Understanding the Symbolic Violence of Education Institutions in 21st Century post- Apartheid South Africa

This essay seeks to ask whether the sociological framework of the twentieth century French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, offers useful insights into understanding various fractures and ruptures in South African schooling in the twenty-first century.

Starting in 2015, student protests have disturbed schools and campuses around the country, particularly prestigious and privileged institutions, with students expressing deep dissatisfaction with their educational experiences on multiple levels including curriculum, administration, financial access and inclusivity.

At the university level, calls for change have primarily taken two forms: firstly, as pressure for free education to improve access for the poorest; and secondly, as a demand for decolonized curricula that critique and problematize dominant ethnocentric forms of knowledge, most of which position ‘Western’ scholarship as the fundamental bedrock for advanced learning. At the secondary schools, students have demanded reform of school policies that are narrowly premised on normative Anglophone and Eurocentric learner identities.

In this essay, I argue that while Bourdieu’s canon originates from the heartland of ethnocentric Western scholarship, his tools nonetheless provide important insights into the current events on South African campuses. I will outline why his sociological analysis of French schooling at that time is in fact more relevant to South Africa now than it has been previously, and how his analysis of schooling as a socially conservative force assists us in understanding the failure of education to provide economic and social emancipation for the vast majority of South Africans 23 years after the demise of Apartheid.

Having established this basis, I then turn to ask what responses might be available to students faced with such structures of schooling. Using Bhabha’s notions of mimicry and hybridity, I open questions of what might offer genuinely liberative learning experiences for the vast majority of South African students.

Bourdieu’s sociology framework

A very brief outline of Bourdieu’s key concepts[1] relevant for this analysis is pertinent prior to analysing their applicability to SA schools. Such an outline is presented against the backdrop of considering what is the objective of the sociology of education.

A sociological analysis of schooling attempts to excavate ‘generative structures’  for trends and patterns in schooling arrangements and practices. It also seeks to differentiate between personal problems and social issues. Education sociology is interested in the routines and mechanisms by which social groups transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, and what productive and regulative functions such transmissions serve. Knowledge transmission invariably occurs informally within the unit of the family, or more formally within the larger social group by those designated as knowledge stewards. In the twentieth century with the almost total adoption of schooling as it became institutionalized in industrial Europe, the dominant form of socially sanctioned knowledge transmission beyond the family is primarily that of the brick-and-mortar school (with learners grouped by age into cohorts, spaces arranged into classrooms, and time divided by subject specification) and beyond this, the university[2].

In 1974, Bourdieu published his essay “The School as a Conservative Force”, one of the first texts to question the established dominant trope that attending school was always a liberatory experience and a means of upward social mobility. His piece followed the Coleman Report, a large-scale empirical study in the US that controversially found schools in fact perpetuated, rather than reduced social inequality. But unlike the Coleman Report, Bourdieu used his sociological framework that he began developing in French-occupied Algeria to understand how and why schooling might function in this manner.

Bourdieu reasons that each agent in society, in the period of their early socialization, develops a habitus, a precognitive disposition towards the world based on their early experiences, an embodied internalization of habits, rituals, instincts, norms and unspoken codes about how to be in the world and how to be with others. The habitus is not a fixed entity, but is relatively resistant to change once established. Simultaneously, groups of agents establish what he refers to as fields of practice, socially delineated spaces where norms, routines, goals and expectations around activities operate within relational power structures. Education is a field. Literature, or art, constitutes a field: a discursive space with unspoken rules and routines that do not transmit easily beyond those practices. An example: to sit forty people based on age facing the same wall in instalments of an hour, punctuated by a bell, to listen in silence to one other person makes no sense beyond school. It is not a practice used in mining, in office work, in retail. When found elsewhere, it is often to engage in practices that mimic schooling: training workshops or lectures. Thus, fields contain their own internal logic that is both fashioned and sustained by the compliance of the agents that operate within them.

Habitus and field make no sense in the absence of the other: the habitus of agents shapes the fields in which they operate, and concomitantly, fields encourage some aspects of the habitus of the agents that occupy it, and discourages or negates others. Agents constantly work within the structuring structures of the fields they inhabit, deploying whatever resources or capitals they have at their disposal to master the goals that the field decrees as valid or valorous. These capitals might be economic, social, symbolic or cultural, and forms, modes and codes differ from field to field. For example in education, speaking the dominant language used in class is a cultural capital, whereas not speaking or having mastery of that language makes an agent (a student) less ‘fit’ to play the game of schooling. Those with more appropriate habitus and capitals at their disposal use their advantage to sustain their dominance, primarily by establishing symbols and signs of distinction that signal their difference from others. In schooling, the term ‘distinction’ is even explicitly used to delineate those who have achieved ‘success’ at schooling from those who have not. But distinction in the field is premised on difference: just as in academics, where a ‘distinction’ is valueless if it is obtained by every student in the class, the dominant groups of any field continue to deploy their capitals in order to set themselves apart.

Bourdieu often used the metaphor of a game to illustrate how habitus, field and capitals interacted. He posited that the primary purpose of schooling was the socially sanctioned transmission of cultural capital as valued by dominant social groups to their children, in a manner that made mastery of such capital extremely difficult, if not impossible, for other groups who lacked the habitus or capitals to be equally fit to play the game. Schooling, and what constitutes ‘success’ at schooling, is aligned with the habits and preferences of the dominant group, the knowledge selected and assessed, and the modes of transmission and assessment.

But for such practices to continue, they need to be seen as legitimate by those who participate in them. For Bourdieu, the primary mechanism of this sanctioning was misrecognition: convincing all engaged in the game, whether dominant or marginalized, that a cultural arbitrary is essential and ‘without alternative’, whether it be speaking English, adding and subtracting well, knowing Shakespeare or preferring scientific to occult explanations for natural phenomena[3].

Institutionalized (and mandatory) schooling is also a singularly unique field. All fields are broadly embedded within a field of political and economic power, and schooling as a sub-field uniquely positions students from a young age as more or less dominant within that broader field of power. Schooling acts as the reproductive field of capitals: a means of disguising economic inheritance between parents and children in the form of knowledge. It is this singular position that has often led to the shared belief that attendance and success at school is both necessary and sufficient for upward social mobility and increased personal emancipation.

But this shared belief sits on shaky ground. As Bourdieu notes, the capitals brought to schooling amongst different social strata of students, whether this be based on gender, race, class or geography, differ vastly, and are premised on their family of origin. He clearly states:

In fact, to penalize the underprivileged and favour the most privileged, the school has only to neglect, in its teaching methods and its techniques and its criteria when making academic judgements, to take into account the cultural inequalities between children of different social classes. In other words, by treating all pupils, however unequal they may be in reality, as equal in rights and duties, the educational system is led to give its de facto sanction to initial cultural inequalities.

This de facto sanction is extremely powerful, especially in a neoliberal social meritocracy when failure is often attributed to personal flaw. Despite Wright-Mill’s caution to distinguish between personal problems and social issues, and the clear trends in education between those who ‘succeed’ and those who ‘fail’, the notion of schooling as liberatory is still held as ‘common’ sense. Schooling is still misrecognized as culturally neutral, when it never can be.

Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu and 21st century South African education

The idea that schools establish and legitimise arbitrary, normative distinctions that stratify society was contentious in the US or France in the 1960s and 1970s. This is not the case in South Africa. Institutionalized schooling[4] has been a means of social domination and stratification since missionaries first began establishing schools in the Cape in the 17th century.

More recently, the project of Apartheid sought to engineer South African society explicitly by race. One of the major, and most effective, apparatus of this project is schools, leveraged to sustain inequality through the deployment of Bantu Education for black learners. This deliberate entrenchment of inequality in schools fomented some of the most dramatic events of the anti-Apartheid struggle, the most notable of which is the Soweto Student Uprisings of 1976.

Perhaps it is because the symbolic violence of schooling was so explicit for the last three hundred years that the South African gaze has not been as critical of schools’ inherent ability to entrench inequality post-Apartheid. All critiques (numerous as they are) of schooling post-1994 have focused, with good reason, on the quality of teaching and learning provision as gauged against the norm of ‘schools that work’. Yet such a narrow ambition for struggling schools fails to recognise that even if all ‘dysfunctional’ schools began doing all the things that ‘functional’ schools do tomorrow, the current arrangements of the system would still fundamentally disadvantage poor, black, non-Anglophone and rural learners.

Access to the quality of schooling formerly reserved only for white learners represented one of the great liberation goals for the new democratic government: the “doors of learning” were to be opened to all. And yet, bar the exceptions that prove the rule, schooling has failed to address deep social inequalities since the demise of Apartheid. Bourdieu’s insights into how schools (in their current form) tacitly sanction and legitimize social inequalities provides cold comfort to South Africans looking to schooling to solve social ills and narrow inequality gaps.

Furthermore, in the euphoric and contradictory days of the mid 1990s, the political rush to ‘treat all as equal’, instead of laying strong foundations for positive redress and redistribution[5], inadvertently led the post-Apartheid government to lay down policies that would in fact do just as Bourdieu warned: the current South African schooling system by and large treats all pupils (and schools), however unequal they may be in reality, as equal in rights and duties .

While the time and place differ vastly, the fundamental structure of schooling between 1970s France and 2017 South Africa are almost identical, and the social inequalities of South Africa by far outstrip those of France. This essay does not claim Bourdieu’s analysis as a grand theory of schooling failure in South Africa. Rather, as theory should, his insights into the reproductive and conservative functions of schooling provide points for understanding the generative structures underlying current South African education crises. The next section refocuses on the disruptions and tensions of the last two years on campuses across the country and asks what Bourdieu, and others, offer us in terms of tools to begin imagining a different, more just, schooling system.

Making sense of the rupture: moving forward

The recognition that schools impose cultural arbitraries that privilege some groups and disadvantage others provides a theoretical rationale for current uprisings in South African schools and on university campuses.

Calls for the decolonization of curricula, the removal of arbitrary schools rules about hair-styles or the language that learners may use on the playground, are evidence of students beginning to puncture the misrecognition of the culturally arbitrary as essential.

The symbolic violence imposed by a school requires the co-option and cooperation of the marginalized groups into sustaining the (common yet unfounded) belief that certain practices, knowledges and norms are ‘superior’. But as more and more students with a habitus at odds with that expected and valued by the education institution gain admission, the pressure for alternatives increases. Field and habitus are dialogically mutually constructive: the habitus of agents is both shaping of and shaped by the field. It then follows that as more agents with an alternative habitus gain access to privileged schooling spaces and bring different types of resources, the nature of the game of schooling, and the cultural arbitrariness it demands, can no longer be business as usual.

Homi Bhabha provides two concepts for describing the response of the colonised/marginalized towards the cultural imposition of the coloniser/dominant: mimicry and hybridity. For many years, students of disadvantaged backgrounds have ‘divorced themselves from themselves’ in order to obtain the habits and dispositions of dominant groups that are required of them to succeed at prestigious schools and at universities. Their mimicry of dominant groups’ language, accents, bearing and habits set them at odds with their cultural practices of the home and family[6]. As Bhabha notes, the mimesis can never be complete—the mimicry decomposes to mockery, a reflection of that which is considered ‘cultured’ or ‘educated’ so as to expose its arbitrariness. Ironically, the jettisoning of all epistemes, practices and preferences considered ‘non-African’ and hence tainted, is also a form of mimicry: Afrocentrism adopts all the vices and limitations of Eurocentrism by adopting narrow, essentialized definitions of identity.

But Bhabha also offers an alternative: hybridity, and cultural difference rather than diversity. Where the latter is premised on identities being fixed entities cast as essential and immutable, the former embraces pluralism, complexity and the agency of the individual to manifest and orchestrate their own identity and cultural resources. That is not to say we all descend into a “melting pot of love where everyone is brown”[7]: cultural distinctions do exist and are backed up by power asymmetries that are historical, political and economic. Rather, the concept of hybridity foregrounds schools’ current inability to leverage identity complexity and multiple forms of resources as cultural capital[8] in the learning project: students are expected to be and behave a certain way, and deviations are rarely tolerated[9].

Embracing hybridity as a strategy enables both dissenting students and educators to leverage what they bring that is undervalued by the education system, as well as harness the powerful forms of knowledge that formal education bestows. Students can learn African philosophy and Greek philosophy, Victorian literature canon as well as post-colonial critiques thereof, and wrestle with contradicting accounts of history from multiple perspectives. Rather than jettisoning scientific syllabi, students can learn both organic chemistry and the philosophy of science, understanding the differences between models and reality, as well as the limitations and strengths of positivist/realist approaches to empirical investigation.

While time limitations always imply that a curriculum is a sub-set of all that could be taught (and hence is always symbolically violent to someone), a pluralistic, hybrid curriculum offers a promising approach: not only to avoiding ethnocentrically limited thinking and learning, but to education that embraces critical approaches, appreciates complexity and has a healthy cynicism for “single stories”[10]. The tools and literacies required to teach and learn such curricula are advanced and powerful, requiring abstractions of patterns and concepts—and attention to detail—in ways that current, universalistic curricula do not.

In addition to a pluriversalist approach to curriculum content, educational spaces need to be mindful that pedagogic acts are always culturally discursive and hence symbolically violent: but they need not be as symbolically violent as they currently are. Educators should rather attempt to work in the difficult boundaries of hybridity rather than expecting mimesis, and in doing so heed Bourdieu’s suggestion to ‘take nothing for granted’ in order to construct a genuinely liberating pedagogy. That is: no tacit expectations about what is ‘proper’ or ‘right’ should be assumed from learners, but rather all forms of different cultural arbitrariness should be explicitly taught as objects of study in and of themselves, negotiated between educator and student in order to find common understanding about the education contract they must forge.


These approaches to schooling are far easier to write about than to implement. Questions arise over what to include and what to exclude when so much is available to be learnt. But a closer analysis of our current curricula, predominately at the schooling level, reveal inert (and sometimes arcane) content, the regurgitation of which is used more to distinguish those who ‘can’ from those who ‘can’t’ than to empower and enliven interesting thinking. There is more room to manoeuvre than might initially be apparent.

Then there is the question of who might be willing and able to teach such a curriculum, as well as the question of what changes would be necessary at the broader social scale to allow such changes: the current neoliberal moment that emphasises human capital outcomes of schooling is not fertile ground for such a bold reimagining.

But our current narrow, discursive and arbitrary schooling, both in form and content, continues to favour the privileged and penalize the under-privileged, and commands the compliance of the under-privileged to do so. The current moment of rupture on schooling campuses may provide the crack through which to shine the light[11] required for reimagining an advanced and hybrid form of schooling that genuinely does open the doors of learning to all.

By Sara Muller

The author wishes to thank Professor Pam Christie and Dr. Heather Jacklin for their stimulating conversations and presentations, many of which informed this piece.


[1] The reader is encouraged to engage with some of the readings listed in the bibliography for a deeper description of a large and complex body of work. Bourdieu’s framework developed over 40 years of broad and detailed empirical engagement across multiple facets and contexts of twentieth century society.

[2] The university lacks the tightness of age cohorts of basic schooling, but nonetheless exhibits most of its other features.

[3] This is not to suggest that there are no distinctions between different forms of knowledge as more or less powerful. Vygotsky, and Bernstein, both recognized that one of the primary features of modern schooling was the focus on teaching and learning the ability to extrapolate from everyday, quotidian forms of knowledge to abstract and codified forms. Such forms have certainly been at the heart of the modernization engine since the industrial revolution.

[4] Of course indigenous societies had their own means of intergenerational knowledge transmission (e.g. the initiation rites of young amaXhosa males into manhood through circumcision): ‘schooling’ here refers to Westernized schooling as established in industrial Victorian times and now well established as the common meaning of the word ‘schooling’.

[5] The non-adoption of the Hunter Report is a good example of how discourses of ‘equality’ trumped those of redress in the late 1990s.

[6] A wonderful account of this splitting of the self to obtain access to the cultural capital of education, what Bourdieu calls habitus clivé, or cleft habitus, is narrated in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel “Nervous Conditions”.  

[7] Skunk Anansie: “And here I stand”, Paranoid and Sunburnt 1995.

[8] (for a good example of schools serving disadvantaged learners in Australia who resist centralized curricula policies to elevate their learners’ and communities’ indigent cultural resources, see Lingard et. al. 2003).

[9] This is not to say there are no limitations on what constitutes tolerable behaviour. But that these norms should not just be assumed, but negotiated democratically.

[10] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story (2009)

[11] with thanks to Leonard Cohen

Bibliography/Suggested Readings:

Adichie, C. N. (2009) “The danger of a single story” TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

Andreotti, V. (2011) Actionable Postcolonial Theory in Education. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London and New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1967) ‘Systems of education and systems of thought’ International Social Science Journal  19(3) pp 338—352.

Bourdieu, P. (1974) ‘The School as a Conservative Force: Scholastic and Cultural Inequalities. In J. Eggleston (ed), Contemporary Research in the Sociology of Education (pp 32—46). London: Methuen.

Bourdieu, P. (1986) ‘The Forms of Capital.’ (trans. Richard Nice) in J. Richardson (ed) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp 46—58). New York: Greenwood.

Bourdieu, P. (1990) The Logic of Practice. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu P. (1999) The Weight of the World: social suffering in contemporary society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J-C. (1977) Reproduction, Education, Society and Culture. London: SAGE Publishers.

Christie, P. (2008) Opening the Doors of Learning: changing schools in South Africa. Johannesburg: Heinemann.

Coleman, J.S. (1966) Equality of Educational Opportunity Office of Education of United States. Washington: Arno Press.

Hlatshwayo, S. (2000) Education and Independence: Education in South Africa 1658-1988. London: Greenwood Press.

Lingard, B., Hayes, D., Mills, M. and Christie, P. (2003) Leading learning: making hope practical in schools Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Mignolo, W. (2013) On Pluriversality Retrieved from http://waltermignolo.com/on-pluriversality/

Motala, S. (2009) Privatising public schooling in post-apartheid South Africa—equity considerations. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 39(2) pp 185-202.

Wright-Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination New York: Oxford University Press.