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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.