Notes on: Maton, K.  (1999) 'Extra curricular Activity Required.  Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Educational Knowledge'.  [I have the draft version, downloaded from, and I use the draft page numbers, but the published version is found in Grenfell M and Kelly M (eds).  Pierre Bourdieu: Language, culture and education. Bern, Peter Lang: 197-210.]

Dave Harris

We have long been interested in how educational knowledge is 'selected, organized, distributed, transmitted and evaluated'(1), although this is been marginalised in British sociology.  Bourdieu's framework provides one option, but there are possibilities for development.  The examination of cultural studies as an academic subject provides an early impetus for such study [discussed further here].

Bernstein offers an account of the early formation of the problem in the New Sociology of Education developed in the 1970s.  This replaced the earlier philosophy of education and how academic subjects became logically cohesive [for example through Hirst].  There was also the history of education.  However, both decontextualised academic subjects.  In the New Sociology there was originally more an emphasis on knowing rather than on knowledge as such, inspired by phenomenology.  This subjectivism overemphasized the possibilities for change and ignored wider structural relations.

Later neo Marxist accounts used the term such as correspondence, reproduction or hegemony, and stressed external power relations, although they also had a problem of appearing to be over simple at first, [and ignoring resistance and struggle, even though that was pretty marginal].  Together with the earlier emphases, there is a promise of a more general emphasis on the active construction of curricular, but a more 'empirically applicable, conceptual  framework is required' (2).

Bourdieu sees higher education is a relatively autonomous social field, with its own logic and structure, but still with external pressures.  Academic subjects are differently located in this field.  They struggle and compete over hierarchies.  Within disciplinary discourse there are similarly some autonomous and even '"economically heteronomous" poles'(4), and high status permits more distant from external interests.  There is still a homology between educational and social dominance, however.  Cultural studies is particularly heteronomous opposing both liberal and vocational poles.  The field itself is dynamic, with the possible subversion from new subjects, following strategies over what counts as legitimate knowledge.  Sometimes a change in the audience is engaged as well, so that the policy of encouraging student choice and educational expansion has had effects in the UK.

However, limits appear as well because Bourdieu cannot account for the forms of educational knowledge and practice, and he still sees these as 'epiphenomena of the play of positions within a field' rather than having 'structuring significance' of their own (5).  This makes operationalizing the concept in empirical research more difficult.  For example, the concepts change across different contexts, especially '"pedagogic authority" and "cultural arbitrary"'.

There is a relationship between habitus and field, so that practices followed by structuring qualities of the habitus.  However habitus is described only in terms of its outcomes, appearing as only another layer of ethnographic description.  Bernstein argues that this shows a lack of necessity between the concept and the realization [and a suggestion that Bourdieu selects his examples to illustrate his points].  Bourdieu is aware of the possible circularity of the term habitus, but awareness is probably not a sufficient safeguard. What he needs is more work on the form of the habitus, to turn it into a methodological tool.  Otherwise, Bourdieu is offering only a different approach or perspective, a different way of seeing the objects of study, and this is amplified, says Boudon, by the relational analysis itself.  The habitus might be a 'highly perceptive and heuristic metaphor', but it 'remains more of a black box'[much of this seems based upon Bernstein (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control and Identity: Theory, Research, Critique.  London: Taylor and Francis].

Secondly, Bourdieu needs to realise that educational knowledge is not just epiphenomenal, but has a structuring role itself.  It is not just arbitrary in an absolute way, and so there is no need to look at the history of educational knowledge, for example.  In Homo Academicus, there is no discussion of forms of knowledge and practice [I'm not so sure - there is certainly criticism of Barthes' interdisciplinary work].  Knowledge actually has two relations, epistemic and social [discussed further here], and both need to be analysed.  Bourdieu's emphasis on power relations ignores the first one, and pedagogic discourse in particular is 'arbitrary and contingent upon what has historically been associated with dominant/dominated positions'(7) [this could be defended on empirical grounds by arguing that pedagogy is just not something to be highlighted in elite institutions of higher education].  [The example again is cultural studies claiming to pursue subversive forms of pedagogic discourse - but my example of the influence of the open university teaching system is much better!].

The form of educational practices is not described only by their function, and the epistemic relation is not irrelevant.  We are offered only a sociology of knowledge, 'not an analysis of knowledge itself'[again, the discussion of Kantian philosophy seems highly relevant here].  Academics also pursue curricular activity.  Ignoring this reintroduces social reductionism, despite the claims about relative autonomy, and 'the structure of what is said is unimportant' (8).  We have a form of 'meso-externalism', where 'knowledge reflects relational positions'.  The structure of knowledge remains arbitrary [surely an exaggeration of Bourdieu's position?  The point is that these relations intrude into 'pure' knowledge at crucial points in the form of presuppositions dispositions and visions which, despite the critical focus of philosophy elsewhere, remain uncriticized - which is surely unarguable.  I don't think Bernstein or Popper would disagree.  These presuppositions and visions are precisely what later generations of philosophers go back and rework].  Some forms of knowledge are 'more epistemologically powerful than others', however [again surely Bourdieu does not disagree - he claims that social science is one of these.  He might be convicted of being tactical here, however, and is open to the kantian retort that he risks being caught in a contradiction or antinomy , where either all knowledge has social roots, including his own, or his knowledge has somehow escaped altogether, and thus must be inspired by god].

We need to analyse the relations behind the epistemic relation as well, 'the relation of knowledge to its constructed object of study' [that is, we need to do philosophy as in Popper?  Would this break with the contradiction as above?].  It is true that Bourdieu considered relationism to be an instrument of rupture, a transitory phase to combat idealism [citing a rather obscure publication - Bourdieu (1988) 'On interest and the relative autonomy of symbolic power'in Working Papers and Proceedings of the Centre for Psychosocial Studies, 20 --got it here].  This transitory quality is in danger of being lost, however.

Overall, Basil Bernstein's work seems more productive, citing one of his own papers in 1998.

Back to Bourdieu page.