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Interpreting and Using Basil Bernstein’s Sociology of Education  

Henry Kwok and Parlo Singh

For four decades, Basil Bernstein developed a distinct and original contribution to the sociology of education. Despite his death in 2000, Bernstein’s theories still attract attention, not just in the United Kingdom, but all over the world, beyond Anglophone academic circuits. Yet, his work is sometimes regarded as too theoretical with minor significance to current educational issues and problems. Is Bernstein’s sociological theory relevant to the challenges of the 21st century? How should his work and research approach be understood and better utilized? While not claiming an orthodox interpretation, we do suggest that three crucial principles should underpin any engagement with t Bernstein’s theory for educational research. First, the researcher’s encounter with a specific problem in empirical reality is pivotal. Concepts which carry sociological sensibilities should be assembled around the problem. Second, while Bernstein has developed a bewildering array of concepts, it is better to use them lightly, for the sake of a more accurate description of complex, open, dynamic social systems such as education and schooling. Third, the gaze of Bernstein’s sociological theory is relational not only towards the object of inquiry but also to other theoretical frameworks. This relational gaze means that the theory can be used to dialogue with other theories as well as open dynamic social systems. Such relational capacities enable the theory to grow through the refinement and extension of existing concepts and the introduction of additional concepts. Three examples of research drawing upon these principles are provided as an illustration.


Schooling in Racist America  

Zeus Leonardo

Education is both a racial and class project. This means that a multidimensional theory of educational stratification is necessary if an accurate appraisal of schooling’s modern appearance in capitalist, racialized states is central to the research endeavor. Critiques of capitalism are found in critical pedagogy and Marxist studies of education since the 1970s, which argue that schooling’s intellectual division of labor mirrors the material structures of a capitalist division of labor. In addition, the advent of critical race theory in education since 1995 provides compelling evidence that schooling is not only an ideological apparatus of the capitalist state but also equally of the racist state. Together, developing a critical class theory and critical race theory of education offers a more complete explanation of educational stratification in order to understand its processes and perhaps ways to intervene in them.



Daniel Tröhler

“Progressivism” is a collective term used in historiography to characterize historical phases in which particular ways to think about progress are detectable. Hence, “progressivism” is more a historiographical label used by historians than a term used by those thinkers identified as being part of a progressive phase in history. Even though important scholars have argued that the idea of progress can be traced back to antiquity, others have argued that ideas of progress—as a more or less linear alternative to a cyclical way of thinking—are found for the first time in the transition from the early modern period to modernity (ca. 1700). These ideas of progress can be linked to the advancement of knowledge, to the perfecting of the soul or then of the social order, and they link the notion of “progress” with notions like “perfection” and “development.” As a rule, “progress” did not include notions of future chaos or imponderability but rather was understood as an ordered proceeding to the future that was interpreted either as the redemption or materializing of a more or less predetermined road (individually and/or socially), as a contribution to adjustment of social development understood as dangerous or wrong, or as resulting from a forecast and planned future. All of these attempts over the last three and a half centuries to conceptualize progress in one way or another were connected to research, and they affected ideas on education; most of them were even closely related to educational aspirations, methods, programs, and/or policy. The two great and independent motives of “progress” can be identified first around 1700 in France and England with regard to advancement in knowledge and the sciences (1), and in Germany with regard to the perfection of the soul. The idea of human perfection and the advancement of the knowledge based on modern sciences were merged in the Enlightenment prior to the French Revolution and its philosophical legitimation (2), leading in the German realm to a philosophy of history that subordinated all of human and natural history to a great narrative from the past to the future (3). The emergence of sociology gave the narrative a national frame that was supported by the erection of modern schooling, but by the end of the 19th century, the modern conditions of social and political life as actual expressions of progress were perceived as not redeeming the promises of the Enlightenment and the philosophy of history, which led to a schism in the interpretation of “true” progress. These critical perceptions triggered a reaction labeled the Progressive Era, which aimed to readjust the modern conditions of life to particular, often religious ideals of social order in which progress was more tightly connected to (idealized) visions of the past (4). The educational ideas and ideals of this Progressive Era proved to be sustainable, but they were attacked during the Cold War period, which saw an emphasis on technocratic aspects of governance and specific ideas of economic and social development. The ramifications of this focus, which called for planning the future and adjusting education to these plans, can be seen in the case of the OECD (5).