Does the fact that children go to different schools, and that some go to college, while others attend university, have anything to do with the ostensibly irremediable class structure of societies? One’s intuitive response is likely to be in the affirmative, and it has been “scientifically” confirmed by none other than the famous French sociologist and social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu. His empirical and theoretical work in texts such as Distinction (1984) and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (with JC Passeron; 2000) seems to indicate that social “reproduction” is a function of being educated in a certain way, which actually starts at home, long before children go to school, and is reinforced by school education.

What happens at home, in the ambit of the “cultural capital” (cultural and symbolic manifestations of distinctive class “taste” in literature, art, architecture, music, etc) of your parents and family, as well as their friends and the circles in which they move, according to Bourdieu, is that a particular, distinctive “habitus” (a cultural mindset or attitude to the world, inculcated by cultural and social customs and norms, and functioning unconsciously as a kind of compass in their lives) is cultivated and formed in children. This proves to be crucial in being admitted into certain prestigious schools, and once admitted, in succeeding at school, whether this is an “elite school” or a public school where students from different social strata go. And because school education favours those students with higher-class “habitus”, the education system functions in such a way that it reproduces and legitimates class differences and inequalities. In the introduction to Distinction he makes the following observation, which neatly summarises the theme of the book:

“Whereas the ideology of charisma regards taste in legitimate culture as a gift of nature, scientific observation shows that cultural needs are the product of upbringing and education: surveys establish that all cultural practices (museum-visits, concert-going, reading etc), and preferences in literature, painting or music, are closely linked to educational level (measured by qualifications or length of schooling) and secondarily to social origin. The relative weight of home background and of formal education (the effectiveness and duration of which are closely dependent on social origin) varies according to the extent to which the different cultural practices are recognised and taught by the educational system, and the influence of social origin is strongest — other things being equal — in ‘extra-curricular’ and avant-garde culture …

“Even in the classroom, the dominant definition of the legitimate way of appropriating culture and works of art favours those who have had early access to legitimate culture, in a cultured household, outside of scholastic disciplines, since even within the educational system it devalues scholarly knowledge and interpretation as ‘scholastic’ or even ‘pedantic’ in favour of direct experience and simple delight.”

Ironically, however, the education system covers up the role of habitus and cultural capital regarding success and failure on the part of students, and ascribes it to individual talents and effort, or the absence of these. Hence, when someone who lacks higher-class habitus and the cultural capital of which it is an expression does succeed in the educational system, it is seen as corroborating the meritocratic character claimed by it. At the same time it strengthens the system because such individuals are usually assimilated into the higher classes and henceforth contribute to the reproduction of a socially stratified society.

In practice this means that, on the basis of Bourdieu’s research, educators show a preference for someone who shows the cultivated capacity to move effortlessly from the mere “sensible qualities” of a painting to the level of “what it means”, in this way displaying the prior acquisition of the concepts necessary to “decode” such a painting. Possessing this capacity, which is inseparable from high-class habitus, reflects a high degree of cultural capital.

Bourdieu has been criticised by some because of his tendency to focus on university instead of school education, which means that the results of his investigation were predictable, because it was concentrated on a population from which the “lower classes” have already been eliminated to a large extent, and not only because of lack of the requisite “cultural capital”, but of capital in the economic sense. The most trenchant criticism of his work has come from a fellow Frenchman, however, namely philosopher Jacques Rancière.

In his book, The Philosopher and his Poor (2004), Rancière draws a line from Plato through Marx and Sartre to Bourdieu, arguing that what Plato accomplished (and is reaffirmed by later thinkers) was to devise a discourse in which the origin, purity and legitimacy of philosophy as “legislator” regarding truth and social divisions is established. The significance for Bourdieu’s sociological science lies in Plato’s notorious expulsion of the artisan or worker from what philosophy claims for itself alone: the domain of fiction. In practice this meant that the philosopher was/is the only one who has the right to articulate fictions, specifically the “noble lie” about the “natural” predispositions of citizens in terms of the “metal” of their souls – gold, silver, bronze or iron – an aristocratic lie that predetermined the class of the person concerned, about which Plato was surprisingly open and that supposedly served the purpose of maintaining social order in the republic.

Rancière extends his critique of Plato to Bourdieu as well, arguing that, by commencing with the assumption of existing inequalities, the latter manages, predictably, to uncover abundant signs of it in the social field. By scrupulously describing all the symbolic processes, ranging from cultural competitions to educational ceremonies, by means of which the upper classes maintain their hegemonic position in society, Bourdieu is merely confirming (and, despite his stated intention of providing a merciless critique of the class system) what everyone already knows: that those who are economically subjugated are simultaneously under the symbolic, cultural domination of the wealthy.

Even worse, for Rancière, is the fact that Bourdieu, the sociologist, usurps the throne of Plato’s philosopher-king in the process, with the same claim of representing the legislative discourse concerning the “partitioning of the sensible” in the social domain. And again, as with Plato, it is the workers who are resolutely excluded from the sphere of culture and the creation of symbolic forms in art and literature. For Rancière, despite appearances to the contrary, Bourdieu elevated the arbitrary nature of class domination to the level of necessity, and regarded the ideal of equality as an illusion.

In his critique of Bourdieu, Rancière exposes the paradoxical logic at work in the processes of social reproduction described by him (Bourdieu), which can be summed up as claiming that schools exclude students by way of convincing people that they do NOT exclude them – that is, those who are jettisoned by the culturally “loaded” system, do not have the means of comprehending the grounds for their exclusion. (Needless to say, Rancière does not agree with this argument.)

Furthermore, by arming themselves with the weapons of statistics and opinion polls, sociologists are playing with loaded dice, according to Rancière (2004, p. 168) – by the time sociologists arrive on the scene to interpret the results, statistics and economics have already produced evidence that schools “eliminate” workers’ children and “promote” most of those from the bourgeoisie, and that every class of consumers “consumes whatever its revenue allows it to”.

In sum, although Bourdieu’s sociology was apparently an attempt — undertaken at the time when France had a socialist government that was concerned about discrepancies in educational outcomes — to uncover and criticise the source of inequalities, it ended up declaring these inequalities as unchangeable. This cast Bourdieu in a worse light than Plato, who candidly admitted the fictional nature of his philosophical blueprint for class divisions in society: Bourdieu does nothing of the sort, but presents the unequal society fatalistically as immutable. Rancière himself has produced several works in which he challenges this supposed unassailability of inequality, but that will have to wait.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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