J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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Profession or Field? Bourdieu and the Professional Project

Posted by chanders on November 29, 2005

Bourdieuean influenced studies of "the journalistic field" have recently emerged as one of the most promising new domains of research on journalism and the news media more generally. According to Benson, examining journalism as a field "offers both a theoretical and empirical bridge between the traditionally separated macro-‘societal’ level models of the news media … and micro-‘organizational’ approaches." (Benson 1998, 463) How does thinking about journalism as a social field impact some of my own recent speculations on participatory journalism and the "deprofessionalization project"?

It is important to note, right off the bat, that Bourdieu specifically challenges the sociology of the professions  in Invitation to a Reflexive Sociology, calling for research into the professions to be replaced with field research.  At the same time, however, Bourdieu aknowledges the severe and fruitful criticism of the professional concept by Larson, Collins, Friedson, and Abbot. He also argues that "I take seriously the work of aggregation and symbolic imposition" that was necessary to create the profession. Such langauage is remarkably similar to most of the modern work on professionalism. What then, exactly, does Bourdieu’s notion of the field give us besides newer, perhaps more academically acceptable terminology?

Bourdieu seems to have two primary objections to the use of profession. The first is that, despite the Weberian work of Larson et. al., the word profession retains traces of its normative, Durkheimian roots– the profession as a "positive social category" for the maintainence of society. Secondly, Bourdieu emphasizes the methodological problems of professional study, specifically, the fact that the category of "the profession" exists as an object in and of itself with organizational lists, membership records, and codes of ethics, and that over-reliance upon this preconstructed category excludes as much as it includes.

Such objections make sense, but I would argue that my own approach to "deprofessionalization" avoids them– as do many Weberian studies of the professions. So what else does Bourdieu give us?

First, he does talk (a little) about change. But he also does the opposite and "structuralizes Weber." Perhaps over-structuralizes him. Nevertheless, Bourdieu’s concept of the fieild is useful in helping us avoid an account of deprofessionalization that gives too much credence to the agency of oppositional social groups within and outside the profession of journalism. As I write in my paper in progress "I supplement [Bourdieu’s] largely structural approach with the more Weberian notion of the journalistic “professionalization project” (Larson 1977; Macdonald 1995) in the hope of adding a dynamic, interactionist element to a field model that seems, despite the best hope of its popularizers, to have some difficulty accounting for important aspects of social and organizational change. "

In sum

Bourdieu’s criticism of the professions states that the profession:
a) Retains too much of its normative elements
b) exists as a preconstructed social category

Reponse to these criticisms:
a) B. admits himself that L, A, F provide a severe and fruitful criticism of the professional concept
b) B.’s own argument focuses on "the work of aggregation and symbolic imposition" necessary to create the profession– identical to what LAF are doing (?)

So does Bourdieu just give us a cool new term with which to talk about the profession? No. He:
a) Reemphasizes the importance of the mezzo-level (Benson)
b) Structuralizes Weber
c) But at the same time, does provide (a little bit) of an account of change.
d) Reemphasizes the process of "aggregation and symbolic imposition" talked about by others.

But all that said, he still doesn’t do much.

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