Habitus and Utopia in Science: Bourdieu, Mannheim, and the Role of Specialties in the Scientific Field

By Simon, Richard M. | Studies in Sociology of Science, June 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Habitus and Utopia in Science: Bourdieu, Mannheim, and the Role of Specialties in the Scientific Field


Simon, Richard M., Studies in Sociology of Science


Pierre Bourdieu (1975, 2004) has claimed that his concept of the scientific habitus resolves the objectivism/constructivism debate in the sociology of science. While institutional norms require that scientists maintain a disinterested attitude (Merton, 1968), empirical work in the sociology of science-has revealed that scientists often fail to live up to the normative standard of disinterestedness, sometimes becoming highly tendentious to promote their own work (Arthur, 2009; Frickel, 2004; Frickel & Gross, 2005; Fuchs & Plass, 1999; Griffith & Mullins, 1972). Bourdieu contends accepting the legitimacy of scientific knowledge at face value, and conceptualizing it as politics by other means, are two unsatisfactory options. Clearly, the production of scientific knowledge is shaped more by political forces than positivistic accounts have acknowledged (e.g., Collins & Pinch, 1998). Yet Bourdieu warns against throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it is equally misleading to overlook the role the disinterested scientific attitude plays in how scientists produce knowledge (Bourdieu, 1990).The commitment to disinterested, objective science, and the demonstrated role that interests play in the construction of scientific facts (Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Latour, 1987) result in a paradox of motivation.Bourdieu resolves the interested/disinterested paradox by claiming that because disinterestedness is a regulatory norm, scientists promote their own personal interests through objective science. Bourdieu points out that, in the scientific field, consumers of scientific products are also the producer's rivals, and this rivalry is played out by constantly pushing one's self, and one's opponents, to better conform to scientific rationality (2004). In this way scientists exhibit interested behavior while simultaneously adhering to the norm of disinterestedness. The theoretical advancement that is supposed to explain simultaneous interested and disinterested behavior is the scientific habitus, which ensures that the biases of the scientific field remain invisible to scientists who operate within it. The habitus is a social-psychological framework for scientists to appraise new scientific developments that is based on communally agreed upon standards. Because the habitus is a consequence of existing norms, it reproduces the scientific field by providing a template for behavior that is based on preexisting expectations (Bourdieu, 2004).

Scientists pursue their own interests by subjecting their rivals to exacting standards of scientific rationality imposed by the habitus (Bourdieu, 2004). Each new piece of information that is relevant to a scientist's own career can be interpreted as corroborating or contradicting his or her own research program, and Bourdieu proposes that scientific rationality is a weapon used by scientists to neutralize scientists who make contradicting claims, and assimilate scientists who make corroborating claims. But scientists involved may not necessarily be aware that they are using rationality in a partisan way; because disinterestedness is an integral element of scientific rationality, scientists can use it to pursue their own interests while simultaneously being committed to disinterestedness. Bourdieu thus claims that a kind of positivistic scientific rationality plays a role in the accumulation of scientific knowledge, but also acknowledges that the scientific field is stratified by non-scientific factors (i.e., personal interests). The chasm between scholarship which assumes scientists engage in disinterestedness and that which characterizes science as politics by other meanshas traditionally been wide and that Bourdieu has been able to reconcile these views is a major achievement.

The concept of the habitus is central to Bourdieu's theory of science, but it suffers from some major shortcomings: Firstly, Bourdieu fails to account for an integral element of the structure of the scientific field: specializations.

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