Reproduction Theories

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Morrow, Raymond A. 2014 (forthcoming). Reproduction Theories. In Encyclopedia of Educational Theory and Philosophy, edited by D. C. Phillips. Sherwood Park, CA and London: Sage Publications.

Reproduction Theories

Scholars across many of the modern social sciences have been interested in the processes and forces by which societies reproduce their social and cultural structures and patterns of relations, and thereby preserve economic inequalities and differences in political power. It has appeared obvious to many that education plays an important role here.

To speak of “reproduction theories” in the plural, however, is to acknowledge the complexity of the problematic that emerged in the early 1970s as part of the “new sociology of education”, eventually becoming the foundation of critical pedagogy and a significant influence on the sociology and anthropology of education, comparative education, curriculum theory and educational policy. The family resemblance that links the various uses of the concept of reproduction stems from a shared concern with explaining the generational persistence of unequal educational opportunities in terms of characteristics of economic structures, relations of domination based on class, race and gender, and symbolic struggles related to culture, power and ideology, especially in capitalism.

By the mid-1970s, texts in the sociology of education began to make a distinction between previously dominant “functionalist” theory and “conflict” theory. Functionalist or “consensus” sociological theory (from Emile Durkheim to Talcott Parsons’ social system theory) was based on an organic analogy that viewed education as serving the functional imperative of social order and, in general, the interests of society as a whole. From this liberal perspective educational expansion was part of a process of democratization resulting in social mobility, increasing educational opportunity, and creating the human capital for a “knowledge society”. In contrast, conflict theories - emerging as part of the revival of Marxist and neo-Weberian conflict sociologies in the late 1960s - sought to reveal the broken promises of liberal reform.

The term “reproduction theory” is most closely associated with approaches of initially neo-Marxist inspiration that viewed education as part of a cultural superstructure that functioned to reproduce and maintain social structures and patterns of relations between classes, in the interest of the dominant capitalist class – even though class reductionism was challenged in the 1980s, resulting in increasing recognition of gender, race and other sites of domination and exclusion. This discussion will focus on the following themes: the proliferation of competing forms of educational reproduction theory in the 1970s and 80s; the subsequent rethinking of reproduction theories in response to cultural and political shifts; and the more recent revival of Pierre Bourdieu’s non-Marxist, reflexive sociology and theory of cultural and educational reproduction.

The Emergence of Theories of Reproduction in Education, 1970s-80s

Karl Marx introduced the topic of “social reproduction” in passing to refer to the non-economic preconditions of economic reproduction, starting with the social reproduction of labor power itself in superstructural institutions such as the family and education. The full implications were not explored in depth until two independent theoretical innovations in the 1930s, though their reception was delayed until the late 1960s. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) developed a theory of cultural reproduction based on the concepts of “hegemony” and “counter-hegemonic” resistance, arguing that capitalist social reproduction was based not only on coercion, but also on consent organized in civil society. More pessimistically, early Frankfurt School Critical Theory proposed a theory of “culture industries”, arguing that in the 20th century the mass media had become a new source of ideological reproduction that was reinforced by a “positivist” educational culture.

The canonical texts that founded reproduction theory in education appeared in rapid succession from 1970 to 1977, a confusing process that was influentially clarified by a critical differentiation of three types by Henry Giroux in a journal article in 1983: economic-reproductive theories, cultural-reproductive theories, and emergent state-hegemonic theories of resistance. French philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) proposed the first version of economic reproductive theory based on a structuralist Marxism that claimed to overcome economic determinism by recognizing the relative autonomy of the ideological superstructures, contrasting the “Repressive State Apparatus” and the “Ideological State Apparatus” composed of institutions such as religion, education, and law. Since the economic sphere was still determinant “in the last instance”, however, Althusser’s ahistorical structuralist methodology was widely criticized for an explanatory functionalism that could neither account for the agency necessary for his theory of revolution nor provide guidance for empirical research.

Independently, American economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America (1977) developed a more influential version of economic reproduction theory. Drawing upon a more traditional Marxist base-superstructure model, their empirical analysis of American education was based on a “correspondence principle” suggesting formal relations of interdependence between the economy and the classroom “hidden curriculum” that inculcated the docility and discipline appropriate for working class jobs. “The division of labor in education”, they wrote, “as well as its structure of authority and reward, mirror those of the economy.” Though Bowles and Gintis were also criticized for a mechanistic economic determinism, they later clarified their position by emphasizing contradictions and radical democracy.

The origin of cultural reproduction theories is associated primarily with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), especially his Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1977[1970]), co-authored with Jean-Claude Passeron. Opposing Althusser’s structuralist Marxism, Bourdieu analyzed educational reproduction in terms of the contingent strategies of diverse class agents rather than conceiving of it as an automatic, even if relatively autonomous, functional outcome of production relations. Moreover, a Marxist binary class model was replaced, following the classical German sociologist Max Weber, by a relational and multidimensional one in which status competition was central. Among the central concepts were habitus, cultural capital, fields, the cultural arbitrary, and symbolic violence. The habitus, formed in the family household within the context of a system of class relations, is the enduring, internalized and embodied disposition of agents and the source of the cultural capital that increases the probability of success within the field of education. Schools in turn exert symbolic violence by imposing a cultural arbitrary whose classifications cause agents to “misrecognize” that apparently legitimate culture is part of a dominant culture that contributes to the social reproduction of the class system. Also associated with cultural reproduction theory is the British sociologist Basil Bernstein’s (1924-2000) sociolinguistic analysis of “restricted” and “elaborated” codes, which, though initially developed independently, provided a theory of transmission that complemented Bourdieu’s approach. Influenced by Bourdieu, the neo-Weberian conflict theorist Randall Collins developed in his The Credential Society (1979) a powerful analysis of educational expansion as part of a process of credential inflation that had more to do with status group competition for jobs than technical skill. The reception of Bourdieu’s approach in education from the 1970s into the 1990s however, was limited, focusing on cultural capital as a predictor of educational outcomes and largely without reference to his subsequent publications. Further, Bourdieu’s cultural reproduction theory also became the target of emerging theories of resistance that criticized the structuralism of both economic and cultural reproduction theories and their failure to provide an adequate understanding of agency and resistance.

State-hegemonic reproductive theories strongly influenced by Gramsci emerged in the wake of the publication in England of Paul Wills’ ethnographic study, Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1976). The book became widely acknowledged as a turning point in reproduction theory - and an implicit refutation of Bourdieu - because of its ethnographic integration of a structural theory of reproduction with a more phenomenological, agent-oriented study of resistance on the part of English working class adolescents. Even though the resistance characteristic of the adolescent males studied by Willis largely served to ensure poor academic performance that led to working class jobs, his analysis opened the door to more political interpretations. Henry Giroux’s Theory and Resistance in Education (1983) provided an influential synthesis, incorporating gender and race in a critique of class reductionism that envisioned a critical theory of schooling in the United States based on a utopian “language of possibility” inspired by Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy. Michael Apple, as part of rethinking his earlier economic Marxist, class-based perspective, also converged on a similar position grounded in a theory of counter-hegemonic popular movements and democratic struggles. Critics questioned, however, the hope placed by resistance theories on the potential of education to transform society.

More Recent Debates: Post-1980s

Several historical developments contributed to the subsequent partial waning and rethinking of reproduction theories in education: the further discrediting of Marxism following the collapse of the Soviet bloc; postmodernist critiques of the metanarratives of universalizing theory; the rise of neoliberal ideologies which became the new polemical target of educational reproduction theories; and the success of neo-liberal policies in generally stalemating the advance of the radical democratic and populist visions of transformative resistance. Nevertheless, all of the earlier approaches continued to have adherents and, though originating in English language and French discussions, have influenced educational research traditions worldwide. In the English-speaking world, however, state-hegemonic resistance theories based on the relative equivalence of class, race and gender (now often interpreted as relations of “intersectionality”) have remained the most influential, as evident in the writings of Michael Apple and his diverse collaborators. The continuing development of resistance theories arose from constructively responding to the challenges of postmodernism, as well as incorporating critiques of class reductionism developed in feminist and race theories influenced by critical social theory and poststructuralist theories of identity and difference, including selective use of Michel Foucault to understand aspects of reproductive processes. State-hegemonic theories have also responded to globalization by addressing transnational social reproduction in comparative analysis of the varieties of capitalism not only within, but also outside the West. Nevertheless, some continued to defend Marxist economic reproductive approaches and the primacy of the capital relation, rejecting theories that abandoned revolutionary Marxism by conceding too much to postmodernism, multiculturalism, and identity politics. Another significant development has been a remarkable revival of interest in the work of Bourdieu.

Future Directions: Bourdieu’s Legacy

A new interdisciplinary reception of Bourdieu emerged in the late 1990s and accelerated in the decade after his death. By 2007 he had become the second most cited academic author in the world, just behind Michel Foucault and somewhat ahead of Jacques Derrida. A central concern has been locating the development of his work in relation to his own sociologically-interpreted autobiographical reflections: early years in provincial southwestern France; elite training in philosophy in Paris, followed by a turn to structuralist anthropology and fieldwork in Algeria (recently recognized as the source of a “post-colonial Bourdieu”); a break with structuralism in the late 1960s - evident in a turn to a reflexive sociology based on synthesizing Marx, Weber and Durkheim - and the formation of a sociological research group in Paris; election to a chair in sociology at the Collège de France in 1981; and a turn to political activism as a public intellectual in the 1990s until his death in 2002.

From this revised perspective, it is now clear that the earlier reliance of educational researchers on the early reproduction book contributed to unfortunate misreadings. As Bourdieu himself noted, it was a “work of youth” that still had vestiges of structuralism, limitations that were reinforced by being read independently of the empirical research on which it was based, as well as both his reflexive sociology, the foundations of which appeared in his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977[1972]) and his later work, which included two books on French elite higher education: Homo Academicus (1988 [1984]) and The State Nobility (1996 [1989]). Beyond his book on Distinction (1984[1979]), a widely discussed sociology of artistic taste, later publications also included topics such as the logic of practice, cultural production (especially art and literature), masculine domination, social structures of the economy, the state and power, television, and a sociological autobiography.

Several issues can be singled out in relation to educational reproduction theory. As against his alleged structuralism, Bourdieu’s mature sociological position is now often characterized as a form of post-structuralism, or what he called “genetic structuralism” or “constructivist structuralism” that gives primacy to “strategies” over structuralist “rules”. Further, the resulting reflexive sociology is grounded in a radical historicist reflexivity and comparative methodology.

With respect to the frequent charge that he overgeneralized the case of French education, many now argue that he provided the reflexive tools necessary for the historicist translation and re-specification necessary for comparative research. For example, though earlier efforts to apply the concept of cultural capital drew rather literally on his French high-culture examples from the 1960s (e.g., museum attendance), more recent work has focused on the culturally specific expectations of different educational systems, drawing upon both qualitative and quantitative comparative methods. As well, awareness of his later work has opened up a wide range of new educational topics.

Finally, despite earlier criticism that he neglected resistance, Bourdieu’s project was based on the assumption that critical sociology contributed to liberation by revealing misrecognition, suggesting greater affinities with state-hegemonic resistance theories than previously realized. Moreover, a turn to a critique of neo-liberalism as a public intellectual in the 1990s implied recognition of a changed historical context, even though a posthumous compilation of texts relating to his activist interventions reveals the continuity of his concerns. Nevertheless, more recent discussions have raised questions about the consistency of his conception of practice, especially the tension between the relativism of the cultural arbitrary (which potentially legitimates neo-liberal efforts to undermine university autonomy) and his defense of scientific universalization and the “collective intellectual”. Particular attention has also been given to extending and revising his approach by clarifying the conditions under which habituses change - as in the case of Bourdieu’s own tormented “cleft habitus” as an ambivalent provincial outsider in Paris - and the implications for theories of social movements and the public sphere.

Raymond A. Morrow

See also: Apple, Michael; Capital: Cultural, Social and Symbolic; Code Theory: Basil Bernstein; Critical Theory; Equality of Educational Opportunity; Freire: Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Critical Pedagogy; Hidden Curriculum; Marx, Karl; Social Class

References and Further Reading:

Atkinson, W. (2012). Reproduction Revisited: Comprehending Complex Educational Trajectories. The Sociological Review, 60(4), 735-753.

Au, W., & Apple, M. (2009). Rethinking Reproduction: Neo-Marxism in Critical Education Theory. In M. Apple, W. Au & L. A. Gandin (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Critical Education (pp. 83-95). New York and London: Routledge.
Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Collins, J. (2009). Social Reproduction in Classrooms and Schools. Annual Review of Anthropology, 38, 33-48.
Giroux, H. (1983). Theories of Reproduction and Resistance in the New Sociology of Education: A Critical Analysis. Harvard Educational Review, 53(3), 257-293.
Gorski, P. S. (Ed.). (2013). Bourdieu and Historical Analysis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Grenfell, M. (2008). Pierre Bourdieu: Education and Training. New York: Continuum.
Lareau, A., & Weininger, E. B. (2004). Cultural Capital in Education Research: A Critical Assessment. In D. L. Swartz & V. L. Zolberg (Eds.), After Bourdieu (pp. 105-144). Dordrecht, Boston and London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
Morrow, R. A., & Torres, C. A. (1995). Social Theory and Education: A Critique of Theories of Social and Cultural Reproduction. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Reed-Danahay, D. (2005). Locating Bourdieu. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Silva, E., & Warde, A. (Eds.). (2010). Cultural Analysis and Bourdieu's Legacy. London and New York: Routledge.

Susen, S., & Turner, B. S. (2011). The Legacy of Pierre Bourdieu. London and New York: Anthem Press.

Xu, J., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2012). Cultural Reproduction, Cultural Mobility, Cultural Resources, or Trivial Effect? A Comparative Approach to Cultural Capital and Educational Performance. Comparative Education Review, 56(1), 98-124.
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