Geographers’ Mobility in Academia

By Benjamin Sacks

Travel amongst Chinese geographers has dramatically increased in the last decade. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

Travel amongst Chinese geographers has dramatically increased in the last decade. © 2013 Wikimedia Commons.

In a series of mid-1980s studies, Pierre Bourdieu explicated his ethnocentric conceptions of capital accumulation, conversion, and authority. Knowledge and power, he asserted, were deeply related, and used across cultural divides to establish and maintain elites. In France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere, academic institutions (e.g., private grammar schools, elite universities, and think tank centres) formed a vital component of state power or, as Bourdieu (1996) described, ‘underlining the central role of the…elite higher education system in perpetuating social domination by the elites’ (Leung p. 314). Academics’ experiences both in and outside the classroom provided them with an ever-expanding “toolkit” to enhance their own perceived value, prestige, and usefulness to state and private requirements. This, as Karl Marx originally, albeit very broadly outlined, and Bourdieu refined, constituted an important form of ‘capital accumulation’ (Leung p. 313).

In her April 2013 article ‘”Read ten thousand books, walk ten thousand miles”: geographical mobility and capital accumulation among Chinese scholars‘, Maggie W H Leung (Utrecht University) complicated and contextualized Bourdieu’s terminology. Relying on a decade of studies by S Robertson and P Blumenthal, amongst other scholars, Leung specified geographical mobility – that is, the role movement across location and space has in cultivating academics’ knowledge – as a valuable form of capital accumulation. Generally speaking, academics gain knowledge and authority through the comprehensiveness of their research, which is (often) intrinsically linked with their ability to travel, conduct field or archival research of primary resources, and to network at national and international conferences. Concerning international migration, academics are ‘[c]onsidered as the best and brightest’, carrying with them highly important ‘social, economic and technical’ data and concepts (p. 312).

Leung focused her examination on the increasingly vital China-Germany route. Academics across discipline travel to German universities, think tanks, and conferences to engage with “Western” technologies, ideas, and publications, before returning to China to teach and implement these approaches for domestic (public and private) audiences. This did indeed comprise a form of Bourdieu’s academic accumulation. However, unlike Bourdieu, Leung stressed the importance of individual experiences and academic maturation, interviewing sixty-five post-doctoral fellows and professors. Zhong Hong, for instance, recalled of her experience:

I was supposed to take a look at how they teach in Germany, how the curriculum is organised and what kind of facilities they have…because our university aims to upgrade itself to a world-class institution…And our university also expected me to elevate my ability in research (p. 319).

By identifying and extrapolating individual experiences, cataloguing them according to approach, motivation, and resulting consequences, Leung provided a more nuanced, carefully considered version of Bourdieu’s previous, rather rigid capital accumulation model. Such theoretical reconstructions can prove enormously useful for geographers studying institutions, power relations, and even exploration. In a 1999 critique, geographer Michael T Bravo (University of Cambridge) re-articulated Bruno Latour’s earlier social science framework, as outlined in Science in Action (1987). Bravo agreed with Latour’s conception of ‘immutable mobiles’, knowledge data transported back to ‘centres of accumulation’ (such as universities or the Royal Geographical Society), but added that scientists’ individual experiences and changes or maturation over time must be considered as well.

60-world2 Leung, M W H, 2013, ‘Read ten thousand books, walk ten thousand miles’: geographical mobility and capital accumulation among Chinese scholars, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series, 38, 311-24.

Also see:

books_icon Bourdieu, P, 1988, The forms of capital, in Richardson J ed, Handbook for theory and research for the sociology of education, Greenwood Press, New York, 241-58.

books_icon Bourdieu, P, 1996, The state nobility: elite schools in the field of power Polity Press, Cambridge.

books_icon Bravo, M T, 1999, Ethnographic navigation and the geographical gift, in Livingstone D and Withers C W J, Geography and enlightenment, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

books_icon Latour, B, 1987, Science in action: how to follow scientists and engineers through society, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

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