Knowledge and Pedagogy: The Sociology of Basil Bernstein (1995)

Knowledge and Pedagogy: The Sociology of Basil Bernstein (1995) / Discourse and Reproduction: Essays in Honor of Basil Bernstein (1995)

MacSwan, Jeff


Sociolinguistics and the study of bilingualism share a historical concern with the political and socio-psychological status of minority languages and dialects. In both scholarly domains, Basil Bernstein’s “code theory” has been adopted, discussed, and disputed in a wide variety of works. In recent years, too, considerable attention has been given to Basil Bernstein’s system of ideas. Two recent books, in particular, both concerned with criticisms of Bernstein’s code theory, have appeared: While Knowledge and Pedagogy: The Sociology of Basil Bernstein (1995), edited by Alan R. Sadovnik, deals with the controversies surrounding many aspects of Bernstein’s work; and Discourse and Reproduction: Essays in Honor of Basil Bernstein (1995), edited by Paul Atkinson, Brian Davis, and Sara Delamont, is a festschrift for Bernstein, a celebration of the impressive range and impact of his sociology.

In his introductory chapter “Bernstein’s Theory of Pedagogic Practice,” Sadovnik credits Bernstein, along with M. F. D. Young, as initiating “a systematic study of curriculum as the organized and codified reflection of societal and ideological interests.” Bernstein’s work, according to Sadovnik, was rooted in structuralist inquiry and was centrally concerned with the ways in which curriculum and pedagogic practices act selectively on those who acquire them. Sadovnik’s piece frames a synthesis for Bernstein’s work, noting that the barrage of criticism directed against his linguistic code theory distracted readers away from the broader sociological framework he was attempting to develop.

Other contributors in Part II of Sadovnik’s volume echo these themes, where special attention is paid to Bernstein’s work on the sociology of the hidden curriculum. Michael Apple, for instance, in the context of a fascinating review of Bernstein’s Marxist underpinnings, acknowledges Bernstein’s influence on his own thinking about “how official knowledge, as both content and form, was implicated in the reproduction and subversion of power relations.” Paul Atkinson outlines Bernstein’s Durkheimian structuralism, underscoring in particular the special influence of Saussure’s linguistic theory and analyzes Bernstein’s use of sign and system in his sociological theory. Parts IV and V examine Bernstein’s work on schooling and curriculum and its influence on educational and social research.

Part III of Sadovnik’s (1995) volume, however, turns to the analysis of Bernstein’s code theory, with contributions by Halliday, Danzig, Hasan, and Rodriguez Illera. Several of the contributions to the festschrift for Bernstein, Discourse and Reproduction: Essays in Honor of Basil Bernstein, similarly focus on Bernstein’s code theory, examining the role that discourse plays in cultural reproduction.

An important contribution of both these books is the emphasis on Bernstein’s broader sociological framework, in which schooling and curriculum are viewed as instruments which facilitate class reproduction and, more importantly, “justify” the inequitable distribution of privilege and comfort for the educated classes. Unlike his colleagues in Britain, Bernstein analyzed social relations in terms of Durkeimian structuralism, using the linguistic discoveries of Ferdinand de Saussure (1916/1959) to construct a theory of language tied to the social habits of distinct discourse communities.

De Saussure discovered that real psychological processes underlie living languages in the same way that systematic processes define historical, diachronic changes in language, and also made a crucial distinction between speech (langage) and language (langue):

But what is language [langue]? It is not to be confused with human speech [langage], of which it is only a definite part, though certainly an essential one. It is both a social product of the faculty of speech and a collection of necessary conventions that have been adopted by a social body to permit individuals to exercise that faculty. (1916/1959, p. 9)

For de Saussure, langue constituted a particular part of linguistic expressions. Itwas the sign that signified; only within a system (langage) could signs be used to construct propositional meanings. In a sense, Bernstein’s sociology is concerned with uncovering the grammar of social signs. Bernstein sometimes speaks of”the grammar of physics” or the “grammar of sociology” in this vein as well.

An important consequence of Saussure’s architectonic was the rejection of the belief that some languages are inherently more valuable than others, generally known today as “prescriptivism.” While Saussurean structuralism lies at the heart of much of Bernstein’s sociological work, in a sense, the prescriptivist values which it explicitly rejects do too. At least this is what the critics of Bernstein’s code theory have claimed.

Prescriptivism has a long history. Although many of the early notions regarding “good usage” were strongly associated with classical liberal thought, these ideas were lost as prescriptive grammar forged an alliance with elitism. “Inevitably, schoolteachers found themselves spending more time teaching rules of usage that had no basis in the rational program of traditional grammar, but only in invidious distinctions of class and race” (Nunberg [1983], cited in Newmeyer [1986, p. 45]). Language academies employed with the task of “purifying” the regional linguistic descendants of Latin were set up as early as 1582 in Italy, 1635 in France, and 1713 in Spain. Proposals for a language academy in England were also popular in the seventeenth century (Jonathan Swift’s, among them), but the suggestion lost support as it became evident that the European academies could not halt the tide of language change. In the thick of this tradition, which took literary and classical languages to be of greater expressive capacity and complexity, structuralists in the U. S. sought to carry out a program of research that assumed that all languages of the world are cast from the same die. As Newmeyer (1986, p. 42) has put it,

As long as American structuralists confined their campaign to the languages of remote tribes, they did little to upset their colleagues in departments of modem and classical languages – in which almost all linguists were situated in the interwar years. But such was certainly not the case when they began crusading for the linguistic equality of all dialects of English and other literary languages, no matter how “substandard” they were regarded. This egalitarian view came in direct conflict with the long-seated tradition in the humanities that values a language variety in direct proportion to its literary output.

While much of seventeenth-century Europe was preoccupied with “elite languages” and the creation of watch-dog academies, the Port Royale Grammar of 1660 advanced a very different view of language and of the human condition. Written in French, the Port Royale Grammar formed part of the movement to displace Latin as an outdated mode of academic discourse. However, what marked the Port Royale Grammar as deeply distinct from contemporaneous approaches was its devotion to philosophical and universal properties of human language in descriptive terms. The Port Royale grammarians worked on the Cartesian assumption that normal human intelligence is capable of acquiring knowledge through its own internal resources, making use of the data of experience but moving on to construct a cognitive system in terms of concepts and principles that are developed on independent grounds.

However, early work in the sociology of language, including Bernstein’s, in many respects followed in the tradition which viewed culturally distinct languages as related hierarchically, with the languages of the dominant social classes at the top of the “intellectual” scale. According to Dittmar (1976), Schatzmann and Strauss (1955) were the first to formulate what he terms “the Deficit Hypothesis,” the view that the linguistic abilities of particular social groups are deficient or restricted in some way. Schatzmann and Strauss (1955) interviewed members of the lower and middle class about their impressions and experiences after the occurrence of a disaster and found that the former used lots of emotional language which reputedly gave rise to “elliptical syntax.” Accordingly, Schatzmann and Strauss (1955) concluded that the lower classes only conveyed their meaning “implicitly,” while the educated classes conveyed their meaning “explicitly.”

Bernstein (1971) similarly formulated a distinction between “public language” and “formal language,” later termed “restricted code” and “elaborated code.” Bernstein studied speakers of a non-standard dialect in London and characterized their speech as accessing “restricted code” but not “elaborated code.” As Halliday’s paper in Sadovnik’s ( 1995) volume points out, Bernstein (1971 ) viewed public language as characterized by “fragmentation and logical simplicity.” By contrast, “formal language” or “elaborated code” may be used to express “universal meaning.” For Bernstein, the restricted code expresses meanings which form a proper subset of the range of meanings expressed in the elaborated code. The appropriate remediation, then, “… would seem to be to preserve public language usage but also to create for the individual the possibility of utilizing a formal language” (1971, p. 54).

Numerous commentators have portrayed Bernstein’s code theory as positioned squarely within the camp of the “deficit” theories, among them Trudgill ( 1974), Dittmar ( 1976), Boocock ( 1980), and Bennett and LeCompte (1990). Halliday and Danzig come to his defense, as do other contributors in Sadovnik (1995) and Atkinson, Davies, and Delamont (1995).

Bernstein himself explicitly took differences in codes to be a property of linguistic performance or language use, not linguistic competence or knowledge of language (Bernstein, 1971, p. 173). In other words, he suggested that the differences between the language of the poor and of the educated classes consist in their choice of words and structures, not in their actual grammars. Of course, languages do differ, structurally and lexically, and it is natural to think of the grammar underlying the languages of different groups (cultural, ethnic, social) as distinct in this way. However, a problem arises when the difference is presumed to relate to a difference in value, as Bernstein indicates when he characterizes the language of the poor as “restricted” to “fragmentation and logical simplicity.” Despite his insistence that the difference in codes relates to issues of linguistic performance, Bernstein often speaks of codes as having distinct “linguistic rule systems,” and he attributes to these codes radically different expressive capacities. More precisely, as Dittmar ( 1976) has pointed out, what makes Bernstein’s view a species of the Deficit Hypothesis is his perspective that the speech of the educated classes is in some way greater (more expressive, less elliptical, so on) than the speech of poor people; that is, the characteristics of “better speech” are taken to be precisely those characteristics which poor people lack.

Linking language and cultural identity, Bernstein (1971) gives his code theory a Whorfian twist, adding that culture itself is shaped by the linguistic rule system underlying different codes:

Clearly, specific linguistic rule systems are part of the cultural system, but it has been argued that the linguistic rule system in various ways shapes the cultural system. … [W]hich speech codes are realized is a function of the culture acting through social relationships in specific contexts. (p.173-174)

If this is correct, then we would expect a culture to have whatever essential characteristics the linguistic code has. If Bernstein is right, the language and culture of the educated classes is characterized by “universal meaning,” while the language and culture of the poor and working class is capable mainly of “fragmentation and logical simplicity.”

Some critics would argue that since “restricted” speakers are reputedly limited to logically simple expressions, Bernstein’s ideas suggest that the presumed inability on the part of members of the lower classes to use “elaborated code” corresponds to “cognitive deficiencies,” deficiencies which schools must “remedy.” As mentioned, Bernstein himself has made this claim with respect to language, suggesting that the education of the poor should “create for the individual the possibility of utilizing a formal language.” Viewed in terms of Bernstein’s own sociological perspective on schooling and curriculum, this proposed remedy may be taken to assign schools the task of correcting the “logical simplicity” of minority children’s speech.

It is also an elitist perspective. The notion that the poor require a remedy in order to be more like their oppressors reinforces the myth that there really is something special about the educated classes, that the language spoken by its members is “superior” in some interesting way. Thus, Bernstein’s theory of codes does not suggest that the academically successful are merely perceived as smarter or more capable, due to the marketability of their particular talents. Rather, it implies that the academically successful really are smarter, ready to engage in a discourse capable of expressing “universal meaning,” eschewing the fragmentation and “logical simplicity” of the underclass. Such myths of superiority are useful in our society: As Chomsky (1975, p. 132) put it, they justify the special position occupied by

the liberal technocrats or corporate manages who monopolize “vital decisionmaking” in the institutions of the state capitalist democracy, beating the people with the people’s stick, in Bakunin’s trenchant phrase.

In such a society, the oppressed are required to climb the ladder of “equal opportunity.” The higher they get, the more they resemble the oppressors and the more their efforts are rewarded.

Rather than attempting “to create for the individual the possibility of utilizing a formal language”-or to teach poor people to sound like elites – a genuinely progressive approach to inequality is concerned with a critical analysis of the social institutions which make us think of some as worthy of special access to privilege and comfort. Apple’s paper in Sadovnik’s volume opens with this observation: “In The German Ideology, Marx articulates one of his famous claims. Paraphrased, it reads in essence that ‘The ruling class will give its ideas the form of universality and represent them as the only rational universally valid ones”‘(p. 59). Thus, a radical perspective on schooling and curriculum is focused on an examination of the role which social and cultural institutions play in bending our minds around the myths which ruling elites establish to justify their hegemony. Thus, while we applaud Bernstein’s critique of schooling and curriculum, and his detailed and careful analysis of the ideological role of social institutions, core ideas in his sociology (specifically, the theory of codes) ought to have been scrutinized in terms of his guiding principle of social critique. Such critique has the potential to seriously challenge traditional assumptions regarding the “special status” of the language of the educated classes, and, thus, to challenge the authority of the academic commissariat in U.S. society. As a Marxist whose lifelong project has been to champion the cause of the working classes, Bernstein himself would no doubt reject our criticisms here.

Sadovnik’s volume provides twenty chapters, each authored by an individual with unique concerns and criticisms of Bernstein’s work. Most valuable, perhaps, is the final chapter in which Bernstein himself is given the last word – an opportunity to respond to each essay in the volume point by point. Although the volume by Atkinson, Davies and Delamont is not intended as a critique of Bernstein’s work, a number of its contributors engage Bernstein’s ideas critically. The editors of both books have succeeded in putting together excellent collections which will no doubt influence scholarship on Bernstein’s sociology of language for years to come, and are indeed required reading for Bernstein specialists.

Although our own analysis of Bernstein’s work has been somewhat critical, it would be an egregious error to villainize Bernstein, as some of his critics have done. If our analysis of Bernstein is right, then the lesson is this: A prosocial agenda requires us all to interrogate our own assumptions about the nature of school curriculum and class structure, and to view critique as opportunity for growth.


Atkinson, P., Davies, B., & Delamont, S. (Eds.) (1995). Discourse and reproduction: Essays in honor of Basil Bernstein. Cresskill,NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Bennett, K. & LeCompte, M. ( 1990). How schools work: A sociological analysis of education. New York: Longman.

Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, codes and control: Vol. l, Theoretical studies toward a sociology of education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Boocook, S. (1980). Sociology ofeducation: An introduction (2nd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Chomsky, N. (1975). Reflections on language. London: Temple Smith.

de Saussure, F. (1916/1959). Course in general linguistics. New York: McGrailHill.

Dittmar, N. ( 1976). A critical survey of sociolinguistics: Theory and application. (P Sand, P A. M. Seuren, l& K. Whiteley, Trans.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Newmeyer, F. J. (1986). The politics of linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sadovnik, A. R., (Ed.). (1995). Knowledge and pedagogy: The sociology of Basil Bernstein. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Company. Schatzmann, L. & Strauss, A. (1955). Social class and modes of communication.

American Journal of Sociology, 60 (4), 329-338.

Trudgill, P. (1974). Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and society. London: Penguin Books.

Jeff MacSwan

Arizona State University

Peter McLaren

University of California, Los Angeles


Jeff MacSwan is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University. His academic interests focus upon issues in bilingualism and educational linguistics. He is the author of A Minimalist Approach to Intrasentetnial Code Switching (Garland, 1999), and is currently working on a project sponsored by the Spencer Foundation to study the validity of native language assessment instruments used with LEP children in the United States. He may be contacted at Web site: http://


Peter McLaren is a Professor in the Division of Urban Schooling, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of over thirty books on a wide variety of topics that include critical pedagogy, the sociology of education, cultural anthropology, Marxist social theory, and bilingual and multicultural education. His most recent publication is Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture (Routledge). Professor McLaren lectures worldwide on the politics of liberation. His work has been translated into twelve languages. He may be reached at

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