Influenced especially by the works of Bourdieu and Weber, one of my main research interests has been the mutual dependency of culture and power. Theoretically I have strived to develop a reflexive form of political sociology that studies knowledge as a source of power and prestige. I understand knowledge as consisting of not only ideas, concepts, theories, and narratives but also of practices, styles and habits of thought and know-how. Rather than an object of philosophical debate, knowledge is a tool of symbolic, political and economic power and an object of political competition. The following questions have interested me. What is the practical politics of ideas? What forms does theoretical warfare take? How do competing ideas turn into power ideas, armed opinions, even murderous maxims to use Tocqueville’s concept? Who are the carriers of new knowledge interests? Under what conditions do regimes of symbolic domination change? So far, the main result of my research has been that to succeed new ideas, theories or narratives have to simultaneously reproduce key elements of pre-existing, legitimate status hierarchies and innovate. To succeed new knowledge interests have to be carried by powerful ascending social groups and platforms both in the specific field of activity in question (intellectual or educational field) and in adjacent fields such as the political and even economic fields.
I have studied the knowledge/power nexus in three empirical contexts that have been characterized by rapid social change and even political crisis: the French intellectual field from the 1950s to the 1970s; the emerging European political field since the 1970s; and the global level in educational globalization since the 2000s.
An affinity between ideal and material interests is necessary for new knowledge interests to develop. To a certain extent, they have to support one another. A historical dynamic of social change or even radical break that implicitly or explicitly favors new ideas is also needed. Also required are entrepreneurial social actors, ready to sustainably challenge established power structures. In my Master’s thesis (1986) I studied Julia Kristeva’s semanalysis as a new theory of ideology and the politics of knowledge around it. It challenged Althusser’s conception of ideology by introducing novel linguistic and psychanalytical concepts. However, it did not attain the prestige of competing theories like deconstruction. The reasons include a failure to integrate the curricula of evolving new university programs, the fragmentation of formerly powerful intellectual groups after May 1968, and the difficulties in linking the textual work to radical politics.
Forceful challenging requires possession of legitimate attributes of excellence. Interest affinities can be substantial or structural or both. Substantially and following French revolutionary traditions, a critique of the bourgeois moral order united young rebels in all areas of French society in the 1960s. Structurally, the marginal positions of these actors forged ties of solidarity and sympathy between them. The forces at work were not ideas or theories alone but theories linked with controversial political and moral issues. Nevertheless, ideas have a dynamic of their own. Some, like Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance, became power ideas that enable a symbolic order composed of concepts of variable prestige to develop. In the French case, intellectual succession took place in a limited but expanding space via rebellion against the dominant actors and ideas, with significant political backing from student movements and leftist political groups. A generalized anti-establishment rebellion enabled the most radical critiques and their publishing platforms, emerging from the margins of the academic field, to attain the most prestigious positions in institutions like the Collège de France. Subversion was their strategy of succession. In France, organized succession and reproduction of the social order meant a backing of new forces by significant political forces: intellectual succession followed its historically set path.
In European politics, new knowledge interests of ascending groups with significant transnational social resources has signified a partial integration of domestic political fields into supra- and transnational networks. European integration and Europeanization have led to the development of new actors and institutions as well as new domains of knowledge tied to the EU that challenge traditional political status hierarchies. These include elected political institutions like the European Parliament, new political types like the European parliamentarians, as well as an expanding European bureaucracy that is involved a growing number of public policy domains, including in culture, higher education and research. These developments are linked to the expansion of transnational social fields and power elites that share a cosmopolitan life style and know-how, integrated in global policy networks and epistemic communities.
In educational globalization, new institutions such as Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, databases relative to academic research output and institutional features of universities as well as knowledge tools like Global Research University Profiles (GRUP) have legitimized and steered the major structural transformations under way. They have succeeded in redefining academic practices and styles of thought through the imposition of a certain global order. The social carriers of these changes have been ascending transnational professional interest groups that produce the raw material of the information revolution, rank institutions of higher education, and sell the new knowledge products to the consumers. Their sponsors have been geopolitical players like the Chinese government and the EU. Through these innovations, these actors have reinforced existing global power asymmetries, consolidating the epistemic and ontological structure of a unipolar global science dominated by US based private research universities.