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The web and the academic divide

Published in Bourdieu by Cristina Costa on April 28, 2014

CC by Flickr ID mkhmarketing

CC by Flickr ID mkhmarketing

Some blogposts ago I ruminated on what Bourdieu would have said about the Web. Without more concrete sources about his thoughts on which to draw – given that the web only emerged with its social and participatory features after his passing away – I was left to guess what Bourdieu would have said about the web. I based my judgement on his writings, especially those concerning Television. I saw myself tempted to say that Bourdieu would have not appreciated the web as much as I would have liked him to…probably because of my tendency to do so and his inclination to criticize popular media. At the core of his argument was the issue of power and who controlled the publication of knowledge…with him ironically using his own means and channels – the University – to share his message.

Lately, I have been engaging with the writings of other prominent scholars – namely Habermas and Wacquant – who have witnessed the effects of the participatory web on a global scale: the Obama’s campaign and the Arab spring, among others, come to mind. Their take on the web however is not so different from the one I had anticipated for Bourdieu, despite their advocacy for public scholarship. And so, it is almost a case to say that old habit(u)s do die hard.

Habermas, the father of the Public Sphere debate, for instance, has, for several times, declared his lack of understanding, and for that matter, interest in engaging online as a space of public communication (see here and here, for instance).  In a 2012 interview for the Philosophie Magazine, Wacquant also showed his disapproval for social media tools, especially twitter, for replacing reflexivity with immediacy.

I can understand where both thinkers come from given the initial judgement of such tools as superficial. That is often an argument of resistance amongst those who have not experienced the social web first hand. I have been guilty of it too, if I well remember my first reaction to Twitter. Nevertheless, many would argue that social media can be more than a tool or a trend; it can be a new conduit of information and create alternative, if not new spaces for discussion amongst distributed communities and dispersed individuals. Participation in these environments  potentially results in a change of both perspective and practices regarding how social media impacts on and changes the work of academics. Academics’ experiences with social media, or refusal to engage with it, often results in a divide between those who support it and those who discard it.

It could be argued that this apparent doxic approach to the web is a form of protecting their symbolic power as established scholars and thinkers, who ‘act’ in conventional, yet rather exclusive – and so far effective – spaces of academic debate that they dominate, i.e., high ranked academic journals and, especially, books. The classification of conduits of scholarly communication may well result in the misrecognition of the growing impact of the web on academic work. Nonetheless, it is also important to notice that as disposed as we may be to the web, we must not forget that it presents as much positive points as it does negative ones. The tendency to gravitate towards like-minded communities often results in unconscious bias, which could be regarded as yet a competing form of doxa…?

My question then is: to what extend do we take these thinkers’ approaches to the web seriously? And more importantly, how can we use it to engage in more critical debates, which is, to me, the main concern of such critiques in the first place.

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About the author /


Cristina is Associate Professor in Digital Education and Society in the Department of Education and Childhood, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. After completing a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures, Cristina worked as an EFL teacher in the Portuguese Navy. During that period she developed an interest in Learning Technologies and completed an MPhil in Educational Technologies at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. In 2007 she moved to the UK to take up a post in the field of Learning and Research Technologies at the University of Salford. In February 2013 she completed her PhD study on The participatory web in the context of academic research: landscapes of change and conflicts. From March 2013 to March 2018 she worked as a Lecturer in Digital Education at the University of Strathclyde. She was named Learning Technologist of the Year 2010 by the Association for Learning Technology (ALT).


  1. Avatar
    Frances Bell

    I think that Wacquant has a point when he expresses concern about Twitter replacing reflexivity with immediacy but that’s not to see that Twitter can’t play its part in a reflexive and broader public debate. Twitter posts and open access journal articles can be nodes in a network, as can reflexive spaces like this blog post and (hopefully) the dialogue around it. I feel less well-disposed towards Facebook that sucks debate into its own maw (noting that your FB posting of this link asked people to come here).
    I really do think that academics who are overly attached to symbolic power will appropriate the participatory web where it suits their own ends. I observe quite a lot of reputation management on Twitter (and other social media ) by academics who are canny enough to exploit the affordances of different social media. Behaviours I have observed include use of Twitter to link to new (and sometimes very old blog posts), exclusion of pingbacks in blog comments (presumably to manage detrimental comments), inclusion of links to their own work in conference and other hash tags . I am not suggesting that these are necessarily malign but when pursued with relentless vigour, they do begin to look a bit that way.
    Social media enable fairly seamless networking around more lumpy nodes like scholarly articles and these will be appropriated by some of today’s naysayers in ways I cannt yet imagine.

    • Avatar
      Cristina Costa

      Very pertinent points Frances. I do agree that is important not to forget that online is also a space of power struggles, and that the appropriation of the web by each one of us is not free of it. We are all here, in a way or another, to serve our own purpose, which often in times is also the purpose of the communities/networks we attach ourselves to.

      What I think it’s interesting to note is the value and principles we attach to the web and which in return are translated into our practice. We are starting to take ‘digital scholarship’ for granted and that makes us somehow ‘victims’ of our bias… the same way those who do not experience the web are influenced by their own preconceptions of scholarship. And so, if the web is this great – and I am not saying it is not – how come there are these two competing perceptions and practices? Maybe we are not yet engaging in communicative action, Habermas Style! 🙂

  2. Avatar

    i’m intrigued by the idea of competing doxa…and i think that is happening to an extent: “open” has a power politics all its own, certainly.

    yet the binary (if it truly exists) isn’t an equal one: $ and a great deal of power still lie firmly in the institutional side of the argument. not solely with academic institutions or schools, but media and corporate institutions, too: sometimes i wonder if open scholarly practices don’t mostly serve to expand the capacity of individual scholars to access channels of “institutional” money/visibility/power that are increasingly restricted in academic institutions (at least in North America, where higher ed teaching is apparently 75% non-tenure-track right now). networks themselves offer very little in the way of paid work. and there are obviously big politics around who can afford to invest time in what isn’t paid.

    • Avatar
      Cristina Costa

      Thanks Bonnie. I have just finished a new article on the doxa issue. I’ll let you know when it’s published.

      What you are raising here with the academic tenure and institutional ‘thirst’ for symbolic capital topics is yet another big issue that surely deserves a more detailed post. I guess what I was trying to make sense of is why academics of such a long standing reputation are overlooking the potential of the web when they are the ones who could make a huge difference where the communication of academic knowledge is concerned? I doubt Habermas or Wacquant, for example, ‘need permission’ to publish. Whatever they write and wherever they publish is probably accepted right way given their status in the academic world. I would expect that especially where the publication of books is concerned. And so, in this sense they do hold symbolic power (reputation) that – I would presume – allows them to (over)write some of the rules of the game if they wished to do so. Yet, they seem to be confident that the tested and tried channels they have got used to seem to still work. And for them I have no doubt that more conventional channels of communication do work, most certainly because of their symbolic capital, which is confirmed by an audience keen to access their contribution to knowledge in whichever way they provide it. So, as the old saying goes, “you don’t change a winning team” – unless the rules change (that is going back to your comment 🙂 ). But why should they when the key stakeholders don’t see the need?!

      Having said that, Prof. Wacquant has a very easy to use website with a lot of his publications (as he now seems to gain full copyright to his own publications – which again, to me, seems to be another outcome of his symbolic capital). Yet, he seems to be using the web, just the same way he uses a book, an article… as a form of transmission, and not as a way of enabling multi-way communication to which the social web has got us used to. Is that him enacting his doxic thinking through a habitus that ultimately still is the field of academia?!
      Now, there is another research project, I think? 😉

      Please note… I’m still trying to make sense of this, hence my need to open up this discussion via this post. This discussion is very welcome and the thinkers herein mentioned are just an example – illustration- of the approaches of many other academics out there.

  3. Avatar
    Keith Hamon

    Cristina, you ask two questions: “to what extent do we take these thinkers’ approaches to the web seriously? And more importantly, how can we use it to engage in more critical debates, which is, to me, the main concern of such critiques in the first place.”

    The first question I address obliquely as I am not conversant enough with their writings, though Bourdieu has been on my reading list for about four years now. Habermas I’ve read through others, and Wacquant not at all. If I read anyone, it’s because I take them seriously; still, I take no one as seriously as I do my own direct experience. I might use their approaches to temper my own, but not to replace it, and if I find that they are talking about something they have not experienced themselves, Twitter for instance, then I probably would not listen to them at all. They are only gossiping. Or they are giving in to the bad habits of renowned scholars to have an opinion about everything.

    Then, how can we use their approaches to engage in more critical debates? There is an assumption underlying your question that we need more critical debates. I envy you your time, but I don’t think I can engage in any more debates. And I know enough of Bon Stewart and Frances Bell to know that they, too, have any number of critical debates going all at the same time.

    Another assumption in your question may be that much of the conversation on social networks is hardly more than mindless chatter. That is likely correct, but when has it ever been otherwise? Consider the marvelous 18th century coffeehouses that afforded such wonderful critical debates (yes, coffee was the Twitter of its day). Those coffeehouses, too, were surrounded by teeming streets of mindless, pedestrian chatter. I know that for me, nothing compares to the various spaces of the Internet—this blog, for instance—for engendering and sustaining critical debate.

    I don’t think the spaces are perfect, and we can lose them eventually to commercial or governmental interests, but they are working very well for me just now. They brought me here.

    • Avatar
      Cristina Costa


      you are right – and that is typical of me – I start by asking a question, and along comes another one, followed by another … 🙂

      You make an important point re: experience as a source of knowledge and understanding of new practices. The experiences we bring from one field to another do tend to change our approaches and practices. Yet, it’s hard for people to engage in experiences of which they no nothing or very little about (if they are not part of the space in which those experiences are materialised), hence the need for more debates, or as Habermas would put it, ‘communicative action’! 🙂

      Another point that I would like to make is that the web as a space of participation and socialisation opens up a new space for public debate. This leads me to consider what role academia, and its members, have in appropriating the web to serve its purpose, which in my opinion – and I’ll borrow Daniel Coit Gilman’s word – is “to advance knowledge and to diffuse it, not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures, but far and wide”.

      In the ‘Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere’ Habermas talks about the Roman Agora as a public space of intellectual debate. Is the web the new Agora? I think it might be, even if with some adjustments, improvements and new challenges. And I very much would like thinkers like him and Wacquant to be part of it, as I think we would gain from it, hence my (second) question about the need to find new, critical ways of arguing for its integration in academia.

  4. Avatar
    Maha Bali

    hey Cristina, this was a very interesting brief but deep blog post – I don’t know how you managed it! Your bringing up of what Bourdieu would have thought of the web reminds me of an old post of Bonnie Stewart’s about how Foucault would have taught a MOOC…

    I like a lot of Bourdieu’s ideas and use them in my research (though he’s been accused of being overly deterministic) – but I think, for example, that even though he would see lots of social tools as tools of social reproduction, I doubt he’d hesitate to use them himself if they were to help him… (you correctly point out how he uses university to disseminate his ideas).

    But your bringing up of an almost 90-year old Habermas’ current views about the web and social media… I love Habermas and his writing and his ideas (hadn’t realized he was still alive until I read you post!) – made me think of what Keith was saying: does Habermas know enough about Twitter that what he says as a respected thinker should overshadow my own direct experience with it? There are probably very few people of his generation who have experienced, let alone understood, Twitter, etc. Of course, there are all manner of retired academics who are active on social media, and I’d be interested in hearing their views on it (but still, their experience is not like mine or like those 20 years younger than me). But I’d also be more interested in hearing the views of younger philosophers and thinkers who are on social media (I think of Bonnie Stewart as one, and the group that taught #edcmooc as another) – a group that know social media well and can still be critical of it. This is not to say that Habermas’ critiques will be completely meaningless (I have not followed up on the links) but that they might be more partial than I’d listen to … then again, I’m partial the other way 🙂
    Having said that – I actually do want to follow up on those links and I really enjoyed reading your blogpost and the way you’ve conceived it. I’m currently reading Sidorkin and making all sorts of connections to social media as well!

  5. Avatar
    Cristina Costa

    Hi Maha,
    thanks for your comment. Would be interested in knowing how you’re applying Bourdieu’s theory (and that of other thinkers) to your work.

    Indeed Habermas is still very much alive and kicking, as the saying goes. He’s currently doing a couple of appearances in the USA. We have a facebook page where we post news like that all the time – in case you are interested in it.

    I am yet to be convinced of the ‘deterministic’ edge of Bourdieu’s work – although I acknowledge the critique. I must write a blogpost about it. Hmmm thanks for the idea.

    I think what I wanted to say is/ask is “why to change a winning team”? Established scholars like Habermas and Wacquant have mastered the traditional academic channels of communication and while these continue to be relevant and bring them status (and other forms of symbolic power associated with it) why should they change what they have going for them?
    Obviously where Habermas is concerned, it’s curious that he hasn’t picked up on the web as a channel of communication with potential for democratic approaches, although the opposite is also true. As I write this, I found myself thinking that at this stage of his career/life he might have just drawn line where the engagement with new topics is concern… and leave that to the new generations of academics. That would be us 🙂 what do you think?

  6. Avatar
    Maha Bali

    Hey Cristina, I agree on the “that would be us” part 🙂 and that was sort of point, really.

    You ask earlier in your comment about how I apply Bourdieu and Habermas in my work… My PhD research (not ed tech related) was about the development of critical thinking at my uni (American University in Cairo) and so there is a lot of cultural/social capital and social reproduction at play in terms of which students have more opportunities to progress and become more critical throughout university, based on both internal factors (e.g. Their family’s social status) and external ones (how protected will they be if they e.g. Write a blog post that critiques the government?). I have read Bourdieu directly, but Habermas I keep reading indirectly with reference to knowledge-constitutive interests and how they connect to many edu things: research paradigms, curriculum theory, and dialogue as a pedagogy.

    RE: deterministic edge in Bourdieu’s work, I see it as a misunderstanding of it, to be honest. I don’t think Bourdieu is trying to say “if this, then that” but more like “this increases the possibility of that” – I think it was an article of Giroux’s that accuses Bourdieu of ignoring the potential of “agency” but I personally believe that when setting institutional structures, we should be more focused on Bourdieu’s side of that argument (how are we reproducing privilege) than depending on “agency” to solve any problems… But I digress 🙂

    Thanks for the link about Habermas’ upcoming plans. I don’t think I am going to visit the US any time soon but can use it if I am!

  7. Avatar
    Simon Ensor

    I like that question Cristina “How far do we take those thinkers to the web…” Seriously!

    Bourdieu excluded, if you hadn’t taken our honorable gentlemen thinkers to the web here, they would have remained wherever they find themselves. I confess ignorance. Damn.

    Maybe thanks to you and the web their pass-me-down thoughts will make a few of my neurones flutter before the final cut.

    Irreverantly yours.


  8. Avatar
    Frances Bell

    Great discussion here. I hesitated to respond but I feel the need to challenge the tension between age and experience. I really sat up when I read @Maha Bali’s comment “all manner of retired academics who are active on social media, and I’d be interested in hearing their views on it (but still, their experience is not like mine or like those 20 years younger than me)”. I sat up because I am a retired person active on social media though obviously I don’t know who was in Maha’s mind. This is a very interesting comment that puts me in mind of Prensky’s digital natives/ digital immigrants unhelpful (IMHO) age-related divide.
    I think the issue with Bourdieu (now deceased so we can’t expect him to engage with social media) and Habermas is experience rather than age i.e their contribution is valuable but limited by context.
    Let’s not confuse new generations of academics with exclusively ‘ young academics’. Young is a flexible concept – I think I prefer to think of qualities of thinking such as open-minded, critical, active, etc.

    • Avatar
      Maha Bali

      hi Frances, I didn’t realize you were retired, but in that case, I am referring to someone like you 🙂 [I hope your “sitting up” was not out of offense, I meant no offense, but actually immense respect]. I basically meant to say that there are people who have lived without the internet and social media most of their lives, but who use them actively now, and are critical, reflective people. Their opinions (e.g. yours and Jenny Mackness for example) are more valuable to me than Habermas at this stage if he’s talking about social media but not truly understanding it, whereas *you* do understand it. i.e. for me, you are more of an authority figure on social media’s effects than Habermas. Or myself, because you have a broader perspective by default (because I’ve had internet ever since I’ve been in college – not a digital native, if that concept is still used, but at least it’s more difficult for me to imagine an education or professional life without internet). I don’t know if I’m expressing myself clearly enough…

  9. Avatar
    Cristina Costa

    Frances, this is actually a really good point. And if I may the shameless plug, this takes me back to my paper of the habitus of digital scholars: it’s a mindset

    Having said that, it’s also a power game: online the exposure is greater, and so if you have ‘conquered’ your academic space why change it now? One might however argue that change is necessary, but for many it is not desirable …

  10. Avatar
    Jenny Mackness

    I am coming to this discussion late, but as one of those ‘older’ academics, although whatever does old mean (for a discussion of this see the OldGlobeMOOC), and I’m not sure that I can even apply the term ‘academic’ to myself, I can relate to the idea that perhaps a lifetime of building a reputation does give a person more choices of how to interact, who to interact with, and where to do this.

    As you say Christina – if you have ‘conquered’ your academic space why change it now?

    But beyond that, perhaps, given the respected reputations as academic thinkers that Habermas and those like him have established, they should always be taken seriously – simply because our past will always inform our present and our future.

    Change comes for us all, older or younger, whether or not we want it to, but that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t engage with it critically and try and learn from the experience of those who have gone before us. We can then choose to accept or reject their thinking.

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