speaks to and expresses the interests of the immense majority, this is not desirable. It is absolutely essential.

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