Viewing the Inequality of Education in China and France from Bourdieu’s Theory of Cultural Reproduction


 Presenter (s) Xiaofei Han, Institute of International and Comparative Education, Beijing Normal University
Title Viewing the Inequality of Education in China and France from Bourdieu's Theory of Cultural Reproduction

In recent years, the Chinese mainland has conducted in-depth discussions and reflections on the topic of “A humble family brings forth a noble son” and “It is harder for a humble family to have a noble son”. Some data may be more telling. In 2010, Tsinghua University freshmen accounted for only 17% of the rural areas, while the proportion of rural candidates in the college entrance examination reached 62%; In 2012, a teacher posted a message online, “I have been a teacher for 15 years and I want to tell you that nowadays it is more and more hard for a humble family to have a noble son! The children with good grades are more and more inclined to wealthy families”. Then, after insisting on the saying that “A humble family brings forth a noble son” for so many years, why do some researchers or some teachers begin to reflect and conclude that “It is harder for a humble family to have a noble son?” What are the worrying factors behind this? Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction may provide us with some theoretical support. This article starts from the research question of “Why is it harder for a humble family to have a noble son?”, and then explores Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction.
Reproduction theory is a modern social critical theory that emerged in the western social sciences in the middle and late 20th century. Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction is known for revealing the social class of reproduction function of culture and education and the inequalities in the process of social selection. The theory of cultural reproduction believes that schools are a field for the production and reproduction of the inherent capital of the social class, students who enter different schools with different capitals will encounter different inequalities in their enrollment opportunities and in their school life. School education is not a social system that eliminates social inequality, as advocated by some educators and sociologists who believe in “democratization of education”. Rather, it is an important means of producing and reproducing social inequalities in a “genetic” manner and then justifying and perpetuating them.

The uniqueness of Bourdieu’s educational sociology is that it explores the inequalities within education through culture, and leaves no room to disclose how inequality mechanisms can be expanded in schools. Through the cover of cultural reproduction, the culture of the upper middle class is maintained in school education, and then their social reproduction is determined. His two books, “Academics” and “National Nobles: Elite Schools in the Field of Power”, are based on the French higher education system, exploring the relationship between different classes of university professors and student backgrounds and the relationship between social class and power in universities of the French elite.

In the second half of the last century, Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction has set off a great wave of research throughout the world. In China, from the study of social class and educational inequality to the study of Bourdieu’s reflective sociology, Chinese scholars have also played a huge role in the process of spreading Bourdieu’s cultural reproduction theory. In 1998, the Central Compilation Press published “Practice and Reflection: Guidance of Reflection on Sociology”, a book by French thinker Bourdieu and American scholar Huakang, translated by Meng Li and Kang Li. This book is elaborated in three parts, sketching out Bourdieu’s theory of knowledge, practice, and society, reflecting his achievements at the University of Chicago seminar. Dongfeng Tao started from the term “cultural capital” to introduce other proprietary terms such as “field”, “status”, “actor”, “individual”, “subject” and so on. Zhen Li started from another important term “practice” to introduce Bourdieu’s book. In addition, the dissemination of relevant research of foreign scholars also enriched our research, such as David Swartz’s “Pierre Bourdieu: Cultural Inequality in Social Inequality” and “Taylor’s Class, culture and educational structure”.

In contrast to French society, France has a high degree of urbanization, but there are still large inequalities in educational resources in different regions. France also has its own unique methods and policies in the face of school cultural capital’s inequality caused by the inequality of social capital. The French high school graduation examination system is unique. Middle school students can choose to work directly or enter different types of higher education institutions according to their own personal abilities and professional inclinations. However, the growing number of professional middle school students reflects the blindness of student choice. In order to correct as much as possible the blindness of middle school students’ choice of education type, the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation gives each student the right to modify their majors and courses. In addition, the “Excellent Middle School Graduates” policy introduced in 2013 to help outstanding young students enter the higher education system through special channels, and “The University’s Student Guidance and Success Act (ORE Act)” enacted in 2018 to give the university and college right to make course recommendations and admissions based on the candidate’s file and background, are constantly improving the inequality that society reflects in education.

Education is quietly completing class solidification through rounds of game between capital and school. How to make educational theorists and educational practitioners clearly understand the role and influence of cultural reproduction in the process of educational research and practice, and explore slowly the root causes of educational inequality, this is the basis for solving educational inequality in theory and practice of education. Education is not just a matter of education. In the final analysis, it is a matter of the whole society, even a matter for everyone. Solving the root problems of educational inequality is a task that the educational community and the entire society share.

Xiaofei Han, a second-year PhD student of the institute of international and comparative education, Beijing Normal University, majoring in comparative education. The research fields are comparative education, French higher education, etc. The current research subject is the development of comparative education in France, the status of French educational aid.

To contact Xiaofei Han, send an email to

4 Responses

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