Bourdieu for Educators: Policy and Practice


Fenwick W. English & Cheryl L. Bolton

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    This is a book for educational practitioners and policymakers who work anyplace in the world where there is a state-supported public educational system. Pierre Bourdieu produced an extensive range of works in many different fields, but a good number of them were focused on education. While he was a French philosopher–sociologist–researcher and public activist for popular and democratic causes in a particular time and culture, his insights, understandings, and humanity created a corpus of provocative books, articles, and commentaries that continue to strike chords of commonality across cultures and nations, keeping his ideas vibrant and relevant today.

    Our purpose in writing this book is to bring Bourdieu’s principal educational ideas and insights to a wider audience of educators than those typically found in purely academic institutions of higher education. An excellent sample of books and anthologies about Bourdieu exists in sociology and other disciplines; however, this book has been specifically developed for the largest group of educators working in the schools of the world: those who lead for learning in the primary, elementary, and secondary institutions where the bulk of children attend.

    While we did not assume that our readers were deeply read in sociology, philosophy, or any specific academic discipline, we did expect that Bourdieu’s name would at least be tangentially familiar to them, even if they had not read widely about him or his ideas. We also assumed that our readers were very familiar with the issues nearly all schools in the world face: how to educate children of all backgrounds effectively, how to confront socioeconomic disparity and poverty, and how to create more socially just societies.

    Our exposition and explanation of Bourdieu’s writing represent the most important concepts of what he offered to the world of policy and practice, at least as we understand them as practitioners in those worlds. This was no easy task, as much of Bourdieu’s academic writing was directed to sociologists and researchers who would be intimately familiar with his references and concepts. Our presentation tries to avoid arcane and highly technical issues that would require such specialized knowledge.

    A further element of complexity in accessing Bourdieu’s work is that he created his own vocabulary in which to locate his ideas. He did this because he believed that ordinary words from common use were too slippery to carry the special connotations and meanings he saw as necessary to attain any new insights or understandings about what and how schools actually work. This special vocabulary can be initially off-putting, but we have attempted to ease the reader into it gradually and to explain the various concepts with reference to current educational events. Our sequencing of his concepts is therefore a matter of our choice in bringing the reader into Bourdieu’s world.

    We do not claim to have included all Bourdieu’s works or ideas—only those that we believed, based on our own experiences, would help those working in schools understand some of the larger social and political issues affecting them. Our criteria for deciding what to address in this book were therefore a rough kind of practical rubric for inclusion or exclusion. While we have provided examples of current situations to illustrate some possible applications of Bourdieu’s concepts, we have not set out to engage in speculation about what Bourdieu would do or think, beyond what he wrote and beyond informed scholarly opinion of his writings and researches.

    Finally, we want to communicate to our readers that, as sociologist Richard Jenkins (2002) once wrote of Bourdieu, he was “enormously stimulating” and was “good to think with” (p. 176). Michael Grenfell (2004) called Bourdieu an “agent provocateur.” We are confident that as you take this journey of learning about him with us, you will also agree with their assessments. We think you will discover in Bourdieu a fascinating, complex, insightful philosopher–social scientist who once wrote, “My principle has always been to say what is hardest for my audience to swallow—the very opposite of demagogy” (Bourdieu, 2008, pp. 49–50).

    If you care about education and children, equity, diversity, and social justice, you will find in Bourdieu a relentless critic of schooling everywhere. But equally present in his pursuit of piecing together the creation and use of social and economic power is a way toward equity, diversity, and social justice not previously perceived on a wide scale among educators or policy developers.

    With patience and persistence, we believe that by using Bourdieu’s work we can arrive at a new vision or a metanoia about what it will really take to reform schools so they become more successful with all students and, as a result, more socially just places for every society. That the educational reforms proffered by politicians in both our countries have thus far failed to deliver on their promises is not surprising. Bourdieu explains why, and for this reason alone we believe he is worth the effort to understand. We hope that this book for educational practitioners will start the journey toward such an understanding.

    Fenwick W. English, Chapel Hill, North CarolinaCheryl L. Bolton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom

    About the Authors

    Fenwick W. English (PhD, Arizona State University) is the R. Wendell Eaves Senior Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a position he has held since 2001. A practitioner turned scholar, Dr. English has been a school principal, assistant superintendent, and superintendent of schools in elementary/secondary education in California, Florida, and New York. He has served in Ohio and Indiana as a department chair, dean, and vice chancellor of academic affairs in higher education. He is the author or coauthor of more than 35 books spanning a period of more than 40 years. He served as president of the University Council of Educational Administration in 2006–2007 and as president of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) in 2011–2012. In 2013, he received the Living Legend Award from NCPEA for his lifetime contribution to the field of educational leadership. He and Dr. Cheryl L. Bolton have presented their research papers at meetings of the American Educational Research Association and the British Educational Leadership, Management, and Administration Society for the past 5 years.

    Cheryl L. Bolton (PhD, Staffordshire University) is responsible for a range of education programs, including education doctorates and wider professional development for teachers and others in education. She worked in industry before moving to education, becoming a teacher in college, developing teacher education programs, and moving to Staffordshire University in 2008, where she has continued to work with educators of learners of all ages and across different establishments. Dr. Bolton has written a number of publications relating to educational leadership, which have appeared in The Journal of Educational Administration and Journal of School Leadership, and a chapter on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein in the 2011 SAGE Handbook of Educational Leadership (second edition). She has presented papers at meetings of the American Educational Research Association and the British Educational Research Association in the United Kingdom.

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