READING GUIDE TO: Bourdieu, P and Boltanski, L.  (1977) ‘Formal Qualifications and Occupational Hierarchies: The Relationship Between The Production System and The Reproduction System’, in Keen, E.  (Ed) Reorganising Education: Management and Participation for Change, 60-71, London: Sage.

by Dave Harris

The usual work on social mobility is flawed [by a kind of excessive positivism], especially in assuming that the titles of jobs mean the same thing between the generations.  In practice, the same title can indicate [deskilling], but also the reverse [clinging to the status of the job], because there is satisfaction and status in possessing the title, regardless of doing the actual job.  CFE students in France, for example, have demonstrated ‘studentification’.  Social mobility actually arises both from structural changes and from economic changes affecting posts [virtually a denial of any real social mobility for individuals].  The education system has a certain relative autonomy [sic, 62] so there is no technological determinism.  Cultural capital itself modifies technical change, seen from the fact that the impact of technical change is greater on the less skilled jobs.  The actual relations and discrepancies between the education and the economic system need to be studied.

Economic production is not the same as ‘producer production’, which goes on in schools and families.  Where lots of cultural capital are involved in a post, the education system is far more important [note that cultural capital can be invested in machines too—62].  The education system reproduces not only workers but also the structure of posts [the occupational status system].  Here, the requirement to reproduce the [privileges of the]family group leads to social rather than technical reproduction. 

The structural discrepancy between the education system and the economic apparatus opens a space for ‘strategic games’ played by individuals (62).  There is a struggle by those who dominate the economy to reduce the autonomy of the education system and to increase its dependence on the economy [the vocational turn of recent times?].  This is often done by explaining discrepancies between education and the economy as an unfortunate time lag [a tactic beloved by modernisers and change agents everywhere] .  The strength of the education system to resist draws from its ‘juridical’ powers to guarantee credentials, and this guarantees a relative autonomy, a separate logic, and its own time span: this is why you can sometimes find capitalist economies with elements of a medieval education system.

The education system does not just provide technical competence, but qualifications which have ‘a universal and relatively timeless value’ (63).  This attracts hostility from employers.  Diplomas produce an abstract ‘free’ worker [deliberate reference to Marx here], which guarantees competence for all labour markets [but this abstract freedom limits capitalism in this case].  Diplomas are timeless, and do not suffer obsolescence.  They have specific effects on labour markets.  [I thought of the contemporary discussion about specific and transferable skills here].  [Later I thought about the attempts to introduce professional qualifications at doctoral level—the EdD rather than the Ph.D.]

There are many, sometimes confrontational, relationships between the education system and the labour market.  Sometimes diplomas are entirely dovetailed with job requirements, and sometimes they are not at all relevant to job requirements.  Some agents often have a mixture of both universal and specific credentials and claims.  Where gaps exist between job descriptions and non specific qualifications, individuals engage in 'strategies of bluff' to get a good economic return for their diplomas.  There is no abstract articulation between education and the economy—all is politics.  Lots of sociological research on more formal relations miss this point out.  What actually happens is a series of 'everyday  class struggles' (65).  The education system is therefore a site of political struggle [between fractions of the middle and upper classes here -- Bowles and Gintis point out the dimensions of cultural struggle for the dominated classes].

It is possible to pursue both individual and collective [closure strategies].  Capitalists want to 'suppress the formal qualification and its basis…  [and merge]…  the qualification and the post' (65).  The education system attempts to tie together both specific and universal qualities, offering specific competence, but also a universal guarantee.  This means the economic system attempts to limit the autonomy of the education system [note that the authors refer to 'the masters of the economy' when it comes to naming agents].  Economic masters might offer support for the rival company school [or university], and for systems of permanent training in service.  The education system does the reverse, defending its autonomy and therefore the value of its particular diplomas [the real material basis of the old distinction between training and education in the UK] . The claim is that diplomas have a universal value: it becomes hard to deny the universal value of an individual without denying the value of educational credentials themselves [hence recent attacks on grade inflation, Mickey Mouse degrees, or widespread suspicions that teachers teach to the test?]. The power of the educational system also resides in its reservoir of social capital, the power of groups of diploma holders, such as alumni.

Ironically, the economic masters cannot subvert the value of degrees, because they need them to legitimates access to dominant institutions for themselves [more in France than in the UK?].  They can and do often attempt to influence the education system, for example by sponsoring non- university bodies [this seems to refer to a network of private technical college type foundations in France], and in their support for more training.  Above all, this class fraction supports a tripartite system of higher education: the grandes ecoles [elite universities, often offering the classic humanities subjects] reproduce the upper class; technical schools reproduce the workforce; the function of the university is—to reproduce the university!  (66).  The struggle is to reduce the monopoly of the university on the awarding credentials.  The production of rival credentials devalues university diplomas, and also unifies the labour market [by having a whole hierarchy of values all nicely united, just as we are developing in the UK with the eight level classification system].  Hence unifying the labour market comes from diversifying the education system! (66).  These policy developments show the effects of class struggle over the future of education.

The education system defines the status of posts, regulates access to posts, and affects the remuneration of post holders.  The classic system of socioeconomic categories which results,  is also really an effects of class struggle [not the first link with Bowles and Gintis.  Note that the follow-up Gintis and Bowles piece sees that the education system also provide some students with conceptual tools to criticise the system, a contradiction not mentioned at all here].  The education system can also help develop a strategy of providing individual posts with prestigious titles, in the place of adequate remuneration.  Individuals in this sort of [status discrepant] position may struggle to reclaim the economic privileges of the job, or do the job and demand an adequate title.  In both cases, the struggle is to bring the nominal in line with the real.

Such struggles can become institutionalised or collective [as in legalistic closure strategies, and like making teaching an all graduate profession].  Names can become inflated [as in the professionalisation of everyone].  Certain bureaucratic taxonomies can develop in order to try and systematize the position [uniting the nominal with the real].  It would be a positivist mistake to recognise these taxonomies as anything other than the result of past struggles, however.  [And there is an aside about the mistakes made by ethnomethodologists and the concept of 'account', whereby common sense reasoning turns into social science].  This mistake helps to deny the political aspects of these categories.  There is no innocent construction of reality involved, but rather an attempt to legitimate and make official dominant constructions of reality [this is what ethnomethodology misunderstands—there are no innocent common sense classifications and estimates either].  Taxonomies also have an immediate practical benefit in fixing job requirements [seemingly in a neutral way—I thought of the notorious HERA job classification scheme for UK academics, which attempt to draw a technical veil over management decisions, including the big one—to exempt themselves from economic restraints based on these classifications].

Here we can see that social terminology is an important 'instrument in the symbolic struggle between the classes for the definition of the social world' (68). Terminology relating to occupational systems are as important as kinship categories.  There is a long-term tendency to classify credentials like this, producing a 'hierarchized universe of the educational qualification' (69).  When complete, such a classification system would appear natural and eternal, and legitimate the whole system.

In this way, the 'classification struggle is one dimension, but doubtless the best concealed one, of the class struggle' (70).  All taxonomies have this function, including those found in art [there are clear hints of the denunciation of the Kantian aesthetic which was to come in Distinction]. These struggles are concealed in apparently autonomous fields, producing the 'specific ideological effect of misrecognition' (70), especially if classifications and formal qualities appear to get transformed on their own.

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