The road of Venezuelan intellectuals to state power and the Bolivarian higher education reform

Academic & Research
Thursday, September 19, 2013 - 5:45pm
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Thursday, September 19, 2013 - 5:45pm to 7:45pm
Nador u. 9, Monument Building
Senate room
Open to the Public

PhD defense of Mariya Plamenova Ivancheva

Dissertation Examination Committee:

Chair: , CEU

Supervisor: Alexandra Kowalski, Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU

Internal Examiner: Don Kalb, Professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, CEU

External Examiner: Emmanuelle Barozet, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology, FASCO, Universidad de Chile



What power do intellectuals and academics have in effecting or contributing to social change on a large scale? The dissertation answers this question by exploring the role of Venezuelan socialist intellectuals in the higher education reform of the Bolivarian government since 2003. Through an ethnographic and historical research of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) in Caracas the study examines how the reform was initiated and how it took the shape it did. How did the new Bolivarian institutions implement new standards of education, evaluation and distinction, and with what success? Were progressive intellectuals able to maintain a critical function within the system? How did they deal in practice with the constant interplay and contradiction between tradition and innovation in their attempts to create alternative educational practices?

I argue that UBV’s difficulties (and arguably its failure) in embodying and carrying out social change can be attributed to the characteristic of an institution traditionally tailored to fulfill a “modernizing” and reformist function in liberal capitalist systems, yet here tentatively turned into an isolated locus of radical social reform. This project, moreover, was implemented in a globalized context that keeps imposing its liberal hierarchies and values. This situation leads to a number of contradictions in the every-day life of students, professors and administrators. I traced these contradictions through strategic sites of educational and policy-making interactions (the policy-makers’ and the administrator’s offices, classrooms, subjects’ homes, the broader campus, and the streets) through eighteen months of anthropological fieldwork. The latter was comprised of participant observation at the main UBV campus in Caracas and other relevant sites, and of forty-five semi-structured interviews with academic intellectuals.

Analysis of the material shows that these contradictions are consequential, leading to the reproduction of social inequalities which UBV was meant to blunt, or to the creation of new ones—among other, more positive outcomes. The research also shows that, in addition to the systemic and global factors mentioned above, such inequalities result from a type of symbolic capital specific to Venezuelan intellectuals (although possibly, beyond them, to all radical intellectuals in general)—one monopolized by groups who took part in the intense political mobilizations during the preceding decades of Venezuelan liberal democracy and who received degrees from universities more ancient and more prestigious than UBV. This symbolic capital distinguishes what I call a “radical nobility” defined by the gloss of its political radicalism on a base of traditional credentials, unleashing idiosyncratic stratifying status dynamics in the core of the revolutionary system.