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IOE at 120: knowledge, power and social class – a closer look at the Sociology of Education, 1972-1982

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 17 August 2022

Basil Bernstein, Professor of the Sociology of Education, 1967-90; Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education, 1983-90.

Basil Bernstein, Professor of the Sociology of Education, 1967-90; Karl Mannheim Chair of Sociology of Education, 1983-90.

This blog is the eighth in a series of 12 exploring each decade in IOE’s history in the context of the education and society of the times. Find out more about our 120th anniversary celebrations on our website, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn to keep up with everything that’s happening. 

Michael Young.

The 1970s was a period of change and excitement but ultimate disappointment for sociologists of education. Internal divisions within the field and external political developments would change the discipline irrevocably. This meant that the work of IOE’s most eminent scholar, Basil Bernstein, would only later enjoy the influence it deserved.

In 1965 Basil Bernstein was promoted to be the first Professor of the Sociology of Education at IOE, and those of us who subsequently joined his department hoped that his highly original research on social class and language codes might be the basis for how the discipline would develop. However, for all its theoretical sophistication, his early work on language became, at best, an outrider to the peculiarly English obsession with the educability of working-class children and its correlation with their persistent low attainment at school. Despite Bernstein’s own powerful counter-argument – that the problem was the education system and not the individual abilities of working-class pupils – his work was treated primarily as the basis for a policy of compensatory education which perpetuated rather than challenged the prevailing system.

In the preceding decade, academics such as Jean Floud at IOE, and AH Halsey at Oxford had identified social class rather than individual ability as the primary determinant of selection and 11+. Their approach, in the ‘political arithmetic’ tradition, featured empirical studies which documented what was interpreted as the unequal distribution of educability between social classes and how this affected selection of pupils at 11+. Bernstein’s work, appointed as Floud’s successor as a Reader at IOE, heralded the potential of a different approach, with its focus on the conflict between the culture represented by schools and the culture brought to school by the majority of pupils.

Bernstein’s distinction between the language codes of working- and middle-class pupils was interpreted in two very different ways. One fitted the prevailing culture of  much educational thinking at the time, but was much criticised as embodying a deficit view of working-class language that needed to be compensated for. The alternative interpretation, less explicit but not absent in his own writing, treated language codes as shaped by the contexts in which they were developed. It followed that the deficit experienced by working-class pupils was not in their language code but in a curriculum that denied them access to it.

As early as 1970 Bernstein was finally to announce himself as a sociologist of the curriculum – in his keynote address to the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association. His  focus, consistent with his earlier work on language, was on knowledge boundaries – those between different curriculum subjects and between school and everyday knowledge. The questions he raised were hardly recognised at the time, but have now become critical to how many of us address the question of knowledge in education.

It was in developing a theory of curriculum that Bernstein was to devote the rest of his life.  However it was not until the link was made between the two elements of his work – language codes and knowledge boundaries – that its deeper theoretical potential began to be recognised. It says much about the dominant culture in England that this potential was recognised in South Africa and Latin America but not ‘at home’ until much later. Sociological research on the curriculum followed a very different route to that suggested by Bernstein ­– for example, in the book I edited called Knowledge and Control, published in 1971. This focused on the curriculum but in terms of the relations between knowledge and power. Despite including chapters by Bernstein and Bourdieu, the book drew on a very different sociology, influenced by Mannheim, Weber and Wright Mills and its message that the curriculum was ‘socially constructed’ inspired many young teachers and lecturers with the possibility that they could be agents of change in schools.

Geoff Whitty, IOE Director 2000-2010

IOE’s Department of Sociology of Education continued to be alive with debate during the 1970s, although not one that Bernstein engaged directly in. It was largely between the optimistic ‘new sociologists’ and teachers who one critic claimed ‘had Knowledge and Control in their bloodstream’ on the one hand, and the Marxists who argued that overcoming inequalities was not just an educational struggle but an industrial and political one. It took one of the IOE’s most politically sophisticated former student teachers, Geoff Whitty (who became IOE Director in 2000, serving until 2010) to argue for the need to go beyond the polarities of these largely academic debates. Whitty took the arguments of the Marxists seriously and criticised the naivety of the ‘new sociologists’ while retaining his respect for the necessity of action by teachers in schools. In what became his most famous conceptualisation, he depicted the latter as ‘naïve possibilitarians’. What was ‘wrong’ about the ‘new sociology’, he argued, was that action by teachers could not, on its own, change classrooms, let alone society; there is a world, he reminded us, that shapes the classroom and is not ‘made’ by teachers and their pupils.

These ideas, and several external developments, would affect the role of sociology of education in the UK and at IOE. The 1979 General Election brought Margaret Thatcher to power and nothing in the social sciences or in education was to remain the same. Her remark in 1987 that “There is no such thing as society” had the corollary that, for her,  there could be no such thing as a ‘social science’. As a not-so-indirect consequence, sociology of education had a reduced role in initial teacher training and was ultimately removed. This development was extended to the further professional development of teachers and weaken the sociology of education in universities more generally.

In an effort to counter this trend, Geoff Whitty and I put together two books that explored the criticisms of the ‘new sociology of education’ but tried to avoid the excessive pessimism and determinism of Marxist theorists. One book, Society, State and Schooling, included papers that looked critically at Marxist approaches. The other, Explorations in the Politics of School Knowledge, explored the possibilities and limitations that teachers and teacher educators found in drawing on the ‘new sociology of education’.

Reflecting,  more than 40 years later, on the decade of the 1970s that began with such optimism, several points strike me. The first was that while Bernstein’s work on knowledge and the curriculum which had considerable impact in countries as different as China, South Africa, Chile and Mexico, hardly ever filtered back to enrich debates at the IOE or in teacher education and schools in England more generally.  Not surprisingly, Bernstein’s questions about knowledge and the curriculum were all but forgotten.

Michael Young talks about Powerful Knowledge at IOE, 2013 https://youtu.be/r_S5Denaj-k

However, a doctoral student of Bernstein’s, Rob Moore, later an author of a well-regarded book about his work, never gave up on the possibility that Bernstein’s ideas could be the basis for reconstructing the discipline. In collaboration with the South African researcher, Johan Muller, they brought the two theoretical traditions together in their focus on ‘knowledge, not knowers’ as sociology of education’s core question. What they could hardly have envisaged was that their focus on knowledge was to be paralleled in policy terms, in England, by the very different and traditionalist view of knowledge introduced in 2010 by the new Conservative-led Government. It was this question of knowledge that two decades after his death was to force sociologists of education to turn back to Bernstein and is symbolised by the most recent debate about the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’  as the democratic right of all pupils.

Photograph of Basil Bernstein: UCL Institute of Education Archives, IE/PHO/1/214. If you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found material on this page for which you have not given permission, please contact us at ioeblog@ucl.ac.uk


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