“there’s a sort of inverted marketplace of ideas within academia, such that the more obscure your work is, the more serious it’s perceived to be”

Leighton Woodhouse

If you write an article that’s published in an absurdly specialized academic journal that’s read by all of 50 people, you’re presumed to be engaged in real scholarship. If you write an academic book that sells like hotcakes and gets reviewed by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, the assumption is that your work must be somehow frivolous, and that you’re a dilettante.

I bring this up because it illustrates one of the key concepts of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production. And that concept, I believe, explains a lot about why our shared social reality is fracturing into a thousand partisan sub-realities and competing conspiracy theories.

Bourdieu viewed the world of professional cultural producers (artists, academics, journalists, etc.) as a collection of what he called “fields.” There’s the artistic field, the journalistic field, the juridical field, the political field, and so on. A field is the constellation of individuals, organizations and stakeholders that constitute the market for a given profession. For the artistic field, it would include artists, art dealers, gallery owners, agents, critics, collectors, and probably a dozen other groups that I don’t know enough about art to think of. The artistic field is roughly comparable to what you might call the art “industry.”

The “field” metaphor works in two ways. First, it’s a field of battle, where all the competitors and hostile factions within a given enterprise endeavor to defeat their rivals. You can see this most plainly within the journalistic field just by logging onto Twitter, where you will behold the endlessvicious, public feuds between blue check mark media employees. But it’s not unique to media. In every field, you have people occupying disparate positions of power, in shifting alliances with one another, jealously defending their positions from usurpers while undermining those they aim to topple, using the cultural norms of the field in question as a weapon and a shield.

The anecdote above illustrates the dynamic well within academia: A social scientist’s work gains a broad popular audience, accolades from non-academic critics, and perhaps some influence in actual policymaking circles. One might consider this a clear sign of success within the field. In response, rival academics use that very success as evidence of the scholar’s inauthenticity: she must be dumbing down her research to pander to the public, in cheap pursuit of media attention and political influence. The rivals’ own lack of public recognition, on the other hand, is proof of their legitimacy: their work doesn’t appeal to lay readers because they’re speaking to other experts, in the language of expertise. Lay readers aren’t supposed to “get it”; if they did, then the work must be too shallow for real scholars take seriously.