READING GUIDE TO : Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.C. (1979) The Inheritors: French students and their relation to culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

by Dave Harris


Chapter one

Class chance data is presented for France, covering access to university and also choice of subjects.  Generally, Arts and Sciences are preferred for lower class applicants, while the other professions attract upper class students.  Gender is magnified by class in terms of access, especially for lower class students, and a strong influence on subject choice throughout.  However, some Arts students are also relegated from the upper class: for them, arts subjects are a refuge.

There are therefore economic and cultural obstacles to success at the university.  These include religion and age [in France, the older students are often those who have had to repeat grades].

Social origins produce different rates of financial provision, affect where people live, and affect the sort of work they do.  For example, they influence the amount of parental subsidy.

As a result, students do not really have a common situation or experience.  They come from very different cultural backgrounds, and quite different experiences from being at home or feeling out of place (13).  They experience differential success according to their 'previously acquired intellectual tools, cultural habits' (14).  Particularly important is their ability to manipulate 'the abstract language of ideas', which is much easier if you have done Greek or Latin.  Cultural heritage is also amplified by various scholastic streams and channels, which produce 'sanctions which consecrate social inequalities' (14).  For some, their educational past is a definite handicap, including the absence of classical languages or adequate advice on careers.

These inequalities are concealed by their belief that some students possess 'gifts', producing a disdain for practical techniques of study noted below.  University life tends to be eclectic and dilettante, mostly because bourgeois students are 'more assured of their vocations or their abilities' (15).  Those from other origins are far more dependent on the university.  For the bourgeois, a liking for 'intellectual exoticism and formalistic purity' helps 'liquidate a bourgeois experience while expressing it' (15).  Detachment and a willingness to take risks 'presupposes a greater security’ (15).  Self assurance pays off in exams, especially in orals [presentations?].  This stance is helped by universities themselves who value 'remaining aloof from "academic" values and disciplines' (17).

Bourgeois students inherit 'habits, skills and attitudes…  knowledge and know how, tastes and a "good taste"'(17), which do pay off even if indirectly.  A suitable extracurricular culture is the 'implicit condition for academic success in certain disciplines'(17), for example coming from a family with experiences in the theatre, art galleries, concerts, knowledge of modern works even jazz or the cinema.  These experiences display a combination of cultural and economic factors here [and strongly prefigures the work in Distinction, even with some initial survey data].  The absence of explicit instruction in universities makes this cultural influence more important.  Influences are often subtle, for example in the displaying of knowledge of the past in the effortless reproduction of academic argument.  Interests are often combined, enabling those from suitable backgrounds to distinguish themselves from those possessing purely scholastic knowledge.  There is a  whole constellation of knowledge to draw upon.  There also important personal qualities such as 'ironic casualness, mannered elegance, or…  assurance which lends ease or the affectation of ease' (20).  [So common among the English upper classes as well].

This sort of cultural background works indirectly, casually and informally, it seems effortless, acquired by osmosis [some nice examples on page 20—like the casual disclosure of cultural interests, 'acquired without intention or effort'].  Those from lower and middle class backgrounds try to catch up at university, for examples by going to film clubs.  Schools could compensate, but they also tend to ignore social inequalities and devalue 'the vulgar mark of effort' (21). Thus universities offer only a misleading formal equality, and ignore marked social differences, whole areas which are clearly related to success.  Teaching presupposes a level of knowledge, skills and culture which are the 'heritage of the cultivated classes' (21). 

Secondary school uses a number of secondary significations which take for granted 'the whole treasury of first degree experiences’—books, entertainment, holidays as 'cultural pilgrimages', and 'allusive conversations' (22).  The universal nature of education simply means all must enter.  Working-class children can only imitate, and the whole experience for them is unreal.

Access needs to be not just a matter of economic background.  'Ability' should not be seen as a matter of a gift but the result of 'affinities between class cultural habits and the demands of the education system' (22).  Knowledge and techniques are inseparable from social values.  Some working-class students are willing to undertake university experience because they see academic knowledge as high status, and it 'symbolises entry into the elite' (22).  However, social mobility via education is 'a fantasy, and abstraction for [most] manual workers' (23).  Their ambitions are lower: they make an objective adjustment.  The petty bourgeoisie are the most keen on education, and they openly support elite culture even though they find it just as difficult to acquire: they think they can make up the deficit with hard work.

Teacher judgments are ultimately based on the closeness to elite culture.  Teachers classically devalue other approaches such as seriousness and hard work.  Social advantages and disadvantages are cumulative as a result.  Even geographical location is important because living in a city means greater access to cultural facilities.

There is no mechanical determinism here, though, since inheritance is not always successful.  Upper class culture can merely lead to the  'superficial pastime of elegant parlor games' (25), but usually it is exploited to find a comfortable way through an education system.  It is true that working-class entrants to university can gain in ambition and determination.  However, those who succeed nearly always have some kind of unusual family background like a successful relative, who will raise their ambitions and reject fatalism. [In conventional research as well as in policy and common sense] isolated factors are seen as important [instead of seeing qualifying factors as well]. 

It is more common to persuade the underprivileged to drop out rather than to exert a direct influence on them, or to reveal open determinism.  It would be wrong to attribute all the blame to economic or political factors, but social mechanisms work well despite minor adjustments such as scholarships.  Indeed, these minor reforms can help to justify the system by locating 'giftedness’ as the issue.  The same goes for moves to equalise the economic circumstances of students  [grants?]—they would only legitimise a system which itself legitimises privilege.


Chapter two

There is no unified student world or culture, but a constant flux with only periodic routine.  There are cycles of study leading to exams, but it is a unique time of life where normal oppositions do not apply,  including the opposition between work and leisure [lots of quotes on page 30 from students saying that they regard their work as a form of leisure:

'It's the only time in life when you can put off what you've got to do, work when it suits you, be unemployed if you feel like it…  (Senior executive' son, Paris, aged 26)…  There's no such thing as leisure: I refuse to draw a line between work and leisure, I don't accept that dichotomy…  (Junior executive son, Paris)…  My work isn't unpleasant; it's not something I'm forced to do.  I could almost say all my work is in leisure…  (A junior executive son, Paris)…  I don't separate work and leisure.  If there's a decent movie on I go and see it, whether it's a weekday or a Sunday.  The question really doesn't arise.  There is no particular pattern to my leisure activities; I choose what I'm going to do but I don't organise it…  There's nothing fixed (senior executives daughter, Paris)' (30).


'Yes I waste a terrible amount of time; I don't know how to organize my work properly, and, since workhouse to come by for leisure…  I have no time left for leisure (senior executives some, Paris).  The fact is I don't seem able to discipline myself, it's always the same story (senior executive's son, Paris)'.  NB Bourdieu and Passeron see this as an aristocratic form of lifestyle.

There is a characteristic student lifestyle with a lack of discipline and a ‘libertarian use of “free time”’ (31).  Students are individualised, despite occasional ‘islands of integration’ (32).  Integration has no institutional basis.  It is therefore not easy to organise collective work, or cooperation, or small workgroups.  Individualistic competition persists instead.  The old traditions like student festivals and songs are in decline, and there are not even initiation rituals, except possibly in Law and Medicine.  There are no real social divisions or any bases for solidarity—for example the rivalry between different disciplines or other signs of the persistence of sub cultures, including argot.  Students are not even well connected through friendship groups, except where these depend on earlier shared schooling or regional identity.  Upper class students are the most integrated socially.  Friends’ advice is not sought in the choice of a subject or career, rumours spread but not information. 

The student milieu is therefore not autonomised, but consists of a ‘fluid aggregate [rather] than an occupational group’ (36).There is a nostalgia for integration, but actual organisation fails. Girls are the keenest to initiate collective activity, following the ‘characteristics of the woman’s traditional role’ (36).  Staff participation helps.  The most common result of this lack of organisation is resignation or utopianism, especially in Paris students’ activism, which includes ‘conceptual terrorism of verbal demands’ (37).  A belief in cooperative work, small groups and so on persists, but as the projection of an ideal.

Yet such projections reveal an underlying objective reality [by contrast].  Students want to identify individually with this mythical unity.  Characteristic student behaviours are ‘symbolic’ indicators of this project.  'Student' is therefore a chosen identity, the rejection of past identities, including those associated with the occupation of one’s parents, part of a general denial of class determinism [but not gender?].  It is important to not conform, to distinguish oneself while labelling others.  This is another example of the transformation of necessity into freedom (39) [so it is not just the working classes who have to do this?] Student identity means the rejection of any actual bonding.  For example cafes are frequented because there, one encounters the ‘archetypal student’ [rather as students went to the library in Lille to conform to the archetypal student, in Academic Discourse].

Students live out their relations to their class of origin according to ‘the models of the intellectual class reinterpreted’ (40).  They display a reaction to the discipline of the secondary school.  By comparison, student identity is a sign of ‘cultural free will’ (40).  Guidance from older students is important here, and prestigious examples can include university teachers.  Everyone knows a high prestige professor who is far from being a mere pedagogue.  This only disguises power relations.

The university is still a very important influence, though.  Students still do well if they are ‘adapted to the university and can transpose its scholastic techniques and interests’ (41).  So called alternative cultural worlds,  based around jazz or cinema actually complement the university world [is this still the same with contemporary universities and contemporary commercial popular culture?].  [There is a hint of the cultural omnivore thesis here, 41].  Students’ public denial of the importance of university culture and teaching disguises the real influence at work through the ‘cultural goods market’ (42). 

An important role in actually orienting the tastes of students is played by ‘Professorial charisma…  The display of virtuosity, the play of laudatory allusions or depreciatory silences’ (42).  Students are passive and willing to be taught, or to let teachers guide them.  So close is the connection that ‘the study of consumption can be collapsed into a study of production’ (42).  University culture includes ‘the scholastic consecration of novelties’ (43).  As a result, university culture is more homogenous than it looks [in support, student prize winners are given as examples, revealing their conformist tastes, even if those cover the avant garde].  The ideal student is still a homo academicus, often the son and grandson of teachers, often wanting to be a philosophy lecturer, often showing some precocious talents.  The university therefore ‘always preaches to the converted’ (43).

However, some students are only playing at having intellectual tastes, displaying  ‘collective bad faith’, or deploying the  ‘ruse of reason’ (44).  An illusory intellectual life is possible.  It usually involves ignoring social origins and destinations, and ‘autonomising the present of studenthood’ (44).  It involves games and tricks, and is assisted by the ‘unreality of university practice’ (44), where there are no real sanctions, and even examinations are playful rather than work-like.  Students do feel insecure, and lecturers do judge their work, but there is a constant ambivalence—for example students and lecturers commonly joke about examinations and yet still see them as a matter of ‘personal salvation’ (45) especially the dissertation.  It is a very involving game.  Even the student challenges are within the rules of the intellectual game of contestation: thus ‘Revolts against the system…  achieve…  the ultimate ends pursued by the university’ (45) [reads pretty much like Willis on working class lads rebelling but then ending up in manual work].  Even student rebels worship culture if not the university.  Bohemian behaviour still equates to obedience to traditional models.  Any escape into popular culture is still characterised as a form of literary discussion.

This is especially marked in the Paris Arts Faculty.  Students are mostly bourgeois, but commonly deny their background and espouse left wing causes, but without adopting any particular orthodoxy or party membership.  Instead, they adopt new labels.  They have a mostly aesthetic commitment to an avant garde, which leads to a ‘conformism of anti conformism’ (46).  Rebellion is little more than the ‘symbolic breaks of adolescence’ seen as an ‘intellectual self realisation’ (46).  Any sexual liberation pursued by women can be seen simply as a formal reversal of the value of virginity.  Extreme political views are best read as a symbolic break with the family.  Symbolic differences are more important than the real differences provided by social origin.  Student radical life features endless argument to establish differentiations within the general consensus of the avant garde.  Concrete commitments tend to be applauded.  Political debate is seen as a kind of play, and is work.  Politics becomes a pastime.  In reality, it is wealth and privilege that enables intellectual detachment, intellectual mastery, and political audacity.  Privileged students are also better able to accumulate a ‘capital of information’, based on their membership of literary and philosophical political coteries, and the ability to attend lots of outside lectures and assemblies [in Paris] (49).  Any diversity in the academic world produces the relativisation of professorial privilege [not enough to lead to serious criticism?] , and the opportunity for more intellectual adventure.

University life becomes an excellent preparation for the later literary games played among the Parisian bourgeoisie, and wider philosophical discussion, for example of the crisis in education, shows the ‘beginners’ illusion [masquerading as a] basis for a universal reflection’ (15).  There is still a lot of studentanxiety however, and here, ideological debates offer assurance.  A liking for student [revolutionary?] festivity is really a form of symbolic integration.

The ideal type Parisian Arts student draws from a literary education and from the cultural opportunities offered by Paris, and the ‘risk free freedom that a well to do social origin makes possible’ (51).  Bourgeois students see university life as intellectual adventure, not as ‘an apprenticeship subject to the test of occupational success’ (51). 

There are more working-class students now, but bourgeois values persist: those values ‘will not cease to be regarded as inseparable from the [student] milieu’ (51).  Nevertheless, modern students can perceive university teaching as somehow unreal, possibly because they have experience of real occupations. Thus actual students will vary according to their commitment to the ideal type, and this will vary according to their social origins.  ‘Serious’ students can be both critics of this unreality, and still prepared to consider only university problems as serious.

[What a condemnation of student activists!  I do recognise the posturing bourgeois type from my own experiences during the student revolt at LSE, and, later at Essex, and I know exactly what they mean by the insistence on preserving literary forms of argument while discussing radical overhauls.  During one sit in at LSE, friends made it their business to guard the library!  Proles werestill mocked for their vulgarity. Several dreadful poseurs made fiery speeches proposing solidarity with the north Vietnamese army, and then fled at the prospect of being arrested by the metropolitan police!  However, I think they do underestimate the impact on some working class lads such as myself, who did gain an insight into professorial incompetence that led to a lifetime’s scepticism.  Nevertheless, I think they are broadly right.  Interestingly, the ideal type bourgeois radical manifests itself best in education departments of respectable UK universities, where students are still harangued with idealist and utopian visions, and words like ‘oppression’ or ‘struggle’ are used both to describe third world radical movements and the need to cope with an inconvenient timetable].

Chapter three

[This chapter starts with an astonishing criticism of child centred and play-centred education—by Hegel!  Such an education preserves immaturity, it is indifferent to the intellectual world, and it shows contempt for elders!  (54)]

It is possible to construct an ideal type of rational conduct for student,  based on the claims that characterise university life.  However, the real issue is self-creation, and to be a participant in academic culture.  The rational type will argue that university culture is to be mastered, yet this is denied in practice, and instead there is a goal of independence, the abolition of the distinction between the student and the teacher.  However, this distinction is abolished only in the imagination, without going through the painful process of subjection first [very familiar terminology here!].  Indeed, there is often a straightforward denial of student passivity. This imaginary resolution is satisfactory to students and professors, although denied by both conservatives and revolutionary utopians.  Rational conduct, however would involve seeing passivity as a means to an occupational end.  The denials involve a view that the present should dominate the future, and that the status of student should become more autonomous.

Students occupy pre- constructed roles, like the 'exam hound' or the dilettante.  Life goes on in a magical mode [compare with the notion of magical resolution in gramscian work].  Options can coexist in that world.  The magical world is supported by professors, 'the students'opponents and accomplices' (57).  Professors do not want to appear as having a rational role, as a mere 'teaching auxiliary' (58).  The whole experience is therefore mystified or enchanted, and this mystical relation rather than the technical function of education affects the teaching experience.  Professors claim they have some gift in transmitting culture, and this notion of gift is reciprocated by students [very similar arguments are made in Academic Discourse].

Students do vary, however.  The awareness of an occupational destinations seems particularly vague for Arts students, and uncertain for sociologists: these views actually mimic the real possibilities!  There is no occupational point to study for the students, so it is justified instead as an intellectual adventure.  Their values ‘depend on mystified experience' (59).  [There is a hint here that the enchantment of rationalised study is deliberate]. 

Women students have more reason to mystify, although for them reality dawns earlier.  They often describe the substantial freedoms involved in using academic work to escape [rather like the stuff I have been quoting from Quinn!].  However, intellectual escape is still associated with the traditional female values, including their desired destinations as teachers, and their lower confidence in their intellectual capacities.  They're still more likely to be instrumental, and to use their 'scholastic zeal and docility as a way of avoiding the question of the future' (61).  Another option is female student apathy.  [Or] female students report high levels of commitment to university life, again echoing traditional female values such as exalting sacrifice, and using words like relationship or enrichment, or talking about the development of personality [lots of examples PP. 61,62].  This can be an alternative to the magical concealment preferred by men.  Female options echo the sexism of the university.

Social origin has effects as well.  There are parallels between working class origins and being female.  Neither are likely to get an intellectual occupation and so they are less likely to invest in the intellectual game approach.  They need to bow to necessity and acknowledge the importance of an occupation.  Upper class students are happier with vague projects, but working-class students are more focused, because they are more aware that they need not have been students at university at all.  Upper class students are more distant, more prone to mystification, more contemptuous of pedagogy and methods, and of scholarly discipline.  They, and many professors, would find any kind of practical instruction about coping with university life—like using a card index for drawing up a bibliography—as demeaning, the act of a 'vulgar schoolmaster' (63).  The same goes for any kind of intellectual training—instead, upper class students and professors prefer the romantic image of free. inspired creation.

Magical perceptions are common.  Professors collude  by denying clear information, such as their criteria, and the techniques necessary to succeed.  Students deny the importance of hard work and routine, and see success arising from a gift or by magic.  This explains their following examination rituals, whether it be feverish last minute revision, or obsessive note taking—'a technique for spiritual consolation' (64) [modern students attend lectures and seminars obsessively, and even complain if they are cancelled—but never take notes!].  There are superstitions, guessing rituals, amulets and fetishes, and the repetition of successful conduct.  Success is seen as a reward for having a gift, including the gift of successful guessing (65).  There is 'overt contempt’ for any rational approach (65).  Professors collude in this too: it is reciprocal—for example the lecture style means that students can enjoy anonymity [and ritual attendance]—and both professors and students oppose rational approaches.

These findings show the ultimate goal of the university system [social reproduction].  The rational approach contradicts these ultimate goals.  Cultural transmission could be rationalised, and it would benefit the most disadvantaged students [more on rational teaching later].


Because real educational inequalities are never discussed, differences are seen as a result of ‘giftedness’ (67).  Differences are tolerated only if they are seen as differences in gifts, or as the occasional social handicap faced by a gifted student.  The lack of talent or enthusiasm in students is never explained.  Formal examinations express a purely formal equality: as they are anonymous it is impossible to see how they reflect cultural inequalities.  The formal policy of equal opportunity only ‘transforms privilege into merit’ (68).  It is impossible to have any other outcome unless serious weight is given to the social origins of students [or value added?].  However, we would then expect unequal terminal performances.  This could lead to a hierarchy of institutions, and the degree overall could be devalued.  Experience in some communist countries might be cited, but even there there is often a tension [between rewarding 'redness' and expertise].  Overall, the roles of the game have to remain unquestioned.  The lack of questioning is shown in the continuing attraction of the grandest institutions and most prestigious disciplines in French universities to all recruits.  The credibility of the system requires that inequalities affecting students from outside the university are ignored.  Insisting on the role of social differences is therefore a challenge to the whole system.

Giftedness is like charisma.  It benefits the privileged and legitimates their contempt for the less privileged.  Working-class students accept this as a kind of essentialism (70), and personalise their disadvantage.  Indeed, working-class students are among those who believe most strongly in the idea of a charismatic gift.  The tendency to reduce to essentialism is common among students because they are already prone to see who they are as what they do.

Teachers also assume their success arises from some personal gift, another essentialism.  Often, the education system has been their only route to success, confirming this essentialism.  It is often linked with the denigration of vulgar effort.

Students are only too willing to accept their status as victims rather than blame ‘clumsy teachers’ (71).  Often their parents are over impressed by teachers' opinions or by the simple scores in educational tests, and are liable to say things like ‘He’s no good at French’, which naturalises inequality.  Student objections to the system are often still couched in [victim vocabulary], and they expect solutions to be provided only by the generosity of teachers.  Populist demands [such as that working-class culture has to be valued alongside elite culture] are also limited, since the dominant system is not just a simple class culture.  Furthermore, academic skills and aptitudes can be learned.

The first requirement is to aim to affect the home environment.  Teachers need to be fully explicit about what is required.  The usual formulae are not enough [superstitions, but also  including routine study skills advice?].  Teachers need to avoid any claims to have professorial charisma, and to develop a rational pedagogy, although this is ‘still to be invented’ (73).  Scientific pedagogy is no good because it ignores social conditions [so a real difference between Bourdieu and the educational technologists here].  We need to evaluate different methods of teaching, modes and actual procedures—for example, should we give general technical advice or close direction of student work?  Efficiency should be seen as related to students' social origins.  We might need constant exercises to build up the skills needed.  At the moment, this is denied by the myth of student autonomy and independent learning (74) which only help legitimates the charismatic teacher myth and see alternatives as pedantry.

Students vacillate between the perceived need for discipline and the myth of the aristocratic stance.  Teachers also vacillate, taking an aristocratic stance until they have to do assessment (75).  Professional judgments in reality are 'based on personal criteria, variable from teacher to teacher and…  tied to the particular case' (75).  Students need to decipher these criteria and try to rationalise them.

Students from upper class origins can adapt to these diffuse requirements, because of a 'clear affinity between school culture and the culture of the cultivated class' (75).  When asked to undertake oral exams, upper class students just demonstrate the skills which are already unconsciously valued [in presentations too?]. Any open recognition of the effects of social origin 'would be regarded as scandalous' (75).

In a rational approach, there would be clarity about the 'reciprocal requirements of teachers and taught…  the organisation of study…  to enable students from the disadvantaged classes to overcome their disadvantages' (75).  [Then a strangely utilitarian remark]: we should permit the 'greatest possible number of individuals to appropriate in the shortest possible time, as completely and perfectly as possible, the greatest number of the abilities which constitute school culture at a given moment' (76).  This approach will be neither traditional nor technical/specialist.  Until we develop it, education cannot overcome inequality.  At the same time, a rational pedagogy is in its turn impossible unless recruitment of teachers and students is democratised.


The middle class demand for university expansion arises from the need to secure their social places [credentialist closure].  The response to the development of a modern economy has been to demand more kinds of education.  Diplomas themselves have probably been devalued in terms of their role in regulating access to jobs.  The rapid growth of more functional [vocational?] education and more functional jobs have devalued traditional diplomas, and excluded non holders of diplomas altogether.  Academic qualifications have also helped to unify the whole system of qualifications [compare with the British government's model of 8 different levels].

As well as obtaining a diploma, it is important to exploit its value, and this requires further investments of educational and social capital.  Those stopping at the lower levels, and new arrivals at the higher ones, are likely to suffer most from devaluation.  They can fight back, for themselves and for their children, by demanding even more better qualifications [as in the credentialist spiral].

Educational qualifications can be converted to economic capital in several ways.  Graduates might be able to demand higher wages: those holding diplomas have overtaken small independent businessmen in terms of income [almost a counterbalance argument here, based on some statistical evidence, the authors claim].  Alternatively, graduates might be able to shift into new businesses.  This can be seen in the changes around craft work, for example, which now feature luxury and leisure goods.  These require a more cultural capital (80).  For such goods, value lies in the 'casual distinction of the vendor [as much] as on the nature and quality of the wares' (81), and it is important to demonstrate a mastery of taste rather than technical skills.  These sorts of new cultural industries seem ideal for those with cultural capital rather than high levels of educational capital [as an example, the denser members of the UK royal family seem to be able to make a good living making very posh furniture].

Holders of devalued qualifications can try to retain their value [an interesting possibility relating to the recent work on knowledge economy in the UK, which also predicts falling returns to university degrees].  For example, the diploma can become a licence to gain privilege rather than an actual job, and to increase self esteem.  Again more objective mechanisms are required, including a need to invest in valuable educational capital, perhaps by pulling out of unfashionable subjects [or unis].  It is possible to cling on to the old values to some extent, if you can persuade colleagues and the family of the value of your diploma, this can sometimes mask a real devaluation.  In some circumstances, it might lead to actual revaluation [if particular degree subjects become fashionable, or if you can persuade employers that the prestige of the qualification is the most important thing].  Those who supply jobs however are likely to reward their real value of diplomas, especially if they are pursuing deskilling strategies as well.  [I can still see a place for well educated but non technical people as decorative members of boards of directors].  In the worst case, diploma holders can be unemployed, and can see themselves as refusing to play the game [hence the moral drop out, who gains an engineering degree, finds it overtaken by technical developments, and gives it all up to run a smallholding in Devon].

more notes on Bourdieu and other social theorists

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