On Bowles and Gintis (and 'reproduction theory')


Bowles's and Gintis's work came into prominence in British Sociology of Education following the emergence of a famous Open University course (E202 Schooling and Society 1976).Their main book Schooling in Capitalist America (SICA) offered a systematic marxist account of the role of schooling in modern society.

Gintis had worked on the massive study of American social mobility (that produced Jenck's work 1973), and he was able to bring to the analysis a mass of empirical data as well as rigorous marxist theorising (the empirical thrust of the piece is often omitted in summaries like the one in Haralambos 1980). The activist politics of the work, expressed not only in SICA but also in Gintis's essay on the deschoolers (Dale et al 1976), and in the follow up to SICA discussed below (Barton 1980), was also especially appealing to British writers, and helped them resist the gloomier tendencies of other reproduction theorists like Althusser.

The basic argument

There seem to be three elements in the model:
1. a class system, conceived in the classic marxist sense as having two fundamental and opposed classes
2. an occupational system, organised as a hierarchy of positions with gradations of income in the usual sense
3. an education system, also organised as a hierarchy, with gradations of levels and statuses within and between schools

There are also processes which connect the elements in the model:
1. After processes of uneven development and concrete political struggles (detailed in the book), the class system produces the present rational-looking occupational hierarchy
2. The occupational system is connected to the school system by two processes - looked at one way, the school system reflects or corresponds to the occupational system (hence the correspondence principle). From the other direction, as it were, the school system reproduces the occupational system.

The nicely stratified and rational occupational system, and the school system itself, are best grasped as institutions designed primarily to preserve the fundamental inequality rooted in the class system. Following Marx, B & G see inequality and the ensuing conflict about it as inevitable in modern capitalist societies. In order to manage this conflict, the ruling class has to rule by force, on occasion, and by persuasion. Its policies are deliberately designed to confuse and contain conflict and the result of genuine attempts to develop modern institutions like labour markets, and the unintended consequences of technical and other developments (so there is no simple conspiracy theory here). There is also a history of class struggle and resistance in the USA: hence the uneven development of the occupational system.

The usual explanations of the development of social institutions in the USA stress their rational and functional nature. Schools and the occupation system, in these analyses, reflect natural levels of "merit", organised purely rationally or functionally: low status schools cater for those with less merit, low status jobs require less skill to perform them - and so on. Much of the analysis in SICA is designed to question these explanations:

1.The empirical data they have shows that measured IQ is not tightly related to educational or occupational success. School qualifications are not tightly connected to subsequent occupations either: there is no really strong evidence that people are employed because of their skill. Unlike Jencks, B & G are unwilling to see the other factors involved as "luck" or opportunity: for B & G, sex, age, race, and "personality" (itself connected to social class) are as important as skill. If anything, schools produce too much skill for the sorts of jobs many people actually get to do. Finally, the evidence suggests that better-educated employees are not automatically of value to employers - even the level of literacy is not related to productivity. Part II of the book expands these arguments in more detail.

2.Schools do not supply employers with skills, but with suitably socialised workers. Schools reproduce the values, expectations and attitudes that prepare people to put up with inequality, accept their lot, and support the system, unequal as it is. This task explains much of what goes on in

- why they are so authoritarian, for example. Functionalist talk about schools transmitting the culture of the surrounding society - but schools are much more authoritarian than the surrounding society.

- why they are so stratified and variable. Schools catering for kids destined for the top of the system go to schools which are much more experiential, open and progressive (to match their intended occupational roles), while those catering for workers feature much more control and discipline (since they will meet this demand for obedience later).

3. The real activities go on at the level of the hidden curriculum (not the explicit curriculum). Suitable attitudes and personalities are rewarded at school and at work later. This is done at the level of school organisation and classroom practice - the common insistence on obedience, politeness, punctuality, neatness and respect for authority is stressed not just because academic teaching requires it, but because these are the real ends of schooling (for most of the population).

Exercise 1
Just to try and grasp the force of the analysis, try it for yourselves...what would Bowles and Gintis make of some of the practices in British higher education?

What would be the real purpose of practices like
- continuous asessment?
- assessment regulations and criteria (especially those relating to deadlines and presentation)?
- codes of student conduct?
- placements and work experience (including teaching practice) ?

Do colleges and universities or courses vary in terms of their teaching systems? Are the top ones more progressive free and open than those at the bottom of the hierarchy? If so why?

1.The labour market and the class system are at the root of the education system, and it follows that education is not an independent area that can be changed at will. Educational policy, and ideas - even progressive ones - have little effect.

2.Reforms designed to make the education system more open or liberal, the avenue to social mobility, have not worked, and can not work if they threaten the function of reproduction. As the empirical data shows, after all the massive expenditure on the US education system designed to make it free and compulsory (and comprehensive in British terms), sex, race, class, age and opportunity are all as important than schooling in providing social mobility (and, taken together, much more important).

3. Radical teachers (including perhaps the most radical group - the deschoolers) will find themselves unable to affect the system unless they adopt the correct politics. In his critique of Illich, Gintis denies any immediate radical solutions based on changing the education system alone, and urges a strategy designed to work with other progressive forces on a "long march through the institutions".


The book proved very influential and controversial. In Britain, it was criticised by some marxists ("British Gramscians") as being too deterministic, leaving too great a role to be played by the economy, and leaving little room for the efforts of activist teachers in changing the system. This sort of objection itself makes lots of assumptions of course, including the assumption that there are indeed lots of such activists -perhaps there were, at least in London, and at least in the 1970s.

SICA revisited

Gintis and Bowles in their follow-up (Barton op.cit) agreed that SICA had minimised the role played by contradictions in the system, especially structured contradictions, but they maintained that the basic arguments in the book remained intact (and claimed that even Jencks had admitted that their explanations of the empirical findings were superior).

Nevertheless, a radical overhaul of the book was needed. It was not enough to point to contradictions between schooling and the occupation system - such as the gulf that had opened between a rapidly changing occupation system and the relatively sluggish educational system in the 1970s and 80s (the crisis of youth unemployment and the eventual turn to vocationalism would be symptoms of this lag in the USA and in Britain). A model had to be found that would explain "autonomous contradictions", or structured, permanent, inherent contradictions. The old marxist apparatus in SICA would not do.

The new model was an "activist" one. Society was seen not in terms of economic base and education superstructure but as "an ensemble of structurally articulated sites of social practice" (p.55).

- Each of these sites (the State, the family) had its own characteristic social relations or structures of power, each was fundamental to capitalism, none could be reduced to the other.

- Although sites structure the practices that take place within them (families structure the relations between men and women or adults and children), practices are never simply determined by these sites (just as a language system structures actual speeches but does not fully determine
them - p.56).

- The sites themselves form a "contradictory totality" (Althusser had a similar idea - see the  file ). The contradictions between sites are necessary, since they provide one of the key dynamic processes of capitalism - the "transportation of practices across sites". This process also provides a mechanism for the escalation of local struggles into system-wide struggles, so there is hope for radical change.

- The education system is not itself a site since it has no uniform practices. Instead, education is a subsite of the State which actively imparts capitalist practices (like the cult of efficiency). However, it can also offer contradictory practices - like the formal emphasis on equality between men and women, or blacks and whites (in theory anyway!). Gintis and Bowles want to argue that this means the education system must be in a state of permanent potential contradiction with capitalist accumulation (which still must be fundamentally unequal)

- The "transportation practices" mentioned above can produce contradiction if, for example, women transport the notion of equal rights from education into the family, or if the notion of civil rights (learned at school) is transported in to work (where it might clash with the idea of market power conferring rights). We are close here to ideas like those of Habermas or Offe who have identified a contradiction between the economy (dominated by exchange values) and the welfare/social organisations in capitalism (dominated by use values) - see Offe 1984).

- G & B see a spreading contradiction following the increasing transportation of formally democratic procedures into the heart of capital accumulation. Here, one might note that this optimism does not seem to have paid off and that the "neo-Conservative turn" in Britain and the USA of the 80s seems to have coped very well with these contradictions.

- The tone is less revolutionary and orthodox marxist. The liberal discourse of equal rights does have genuine possibilities for social change, despite its focus on individual rather than collective rights. Even J.S.Mill is given his due.

- The education system has a useful role after all in providing students with this liberal discourse of rights, warning them up, so to speak, to demand transformation of society. The contradictions of the wider society are obvious in the education system, in the contrast between its liberal goals and its authoritarian organisation - there is hope for activist teachers.

Exercise 2

Again, to test the view that education provide tools for transformation for G & B,try out the following:

1. Is there a clash for you between the liberal discourses and the organisation of higher education? Illustrate with examples from some of the following - seminars, examinations, continuous assessment.

2. Are you aware of any "transportations" that you have accomplished between the different sites - eg if you are female, have you tried to tie up the formal equality of higher education with the inequality (?) of family life? Is it contradictory for you to live in both "sites"? How do you reconcile the two sites? Are G & B right to expect that contradictions will lead to liberation struggles?


As this discussion has suggested, there are several other variants of reproduction theories . All of them have similar problems to solve: they have to explain both the persistence of capitalism and the remarkable ability of capitalism to change, develop, and survive crises. Finally, the academic authors of such theories have other tasks too - to reconcile a number of exciting theoretical developments (such as the new interest in linguistics in sociology - hence the linguistic analogies in G&B?) with the old faiths like marxism, and to keep a balance between detached analysis and active involvement in "the struggle" (essential for academic street cred in Britain). The notion of reproduction has to be quite a subtle one to accomplish all these tasks - maybe it is too subtle and all - encompassing?


Bowles S & Gintis H (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul
Gintis H (1976) "Towards a political economy of education: a radical critique of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society" in Dale R et al (Eds) Schooling and Capitalism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul
Gintis H & Bowles S (1980)"Contradiction and Reproduction in Educational Theory" in Barton (Ed) School, Ideology and the Curriculum Haralambos M (1980) Sociology:Themes and Prospects, Suffolk, University Tutorial Press
Jencks C (1972) Inequality, London, Penguin
Offe C (1984) Contradictions of the Welfare State, London, Hutchinson