In social science research on art, culture, science and ideas, the term “autonomy” has a unique role. It can be used from a historical point of view to describe the “autonomization” of a field, such as the artistic (Moulin 1969; Sofio 2016), literary (Bourdieu 1985; 1996; Viala 1985) or that of cinema (Duval 2016)—this is generally vis-à-vis other fields such as the religious, the political, or the economic. Since the autonomy of a field is always relative, the notions of autonomy and heteronomy are also used to analyse how capitalism, the State and social divisions structure cultural activities (Champy 1996; Moulin 1969; Bourdieu 1996; Kréfa 2013), as well as the involvement of their representatives within political struggles (Sapiro 2009). The concepts of autonomy and heteronomy are also used in order to study the logics of action and relations that manifest within the autonomized field. These terms can apply to a group as a whole, such as when we talk about the organizational autonomy of an artistic profession (Sapiro 2006), or conversely they may be employed to characterize the degree of autonomy which characterizes the position of an agent within a given space (Bourdieu 1996). The notion of autonomy is also used to justify or criticize internalist analysis of works of art (Raynaud 1999). It was employed to study the relations between national cultural fields (Casanova 1999) and the emergence of transnational fields (Sapiro 2013). Lastly, it can be used in the context of a myth to debunk, such as the way works in science studies have thrown the autonomy of science into doubt by reconstituting the fabric of connections and relations of dependence within which scientific activity is embedded (Latour 1984).
Jacques Louis David, “Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794) and His Wife (Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze, 1758–1836),” 1788 (detail).
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
These uses of the concept of autonomy clearly distinguish the sociology of symbolic goods from other areas of study. While other subfields of sociology also make use of the term, they do so less frequently, and with meanings that are often close to the ordinary sense of the term or in the sense that it has taken on in philosophy or politics. It is telling that some dictionaries of general sociology have no entry for the term2. When it does appear, it is generally to give either a definition that psychologizes autonomy (here understood as self-control, or as the capacity to escape prevailing social norms) or the political meaning of the term denoting self-government3. The Dictionnaire de sociologie, edited by André Akoun and Pierre Ansart (Le Seuil/Le Robert, 1999), also includes the meaning that the term can have within Marxist sociology when it is a matter of ‘relative autonomy’ of the State vis-à-vis that of the economic infrastructure, as well as a more epistemological meaning concerning social realities as a field of study that can be autonomized. This situation contrasts with the very specific meanings that the term has taken on within social science work focused on symbolic goods. The ambition of this issue is to give an overview of the uses of the concept of autonomy in the sociology of culture and ideas and to disentangle its multiple meanings. It also aims to draw a line under the issues surrounding autonomy and to appreciate what they tell us about the spaces of symbolic production and about social science in general. The articles in this issue are case studies using various conceptions of autonomy in different contexts (journalism, artistic handicrafts, publishing, music), while the more epistemological article by GS offers a considered review of the definitions of autonomy as proposed by different theoretical traditions in the sociology of arts and knowledge.
The term autonomy is frequent in the study of symbolic goods, but it is also complicated by the multiplicity of sometimes contradictory meanings associated with it. This plurality of meanings, which is sometimes the source of confusion, is first of all a result of a plurality of theoretical traditions. Gisèle Sapiro’s article considers three of these in greater detail. In the sociology of professions, the term adopts a meaning close to its political sense of collective self-determination and implies the capacity of members of a profession to regulate and reproduce it. Marxist analysis of cultural productions presents the more general problem of relations between the economic infrastructure and the political, religious, and cultural superstructure, in which autonomy with regard to the economy can only be relative. Finally, Bourdieusian analysis of the autonomy of fields would in turn appear inseparable from his analysis of social differentiation. These forms of autonomy can sometimes converge, for example when the emergence of a body of specialists that constitutes an autonomous field results in the institutionalization of a profession in its own right as was the case, for example, for journalism. However, we do not always see such parallels. In her contribution to the dossier, for instance, Myrtille Picaud shows how Berlin’s live music venues enjoy a greater degree of autonomy (in the Bourdieusian sense) than their Parisian counterparts despite the fact that bookers have less professional autonomy in Berlin.
If the intersection of these theoretical uses of “autonomy” is sometimes a source of confusion, this is only increased by vernacular meanings of the term. Autonomy is indeed a category employed by agents, notably in order to defend the autonomy of intellectual or cultural life in the face of State intervention or economic interests. As Sophie Noël’s contribution to this issue shows, the category of autonomy has sometimes been taken up by publishers to defend their status, sometimes preferring “autonomy” to the close concept of “independence” which is too much of a cliché for them, and which can be reduced to its economic significance. The term “independence” is also used, sometimes in association with that of autonomy, to defend “independent cinema” or, in the press, the “independence” of what is written vis-à-vis shareholders and management.
It can also be difficult to separate these vernacular and scholarly uses of the term autonomy completely. As Gisèle Sapiro notes in her contribution, the concept of autonomy employed by the sociology of professions “incorporates the vernacular definition of professional autonomy.” Conversely, professionals in the cultural spheres can appropriate certain analyses produced by the sociology of culture. Researchers themselves may also make political use of the concept of autonomy. Pierre Bourdieu for instance made the autonomy of the fields of cultural and scientific production not only an empirical fact to be studied but also a cause to defend in response to neo-liberalism (Bourdieu 1998), which then raises the question of the normative or political implicit that underlies certain uses of the category of autonomy in the sociology of culture.
Under which circumstances can we talk about the autonomization of a field or area of activity? Is it possible to distinguish greater and lesser degrees of autonomy? What do we measure them against? As the articles in this dossier show, this issue can be viewed on different levels: the level of the group (field, profession…) as a whole; that of the individuals within these groups; or that of the symbolic productions themselves.
Let us look, first of all, at the forms of institutional autonomy. In field theory, these constitute three dimensions, as Gisele Sapiro points out in her contribution: the appearance of a group of producers who specialize in the activity in question; the constitution of instances of specific consecration; and the formation of a market of symbolic goods (Bourdieu 1985). However, these dimensions vary depending on the activity, as shown by the various case studies compiled in this dossier. The markets associated with fields of symbolic production can be markets in the ordinary sense of the term (where a product with an associated monetary value is exchanged) or they can be understood in a more metaphorical sense. In contrast to literature, film, and journalism, scientific production relies, for example, very little on the sale of work. The term “market” can also be used to analyse non-monetary exchanges, such as in the religious field or “market of salvation goods” (Bourdieu 1971). Furthermore, even when the term “market” can be understood in its ordinary sense—that of the interaction of supply and demand—, markets of symbolic goods can be distinguished not only from one another, but also from markets of non-cultural goods. As Julien Duval’s contribution shows, the autonomization of the fields of journalism and cinema, just like that of the literary field, manifests itself via the differentiation of a pole of restricted production in which the economic logic of the maximization of sales or profit cannot prevail. Thus, there is within the journalistic field an opposition between a “popular” and a “quality” press, whose audience is narrower but has greater professional recognition. The field of cinema similarly tends to pit “cinéma d’auteur” (sometimes called “independent cinema” or “art cinema” outside France), which is more orientated towards formal innovations, against “commercial cinema.” While, as the article shows, these similarities are partly linked to the fact that the literary field has deliberately been used as a model, the forms taken by the markets of cinema and journalism are still specific, whether in relation to entry barriers, methods of funding, or relationships to the State.
As it is the case with the “markets,” the instances of specific consecration also take different forms in different spaces. Fields which have reached a high level of autonomy are characterized by multiple and rival instances of consecration. This “institutionalization of anomie” contrasts according to Bourdieu with the jurisdiction of the Académie des beaux-arts in the definition of legitimate criteria for artistic appreciation (Bourdieu 1996: 132). In the case of the literary, film, and artistic fields, the power of consecration is furthermore shared between producers4 and critics, whose categories of perception and assessment are not necessarily the same. Jérôme Pacouret emphasizes the role of critics in the process of autonomization of the field of cinema and in the emergence of the category of film author in the first half of the twentieth century. However, within the academic, scientific, or journalistic fields, which are often professionalized to a greater extent, the instances of specific consecration take the form of peer judgement—that is to say the evaluation of producers by other producers (Lamont 2009; Aust 2014). Inseparable from the two previously mentioned dimensions, the demarcation of a body of specialists involves in particular the definition of entry barriers, from the requirement of specific qualifications (as in the case of science professions) to less codified methods of control (as in the case of the literary field—belonging to which is defined by the fact of being published) by way of cases that fall between the two, such as the journalistic field, which has specialized schools but continues to strongly favour “on the job” training (Chupin 2018; Neveu 2009). The professional development of the creators of symbolic goods varies according to the field (Sapiro 2006). Professions that are highly institutionalized such as researcher and architect contrast with the cases of artists and writers, who can rarely live off this activity alone. The autonomy of a field can also be fuelled by inter-professional relations and struggles, such as those concerning the exploitation of writers by publishers and press owners (Bourdieu 1996: 119). In this issue, Jérôme Pacouret shows that the battles to define the author of a film, which have pitted several professional groups against one another, have contributed to cinema’s autonomization in relation to other artistic activities. The same battles have favoured the emergence of a cinematographic value that is distinct from box-office success.
As Julien Duval points out, the—always relative—autonomy of a field is also measured by its capacity to subordinate the “principle of external hierarchization” to the “principle of internal hierarchization” (Bourdieu 1996). Understood in this way, autonomy also constitutes an element of differentiation within a field where autonomous positions and logics confront heteronomous logics from other social spaces (politics, religion, or economic field). The autonomy of a field can thus be measured by the separation between its autonomous and heteronomous poles (Bourdieu 1996: 217). In this issue, Julien Duval notes, for instance, the weak autonomy of the fields of journalism and cinema by observing the continuum between their autonomous and heteronomous poles. From a methodological point of view, correspondence analysis is one of the preferred statistical means of highlighting the coexistence of different forms of recognition and power. The prosopographic databases from which these analyses are carried out constitute the most significant effort to define autonomy and heteronomy using a multiplicity of indices (Bourdieu 1988; Duval 2006; Lebaron 2000; Poupeau 2003; Sapiro 2014). These indicators are always multiple, they vary over time and according to the fields and populations in question, and they can only be understood in relation with one another. Therefore verdicts of one instance of consecration may be indicators of autonomy or heteronomy according to time, such as in the case of the French literary prize of the Académie Goncourt or of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which have paid increasing attention to the potential popularity of winning works and writers (Casanova 1999; Sapiro 2016).
Finally, the autonomy of spaces of cultural production is measured against the works themselves and their internal characteristics. In approaches in terms of field, this relative autonomy is manifested in the fact that external forces and logics (for example, ethical or political considerations) can only be expressed in such a way that reshapes them, making them unrecognisable, as exemplified in Pierre Bourdieu’s study of Martin Heiddegger (Bourdieu 1991). “The field exerts a refraction effect (much like a prism),” says Bourdieu, and its “refraction coefficient” measures “its degree of autonomy” (Bourdieu 1992). Studies have shown for example how the rigour and clarity defended at the beginning of the twentieth century by the philosophers known as the Vienna Circle, as well as their positivism and criticism of metaphysics, was a response, in the field of epistemology, to the conservatism of the German romantic right, on the part of these intellectuals who were mainly committed to social-democratic ideas (Collins 2009); or how Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutic phenomenology was a refraction in the field of post-war French philosophy, of his commitment within the religious field and specifically the Christian existentialism of his youth (Hauchecorne 2018).
Although less studied in this dossier, this dimension of autonomy is not entirely absent. Several contributions to the dossier notably question the link between the autonomy of the fields of cultural production and some of the specific beliefs that are traditionally associated with it such as the defence of art for art’s sake, the affirmation of the primacy of form, and the euphemizing of political bias. Gisèle Sapiro reveals that the defence of art for art’s sake upheld by the Nouvelle Revue française during the Occupation was not a symptom of autonomy but instead sought to mask the political control of this literary review, as it was relaunched by the German ambassador Otto Abetz (Sapiro 2014). Flora Bajard demonstrates that artistic ceramists in France acquired their autonomy in relation to industrial ceramists by relying on beliefs typical of artists, while at the same time rejecting the distinction between function and beauty that defines artistic activity.
In considering the various manifestations of autonomy in the artistic, cultural, and intellectual domains, the articles in this dossier also question some of the social conditions that enable autonomy. The studies brought together here point out in particular that not every intrusion by the State or the marketplace is necessarily synonymous with a push towards heteronomy. The conditions for autonomy do not so much reside in independence with regard to the economic field and that of political power as in a system of relations that make these interventions work in favour of autonomy.
Regarding the economic field, several contributions to this issue reference the role of the growth in the nineteenth century of the book and art markets in the autonomization of the literary and artistic fields vis-à-vis different forms of sponsorship, patronage, and political control (Bourdieu 1985; 1996; 2017). Similarly, although excluding short-term economic profits, the logic of ‘restricted’ production and distribution which prevails at the autonomous poles of the fields of cultural production, authorizes or involves, on the long term, the conversion of symbolic capital into money (Bourdieu 1996). The assertion of these trade logics may nevertheless in turn upset the autonomy gained against political power. Julien Duval points this out by considering the heteronomy that the increased attention to audiences creates for television journalism. Such outcomes are due in part to the structure of the market, as Myrtille Picaud shows when she explains that the submission of music venue programmers to economic rules is encouraged by the concentration and vertical integration of their market. Another dimension relating to market structure is the extent of fixed costs that can also act as a brake on autonomy for cultural sectors. For instance, Julien Duval stresses that the production costs of films and newspapers oblige them, all things being equal, to target a broader audience and can constitute a barrier to the assertion of a specific logic. Conversely, Myrtille Picaud shows how the low cost of Berlin’s real estate allows local music venue programmers to partly free themselves from strictly economic constraints. Finally, heteronomous logics can sometimes serve autonomous logics. Some film creators and production and distribution companies reconcile the logics of large and restricted production, for example by alternating the production of films of varying profitability (de Verdalle 2013; Roussel 2017), or by including different works and artists, addressing large or limited audiences, within the same catalogue or programme, just as publishing houses, concert venues, and cinemas do.
Similarly, the intervention of public authorities can also act as a brake on autonomy or, conversely, accelerate it. Some fields of cultural production have gained autonomy in relation to the State. According to Bourdieu, it is the case of the nineteenth-century French artistic field vis-à-vis the Academy (Bourdieu 2017), although this viewpoint has been challenged (Sofio 2014). State interference limits this autonomy even more dramatically when it takes the form of censorship or political control, as in the cases of Iranian or Soviet cinema mentioned by Julien Duval, though film censorship does not only occur in authoritarian regimes (on the French case, see Meyer 2017). However, as has been emphasized in the case of the literary field (Sapiro 2003), cultural politics, which was established within institutions in the twentieth century, cannot be reduced to sources of heteronomy and can, conversely, reinforce the most specific logics (Dubois 1999). The studies brought together here take into account two forms of public intervention that affect the autonomy of literary and artistic activities. First, the law may favour autonomous logics. Flora Bajard’s article shows how, in France, the Pinel law of 2014 created a framework conducive to the assertion of specific logics of artistic ceramists who have fought for several decades for the recognition of the original nature of their productions, so that they can break free from the most industrial forms of craft. The autonomy of an activity is also affected by laws aimed at developing the market and professionalizing its labour force. This is the case regarding the right of ownership of works, the extension of which to cinema has fuelled the struggles to define film authors and the process of autonomization as studied by Jérôme Pacouret. Second, the State can reinforce autonomous logics by supporting scarcely profitable creations based on their aesthetic, cultural, or scientific value. As described in the contributions by Julien Duval, Sophie Noël, and Myrtille Picaud, several support schemes benefit French intermediaries and producers with autonomous perspectives, such as subsidies to music theatres, labels, tax advantages granted to independent bookshops, advances on income or the so-called art et essai cinema funding (Pinto 2014). These studies can be reconciled with work on public theatre that has shown the role played by the system of public subsidies in the autonomization and reproduction of this subfield of restricted production (Glas 2018).
Such support can of course only strengthen the autonomy of spaces of production if the criteria for receipt are close to the most specific categories of judgement (that is the categories of judgement associated with the most autonomous positions), which is not necessarily the case. Some aims and justifications for public interventions, such as “cultural democratization,” force subsidized producers and distributors to consider the size and diversity of their audiences. The allocation of such aid may also affect the balance of power between approaches, schools, and aesthetics within the fields considered. The assessment criteria implemented may match the categories of judgement of the oldest consecrated agents or institutions of the autonomous pole, and therefore be of little use to the new avant-garde artists or entrants to the field. In France in the 1960s, the review Les Cahiers du cinéma criticized the Centre national du cinéma for condemning certain aesthetics and imposing “literary or themed alibis” on the directors of the Nouvelle Vague (Gimello-Mesplomb 2003). Conversely, Julien Duval questions here the role of the State to the strengthening of the economic constraints structuring the film industry over the past decades. Still on the French case, while Sophie Noël emphasizes the role that public financial support has played in the development of independent publishing, especially through the funding of translations, she also points out that the majority of support from the Centre national du livre (CNL) goes primarily to the largest mainstream publishing companies such as Gallimard et Le Seuil. For all these reasons, this support and the conditions for its receipt are the object of struggles. Sophie Noël mentions certain independent publishers’ dispute with the CNL commissions. Similarly, Flora Bajard discusses in detail the legal battles carried out by many artistic ceramists to benefit from the social protection regime for visual artists.
More broadly, the effects of public interventions on the autonomy of cultural fields are better understood if we stop reifying them by attributing them to a State. As Vincent Dubois has shown, cultural policies can be analysed as the “product of the relationship between the cultural field and the group of administrative and political agents who, within the governmental space, intervene on cultural issues” (Dubois 1999; 2014). That is why Sophie Noël’s contribution to this dossier identifies various actors and representatives of the book market which seek to influence cultural policies by promoting their “independence.”
Structured by State interventions and the constraints of profitability common to other economic activities, the autonomy of a field of cultural production also depends on its relations with other fields of the same type, as Bourdieu showed in his cross-analysis of the autonomization of the artistic and literary fields (Bourdieu 1996). In a similar way, work has shown how the autonomization of the artistic field has overlapped that of the photographic field (Roubert 2015). The contributions of Julien Duval and Jerome Pacouret in this dossier similarly describe how the use in films of literary conventions and works as well as some writers’ and artists’ conversion to the cinema have encouraged the autonomization of the field of cinema, which has nevertheless had to affirm its originality in order to be recognized as an art in its own right. This confirms that when an activity becomes classed as an art, this generally involves analogies with other artistic activities and the assertion of its originality in relation to other arts (Heinich & Shapiro 2012). In this dossier, Flora Bajard analyses relationships of dependency and distinction among artistic ceramists compared with artists. The autonomy of a field can be maintained through its competition with other fields and by the appropriation of works from other disciplines. For example, the evaluation of film-makers’ lack of faithfulness to the books they adapt, and the scorn of cinema critics directed at writers turned directors maintain the idea of a cinematographic value that is distinct from literary value (Pacouret 2017).
Finally, several articles emphasise the non-linear, reversible and multidimensional nature of the processes of autonomization of cultural fields. Julien Duval, Myrtille Picaud, and Sophie Noël show that the autonomy of cinema, music, and publishing is impacted by the increasing concentration of their markets during recent decades—a process which has been both fostered and softened by various State interventions. Furthermore, Jérôme Pacouret notes that the autonomization of cinema in relation to other arts has partly been achieved through the endorsement of commercial logics, rather than through the mere celebration of “pure cinema.” As Flora Bajard’s analysis shows, the relations between artistic ceramists and the artistic field have evolved with State’s requests, the outcomes of which are always uncertain. However, this dossier leaves open the question of whether the autonomy of these activities should be defended and at what cost.