Cultural reproduction

Cultural reproduction

Cultural reproduction is the transmission of existing cultural values and norms from generation to generation.[1] Cultural reproduction refers to the mechanisms by which continuity of cultural experience is sustained across time. Cultural reproduction often results in social reproduction, or the process of transferring aspects of society (such as class) from generation to generation.[2]

  1. Groups of people, notably social classes, act to reproduce the existing social structure to preserve their advantage [2]
  2. The processes of schooling in modern societies are among the main mechanisms of cultural reproduction, and do not operate solely through what is taught in courses of formal instruction.[3]

Reproduction as it is applied to culture, is the process by which aspects of culture are passed on from person to person or from society to society.[2] There are a number of different ways in which this has happened. Historically, people have moved from different countries taking with them certain cultural norms and traditions. For centuries cultural reproduction has occurred in a profound way through a hidden agenda. Cultures transmit aspects of behavior which individuals learn in an informal way while they are out of the home. This interaction between individuals resulting in the transfer of accepted cultural norms, values, and information is accomplished through a process known as socialization.


Methods of Cultural Reproduction

The method through which cultural reproduction is perpetuated varies by the socializing agent’s relative location, awareness, and intention to reproduce social or cultural norms.

Enculturation can be described as "a partly conscious and partly unconscious learning experience when the older generation invites, induces, and compels the younger generation to adopt traditional ways of thinking and behaving".[4] Although, in many ways Enculturation duplicates the norms and traditions of previous generations. The degree of similarity between the cultures of each successive generation through enculturation may vary. This concept could be demonstrated by the tendency of each successive generation to follow cultural norms such as transportation right of way. These expectations are set forth and replicated by the prior generation. There may be little if any empirical evidence supporting a choice of driving in one lane or another, yet with each new generation, the accepted norm of that individual’s culture is reinforced and perpetuated. Parents and educators prove to be two of the most influential enculturating forces of cultural reproduction.[5]

Comparatively, diffusion is the dispersion of cultural norms and behaviors between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals. The integration of Chinese food or French linguistics into American culture represents this concept.[5]

Education as an agent of cultural reproduction

Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction [6] is concerned with the link between original class membership and ultimate class membership, and how this link is mediated by the education system. [7]

According to Sullivan (2001) [8], the theory of cultural reproduction entails three fundamental propositions: 1) parental cultural capital is inherited by children. 2) children’s cultural capital is converted into educational credentials. 3) educational credentials are a major mechanism of social reproduction in advanced capitalist societies.

The concept of education as an agent of cultural reproduction is argued to be less directly explained by the material and a subject taught, but rather more so through what is known as the Hidden curriculum. This refers to the socialization aspect of the education process. Through this, an adolescent acquires ‘appropriate attitudes and values’ needed to further succeed within the confines of education. An adolescent’s success or failure within the formal education system is a function of both their ability to demonstrate both measures of formal educational qualifications, as well as the attainment of the aforementioned qualities acquired through socialization mechanisms. This nature of education is reproduced throughout all stages of the system; from primary to post secondary. The ability of a student to progress to each subsequent level requires mastery of the prior. One’s ability to successfully complete the process of educational attainment strongly correlates to the capacity to realize adequate pay, occupational prestige, social status, etc. upon workforce participation.[9]

There is no clear consensus as the exact role of education within cultural reproduction; and further to what degree, if any, this system either encourages or discourages topics such as social stratification, resource inequality, and discrepancies in access to opportunities. It's believed, however, that the primary means in which education determines an individual’s social status, class, values, and hierarchy, is through the distribution of cultural capital. This notion of cultural capital accumulation, and the degree to which an individual attains cultural capital, determines the individual’s access to resources and opportunities.[10] There are, however several competing ideologies and explanations that have been significantly discussed.

Education provides functional prerequisites – known as Parsonian Functionalism states that education’s function is to provide individuals with the necessary values and attitudes for future work. This forms the assumption that regardless of the trade an individual participates, they will all need a similar set of social skills for their day to day interactions. From this concept, the idea of education as an Ideological state apparatus emerged. This elaborated on the prior by continuing that both family and school work together to reproduce social classes, occupational hierarchy, value orientation, and ideology.[9]

Education mirrors capitalism – Education mirrors the capitalistic system, in that it sorts individuals, and assigns them the skills necessary to fulfill their destined occupation. An individual is provided the appropriate attitude that should be observed within the labor force. Further it establishes an “acceptance to the reproduction of submissive attitude to the established order” [9] With this, education’s primary role is believed to be as a method of sorting individuals rather than equally educating. Those with high levels of accumulated social capital from parents or other sources are more easily able to excel within the system of education. Thus, these individuals will continue on a track that places these them into specialized and comparatively highly prestigious occupations. In contrast, those with little social or cultural capital will maintain low levels throughout the process of education and be placed into occupations with little demand for cultural capital – significantly less specialized and prestigious occupation. With this occupational selection, both the individuals will maintain the cultural norms and social status associated with each outside of their occupations as well.

With any of the concepts, whether considering the intrinsic value of education or the externally perceived value, each unit of educational attainment requires forgone earnings to attain. Insomuch as an individual would have to sacrifice wages in order to gain an additional unit of education. Outside of forgone monetary earnings, there are also direct expenses such as tuition, supplies, books, etc. one must consider when acquiring education, as well as less direct psychic costs. With this there is an economic consideration and tradeoff an individual must consider in their further education aspirations. One who has resources and the desire to continue education has a significant comparative advantage to an individual who by comparison does not. This financial aspect of educational acquirement proves as yet another consideration in the reproductive nature of education.

One who successfully completes the process of educational attainment incurs a significant comparative advantage over a similar individual who does not. Thus the degree to which education reproduces cultural and social norms already present in the underlying society stands to prove a significant factor in the continued propagation of these established norms. With this harsh divide between individuals who do and do not complete the process of formal education, social stratification and inequality between the two groups emerges. This further confirms cultural norms and reproduces the same system upon each successive generation.


The concept of cultural reproduction was first developed by the French sociologist and cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu in the early 1970s. Initially, Bourdieu’s work was on education in a modern society.[11] He believed that the education system was used solely to ‘reproduce’ the culture of the dominant class in order for the dominant class to continue to hold and release power. Bourdieu’s ideas were similar to those of Louis Althusser's notion of ‘ideological state apparatuses’ which had emerged around the same time. He began to study socialization and how dominant culture and certain norms and traditions effected many social relations.[11]

One of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron main concepts on Cultural Reproduction was in their book Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. Bourdieu’s main focus was the structural reproduction of disadvantages and inequalities that are caused by cultural reproduction. According to Bourdieu, inequalities are recycled through the education system and other social institutions.[12] Bourdieu believed that the prosperous and affluent societies of the west were becoming the “cultural capital”.[2] High social class, familiarity with the bourgeois culture and educational credentials determined one’s life chances. It was biased towards those of higher social class and aided in conserving social hierarchies. This system concealed and neglected individual talent and academic meritocracy. Bourdieu demonstrated most of his known theories in his books The Inheritors and Reproduction in Education, Culture and Society. Both books established him as a progenitor of “Reproduction theory” [13]

Bourdieu also pioneered many procedural frameworks and terminologies such as cultural, social, and symbolic capital, and the concepts of habitus, field, and symbolic violence. Bourdieu's work emphasized the role of practice and embodiment in social dynamics. Bourdieu’s theories build upon the conjectures of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Georges Canguilhem, Karl Marx, Gaston Bachelard, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, and Norbert Elias, among others.

Debate Over Cultural Reproduction

Bourdieu is best known for his theoretical principles, conceptual devices and political intentions. He theorizes that what is taught to younger generations is dependent on the varying degrees of social, economic, and cultural capital. Those cultures have gained cultural capital and are considered the dominant group among the rest. However, in order to acquire cultural capital one must undergo indiscernible learning and these cultural norms must be used in the earliest days of life.[14]

Through Cultural Reproduction, only those members of the dominant culture can acquire knowledge in relation to the way it is taught from within this cultural system. Therefore, those who are not members of the dominant culture are at a disadvantage to receive cultural information, and therefore will remain at a disadvantage. Capitalist societies depend on a stratified social system, where the working class has an education suited for manual labor: leveling out such inequalities would break down the system. Therefore, schools in capitalist societies require a method of stratification, and often choose to do so in a way in which the dominant culture will not lose its hegemony. One method of maintaining this stratification is through cultural reproduction.

Bourdieu Central Issues

Bourdieu's sociological work was dominated by an analysis of the mechanisms of reproduction of social hierarchies. In opposition to Marxist analyses, Bourdieu criticized the primacy given to the economic factors, and stressed that the capacity of social actors to actively impose and engage their cultural productions and symbolic systems plays an essential role in the reproduction of social structures of domination. What Bourdieu called symbolic violence (the capacity to ensure that the predictability of the social order is ignored—or misrecognized as natural—and thus to ensure the legitimacy of social structures) plays an essential part in his sociological analysis.


  1. ^ Glossary of Sociological Terms - School of Sociology and Anthropology - University of Canterbury - New Zealand, 1997
  2. ^ a b c d Bilton, Tony, Introductory Sociology (3rd ed) London, Macmillan, 1996
  3. ^ Giddens, Anthony. “Pierre Bourdieu” Polity Press, Vol. 581, 1997
  4. ^ Learning Commons: What is Culture?
  5. ^ a b Gray, Ann, and Jim McGuigan, eds. Studying Culture: An Introductory Reader. London: Edward Arnold, 1993
  6. ^ Bourdieu,Pierre and Jean Claude Passeron, (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, Sage Publications Inc, ISBN 0803983204
  7. ^ Sullivan, A. 2002. ‘Bourdieu and Education: How Useful is Bourdieu’s Theory for Researchers?’ Netherlands Journal of Social Sciences. 38(2) 144-166.
  8. ^ Sullivan, A. 2001 ‘Cultural Capital and Educational Attainment’ Sociology 35(4) 839-912.
  9. ^ a b c Jeffery I. Butler and Karen L. Robson, “Reassessing the Role of Education in Social Reproduction: The Impact of School Type on the Cultural and Social Capital of High School Students in the U.S.”
  10. ^ Reproduction: The Role of Cultural Factors and Educational Mediators, Kathleen Lynch, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1990), pp. 3-20
  11. ^ a b “ Jenks, Chris. “Cultural Reproduction Routledge” New York, 1993 Page 2.
  12. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice, Harvard University Press 1984
  13. ^ Stones, Robs. “Key Contemporary Thinkers”London and New York: Macmillan, 2006.
  14. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, translated by Richard Nice, Harvard University Press (1984)

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