In praise of … Pierre Bourdieu
Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the role of education in the reproduction of social inequality challenges Nick Clegg’s belief that he was “lucky” in life. Luck, says the French sociologist, has nothing to do with it.
In his seminal work entitled ‘Outline of a Theory of Practice’, Bourdieu holds that elites will control a society made of majority subordinates not only by controlling the means to production, but extending this to influencing the cultural discourse, the way language is used, or its (usually class-specific) cognitive map. This includes having a hold not just on what is mentioned but what is NOT mentioned in societal discourse. This social silencing then becomes taken for granted; what is silenced is then taboo, inappropriate, or even illegal. This then becomes the developing, collective, and semi-conscious narrative of the society.
These ‘social silences’ arise, through patterns of conformity and shared assumptions, and serve the interests of the elite. As Bourdieu himself said: “The most successful ideological effects are those which have no need of words, and ask no more than a complicitous silence”.
Taking language and its testing as point, a student’s success in the classroom is often judged by, and conditional to, their linguistic competence, which in turn is shaped by early experiences at home and therefore by parents’ and grandparents’ own academic and linguistic skills. Early learning, therefore, conditions how a child is able to learn in classrooms. ‘Educationally profitable linguistic capital’ is policed by a testing regime which all children are subjected to. This apparently objective process endows the children of educated parents a linguistic advantage re-glossed as ‘ability’ or ‘talent’. That’s why kids from poor areas keep under achieving and kids from middle class families do not, generally. According to Bourdieu, educational institutions socially differentiate us through reproducing ‘cultural capital’, whilst ostensibly giving equal and fair access to all.
Bourdieu is essential today; as Bourdieu wants us to see what is ‘hidden’ in society. To Bourdieu, nothing is ‘innocent’ or ‘neutral’.