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Bourdieu: Educational Explorations in Field Theory

Michael Grenfell

University of Southampton

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006

Keynote: symposium: Exploring the Use of Usefulness of Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice for Educational Research



In a joint Introduction to our book on ‘Bourdieu and Education’ in 1998, David James and I wrote: ‘whilst we do not wish to insist that a Bourdieuian approach is automatically the best way to research educational phenomena…(our conviction) is that research in terms of Bourdieu’s theory of practice offers insights and understandings not readily visible to other approaches’ (p.2). This paper is written very much with this conviction in mind. In preparing it, I am mindful of the polarities which Bourdieu’s work has provoked since it first came to academic public attention in the 1970s. For some, Bourdieu simply offers an extra set of concepts which can be employed to elucidate a range of social phenomena. For others, he provides a more extensive theory of practice which needs to be present at every stage of the research process. Some accuse those who use his ideas of falling for Gallic intellectuals, or catching a dose of ‘French flu’; whilst still others now define themselves as working within a ‘Bourdieusian paradigm’. The term - ‘Explorations in Field Theory’ – is Bourdieu’s own, and is how he titled the series of leçons given annually at the Collège de France until his death in 2002. I choose the same title as: firstly, it captures the developmental nature of the application of his theories to practical contexts; and, secondly, it points to a further feature of Bourdieu theory – that its value is assessed in terms of the insights it provides. The paper begins by addressing Bourdieu’s concepts, or ‘thinking tools’ as he described them. Here, I am particularly interested in Bourdieusian language. I then address two areas in which I have employed Bourdieu’s ideas: teacher education and classroom language. In the second half of the paper, I use Bourdieu’s theories to consider ‘social capital’ as a contemporary socio-political phenomenon. I address the way this term has been used both in education and other sectors of society. In particular, I consider it as a base principle for social policy. I contrast these salient usages of the term with the way Bourdieu employed it, and present some implications of Bourdieu’s theory of social capital for ‘Social Capital’. I conclude with some reflections on my own explorations with this theory of practice. I also add some further comments with respects to philosophical issues which underpin Bourdieu’s theory of practice and suggest their continued relevance to educational research.

Part 1

Bourdieusian Language

Bourdieu’s theory of practice is expressed through a series of conceptual terms: habitus, field, capital, doxa, etc. In the present context, I shall take these as axiomatic and shall not go into detailed discussion with regard to their provenance, philosophical underpinning, and the use to which Bourdieu made of them (For such a discussion, see Grenfell and James, 1998 ((chapters 2 and 9)), Grenfell, 2004a ((chapters 1 and 7)), Grenfell, 2007 ((Part II))). However, Bourdieu’s approach to and use of language is central to his theory of practice. It provides not only the instruments of analysis through his conceptual terms but the basis for the ‘reflexive method’ which is also central to his project. In fact, in one interview article he warns the would-be researcher to ‘beware of words’ (1989: 54). Common language is the repository of common sense; that is, a historical accumulation of orthodox meaning – names, groups, concepts, taxonomies, and categories. In practical educational terms, these might include such concepts as ‘achievement’, ‘class’, ‘young and old’. Unsurprisingly, Bourdieu invites us to reveal the misrecognitions which are apparent in such commonly accepted terms, and to uncover both their historical construction and present applications as a way of ‘breaking’ with the dominant doxa. And, of course, when talking about language, Bourdieu has in mind not only everyday usage but technical terms used by researchers. In fact, one of the principal phenomena of the post-modernist age is the way language has been ‘colonised’; that is conquered and put to use on behalf of the dominant discourse. In an article with Loïc Wacquant, published in Le Monde in 2000, he lists vocabulary which has passed into the common parlance of bureaucrats and the media without due reflection on its provenance and effects: ‘globalisation’, ‘flexibility’, ‘governance’, ‘employability’, ‘exclusion’, ‘under class’, ‘new economies’, ‘zero tolerance’, ‘community’, ‘multiculturalism’ (2000a: 6). More reason, perhaps, social inequality has been ‘redefined’ as ‘social inclusion’, and social capital has become a byword for a range of social policy. The point is that an entire philosophy – often of neo-liberal economics – is imported in when such language is used, which defines certain actions and behaviours and thus establishes the logics of practice that generated them in individuals’ activities; a kind of epistemological trojan horse! I shall take up this point with respect to ‘Social Capital’ in the second half of this paper. Firstly, however, I wish to briefly consider examples of this use of Bourdieu’s language in two practical examples: teacher education and classroom discourse.

Teacher Education

The case of teacher education offers an example of the way language can shape our thinking about process. For Bourdieu, the issue at stake is the way ‘professionalisation’ is defined. There is an extensive research literature of the professionalisation of teachers. Much of this takes its lead either from objectivist of subjectivist approaches to the topic. For example, there is a tradition of looking at teacher professionalisation in terms of processes of socialisation towards a given stage of vocationalism. This is an essential ‘objectivist’ mode of inquiry (see, for example, Lacey 1977, Ginsburg, 1988). Another tradition has grown out of a more ‘subjective’ approach to professionalism. The roots of this tradition lay in ‘trait theory’; that is, that we are born with particular ‘traits which make one or another profession the most suitable for us. A more recent version of this approach is the examination of ‘teacher knowledge’ or craft with a view to edification as a part of defining professional competence (see, for example, Calderhead 1987). Of course, both of these traditions use techniques which apparently tell us about teacher training, professionalisation, and education. In contrast, a study using Bourdieu’s theory of practice approaches the topic in its epistemological sense and examine the very language we use to talk and write about teachers and professions. Bourdieu writes:

The notion of profession is dangerous because it has all the appearance of false neutrality in its favour. Profession is a folk concept which has been uncritically smuggled into scientific language and which imports with it a whole social unconscious. It is the product of a historical work of construction and representation of a group which has slipped into the very science of this group. This is why this concept works so well, or too well: the category of profession refers to realities that are, in a sense, ‘too real’ to be true, since it grasps at once a mental category and a social category, socially produced only by superseding or obliterating all kinds of differences and contradictions.
(1989: 37-38)

Because of this, the very term ‘profession’ itself needs to be treated as an ‘object’ of analysis rather than ‘instrument’ of analysis, and reconfigured in terms of Bourdieu’s own conceptual tools. I used such an approach by adopting 3-level Bourdieusian analysis to initial teacher education (see Grenfell, 1996). This method operationalised a field study in terms of habitus, the structure of the field, and the relations of the fields with the fields of power. It did this empirically by analysing the structure of teachers’ professional lives both in terms of material conditions and the ideational discourse which direct their work; the latter being represented in curricula, assessment procedures, and official pedagogies. It showed how teachers are also physically located, and each of these theories and practices are spread across and congregate in specific points of their everyday activities: teacher/pupil interactions; lessons; classes; classrooms; school departments; schools; and the education profession. Training processes acted as the medium in which individual teacher dispositions and predispositions were expressed. Such were formed in the course of their biography; in other words, habitus. It is indeed possible to explain teachers’ professional practice in terms of the interaction between their field contexts and their own habitus; or specifically those aspects of it which influence their pedagogic action – pedagogic habitus. What we find is that teachers are often caught in a space where who they are and what they are obliged to do in terms of the dominant discourse clashes. There is a double bind when teachers are asked to operate double structures: theory and practice; personal knowledge based on experience and the official pedagogies of curricula; institutional norms – school and other agencies (government, training, local authorities). In this space, they can be nowhere and experience this position as a experiential dilemma: for example, teaching/learning principles based past experience which have apparently proved successful and a new approach which has not; personal views versus salient models of the training course; teaching technique and individual personality; planning versus flexibility. Such dilemmas are managed by all sorts of strategies, including one of misrecognition; thus, a kind of cognitive dissonance present which may silence or mask its own truth by sanctioning the official logic of practice and its practical consequences – pragmatic bad faith. Thus, Bourdieu’s approach reveals a field mechanism and a structural position all whilst recognising the actual experiences of teachers and trainees.

This Bourdieusian view may not be comfortable but it offer a broader and more realistic vision than many who take ‘professionalisation’ as an idealised end in itself.

Such an approach is one way to apply Bourdieu’s conceptual thinking tools to the topics of educational research other than the major subjects of sociological research. One language is replaced with another: the first based on common sense, ‘forced neutrality’ and thus historical constitutive recognitions; the second coming from an epistemology which integrates subject and object into a dynamic structural method of analysis for educational practice. The move is therefore more than simply linguistic, or a technical modification, and involves a fundamental shift in understanding of knowledge formation and practice in actual real-life contexts.

Classroom Discourse

In another example, I studied the term ‘scaffolding’ from a Bourdieusian perspective (see Grenfell and James 1998). Scaffolding is derived from Vygotskyan psycho-linguistics and relates to the Zone of Proximal development (see Vygotsky 1962, 1978). It refers to the ‘social construction of knowledge’ within a pedagogic discourse; in particular, the way the pupils are supported at the point of hand-over where knowledge becomes their own. The research task is then to identify and explain what constitutes this ‘scaffolding’ and ‘hand-over’ in order to understand how to maximise its effectiveness in pedagogic discourse. It provides pedagogic edification of the processes and strategies available to teachers: for example, reworking knowledge, demonstration, the dynamics of explanation, styles of explaining, etc. (see Ogborn et al 1996). Much has been made of this in research and indeed, such exemplification has formed the basis of teacher guidance on how to teach. Mercer, for example, offers an explicit example of ‘scaffolding’ (see Mercer 1995: 75-76) where a pupil is brought back on track after offering an apparently ‘wild-card’ answer to a Maths problem. However, from a Bourdieusian perspective, to call what happened ‘scaffolding’ might indeed be to indulge in a kind of ‘scholastic fallacy,’ which confuses the ‘things of logic with the logic of things’. In attempting to represent both a mental and social process, ‘scaffolding’ becomes perhaps more real than the thing it is supposed to represent, and follows its own logic of practice. Writers in the Vygotskyan tradition admit that they are emphasising continuity, co-operation and sharing over conflict and dis-functionality (Mercer 1995:121). However, it is difficult not to see two world views – two habitus – often colliding at critical points within classroom discourses, as teachers talk pupils through according to their own (legitimate) way of thinking based on the official pedagogy. What, of course, gets left out is the pupils’ own cognition: what thinking produced this surprising remark? The point is that by pursuing the pupil’s own method, a more enhanced interpretative understanding might result rather than the exclusion of one way of thinking by another. To reconstitute the analysis in terms of habitus and field is to see the context in terms of the hierarchy of teaching methods within discipline discourses, the curriculum, and the language used to transmit legitimated procedures; and, the individual teacher-pupil relationship in terms of their past and present experiences and the schemes of thought these has given rise to, and the way underlying principles of thought impact on classroom discussions. It is difficult not to see in such examples as instances where pedagogic authority is a form of symbolic violence; in other words, ‘the power to impose (or even inculcate) the arbitrary instruments of knowledge and expression (taxonomies) of society’ (Bourdieu, 1991: 168). It is constituted within a field and is expressed and impacts on individual habitus. What occurs might therefore be seen as less supportive than the ‘scaffolding’ metaphor would seem to suggest. From a Bourdieusian perspective, both the language of pedagogic discourse and the language used to discuss that discourse are interrogated epistemologically in order to grasp something of the full reality that is taking place (see Grenfell and James, 1998: 72-88).

In a further study focusing on language, I showed how the structure of the classroom discourse was shaped by the dominant principles of teacher training and the way they were actualised in practice. The dominant teaching principles of the training were apparent in the feature of the teachers’ questioning and their classroom management (see Grenfell 2004b for further discussion). I argued that they are present and brought into being in the organisation of education, managerially, physically and intellectually and so can be seen as the expression of pedagogically valued cultural capital brought to life.

I offer these as examples of the way Bourdieu’s field theory can be used to illuminate aspects of educational research. I now wish to move onto a present case in point – social capital - by way of further exemplification of the implications that this approach has for research topics in education.

Part 2


In the second half of this paper, I want to consider in more detail the concept of capital. I begin by setting out what the term means for Bourdieu; in particular, its three forms. I then focus on social capital. I set out the way it has been defined and used in a range of socio-political commentaries and the value claimed for the concept. I also address the way it has formed a topic in educational policy research studies. I then discuss social capital in terms of Bourdieu’s own use of the concept. Finally, I address the implications this perspective has for other interpretations and applications of social capital, including educational research into it. In so doing, four issues are paramount: firstly, the power of the term itself (the power of the language); secondly, how Bourdieu’s concept of social capital integrates with his overall theory; thirdly, how his view of social capital contrasts with others’ use of the term; and fourthly, the implications such a consideration suggest for a broader consideration of educational research.

In fact, the concept of capital is a good example of the relationship between Bourdieu’s theory and his empirical data. He argued repeatedly that he never ‘theorises’ as such, and any project to construct theory was anathema to him. Rather, he saw theory and the concepts it implicated as necessary to an explanation of the links he found in his immersion in and analysis of the data collected. Both The Inheritors (1979a/64) and Reproduction (1977/72) are examples of the way Bourdieu collected data first and then developed theoretical statements to explain the relationships he found in it. From his earliest work (for example, 1958, 1962), Bourdieu was aware of the role that ‘culture’ played as a determinant factor in the way people responded to their surroundings; in other words, their cultural background partly shaped what they thought and how they acted. However, by the time he came to undertake his research on education, this understanding was developing into the fully fledged concept of cultural capital, and it is probably for this idea alone that he became most well known, in an English speaking world; at least during the emergence of the ‘new’ sociology of education in the 1970s (see Young 1971). Indeed, I remember Bourdieu being referred to as the ‘cultural-capital-man’ during my own training as a teacher in the 1980s. Cultural capital was used to explain the way that different forms of cultural knowledge – including mental know-how, linguistic style, and indeed actual familiarity with cultural history – could impact on scholastic achievement because of the implicit culture of schooling; embedded in curricula, scholastic ways of thinking, and classroom language. For Bourdieu, there were three apparent forms of cultural capital: an ‘embodied state’ – for example, a person who has a certain accent and moves in a certain way according to lasting dispositions; an ‘objective state’ – paintings, books, dictionaries, machines, instruments, etc.; and an ‘institutional state’ – certificates, diplomas, success in competitive selection (see Bourdieu, 1979b).

The full sense of capital can only be grasped as part of field theory; in other words, it is the currency of the field, what fuels its operations, defines what is included and excluded from the field, what is valued and not valued, what those present in the field need to accrue status and/or power in order to exert control over it. It is the medium of communication between field and habitus, and is the basis of the ‘ontological complicity’ that exists between them, of which Bourdieu writes (1982: 47). It is unsurprising (although apparently, little understood up until that time) if, in a field such as education, certain certificates and certain ways of thinking and doing things (Cultural Capital) were valued over others. However, the extent to which this is true clearly varies over time and place, and educational sector. What cultural capital does is connect education with other fields; for example, the cultural field of art, museums, etc. and, ultimately, money wealth (it is not coincidental that while working on education, Bourdieu was concurrently researching the cultural field. See 1990a and 1990b).The main principle behind the concept of cultural capital is that it embodies or transmits the logic of practice of the field in a way which differentiates and therefore establishes hierarchies. In an ideationally-grounded field such as education, it is consistent with its nature that cultural capital should be the dominant ‘currency’ of its modus operandi. However, this is clearly not the same for all fields; for example, in the field of commerce where money wealth might dominate. Bourdieu later (1984/79: 114 and 1986) wrote of other ‘forms’ of capital: cultural, economic, and social. If cultural capital consists of cultural attributes, including educational, and economic capital is money wealth, social capital can be defined as:

…the sum of current and potential resources which are linked to possession of a network of lasting relations, of more or less institutionalised shared acknowledgement and recognition; or, in other words, belonging to a group, as the sum total of agents who not only share the same characteristics (liable to be perceived by an observer, by others and themselves) but also joined by permanent and useful connections.
(Bourdieu, 1980: 2)

Before looking at social capital in greater detail, there are further generic comments that need to be made about capital. Firstly, it should be held in mind that they are all symbolic:

Every kind of capital (economic, cultural, social) tends (to different degrees) to function as symbolic capital (so that it might be better to speak in rigorous terms, of the symbolic effect of capital) when it obtains explicit or practical recognition.
(Bourdieu, 2000b/1997: 242)

In other words, capital becomes capital when it is recognised as such in a field; what Bourdieu calls ‘the transfiguration of a power relation into a sense relation’ (ibid.). Capital has value because, ‘it only exists through esteem, recognition, belief, credit, confidence of others, and can only be perpetuated so long as it succeeds in obtaining belief in its existence’ (p.166). The search for capital is a search for recognition, which ‘buys’ position in the field. Capital possession defines what is possible for individuals. It also designates a certain relation to time: ‘Capital in its various forms is a set of pre-emptive rights over the future; it guarantees some people monopoly of some possibles although they are officially guaranteed to all’ (p.225). Capital is therefore symbolic and derives its power from the attribution of recognition. It defines limits, what is and is not do-able, thinkable in terms of what is recognised and rewarded. Its logic of practice is therefore to differentiate in an arbitrary way. Capital belongs to the field and it is the field which sets its value, but it is individuals who possess it. Although open to all, its distribution is by definition unequal – it would not perform its functional logic if it were not. As a consequence, the ‘social world presents itself not as a universe of possibilities equally accessible to every possible subject – posts to be occupied, course to be taken, markets to be won, goods to be consumed, properties to be exchanged – but rather as a signposted universe, full of injunctions and prohibitions, signs of appropriation and exclusion, obligatory routes or impassable barriers’ (ibid.).

There is one further important characteristic feature of capital: it is interchangeable. In other words, one form of capital can be ‘converted’ into another; the most obvious example is perhaps the way that certain educational attributes ‘buy’ financially rewarding jobs. However, Bourdieu further shows (1984/1979: 114) the way different fractions of society can be identified in terms of the configuration of capital they hold; the shared patterns of social, economic and cultural capital which feature in particular groups. He suggests that profound changes in French society can be traced through the way the predominance of economic capital held by nineteenth century industrialists had been, in the post-war era, eclipsed by a new managerial class who depended much more on cultural capital gained from education (in particular, the prestigious training schools) than money wealth to legitimate their position in the social hierarchy as a governing class. The background to all capital is therefore structural shifts within society in general and individual fields in particular.

With these preliminary thoughts in mind, I now want to consider the wider use of the concept of ‘social capital’.

Social Capital

The concept ‘social capital’ has become a ubiquitous term in recent years. There is a vast literature on the topic from numerous sources, and the issues it raises seem to involve almost all aspects of life. It is a contemporary phenomenon. It is a concept which appears to offer a lot; both at a theoretical and practical level, involving society, economic, politics, citizenship, and social policy. Why should this be so? How is it defined? And, what relevance does it have to education?

Giddens (2000) writes of it as follows:

The cultivation of social capital is integral to the knowledge economy. The ‘new individualism’ that goes along with globalization is not refractory to cooperation and collaboration – cooperation is positively stimulated by it. Social capital refers to trust networks that individuals can draw upon for social support, just like financial capital can be drawn on for investment. Like financial capital, social capital can be expanded – invested and reinvested

Key words here seem to be ‘cooperation’, ‘collaboration’, ‘trust’, ‘networks’, and ‘investment’. Clearly, as a guiding metaphor, ‘social capital’ certainly offers an alternative to the rampant individualism of contemporary culture, from postmodernism to neo-liberal economics. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to see it employed so extensively in social policy statements. In the British context, ‘social capital’ evokes images of communities, associations, families and neighbourhoods, which seem to stand in direct contrast to the individuality of the modern world. It contrasts the social vision of Tony Blair and New Labour with that of Margaret Thatcher, at least in their purest forms. No surprise, therefore, that it has been claimed that the work of one of the main ‘fathers’ of social capital, Robert Putnam, was ‘required reading in Downing Street’, at least in New Labour’s first term of office (See Blackshaw and Long, 2005). Putnam defined ‘social capital’ as:

Features of social life – networks, norms, and trust – that enable participants to act together.
(1995: 65)

This statement itself seems to contrast quite starkly with the way Bourdieu employed the term. It also contrasts with classic ‘capital’ theory. In Marxist economic theory, capital is the medium through which capitalists or the bourgeoisie created surplus value and thus established their dominance in society. Capital also involved ‘investment’. Capital is the sum total of material resources – money, land, machinery, building and labour – that is held by the owners of production. Through capital, commodities are produced, which result in profit. Of course, in classic Marxist theory, the implications of this are radical and invariably lead to revolution, but Marx was not the only one to employ the term ‘capital’. Adam Smith (1937) broadened the term to include the abilities and skills that workers may hold – so-called Human Capital; a notion which was later taken up by Schultz (1961) and Becker (1964) to designate the skills, knowledge and personal assets which a worker may possess and are useful to an employer. This ‘value-added’ implies that capital can be increased through training and education and, in a way, is not dissimilar to the Bourdieusian concept of cultural capital, albeit bereft of it differentiating function.

To regard social networks and groups in terms of their ‘social capital’ therefore seems to point to the investment that is made with respect to their associativeness. Such a condition clearly requires ‘investment’ and leads to added value in terms of their functionality. As such, it is a concept which points to both the moral philosophy of a Durkheimian world-view, with its pre-occupation with the health of social connectedness (here expressed as ‘trust’), and the general grand theories of social systems of Talcot Parsons (here, expressed as ‘norms’). The resonance that the concept ‘social capital’ attracts on a number of levels begins to be apparent, as it touches on a range of philosophical, social, theorectical and experiential features of modern living. However, Putnam’s is not the only view of ‘social capital’. A second ‘father’ to the term , James Coleman, defines it thus:

Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities having two characteristics in common. They all consist of some aspect of a social structure, And they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure. Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence.
(1990: 302)

In other words, ‘social capital’ is, for Coleman, a useful resource for individuals in their social relationships. Motivated by self-interest, individuals call on the social resources available to them. The fact was, however, that certain social conditions favoured rational, principled choices, better than others; for example, the family.

It would be wrong to overly polarise the two writers. Nevertheless, there are clearly present in the two versions of social capital, two distinct perspectives: one collective and the other individualistic. Whilst writers like Putnam conceptualise social capital in terms of social bonding, linking and bridging (within and between groups and networks), Coleman sees it as the intensity and terms of individuals’ social action; for example, parental involvement in children’s education.

The term is therefore both ubiquitous and polysemous. Nevertheless, Halpern (2005) argues that most forms of social capital can be seen to have three basic components: a network; norms, values and expectations that are shared by group members; and sanctions – punishments and rewards – that help maintain the norms and the network (p.10). He goes on to express this in terms of micro-, meso- and macro-levels (from individual relations, regional groups, and nationhood) (p.27). He also asks whether it is right to call this feature ‘social capital’ at all? Clearly, it is not ‘capital’ in the classic economic sense, but it does appear to share many of its functional characteristics.

Social Capital and Education

There is ample evidence that social capital is important in education, and at the micro-, meso- and macro-levels. For example, children with parents who are involved in their children’s education seem to achieve better that those who are not. There is added value in an aspirational ethos. At the meso-level, schools with strong bonding and parental involvement are often successful. Parent-to-parent associations are a further factor influencing performance. Similarly, teacher effectiveness can be expressed in terms of their social capital. In other words, the characteristics of members of a community affect educational achievement. Finally, at the macro-level, there are distinctions between countries which may be attributable to differences in their background culture of social cohesion. The values that characterise a society are heavily influenced by education and the values promulgated in schools. To promote social capital at a national level would therefore seem to lead, directly and indirectly to improved educational performance (see also Hargreaves, 2001).

Little wonder, therefore, if we see ‘social capital’ implicitly expressed in a number of government documents. For example, a central plank of British education policy has been the need to strengthen the social capital of schools at each of the micro-, meso- and macro-levels. A key principle of the New Labour government education policy has been ‘partnership’ (see DfEE 1997 and 1999). The strength of communities is emphasised; not only in terms of their intra-social relationships but inter-relational (bridging) connections as well. There is a premium of strong links between home and school and between schools. Such a policy has also been common in the USA. However, where such policies were applied, results have largely been disappointing.

For example, Kahne et al. (2001) report on a project in Chicago to increase networking between schools. They conclude that reinforcing collaboration between schools can provide supplementary support for educators, but that ‘transforming educational institutions is enormously difficult’ (p.456). Issues that arose included the degree of trust between those involved and the way that relationships and networks needed to align with norms, priorities and systems of accountability. Whilst principals, teachers and pupils all seemed to value the initiative, there was a tension between trust and accountability. In short, there could be conflict between institutional and network goals. Principals were reluctant in practice to put the network before their own schools. This was particularly the case where there were external accountability mechanisms with sanctions. Information itself raises issues about what is and is not shared, the way it is used, and its cohesiveness across the network. Finally, they conclude that the inner-city communities which are often the target of social capital initiatives are themselves the product of ‘deeply embedded structural and historical dynamics’, which can not be ignored in implementing such policies.

Similar pictures emerge in other studies. For example, Edens and Gilsinan (2005) report on a five year case study in St Louis aimed at enhancing partnerships between schools; especially including those with a high percentage of student drop-out between secondary and higher education. Again, they concluded that there was much good will in the organization, but this was not a sufficient condition to impact on the goals of the project. However, individual institutional dynamics could ‘thwart’ moves to develop networks. In other words, there was a tension between particular schools and colleges and the ambitions of the net-workers. They conclude that institutional bonding capital could actually act as ‘negative capital’ for the network and that cross-institutional ‘bridging capital’ was highly sensitive to financial incentives. They conclude that the ‘partnership project’ is a useful medium for individual self-examination on the part of institutions. However, improving partnerships in the long term required, ‘changing pre-existing organizational conditions’ (p.137), and this would only come about when institutions had the courage to accept that they had not fulfilled their potential. This was less likely when the status of individual teachers, principals and schools themselves was at stake. Smith and Wohlstetter (2001) report on a similar project. The LAAMP (Los Angeles Anneberg Metropolitan Project) was a five year project aimed at building collaborative capacity amongst schools and increasing student achievement. Their research concludes that networks of schools ‘can’ effect improvement through the development of social capital. However, two issues remain paramount. Firstly, such networks require the redefinition of managerial structures and roles. In this case, teams – management, integrating and improvement – were created, which involved ‘substantial revision of traditional views of authority and accountability’ – mostly away from individuals to groups. Secondly, part of the reorientation of decision making itself involved ‘redistributing the information flow’ in schools (p.505). Here again, open access to information about network partners is necessary but, in an age of accountability, sanctions and competition between institutions were not always welcome.

The conclusions of studies into ‘social capital’ in educational policy in the UK are not dissimilar to those found in US research. For example, McClenaghan (2000) reports on a community development education programme in Ulster, Northern Ireland, defined as a ‘divided community’. She concludes that the concept of ‘social capital’, as defined by such writers as Putnam and Coleman offers a ‘relatively weak theoretical foundation for the study of the relationship between adult education, community development and socio-economic growth. She finds its neo-Durkheimian, functional view of social capital to imply a non-competitive, non- conflictual view of communities, which is not the case in many European situations – Ulster being a case in point. Moreover, she concludes that their deployment of ‘social capital’ obscures morphological changes in the social space; with private households and informal communities on one side and the public domain of markets and the state on the other (p.580), but now increasingly occupied by ‘staged communities’ – providing contracted services and intermediary forms of employment. She notes that these ‘staged communities’ must compete for resources; a competition where cultural and economic capital becomes all the more important. Her case study offers some evidence of this. In this situation, community education is a way of informing those in it of what is going on: ‘In communities with lower volumes of total capital, educational provision which will help make apparent these structured capital relations, which supports community mobilisation to combat processes of exclusion grounded in these relations and which enhances the economic and human capital potential of community actors, becomes vital’ (ibid.) (see Kilpatrick, Field and Falk, 2003 for a critique of her conclusions).

Gewirtz et al. (2005) further report on the use of social capital theory in Educational Action Zones (EAZ). Conclusions from their empirical research firstly asks whether ‘social capital policies’ are actually predicated on middle-class family norms rather than those of the communities they seek to target; and, secondly, therefore have an assumed ‘working on’ rather than ‘working with’ parents ethos. They found little involvement of parent representatives or community organisations in the Education Action Forum (EAF), which was set up to govern the EAZ. Furthermore, the EAZs found it difficult to tap into existing voluntary and community groups. They further conclude that the EAZ policy is based on a ‘deficit model’: that working class families are bereft of social organisations and networks. In actual fact, such is not the case. Local communities are often extremely rich in both. However, they are formed around values and cultural practice which do not resonate with dominant social norms. If this is the case, it is not surprising, as they found, that EAZ schemes neglect the voices and perspectives of those they are designed to help (p.663). Moreover, they do not have community members who have the ‘right’ kind of capital to make the influential personal contacts, which would be a true form of social capital as defined in global terms. They finally conclude by calling for policy makers and practitioners, ‘to pay closer attention to the real, as opposed to the imagined, local socio-cultural environments within which policies are implemented and to the voices, choices, values and experiences of the people they are designed to help’ (p.671).

Some conclusions about policies designed to increase the social capital of schools are:

  • Social capital policies can impact on school networks and pupil achievement;
  • Time and finance are a premium;
  • There can be tensions between individual institutions and networks;
  • Social capital is challenged by external systems of accountability and sanctions;
  • Social capital policies imply new management structures;
  • Social capital theory assumes a normative rather than conflictual view of education and society;
  • Social capital policy is itself often saturated with cultural values and norms – cultural capital – which might overlook differences of perspective;
  • Educational partnership is often a senior managerial occupation; excluding not only parents but the teaching staff;
  • Information – its form, content and flow – is an essential element to social capital.
  • In my own empirical research, these issues also became apparent. For example, in a long standing Sixth Form partnership project in the South of England, policy aimed at enhancing collaboration did indeed result in greater co-ordination between participant institutions. However, in order for such networking to take place, information was indirectly shared which identified ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers. This information had implications in terms of planning and student choice, favouring some subjects over others.

    The Primary National Strategy: Learning Networks project was established very much with the expectation that enhancing social capital through development projects would impact on pupils learning and thus achievement. This achievement expectation was based on a series of Foundation principles, as follows:

  • Network leadership which is shared and distributed;
  • Shared ownership and inclusive participation;
  • A shared moral purpose and focus on pupil learning and well-being;
  • Collective accountability for the quality and value of work.

    (NCL 2006a)

  • By 2006, there were some 1,400 networks involving a wide range of development projects (DfES 2006). The emerging themes of the project report familiar issues similar to those cited in earlier examples:

  • ‘Co-leadership’ of networks has proved to be a highly successful model;
  • Learning networks spread leadership influence;
  • Trust is an important issue for networks;
  • Networks require a structural architecture;
  • School-to-school networks can provide effective capacity.


  • However, behind these general statements, there is considerable variation in the effectiveness of networks. For example, in my own case example of eight primary schools, it proved difficult to get started as there were several conflicting priorities. As there was disagreement over the start-date, some schools in the project began on their own. This staggered beginning then affected the assessment of the effectiveness of the project. Co-ordination proved difficult with various co-ordinators working on their own rather than together. Activity often took place at the level of Senior Management and did not always involve other network participants. Also, the information available to participating partners was highly sensitive in a climate of competitiveness in terms of take-up from parents in the local community. It has also become clear that the functioning of the network depends on the financial support provided. As this support is withdrawn, it is not certain that the network has the capacity to continue independently of it.

    Bourdieu and Social Capital

    I began by drawing attention to Bourdieu’s language, and I want to return to this issue in the remaining of the paper, in that Bourdieu’s field theory is expressed in language, and a particular language at that. However, his theoretical terms are never stand alone concepts, and only have sense in relation to each other. Bourdieu would therefore never employ a term like social capital on its own. The point of social capital is that it can only be understood in terms of Bourdieu field theory as a whole: thus, connected with all the other theoretical concepts and the empirical commitment from which they were derived. In The Social Structures of the Economy (2005/2000), Bourdieu writes that he developed the concept of habitus to account for the practices of men and women, ‘who found themselves thrown into a strange and foreign economic cosmos’ (p.2) , imported from another (in this case colonial) world. Cultural capital was presented as a way ‘to account for the otherwise inexplicable differences in academic performance of children with unequal patrimonies’; and , symbolic capital, ‘to explain the logic of the economy of honour and good faith’ (ibid.). In other words, the symbolic, the empirical and the theoretical are all one for Bourdieu. Hence, social capital: ‘I had developed, from my earliest ethnological work in Kabylia or Béarn, to account for the residual differences, linked broadly to the resources which can be brought together per procurationem through networks of relations of various sizes and differing densities’ (ibid.). Key features of social capital are that it acts together with other forms of capital and is symbolic. It enhances other forms of capital. However, in a world of doxa and heterodoxa – orthodox and heretical – capital itself (especially cultural capital) may only have value within the field in which it exists. If the field is not governed by the dominant, legitimated doxa, and thus has a heterodoxic cultural capital, then its medium of discourse is a kind of anti-capital, which itself will also be amplified by the social capital, networks, that mediates field processes. To this extent, the concept of social capital acts as a moderating concept on an overly deterministic model of cultural hegemony and social dominance. With these thoughts in mind, it is worth recalling the following:

    Symbolic capital is any property (any form of capital whether physical, economic, cultural or social) when it is perceived by social agents endowed with categories of perceptions which cause them to know it and to recognise it, to give it value.
    (1998/1994: 47)

    As such, social capital is still symbolic to the extent to which social networking is valued in terms of existing ‘categories of perceptions’. This is the logic of practice of Bourdieu’s field theory. It is, therefore, no surprise to see Bourdieu listing many other forms of capital, which he sees as explaining ‘the structure and dynamics of differentiated societies’ and, by implication, the subgroups within it: ‘financial capital (actual and potential), cultural capital (not to be confused with ‘human capital’), technological capital, juridical and organizational capital (informational capital about the field), commercial capital, social capital and symbolic capital’ (2005/2000: 194). As always, individuals and groups define themselves in terms of the ‘volume and structure of capital’ they possess (see Grenfell and Hardy 2006 for an operationalisation of this property of fields in terms of artistic and cultural production).

    Bourdieu notes the association he shares with the ‘New Economic Sociology’ since he was developing the concept of cultural capital at the around the same time as the American Gary Becker was ‘putting into circulation the vague and flabby notion of ‘human capital’ (a notion heavily laden with sociologically unacceptable assumptions)’ (2005/2000: 2). However, they differ considerably. Both Becker and Bourdieu draw on economic metaphors in their theoretical constructions. However, for Bourdieu, Becker did so literally, whilst he use was quite different. For example, both wrote about the ‘cost’ of having children. Whilst Becker sees individuals acting according to ‘norms’ of calculated costs and profit, Bourdieu understands them in terms of interests (or more precisely the illusio) and strategies. For Bourdieu, ‘economists deserve credit for explicitly raising the question of the relationship between the profits ensured by educational investment and those ensured by economic investment’ (1996/89: 275). However, such a relationship is not simply expressed in terms of explicit rational choices over the economic, but involves the entire action of configuring social, cultural and economic capital, as well as wholescale orientation to the past, present and future. Thus, Becker is criticised for not recognising that social reproduction is involved - not simply individual monetary outlay and yield – in educational investment. The nub of the argument is epistemological and methodological. For Bourdieu, people like Becker commit a similar fallacy to the one refered to above; of projecting the sujet savant (knowing subject) into the subject agissant (acting subject) - or, as Marx put it, ‘to take the things of logic for the logic of things’ (1990/80: 49). Bourdieu concludes:

    There is an economy of practices, a reason immanent in practices, whose ‘origin’ lies neither in ‘decisions’ of reason understood as rational calculation nor in the determinations of mechanisms external to and superior to the agents…this economy can be defined in relation to all kinds of functions…only one of which is monetary. ..In other words, if one fails to recognize any form of action other than rational action or mechanical reaction, it is impossible to understand the logic of all the actions that are reasonable without being the product of reasoned design…adjusted to the future without being the product of a project or a plan…And, if one fails to see that the economy described by economic theory is a particular case of a whole universe of economies, that is, fields of struggle differing both in the stakes and the scarcities that are generated within them and in the forms of capital deployed in them, it is impossible to account for the specific forms , contents and leverage points thus imposed on the pursuit of maximum specific profits and on the very general optimizing strategies (of which economic strategies in the narrow sense are one form among others).
    (ibid.: 51)

    More succinctly:

    Orthodox economies overlooks the fact that practices may have principles other than mechanical causes or the conscious intention to maximise one’s utility and yet obey an immanent economic logic. Practises form an economy, that is follow an immanent reason that cannot be restricted to economic reason, for the economy of practices may be defined by reference to a wide range of functions and ends.
    (1992: 119).

    The case of informational capital is a case in point. We saw above how information can form a medium for discourse with a field. Specifically, in terms of social capital, information included in policy documents sets the principles and values of operations. Information from communities and individuals represent another form of knowledge; and, data details on schools and teachers are another. In a ‘knowledge economy’ such information is not simply a medium for trust but exposure, evaluation, and imposition. More importantly, it provides a language which legitimates a particular world view when it comes as part of a process which sanctions a certain model of practice. For Bourdieu, this acts as a ‘theoretical unification’ of all, ‘codes, linguistic and judicial, by effecting a homogenization of all forms of communication, including bureaucratic communication (through forms, official notices, etc.)’ (1998/1994: 45). Social capital, of which informational capital forms a part, is therefore the means by which individuals and institutions struggle for valued field positions. It is therefore questionable, in theory at least, as to the extent to which participants in a field can be open, trusting and honest – attributes which would seem to go against the logic of the field.


    Language is a central issue in approaching Bourdieu’s field theory. This is so in the theoretical concepts he offers – the technical terms – and the critique both of the language in fields used to mediate its activities and, indeed, the language adopted by others discussing them. In the first part of this paper, I drew attention to work I have carried out in adapting and applying Bourdieu’s theory of practice to educational research topics: in one case teacher education and in the other classroom discourse. In both cases, language is central to topic. However, I also sought to show how the language we use to discuss these areas needed to be ‘interrogated’ in Bourdieusian terms in order to discover something of the actual dynamic of the processes involved. In the second part of the paper, I have approached the issue of social capital in a similar way. It seems that the concept of social capital calls for such an interrogation in the way it is deployed and the voluminous literature to which it has it has given rise. Major writers on social capital have indeed acknowledged Bourdieu’s contribution to both the inception and application of the term (see for example, Halpern 2005, Lin 2001, Field 2003). However, many of these refer to his work before by-passing it, and giving a largely personal and positive account of social capital and what it can do. Very few, it seems, take on board Bourdieu’s epistemological stance and the implications of his use of social capital in terms of his overall theory of practice. The principal names linked to social capital in the first instance – Coleman and Putnam – hardly seem to have discussed Bourdieu’s social capital from their own perspective at all. There is then some work to be done in addressing the large expanse of literature on social capital in terms of Bourdieu’s epistemology and theory of practice.

    There is, perhaps, nothing wrong with advocating networking systems in which collaboration leads to better functioning operations and, at base, many of the writers and those who have translated their ideas into actual policies, have this as their main objective. This is laudable. Similarly, ‘trust’ in social systems is always welcome. However, the brief coverage I have given to the outcomes of the actualisation of such policies suggests both trust and collaboration are much more difficult to achieve in the real world than the advocates of social capital would seem to suggest. Indeed, there seems to have to be an almost unexplored ‘leap of faith’ to supporting policies aimed at developing social capital in educational systems. Field (2005: 154f) writes that social capital, ‘offers the best way of building bridges between the worlds of formal and informal learning’, but goes on to acknowledge that such an argument might seems ‘hopelessly optimistic’. It is worth pausing on this sentiment. Certainly, the cultural sociology of Pierre Bourdieu can seem to offer a pessimistic view of the world; not so much because we are all the victims of deterministic forces (a view which Bourdieu fought against all his professional life), but because social processes seem to resist attempts to alter their course or their practical logic. I have written elsewhere that in the 1970s and 80s, when the influence of Bourdieu in education in the UK was at its height, common responses to this pessimism took three forms: celebration, resistance and compensation (Grenfell, 2004b: 56). By celebration, I mean the situation where an alternative culture – whether ethnic or social – is applauded for its richness and diversity. Resistance is where a perceived dominant culture is opposed by another one. And, compensation is where steps are made to ‘fill the gap’ between one culture and another – the deficit model. Indeed, it is arguable that some of the more extreme versions of their application at this time - for example, ‘deschooling’ - sowed the seeds of the criticism and distrust of educational research which has so characterised the last decade or so. In our current pragmatic times, resistance and celebration are scarcely credible responses as means to change the perceived cultural hegemony. Yet, pragmatism should not blind us to the truth. It does seem that enthusiasm for the concept social capital often amounts to a return to a kind of cultural compensation and a belief in the power to change what in Bourdieusian terms we would call the dominant logic of practice of fields. In some cases, this is an assertion of faith over knowledge. Certainly, the case examples presented suggest that it is possible to simply create a formula for what works, express it in ideal terms, and then set about making another cultural groups (who have their own values and network systems) behave in the desired manner. There are questions of cultural dissonance and the ignoring of the often competitive nature of relations between individuals and groups within networks – competition, that is for the capital which determines field position, which is the subject of sanction and reward. There are also other issues concerning gender, leadership and information accessibility and the field capital which derives from them (see Clegg and McNulty 2002, Marshall 2002, and Burt 1999).

    So what is the Bourdieusian alternative?

    I have written that Bourdieu opposed all ‘slippery’ use of languages, and there is perhaps few more slippery words than social capital. Bourdieu’s own language, including habitus, field and capital are used as an alternative. Ultimately, they offer both an epistemology and political wordview. Indeed, it is almost as if Bourdieu is arguing that it is enough to use these terms in order to engage in an emancipated way with the issues of the day. This is as true for policy makers, educational researchers and individual teachers. At one point, he argues that one of the teachers he interviewed in La Misère du monde (1999/93) was helped by objectifying her position and the social forces which acted on her and caused her suffering (2000c). Such an objectification might be seen as an important part of social capital; indeed, case examples also suggest this. However, this process of self-observation raises questions about the terms for such an undertaking. The social capital debate addresses the question of the terms of association within and between groups. One conclusion from the research literature might be that it is not enough simply to dictate terms of association. At the same time, it is clearly not enough either for groups simply to act in their own terms. This can lead to continued cultural marginalisation. In a sense, what Bourdieu is offering is indeed ‘terms of association’ through the concepts he is providing. This is equally true of groups of educational researchers. David James and I have suggested that the very objectivity which educational research provides is at stake in objectifying the social processes which give rise to research knowledge (Grenfell and James 2004) – which ultimately impacts on the usefulness (effectiveness) of its findings and conclusions. When Bourdieu wrote of the scholastic field, he argued that 'universal objectivity' was established the more an individual could objectify their position in the social space which produced it and them (2001: 174). It follows that the way for educational researchers to proceed was to bring the concepts of habitus and field to bear on themselves and their work as part of a process of reflexivity; including their own social capital and networks of association. Such reflexivity is not, however, simply a bolt-on, or an exercise of self-awareness undertaken at some stage. Habitus, field, capital and social capital are not simply analytical concepts, or thinking tools, brought to particular topic, but are epistemological matrices lying at the generative root of the action of knowledge formation itself. Their use is dispositional and constitutive. In other words, they are ever present in the process of scientific enquiry: 'sociologists need to convert reflexivity into a constitutive disposition of their habitus' (ibid.). This approach and practice were at the basis of what Bourdieu called a realpolitik of reason (1998/94:139) – a form of knowledge that is both radical and objective and community based. This approach amounts to a call to sociologicalise educational research, and indeed thinking about social capital; but, perhaps not in the name of sociology itself but in terms of a broader theory of practice, which focuses on method, knowledge formation, the language used to express these, and on the communities that undertake research. Of course, for some, this amounts to a kind of ‘sociological terrorism’ (see Verdès-Leroux 1998). However, it might also be seen as a move towards the foundation of a ‘community of truth’ able to avoid the types of traps into which such phenomena as social capital have led us. In this respect, the full potential which Bourdieu’s field theory offers has yet to be realised.

    Address for Correspondence:
    Prof. Michael Grenfell
    School of Education
    University of Southampton
    SO17 1BJ
    Tel: 023 80593472
    Fax: 023 80593556


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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 25 October 2006