Research and Passion

In my last blog post I compared today’s scientific culture with that in the past and drew some parallels between Darwin and Bourdieu: Both of them enjoyed liberties that are hard to imagine in today’s world of (institutionalized) science. These liberties were crucial for the development of their “big theory”.

Today, I want to focus on Bourdieu and sketch one specific aspect of his sociological project: passion.

In my experience, the passionate profs leave more traces than the sober and unemotional ones. And with passionate I mean (in this case) profs who stand in front of the class and convey a glow and intense ardour for their research; profs who reveal a very charming and almost naive enthusiasm for their topic.

On the other hand, most (senior) researchers are probably – in some way or another – passionate about their subject. Passion is thus more of a continuum than a mere dichotomoy. Some, however, are better able to show their passion and to bring it across to the audience. More introverted scientists might fly under the radar although they are maybe  even more enthusiastic about their research than the extroverted ones.

Coming back to Bourdieu, he is probably the epitome of a passionate researcher who is at the same time “reserved”, “uneasy” and constantly self-reflective. In his semi-autobiography “Sketch for a Self-Analysis” Bourdieu gives many accounts of this double-edgeness. His passion is expressed by a very strong, at times obsessive “will to knowledge”. He describes this in several episodes in “Sketch for a Self-Analysis”:

  • During his research that ultimately led to “Distinction”, he spent hours and days listening to conversations in cafés, during boules and football games, in post offices, or during cocktail parties and concerts. Often he would start random conversations with people there to find out more.
  • He spent nights in archives and libraries copying (by hand) crosstables and other statistics.
  • During his time in Algeria, he photographed everybody and everything. He also secretely recorded conversations in public places.
  • He read tons of French classics, mainly Flaubert and Balzac, exposing him to a myriad of personalities and viewpoints.

In sum and in his own words, there were no limits and no rest to his libido sciendi (passion and will to know). This passion is contrasted by a social awkwardness and uneasiness with established intellectual culture. The uneasiness stems from several sources: first from his social background (coming from a poor and remote part of France and growing up in tough conditions); second from his time in boarding school; third from being confronted with a very elitist milieu at Ecole Normale Superieure, where he studied philosophy; fourth from his experiences as a researcher in the early phase of his career, in Algeria during the civil war and in his home region in France (Béarn). The very struggle with the rules of the academic game and his reservedness are well visible in this video:

In fact, listening to (and reading) Bourdieu is not as easy a task as listening to very extroverted, passionate researchers. However, today with social media, new possibilities for passionate researchers without the expressive salesperson gene exist to share their enthusiasm. Would Bourdieu have used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels to communicate? I don’t know… but that’s a good question to reflect in a future post.


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One Response to Research and Passion

  1. Dandre says:

    Nice to see someone else write on Bourdieu. In my mind one of the very most interesting intellectuals of 20th century.

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