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BOURDIEU AND EDUCATION: HOW USEFUL IS BOURDIEU'S THEORY FOR RESEARCHERS? ALICE SULLIVAN*

1. Introduction Bourdieu's theory of cultural reproduction has been highly influential, and has generated a great deal of literature, both theoretical and empirical. This paper will examine the theory and the use empirical researchers in the fields of education and stratification have made of it. Bourdieu's work must be seen in the context both of the debate on class inequalities in educational attainment and of broader questions of class reproduction in advanced capitalist societies. The theory of cultural reproduction is concerned with the link between original class membership and ultimate class membership, and how this link is mediated by the education system. According to Bourdieu, the education systems of industrialised societies function in such a way as to legitimate class inequalities. Success in the education system is facilitated by the possession of cultural capital and of higherclass habitus. Lower-class pupils do not in general possess these traits, so the failure of the majority of these pupils is inevitable. This explains class inequalities in educational attainment. However, success and failure in the education system is seen as being due to individual gifts (or the lack of them). Therefore, for Bourdieu, educational credentials help to reproduce and legitimate social inequalities, as higher-class individuals are seen to deserve their place in the social structure. The first part of this paper will consist of a general discussion of Bourdieu's theory of education, with particular reference to the concepts of cultural capital and habitus. I will argue that the concept of habitus is theoretically incoherent and has no clear use for empirical researchers. The concept of cultural capital, on the other hand, while not constructed particularly clearly by Bourdieu, is substantive enough to be potentially useful to empirical researchers. The sec* Alice Sullivan holds a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at Nuffield College, Oxford, United Kingdom. Currently she is working with Anthony Heath (Nuffield College, Oxford) on a book on inequalities in education in Britain. Address: Nuffield College, New Road Oxford OXl INF, United Kingdom. E-mail address:Alice.Sullivan@nuf.ox.ac.uk.

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TIreNetherlands 'Journal of Social Sciences - Volume 38 - 110. 2 - 2002

ond section of this paper will therefore assess some of the empirical work concerning cultural capital and the problems involved in operationalising the concept. 2. Bourdieu's Theory 2.1 Cultural Capital 2.1.1 Introduction to Cultural Capital Bourdieu states that cultural capital consists of familiarity with the dominant culture in a society, and especially the ability to understand and use 'educated' language. The possession of cultural capital varies with social class, yet the education system assumes the possession of cultural capital. This makes it very difficult for lower-class pupils to succeed in the education system. "By doing away with giving explicitly to everyone what it implicitly demands of everyone, the education system demands of everyone alike that they have what it does not give. This consists mainly of linguistic and cultural competence and that relationship of familiarity with culture which can only be produced by family upbringing when it transmits the dominant culture." (Bourdieu, 1977a, p. 494)

Bourdieu claims that, since the education system presupposes the possession of cultural capital, which few students in fact possess, there is a great deal of inefficiency in 'pedagogic transmission' (i.e. teaching). This is because students simply do not understand what their teachers are trying to get across. For Bourdieu, this is particularly apparent in the universities, where students, afraid of revealing the extent of their ignorance cc ••• minimize the risks by throwing a smoke-screen of vagueness over the possibility of truth or...
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