Darwin, Bourdieu and today’s scientific culture

Yesterday I read a very interesting and highly recommendable article by Mirko Bischofberger and Enrico Guarnera, entitled “How today’s scientific culture affects young scientists” (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/bies.201000003/pdf).

Bischofberger and Guarnera compare the way science worked in Darwin’s era with the way it works today: “Taken together, four criteria, namely enough time, no fear of losing his job, continuous funding and a ‘big book’ with ‘one long argument’ were, in our eyes, the main ingredients that allowed the young Darwin to bring his ideas to maturity.” Today, by contrast, conditions have fundamentally changed. Young scientists work under tight schedules and high pressure, often have temporary contracts, constantly fight for funding, and write articles, aiming to get into high-ranked journals, instead of publishing big ideas in one single coherent book. Today, an opus magnum like Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” would be impossible to publish, as Bischofberger and Guarnera believe.

I agree with them and want to illuminate their points with another example from the social sciences: Pierre Bourdieu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bourdieu). Looking at his research career, we find many parallels to Darwin: Bourdieu also spent a significant part of his life abroad, more concretely in Algeria during a very special time, namely the civil war in the 60ies. Like Darwin, Bourdieu was obsessed with collecting everything, taking thousands of photographs, filling notebooks, recording all kinds of conversations on tape, and going where other people would shy away. Both Bourdieu and Darwin developed a coherent, “big” theory over the course of decades. They worked in the field and were constantly confronted with real life settings and problems. Probably they could not have come up with their concepts in tightly controlled experiments and meticulously sliced research papers in top journals (this is not an argument against experimental research at all, but sometimes science loses the big picture within the small details). Both Bourdieu and Darwin could rely on a circle of close and very loyal friends who supported them throughout tough times and always encouraged them. So, the social-capital aspect does count heavily.

So much for now. In the next posts I try to elaborate on these points, giving more detailed evidence from Bourdieu’s semi-autobiography “Sketch for a Self-Analysis”.

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One Response to Darwin, Bourdieu and today’s scientific culture

  1. Pingback: Pierre Bourdieu | Earthpages.ca

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