“Sociology is a martial art, it can come handy.”

If a person says something, ask about his social position.

The Plot Summary

Bring that society on the table, and become a surgeon — lacerate its metaphorical body by a scalpel, and see its entrails. This was Prof Chaitanya Mishra’s answer to “what a sociologist ought to do?” when he was orienting students, including me, in 2015, at the Central Department of Sociology, Tribhuvan University. It was a stimulating and rhetorical illustration of the relation of “savant” sociologists to their object of study — the corporal society. The corollary construed from that sketch would be stated as such: “Sociology is a study of society, legions of its structures and their corresponding functions”. It became a kind of habit of me to take a refuge in this descript whenever somebody harried by asking what I was studying. Being tired of numerous repeats, I had already started taking it as a bromide. But, it never occurred to me as a tautology until I recently watched La sociologie est un sport de combat (2001) in which the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu picks up this definitional curiosity from a radio jockey, and throws it back by saying that definition states the same thing twice. Bourdieu tries to define sociology as a “grasp of recurrent regularities of the being”, and, much like Prof Mishra conjures up a passing metaphor of martial art which one should use in self-defense, and play strictly without fouls. Chary of being unscientific, Bourdieu parries the question if “social inequalities”, a large portion of sociological contemplation, serve any purpose in the society, and suggests the duty of giving candid answer to that particular question would be rather of metaphysics. As a hint, he takes a reference of a study conducted by British Anthropologist Mary Douglas of an “archaic” society where inequalities seldom exist and that “works very well”. Compelled, he “roughly” puts an axiom that “it is the dominant who say that inequalities are justified”. The denouement of the film is a debate in which young and indignant audience ask several questions about their ghettoized lives and increasing police brutalities in the hoods, and the role of “media friendly” sociologists. Distraught by claps, he tries to pull himself aside from the “diligent servants of the media”, and says he doesn’t want to be associated with them. The scene devolves into a clash — a debate spectacle. Bourdieu prescribes the organized, collective agitprop to hold the authorities accountable, a solution which Bourdieu had used when he sent some professional agitators to radio France Culture. After the debate, he is heard suggesting to “burn cars, but with a purpose” to a youth who aspires to become a “gutter” sociologist.

It is of pure curiosity to watch Pierre Bourdieu go through the frames starting with his vulnerable temperament, with a fresh recall of his “terrible” anxiety when he shared the stage with Prof Edward Said in Chicago. “That’s linguistic insecurity”, and he goes on to expound it further, several frames later. Bourdieu came from a lower class family of Bearn, the south of France, where the dialect is Gascon. Years after acquiring a fine grasp of standard French, he says, he feels like killing the people who speak the “horrible” accents. That’s a true form of “symbolic violence”, he accepts, of which he has become both — perpetrated and perpetrator. Starting of the film, Bourdieu explains the “cultural capital”, of which linguistic expertise is a chunk, which reproduces inequalities in the society. Docility, the disposition to be instructed, of the children from the “cultured” families know exactly “what the schoolteachers want, and, thus, end up getting good marks”, while the accented French of the immigrant communities becomes “worthless in the school market”. In one scene, Bourdieu, who has written extensively on masculine domination, is questioned if he ever thinks himself as a macho. His answer is no, but “there is always a trace”. In the film, Bourdieu answers an important question to sociology students who have learnt to collate biographies, and sublate them into histories, and if raw, biographical experience could shape one’s sociological understanding. He gives a clear example of philosopher Michel Foucault, who survived multitude of insults, bouts of depressions and a suicide attempt after the pain inflicted upon him by those who called him “pervert, sadomasochistic and homosexual”, delved into the array of historical details in way to explore his own sexuality, but went on becoming one of the greatest philosophers of all times.

What’s like to be a sociologist? When a Belgian student asks Bourdieu if he could call her instead of she calling him — calling him would cost her a fortune — he compares the critical sociologists of the day to the artists some twenty years ago who skimped by their parents’ money or were supplemented by a working partner to buy pencils, pens, erasures, personal computer etc. However, there is enough funding, Bourdieu says, if you aspire to practice plain, rigorous sociology for the “powers” that be, and answer the “dominant social demands”. One can get something from CNRS.

Pierre Bourdieu was video-recorded for three years, by Pierre Carles, as he gave lectures, attended political rallies, or chatted with his fellow staffs for La sociologie est un sport de combat (2001). The film is important for all in a way how a sociologist philosophizes or sociologizes things as he becomes a phenomenological witness to everyday life, how he responds to his own foibles, the traces of becoming a bourgeois, and his erudition.

sociological noir