Caveat emptor

Bernhard Waelchli bernhard at LING.SU.SE
Tue Sep 17 20:29:04 UTC 2013

If I understand this correctly Dan argues that linguists are subject to 
durability of behavioral dispositions (hystérésis de l’habitus in Pierre 
Bourdieu’s 1980: 104-5 terms: the phenomenon of agents who have been 
socialized in a certain social world preserving their style of behavior 
to a large extent, even if the behavior has become non-efficient after, 
for instance, a brutal historical evolution, such as a revolution, that 
has made disappear the old world). In other words, that we are all Don 
Quichotes and hire poor Ph.D. students as Sancho Panzas thus ruining 
their chance for a life in prosperity and peace.
It is certainly useful to reflect about this option for a while. 
However, in considering it it is important to recognize that economic 
capital is not the only kind of capital in society. There is even - 
excuse me for coming with Bourdieu once more, but he was a clever guy 
even if he criticized linguists -
(i) symbolic capital (refers to all forms of capital [cultural, social, 
or economic] with special recognition in society,
(ii) social capital (measures the resources related to the possession of 
a durable network of relationships and mutual recognition), and
(iii) cultural capital (measures all the cultural resources available to 
an individual. They can be of three forms: incorporated [knowledge and 
know-how, skills, forms of speech, etc..], objectified [possession of 
cultural objects] and institutionalized [titles, diplomas]).
Views of society reducing everything to economic capital are quite 
impoverished. Overestimating economic capital often makes agents 
underestimate the total capital they hold. This is, for instance, as you 
all know, well documented in the literature on language death. A 
frequent reason for not teaching the next generation one’s own language 
is low self-esteem and the belief that other cultural codes are more 
successful, especially on the economic level. Another reason is the 
belief of indivisibility and immutability of non-economic capital: that 
future generations will not be able to acquire the cultural code with 
the same degree of perfection as ego anyway.
As we all know from language death, interruption of cultural 
transmission entails a decrease of cultural diversity. We linguists can 
do very little to help the world take care of economic capital in a 
useful way. However, we linguists can contribute quite substantially to 
help the world take care of its cultural, social, and symbolic capital. 
I think linguistics has no reason for low self-esteem as far as  
cultural, social, and symbolic capital are concerned and I hope very 
much that linguists who believe that linguistics of tomorrow never can 
reach the level of relevance of linguistics of today and yesterday will 
prove to be wrong. Who are we that we can know for sure that what we are 
doing has no potential to evolve into something even more powerful in 
the future?

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1980. Le sens pratique. Paris: Éditions de minuit.

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