Cultural Reproduction

Cultural reproduction is frequently considered to describe how cultural forms (e.g., social inequality, privilege, elite status, ethnicity) and cultures themselves are transmitted intact, from one generation to another. This idea emanates strongly from original work by Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970s on the role of the education process in reproducing class inequality and from such ethnographic classics as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour (1977) that showed how inequality could be reproduced culturally despite the best efforts of a benevolent education system. However, subsequent work on the concept of culture suggests that a concentration on class reproduction implies a very restricted sense of the term ‘‘reproduction,’’ and that more significant dimensions of reproduction inhere in the idea of culture itself (Jenks 1993). Indeed, Jenks shows how cultural reproduction lies at the heart of more traditions of sociology than Marxism and neo Marxism.

The word culture derives from the notion of growth and development and does not imply stasis or repetition. Williams (1981) shows how by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the word had itself grown to mean not only husbandry but also human development, specifically the cultivation of aptitude and understanding or, in other words, cultural capital or change. Critically, it remained only a verb until the nineteenth century. Another way of looking at this is suggested by Jenks, who argues that the idea of culture emerged from the noun process, in the sense of nurture, growth, and bringing into being – in fact to cultivate in an agricultural or horticultural sense. ‘‘Culture as process is emergent, it is forthcoming, it is continuous in the way of reproducing and as in all social processes it provides the grounds and parallel context of social action itself’’ ( Jenks 1993: 1).

Drawing on definitions of culture from anthropologists, Jenks suggests that culture embodies the idea of accumulated resources (material and immaterial) that a community might employ, change, and pass on. Essentially it is the socially learned behavior and the shared symbolism of a community: it reveals and structures, empowers and constrains. The problem with cultural reproduction as Jenks sees it also concerns a restricted sense of the term reproduction. The tendency within Marxist traditions of sociology has been to see reproduction phenotypically. In this, reproduction is restricted negatively to repetition, to the copy or, in a weaker sense, to ‘‘imitation’’ or ‘‘likeness.’’ As replication it implies a metaphor of restraint or the restriction on choice, and here of course is where ideology, state apparatuses, and symbolic violence are deployed in Marxian terms.

However, reproduction also has the genotypical sense of excitement, positivity, and vibrancy – as is implied in the newness of sexual and biological reproduction. Here the image changes to one of generation rather than repetition, of change and new combinations, innovation and creativity.

Jenks argues that in several traditions of sociology there is an implicit sense of a more positive form of cultural reproduction. In Durkheim’s work the challenge of cultural reproduction was ‘‘to search for the appropriate collective credo that will ensure the reproduction of solidarity in the face of change’’ (Jenks 1993: 8). In other words, for Durkheim, it is a defining feature of cultures that forms of solidarity will be produced in changed circum stances. The churning nature of modernization undermined mechanical forms of solidarity based on traditional societies, but new organic forms appeared among the newly individualized cultures of the city. As Jenks argues, ‘‘the Durkheimian tradition views reproduction with an optimism, indeed a positivism; its metaphors are consensual rather than divisive and its motivation is integrative’’ (1993: 8).

Equally, for ethnomethodologists there is a strong sense of creative cultural reproduction emanating from ordinary conversation and interaction. According to this view an inarticulate consensus must exist between competent social actors in order for interaction to work at all. And it is within the contexts of conversations and interactions that the business of cultural reproduction, whether of restraint and replication or innovation, is carried out/ negotiated.

Cultural reproduction as a process must therefore be tracked and watched over time in methodological terms, and Willis’s ethno graphic work on the working class ‘‘lads’’ in a Midlands school remains the archetype. In this study it was shown that the lads were not failed by an educational system geared solely to reproduce the privilege of the elite but by their own culture whose appeal proved stronger than the alien culture of education based social mobility. Willis shows how the cultural richness of working class culture competed with that offered by the school and how the lads embodied this culture and used it against the school and its teachers. However, this study took place in the context of a vibrant and secure labor market for blue collar workers. A later (1990s) study was completed when that labor market had all but evaporated (Mac an Ghaill 1994) and this showed how new circumstances engendered new forms of cultural response. Macan Ghaill did find a group corresponding to the lads, but unlike the superconfident 1970s group, they were undergoing a crisis of masculinity as the economic base of their culture had disappeared. Meanwhile, the new circum stances had produced a more fragmented masculine culture at the school with far more reaching out for the cultural capital that the school could offer.

Blasko’s work in Hungary also found that schools offering cultural capital had been used effectively by working class parents and children to achieve social mobility and by the upper classes to maintain their existing positions (Blasko 2003: 5).


  1. Blasko, Z. (2003) Cultural Reproduction or Cultural Mobility? Review of Sociology 9(1): 5-26.
  2. Bourdieu, P. (1973) Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In: Brown, R. (Ed.), Knowledge, Education, and Cultural Change. Willmer Brothers, London.
  3. Bourdieu, P. (1990) In Other Words: Essays Towards a Reflexive Sociology. Trans. M. Adamson. Polity Press, Cambridge.
  4. Jenks, C. (1993) Cultural Reproduction. Routledge, London.
  5. Mac an Ghaill, M. (1994) The Making of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities, and Schooling. Open University Press, Buckingham.
  6. Williams, R. (1981) Culture. Fontana, London.
  7. Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour. Gower, London.

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