Cultural capital and cultural reproduction

The terms ‘cultural capital’ and ‘cultural reproduction’ stem from the work of Bourdieu (see for example Bourdieu, 2007). Bourdieu proposes that different social groups have different ‘cultural capital’, which may be seen as the knowledge, experience and connections an individual has and develops over time that enable a person to succeed more so than someone with knowledge, experience and connections that is seen in society as being of less value. Further, particular groups of people, notably social classes, act to reproduce the existing social structure in order to legitimate and preserve their social and cultural advantage.

Put simply, cultural reproduction is the process through which existing cultural values and norms are transmitted from generation to generation thereby ensuring continuity of cultural experience across time. Cultural reproduction, therefore, often results in ‘social reproduction' - the process through which facets of society, such as class, are transferred from generation to generation.

Education as an agent of cultural reproduction

Dominant social and cultural groups have been able to establish their language, and their knowledge priorities, learning styles, pedagogical preferences, etc., as the ‘official examinable culture’ of school. Their notions of important and usefill knowledge, their ways of presenting truth, their ways of arguing and establishing correctness, and their logics, grammars and language as institutional norms by which academic and scholastic success is defined and assessed.

(Lankshear, 1987: 30)

Brown (1973), Bourdieu (1973) and Bowles and Gintis (1976) propose that it is the stratification of school knowledge that reproduces inequalities in cultural capital. Bourdieu argues that the structural reproduction of disadvantages and inequalities is caused by cultural reproduction and is recycled through the education system, as well as through other social institutions. The education system, therefore, is an agent of cultural reproduction biased towards those of higher social class, not only in the curricular content of subjects taught, but also through what is known as the ‘hidden curriculum’, which includes the language, values and attitudes located in, and which an individual acquires from, the discourse of curricular subjects and all aspects of school life that contribute to an individual’s socialisation through the education process. An individual’s success or failure within the formal education system is determined by the ability to achieve formal educational qualifications and to acquire the appropriate language, values, attitudes and qualities through the process of socialisation within the system. The ability to complete successfully all aspects of schooling correlates strongly to an individual’s capacity subsequently to enjoy high cultural capital such as inter alia, adequate pay, occupational prestige and social status in adult life.

The chapter will now consider some of the perceived specific causes of educational underachievement related to social class.

Social class and underachievement

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century a variety of aspects of school life were examined in order to identify the causes of pupil underachievement, such as access, institutional structures and the nature of school knowledge. For example, Hargreaves (1967), Lacey (1970) and Ball (1981) cited the institutional structures of schools, such as streaming and banding, as being influential in determining the performance of working-class pupils: a disproportionate number of whom were found to be represented in the lower streams and bands.

It is well-documented that, despite the intentions of Education Acts from 1944 to 1988, children from the working class in the UK continued to underachieve at school. The need for ‘II plus’ testing was created by the 1944 Education Act, which proposed the establishment of a tripartite system of secondary schooling comprising ‘modern’, ‘technical’ and ‘grammar’ schools. Success or failure in the

'll plus’ determined the type of school an individual attended. Floud et al. (1966) exposed massive underrepresentation of working-class boys at grammar schools. The 'll plus’ examination included an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test (see below). Douglas (1964) showed how working-class pupils with the same IQ scores as middle-class children were failing to gain grammar school places, because of the class bias of teachers in primary schools.

Of equal concern is how both working-class and middle-class girls were institutionally discriminated against in the 'll plus’ examination. It is now well known that the 'll plus’ examination scores of all girls were adjusted down because they were far outstripping boys’ achievement. Thousands of girls who passed the 'll plus’ and should have, therefore, attended grammar schools were prevented from doing so because their scores were downgraded. It was feared that all grammar schools were otherwise going to be filled with far more girls than boys (see The Report of the Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) (DES, 1987: 40-53) for a discussion of these issues in relation to the establishment of the National Curriculum).

The ‘11 plus’ and IQ tests were criticised for a middle-class bias in their content, their use of middle-class cultural references, their vocabulary and language register. The 'll plus’ was seen as culturally biased towards the middle-class children (for example a question might be related to classical composers, something a middle-class child would be more likely to answer correctly than would a child from the working class because of social and cultural differences in their home backgrounds):

...within societies like our own there is a tendency for forms of literacy to prevail which effectively maintain patterned inequalities of power within the social structure.

(Lankshear, 1987: 79-80)

Additionally, in Class, codes and control Basil Bernstein (1971) showed marked differences in the language use of members of different social classes, with middle-class children having access in their language to a more formal 'elaborated code’ while working-class language was characterised as operating within a simple ‘restricted code’. However, many researchers including Trudgill (1974), Boocook (1980) and Bennett and LeCompte (1990) criticised Bernstein as a proponent of ‘deficit theory’’, which;

...implies that the academically successful really are smarter, ready to engage in a discourse capable of expressing 'universal meaning’, eschewing the fragmentation and 'logical simplicity’ of the underclass... In such a society, the oppressed are required to climb the ladder of 'equal opportunity’. The higher they get, the more they resemble the oppressors and the more their efforts are rewarded.

(MacSwan and McLaren, 1997: 334-340)

For Ball et al. (1990), Gee (1991) and Lankshear (1987, 1997) the challenge for those who would wish to address such issues lies in the development of an alternative to the dominant model of English and in inculcating a ‘proper’ literacy that will empower pupils.

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