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Bernstein, Basil (1924–2000)

Bernstein-Basil-smartkpis-photo-9.comArticle by Alan R. Sadovnik1

Basil Bernstein, Karl Mannheim Chair Emeritus in the Sociology of Education, at the  Institute of Education, University of London, born on 1 November 1924, died on 24 September 2000 after a prolonged battle with throat cancer. Professor Bernstein was one of the leading sociologists in the world, whose pioneering work over the past four decades illuminated our understanding of the relationship among political economy, family, language and schooling. Although committed to equity and social justice, or in his own words, ‘preventing the wastage of working class educational potential’ (1961b, p. 308), his work was often misunderstood and incorrectly labelled a form of ‘cultural deficit’ theory. Nothing could be more inaccurate.

Raised in London’s East End, the son of a Jewish immigrant family, Bernstein’s career reflected his concern for understanding and eliminating the barriers to upward social mobility. After serving as an underage bombardier in Africa in the Second World War, he worked in the Stepney settlement boys’ club for underprivileged Jewish children. He put himself through the London School of Economics by working various menial jobs and earned a degree in sociology. He completed teacher education at Kingsway Day College and from 1954 to 1960, he taught a variety of subjects, including mathematics and physical education, at City Day College in Shoreditch. In pure Goffmanesque style, he also taught driver education and motor repair, despite the fact that he did not drive; a fact that he successfully concealed from his students. In 1960, Bernstein began graduate work at University College, London, where he completed his Ph.D. in linguistics. He then moved to the Institute of Education, where he stayed for his entire career, rising from senior lecturer to reader to professor, to the Mannheim Chair. During his tenure at the Institute, he also served as head of the influential  Sociological Research Unit in the 1960s and 1970s and as Pro-Director of Research in the1980s. He continued his prolific writing as an Emeritus Professor until his death. The recipient of many honorary doctorates and awards, he posthumously received the American Sociological Association Sociology of Education Section Willard Waller Award for Lifetime Contributions to the sociology of education in August 2001. He is survived by his wife of over forty years Marion, a psychologist, and their two sons, Saul and Francis.

The evolution of Bernstein’s thought

For over four decades, Basil Bernstein was an important and controversial sociologist, whose work influenced a generation of sociologists of education and linguists. From his early works on language, communication codes and schooling, to his later works on pedagogic discourse, practice and educational transmissions, Bernstein produced a theory of social and educational codes and their effect on social reproduction. Although structuralist in its approach, Bernstein’s sociology drew on the essential theoretical orientations in the field-Durkheimian, Weberian, Marxist, and inter actionist – and provided the possibility of an important synthesis. Primarily, however, he viewed his work as most heavily influenced by Durkheim. Karabel and Halsey (1977), in their review of the literature on the sociology of education, called Bernstein’s work the ‘harbinger of a new synthesis,’ a view entirely justified by subsequent events (p. 62). Bernstein’s early sociolinguistic work was highly controversial, as it discussed social class differences in language, that some labelled a deficit theory. It nonetheless raised crucial questions about the relationships among the social division of labour, the family and the school, and explored how these relationships affected differences in learning among the social classes. His later work (Bernstein, 1977) began the difficult project of connecting power and class relations to the educational processes of the school. Whereas class reproduction theorists, such as Bowles and Gintis (1976), offered an overtly deterministic view of schools without describing or explaining what goes on in schools, Bernstein’s work connected the societal, institutional, interactional and intra psychic levels of sociological analysis.

Bernstein’s early work on language (Bernstein, 1958; 1960; 1961a) examined the relationship between public language, authority and shared meanings (Danzig, 1995, p. 146-47). By 1962, Bernstein began the development of code theory through the introduction of the concepts of restricted and elaborated codes (Bernstein, 1962a; 1962b). In the first volume of Class, codes and control (1973a), Bernstein’s sociolinguistic code theory was developed into a social theory examining the relationships between social class, family and the reproduction of meaning systems (code refers to the principles regulating meaning systems). For Bernstein, there were social class differences in the communication codes of working class and middle class children; differences that reflect the class and power relations in the social division of labour, family and schools. Based upon empirical research, Bernstein distinguished between the restricted code of the working class and the elaborated code of the middle class. Restricted codes are context dependent and particularistic, whereas elaborated codes are context independent and universalistic. Although Bernstein’s critics (see Danzig, 1995) argued that his sociolinguistic theory represented an example of deficit theory, alleging that he was arguing that working class language was deficient, Bernstein consistently rejected this interpretation (see Bernstein,1996, p. 147-56). Bernstein argued that restricted codes are not deficient, but rather are functionally related to the social division of labour, where context dependent language is necessary in the context of production. Likewise, the elaborated code of the middle classes represents functional changes necessitated by changes in the division of labour and the middle classes’ new position in reproduction, rather than production. That schools require an elaborated code for success means that working class children are disadvantaged by the3 dominant code of schooling, not that their language is deficient. For Bernstein, difference became deficit in the context of macro-power relations.

Beginning with the third volume of Class, codes and control (1977a), Bernstein developed code theory from its sociolinguistic roots to examine the connection between communication codes and pedagogic discourse and practice. In this respect, code theory became concerned with the processes of schooling and how they related to social class reproduction. Bernstein’s quest for understanding the processes of schooling led him to continue to pursue the fruitful avenue of inquiry developed in his article ‘Class and pedagogies: visible and invisible’ (Bernstein, 1977, p. 116-56). In that article, Bernstein analyzed the differences between two types of educational transmission and suggested that the differences in the classification and framing rules of each pedagogic practice (visible =strong classification and strong framing; invisible = weak classification and weak framing)relate to the social-class position and assumptions of the families served by the schools. (Fora detailed analysis of this aspect of Bernstein’s work, see Atkinson, 1985; Atkinson, Davies& Delamont, 1995; Sadovnik, 1991; 1995.) The article clearly demonstrated that sociologists of education had to do the difficult empirical work of looking into the world of schools and of linking educational practices to the larger institutional, societal and historical factors of which they are a part. The concept of classification is at the heart of Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse and practice. Classification refers to ‘the degree of boundary maintenance between contents’ (Bernstein 1973a, p. 205; 1973b, p. 88) and is concerned with the insulation or boundaries between curricular categories (areas of knowledge and subjects). Strong classification refers to a curriculum that is highly differentiated and separated into traditional subjects; weak classification refers to a curriculum that is integrated and in which the boundaries between subjects are fragile.

Using the concept of classification, Bernstein outlined two types of curriculum codes: collection and integrated codes. The first refers to a strongly classified curriculum; the latter, to a weakly classified curriculum. In keeping with his Durkheimian project, Bernstein analyzed the way in which the shift from collection to integrated curriculum codes represents the evolution from mechanical to organic solidarity (or from traditional to modern society),with curricular change marking the movement from the sacred to the profane. Whereas classification is concerned with the organization of knowledge into curriculum, framing is related to the transmission of knowledge through pedagogic practices. Framing refers to the location of control over the rules of communication and, according to Bernstein (1990), ‘if classification regulates the voice of a category then framing regulates the form of its legitimate message’ (p. 100). Furthermore, ‘frame refers to the degree of control teacher and pupil possess over the selection, organization, pacing and timing of the knowledge transmitted and received in the pedagogical relationship’ (1973b, p. 88).Therefore, strong framing refers to a limited degree of options between teacher and students; weak framing implies more freedom. Bernstein developed this approach into a systematic analysis of pedagogic discourse and practices. First, he outlined a theory of pedagogic rules that examined the ‘intrinsic features which constitute and distinguish the specialized form of communication realized by4the pedagogic discourse of education’ (Bernstein, 1990, p. 165). Second, he related his theory of pedagogic discourse to a social-class base and applied it to the ongoing development of different educational practices (Bernstein, 1990, p. 63-93).

The concept of code was central to Bernstein’s sociology. From the outset of its use in his work on language (restricted and elaborated codes), code refers to a ‘regulative principle which underlies various message systems, especially curriculum and pedagogy’ (Atkinson,1985, p. 136). Curriculum and pedagogy are considered message systems, and with a third system, evaluation, they constitute the structure and processes of school knowledge, transmission and practice. As Bernstein (1973b) noted: ‘Curriculum defines what counts as valid knowledge, pedagogy defines what counts as valid transmission of knowledge, and evaluation defines what counts as a valid realization of the knowledge on the part of the taught’ (p. 85). Thus, his theory of education must be understood in terms of the concepts of classification, framing and evaluation, and their relationship to the structural aspects of his sociological project. Following this earlier work on curriculum and pedagogic practice was a detailed analysis of pedagogic discourse that presented a complex analysis of the re-contextualization of knowledge through the pedagogic device (see Bernstein, 1990). Bernstein’s work on pedagogic discourse was concerned with the production, distribution and reproduction of official knowledge and how this knowledge is related to structurally determined power relations. What is critical is that Bernstein was concerned with more than the description of the production and transmission of knowledge; he was concerned with its consequences for different groups.

Bernstein’s analysis of pedagogic practice looked at the process and content of what occurs inside schools. His theory of pedagogic practice examined a series of rules considered both how these rules affect the content to be transmitted and, perhaps more important, how they ‘act selectively on those who can successfully acquire it.’ From an analysis of these rules, Bernstein examined ‘the social class assumptions and consequences of forms of pedagogic practice’ (Bernstein, 1990, p. 63). Finally, he applied this theory to conservative/traditional versus progressive/child centred) practices. He differentiated between a pedagogic practice that is dependent on the economic market-that emphasizes vocational education-and another that is independent and autonomous of the market-that is legitimated by the autonomy of knowledge. Bernstein concluded that both, despite their claims to the contrary, would not eliminate the reproduction of class inequalities. Through a consideration of the inner workings of the types of educational practice, Bernstein contributed to a greater understanding of how schools reproduce what they are ideologically committed to eradicating-social-class advantages in schooling and society. Bernstein’s analysis of the social-class assumptions of pedagogic discourse and practice is the foundation for linking micro educational processes to the macro sociological levels of social structure and class and power relations. His thesis was that there are significant differences in the social-class assumptions of visible and invisible pedagogy and despite these differences there may indeed be similar outcomes, especially in the reproduction of power and symbolic control. Thus, from his early work on code theory to the more recent works in Class, codes5and control, volumes 4 and 5 on pedagogic discourse, (1990, p. 165-218) and on pedagogic practices (1990; 1996), Bernstein’s project sought to link micro processes (language, transmission, and pedagogy) to macro forms-to how cultural and educational codes and the content and process of education are related to social class and power relations.

Bernstein and sociological theory

Karabel and Halsey argued that one of the most unresolved problems of Bernstein’s work is how ‘power relationships penetrate the organization, distribution and evaluation of knowledge through the social context’ (qtd. in Karabel & Halsey, 1977, p. 71). From the1970s on, Bernstein continued to search for answers to this question and developed an increasingly sophisticated model for understanding how the classification and framing rules of education affect the transmission, the distribution and, perhaps, the transformation of consciousness, and how these processes are indirectly related to the economic field of production. Bernstein conceded that those who seek answers to difficult educational questions often prefer a top-down approach-one that begins with the large policy questions and builds down to an analysis of how the schools work to provide solutions or to constrain their formulation. He admitted, however, that the nature of his project was to build from the bottom to the top-an approach that sought to write the rules of educational process; then to link them to larger structural conditions; and, finally, to place this analysis in the context of the larger educational and policy questions of educators (Bernstein, 1990).

His theoretical approach has been labelled Durkheimian, neo-Marxist, structuralist, and interactionist, as well as being part of the ‘new sociology’. Bernstein (1996) stated that these have been the labels of others and that they have often been too exclusive, often simplifying the theoretical complexity of his model. He acknowledged that Durkheim has always been at the heart of his sociological theory, in part as a corrective to the conservative interpretation of Durkheim’s work, especially in the United States; in part as a consequence of Parson’s structural-functional interpretation of Durkheim. Additionally, although he acknowledged the structuralist interpretations of his work by Atkinson (1985) and Sadovnik (1991), he did not see his work as exclusively structuralist. He rejected the view that he was part of the ‘new sociology’, as he believed that his work was ‘old’ sociology, particularly in terms of its roots in classical sociological theory. Finally, he suggested that the idea that it was his project to connect disparate sociological theories was not his but was suggested by others, particularly Karabel and Halsey (1977). Although their labelling of his work as the ‘harbinger of a new synthesis’ was complimentary, it also raised an expectation of a kind of synthesis that has not been explicitly part of his project. Rather than working from one sociological theory, or attempting to synthesize a number of theories, Bernstein attempted to develop and refine a model that is capable of describing the complex interrelationships between different aspects of society. Bernstein’s project, from his early work on language, to the development of code theory, to the work on curriculum and pedagogic practice and discourse, was to develop a systematic theory that provides an analytic description of the way in which the educational6system is related to the social division of labour. His work had at its core the goal of his entire project: to develop a Durkheimian theory that analyzed the way in which changes in the division of labour create different meaning systems and codes, that provided analytic classifications of these systems, and that incorporated a conflict model of unequal power relations into its structural approach.

Atkinson (1981; 1985) argued that the evolution of Bernstein’s sociology must be understood as the movement from its early Durkheimian roots to a later convergence with European structuralist thought, especially French social theory. In the United States, however, because the Durkheimian tradition was appropriated both by Parsonian structural functionalism and by positivism, Bernstein’s work was rarely linked to Durkheim and structuralism or was criticized for being linked to Durkheim. For example, Karabel and Halsey (1977) spoke of his need to link his Durkheimian perspective more explicitly to neo-Marxist categories. While his work on pedagogic discourse and practice clearly did link the two, Bernstein never moved out of a Durkheimian position; rather, he incorporated the neo-Marxist and Weberian categories of class and power relations into his overall theory. It is necessary to remove the consensus aspects of functionalism that are associated with structural-functionalism to understand Bernstein’s sociology. Although his work has been concerned with how communication, cultural and educational codes function in relation to particular social structures, Bernstein was concerned not with the way in which such functioning leads to consensus but with how it forms the basis of privilege and domination. It is with respect to the relationship with privilege and domination that Bernstein’s work, while remaining consistent with a Durkheimian foundation, systematically integrated Marxism and Weberian categories and provided the possibilities for the synthesis for which Karabel and Halsey call. Bernstein’s work continued to be Durkheimian because, as Atkinson (1985, p. 36) pointed out, an essential activity has been the exploration of changes from mechanical to organic solidarity through an analysis of the division of labour, boundary maintenance, social roles, the ritual-expressive order, cultural categories, social control and types of messages. It attempted to look at modes of cultural transmission through the analysis of codes. In addition, his work continued to link classification and framing codes to the unequal distribution of resources in capitalist societies. While the early work on class and pedagogy was clearly more Durkheimian in its analysis of changes in organic solidarity, his later work (Bernstein, 1990; 1996) was more interested in the consequences of different pedagogic practices for different social classes and, most important, returned to the very questions of education and inequality that were the original basis of the project over forty years ago. Thus, Bernstein’s since the 1970s, accomplished a number of related and important things. First, it provided a theory of school knowledge and transmission and demonstrated how the what of education is transmitted. Second, it linked the sociolinguistic aspects of his early work to the analysis of the codes of schooling. Third, in relating the process and content of schooling to differences in social class and in calling for an analysis of the consequences of those differences in curriculum and pedagogy, Bernstein provided a tentative integration of structuralist and conflict approaches within sociology.

Criticism of Bernstein’s work

Much of the criticism of Bernstein’s early work revolved around issues of deficit and difference. Bernstein rejected the view that his work was based on either a deficit or a difference approach. Rather, he argued that his code theory attempted to connect the macrolevels of family and educational structures and processes and to provide an explanation for unequal educational performance. He stated: The code theory asserts that there is a social class regulated unequal distribution of privileging principles of communication…and that social class, indirectly, effects the classification and framing of the elaborated code transmitted by the school so as to facilitate and perpetuate its unequal acquisition. Thus the code theory accepts neither a deficit nor a difference position but draws attention to the relations between macro power relations and micro practices of transmission, acquisition and evaluation and the positioning and oppositioning to which these practices give rise. (1990, p. 118-19) Despite Bernstein’s continued refutation of the cultural deprivation label, these distortions had profoundly negative consequences for his work. For example, Hymes reported: ‘a young anthropologist recently told me that as a student she found Bernstein’s account of restricted code to describe her own family but was told by a faculty member not to read him’ (Hymes,1995, p. 5). When Bernstein came to a United States university in 1987, an anthropologist asked why ‘that fascist Bernstein [had been] invited’. When pressed, the anthropologist admitted that she had never read Bernstein’s own work, but that she had read secondary sources accusing him of racism. Danzig cites examples in textbooks written in the 1990s that continue to portray Bernstein in this light (Danzig, 1995, p. 152). The mischaracterization of Bernstein’s work in the 1960s and 1970s continued to affect Bernstein’s standing in the intellectual field through the 1990s.

Although the Bernstein symposium at the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) annual meeting in1991, Atkinson and Sadovnik’s 1995 volumes, and Bernstein’s appearance at AERA’s 1996annual meeting did much to refute these negative claims, significant damage had already been done. A second criticism regards Bernstein’s writing style, which many found dense, difficult and often incomprehensible (Walford, 1995, p. 193). Although Bernstein’s work was indeed complex and difficult, this is no less true of other major sociological theorists, most notably Pierre Bourdieu (Swartz, 1997). In fact, it is in comparison to Bourdieu, that some critics found Bernstein’s work wanting. Harker and May (1993) indicated that despite overlapping concerns, Bourdieu provided a more flexible approach to the structure/agency problem in social theory. Through a comparison of Bernstein’s concept of code and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, the authors argued that Bernstein was a structuralist, a position that they believe Bourdieu had rejected, and that Bernstein’s concept of code resulted in an overemphasis on ‘rules’. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, they argued, resulted in the more flexible idea of ‘strategy’, which Harker and May suggested resulted in a less dichotomous view of structure and agency (1993, p. 169). Bernstein (1996) responded to the Harker and May thesis by saying that it was one more example of ‘misrecognition’. He accused the authors of recycling out-of-date8definitions of code and misreading code theory (p. 182-201). Through a detailed use of various quotations from his work over time, Bernstein rejected Harker and May’s criticism that his structuralism denied human agency.

Harker and May’s article also revealed significant disagreements between Bernstein and Bourdieu. For example, they quoted Bourdieu on Bernstein: To reproduce in scholarly discourse the fetishing of legitimate language which actually takes place in society one has only to follow the example of Basil Bernstein who describes the properties of the elaborated code without relating this social product to the social conditions of its production and reproduction or even as one might expect from the sociology of education to its own academic conditions. (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 53) Bernstein, responding to this Bourdieu quote stated, ‘This comment, reproduced with evident approval by Harker and May, is not simply inaccurate, or only slovenly scholarship, but bizarre. If it reveals anything it reveals the activities of the intellectual field, its positioning, position taking and strategies in a somewhat primitive mode (Bernstein, 1996, p. 183).Bernstein, too, was critical of Bourdieu. He distinguished code from habitus in the following way:

‘The concept of code bears some relation to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. The concept of habitus, however, is a more general concept, more extensive and exhaustive in its regulation. It is essentially a cultural grammar specialized by class positions and fields of practice’ (Bernstein, 1990, p. 3). Bernstein went on to argue that theories like Bourdieu’s were concerned with understanding ‘how external power relations [were] carried by the system…[and not] with the designation of the carrier, only with a diagnosis of its pathology’ (1990, p. 172).

Another criticism of Bernstein’s work has been that it lacked empirical testing and support. King (1976; 1981) tested Bernstein’s early model of pedagogic practice but did not find strong evidence in his research to support this model; however, Tyler (1984) argued that King’s statistical methods were severely flawed. More recently, researchers (see Sadovnik, 1995, Parts IV and V; Morais et al., 2001) have provided empirical evidence to support Bernstein’s work. A more detailed account is provided in the next section. Whatever the criticisms of his work, it is undeniable that Bernstein’s work represents one of the most sustained and powerful attempts to investigate significant issues in the sociology of education. Forty years ago, Bernstein began with a simple but overwhelming issue: how to find ways to ‘prevent the wastage of working-class educational potential'(Bernstein, 1961b, p. 308). The problem of educability led to the development of code theory. Code theory, while a powerful and controversial perspective on educational inequality, did not sufficiently provide an understanding of what goes on inside the schools and how these practices are systematically related to social-class advantages and disadvantages. In an attempt to connect the macro and the micro further, Bernstein’s work since the 1960s centred on a model of pedagogic discourse and practices, beginning with the concepts of classification and framing and continuing to a more systematic outline of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of education. Taken as a whole, Bernstein’s work provided a systematic analysis of codes, pedagogic discourse and practice and their relationship to symbolic control andidentity.

Conclusion: Bernstein’s influence on educational research

Bernstein had a profound influence on sociological research on education. He pointed to years of empirical research in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, which attempted to test his theories. Studies conducted by his doctoral students at the University of London’s Institute of Education and others have contributed to our knowledge of the relationships between the division of labour, the family and schooling through research on specific aspects of Bernstein’s work. In a detailed and comprehensive chapter in his last book, Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity (1996), Bernstein provided a historical discussion of code theory and outlined some of the empirical work to test it. As the research in the 1960s and early 1970s was often conducted by Bernstein’s Ph.D. students as their dissertation research, the Sociological Research Unit (SRU) at the Institute of Education, which he directed, became a primary testing ground for Bernstein’s theories. The core of Bernstein’s early work was to develop a code theory that examined the interrelationships between social class, family and school. By 1971, Bernstein had developed an Index of Communication and Controlto measure different family types and to relate them to social class differences. As the original index, according to Bernstein (1996, p. 96) was crude and indirect, Bernstein sought to develop a more direct and sensitive measure. Based upon empirical research, Bernstein and Jenny Cook-Gumperz developed ‘complex principles of descriptions of the speech of parents and children’ (Bernstein & Cook-Gumperz, 1973). Cook-Gumperz provided an in-depth description of these principles in her own work (Cook-Gumperz, 1973, p. 48-73).

In the 1970s, a number of empirical studies examined the concepts of classification and framing. Neves (1991) studied the relationship between the pedagogic codes of families and schools and provided empirical support for Bernstein’s thesis. Ana Marie Morais and her colleagues (Morais, Peneda, Madeiros, 1991; Morais et al., 1991) demonstrated that it was possible to design different pedagogic practices and to evaluate their outcomes. She designed three different pedagogic practices in terms of varying degrees of classification and framing and trained a teacher to teach the same subject to four different classes using different pedagogic practices. Based upon her research the complex relationship between the pedagogic code of the family and the school, social class differences in families, the educational development of the child, and the educational achievement and behaviour of the child was more fully understood. Bernstein’s analysis of the relationship between social class and pedagogic practice was confirmed by Jenkins’ research (1990) on the social class basis of progressive education in Britain. Through an analysis of articles in the Journal of the new education fellowship between 1920 and 1950, she supported Bernstein’s central thesis about the social class basis of invisible pedagogy, which Jenkins argued was precisely what the progressives were talking about. Semel (1995) further supported this thesis as applied to independent progressive schools in the United States from 1914 to 1935.The relationship between the fields of symbolic control and production and gender classification was explored by Holland (1986). Her study concluded that socialization10processes differ in classification and framing in relation to the place of families in the division of labour. Families in the field of symbolic control have weaker classification in their modelling of domestic and economic divisions of labour than families in the field of production. Holland’s work provided important empirical evidence to support Bernstein’s thesis that classification and framing are social class related and related to the fields of production and symbolic control. Further, this study broadened the emphasis away from class reproduction to the related and equally significant area of gender role reproduction.

The work of Diaz (1984; 1990) and Cox Donosa (1986) examined Bernstein’s theory of pedagogic discourse. Diaz’s research explored the institutionalizing of primary education as a form of pedagogic discourse. Cox Danosa’s work on state education in Chile, related the model of pedagogic discourse to the field of symbolic control. Cox Danosa’s research compared the educational policies of the Christian Democratic Party and Allende’s Popular Unity Party. Through an analysis of the relationship between pedagogic discourses and each party’s relationship to the symbolic and economic fields, Cox Danosa provided a concrete sociological and historical testing of Bernstein’s theory. Although much of the research on his theory has been produced by his own Ph.D. students, there were numerous other studies using his work. By 1996, Bernstein reported fifteen articles in the British journal of the sociology of education based on the theory. Two published collections (Atkinson, Delamont & Davies, 1995; Sadovnik, 1995) provided numerous examples of how Bernstein’s work influenced an international group of educational researchers. Most recently, Morais, Nieves, Davies and Daniels (Morais et al., 2001) have edited a collection of articles on Bernstein’s contributions to research, which were presented at a symposium in Lisbon in June 2000. Among the research based on Bernstein’s work are investigations of pedagogic discourse by Parlo Singh and Karen Dooley, Johann Muller, Rob Moore and Karl Maton, and Mario Diaz; on sociolinguistics by Ruqaiya Hasan, and Geoff Williams, and on technology by William Tyler, and by Bernstein himself. Additionally, Madeleine Arnot (2001) has written on how Bernstein’s work affected and has been used by feminist educational researchers and theorists. What is clear is that over a forty-year period, Bernstein developed a systematic code theory, which was constantly refined and developed and which, through his students and other researchers, has been empirically researched. Moreover, Bernstein’s theories underwent revision and clarification in light of this research. What comes through in his own reflections on his sociological project is how theory and research were crucially related to each other.

Afterward: Basil Bernstein, mentor and friend

I first met Basil Bernstein in 1978 at New York University, when I was a doctoral student and he was a visiting professor. He took an interest in a paper I had written for him applying his work to Bowles and Gintis’ Schooling in capitalist America. For the next twenty-two years, he was my mentor, colleague and, most of all, beloved friend. As a mentor, he was giving of his time and support. Although he responded favourably to my work on him, he nonetheless responded with long letters, always handwritten, always difficult to decipher, pointing to things I had overlooked, new ways of seeing, and full of new insights. While some warned that writing about his work could damage our friendship, it never did. Even when he disagreed with my interpretations, he never asked that I change a word. The process of editing Knowledge and pedagogy was one of the most intense and satisfying experiences of my career. Bernstein read and wrote responses to many of the articles in the book; his correspondence on the book is filled with incredible contributions to my own thinking, only a portion of it included in his epilogue. Most of all, Bernstein never forgot that it was my book, not his, and after providing feedback, left the final editing to me. For the next twenty-two years, what began with my watching his incredible mind work out models from the third volume of Class, codes and control at New York University, continued as I moved from doctoral student to professor: Bernstein helped me understand the complexities of schooling and social reproduction. As a teacher, he inspired me to help my own students grow and develop intellectually; as a scholar, he inspired me to think sociologically and to insist upon empirical research to support theory.

What I will always cherish most is Basil Bernstein’s friendship. I will always remember the wonderful times we shared with him and his wife Marion (to whom he was devoted) at their lovely home in Dulwich, at the National Theatre, at the Tate Gallery, shopping at Harvey Nichols, Liberty’s and on Bond Street, and eating and drinking in numerous restaurants near the Institute in Bloomsbury. Bernstein was no narrow academic. He was an arts aficionado, most proud of his David Hockneys; an audiophile, who moved reluctantly from his precious LP collection to CDs; an expert photographer, who was as proud of his photo of Susan Semel in the Hofstra University Research Magazine, complete with the credit, ‘photograph by Basil Bernstein’, as he was of a journal article; a Beau Brummel, he was fond of Armani and Kenzo. And what a conversationalist he was: ironic, creative, clever, amusing, knowledgeable, and at times, cryptic and sardonic. Whether it was applying code theory to the exploitation of South American farmers at one of his favourite Bloomsbury haunts, Isolabella, or with Eliot Freidson, entertaining us with their tales of 1968at Berkeley, Bernstein was one of a kind. The last time I saw Basil Bernstein was in June 2000, upon journeying to London from a conference in Lisbon organized by Ana Morais, Isabel Neves, Harry Daniels and Brian Davies on his contributions to educational research. Too ill to attend as planned, he participated on Friday for the last hour via video link to his home in London. Despite being weak from treatment, he was vintage Basil Bernstein: witty, creative, and dressed for the occasion in one of his favourite silk shirts. His brief written contribution on code theory and technology provided significant food for thought. Upon termination of the link, there was not a dry eye among us. We all knew that this might have been his last public appearance and we all knew how much we would miss him.

On Sunday, following the conference, Susan Semel and I visited Basil Bernstein and his wife Marion in London. Although weak, he spoke of finishing the sixth volume of Class, codes and control, applying code theory to the Internet and technology, and of New Labour educational policy, still in his view, like Thatcher’s, ‘a new pedagogical janus […]’ (Bernstein, 1990) reproducing the old inequalities. Although I left hoping it was not a final goodbye, I knew that it might well be. And it was. When Basil Bernstein died on 24September 2000, the world of sociology lost a giant. I lost a mentor and friend to whom I will always be grateful.


1. Alan R. Sadovnik (United States of America) Professor of Education and Sociology, Chair of the Department of Education, Rutgers University. He is the author of Equity and excellence in higher education: the decline of a liberal educational reform (1994), editor of Knowledge and pedagogy: the sociology of Basil Bernstein (1995), co-editor of Exploring society (1987), the International handbook of educational reform(1992), Implementing educational reform (1996), ‘Schools of tomorrow,’ schools of today: what happened to progressive education (1999), The encyclopaedia of sociology of education (forthcoming, 2001), andFounding mothers and others: women educational leaders during the progressive era (in press, 2002) and co-author of Exploring education (1994, 2000).

Parts of this article are adapted from Alan R. Sadovnik, 1991 and 1995 (see references).


  • Arnot, M. 2001. Bernstein’s sociology of pedagogy: female dialogues and feminist elaborations. In: Weiler, K. Feminist engagements: reading, resisting and revisioning male theorists in education and cultural studies, ch. 6. New York, Routledge.
  • Atkinson, P. 1981. Bernstein’s structuralism. Educational analysis, vol. 3, no. 1, p. 85-96.

–. 1985. Language, structure and reproduction: an introduction to the sociology of Basil Bernstein. London,Methuen.

  • Atkinson, P.; Davies, B.; Delamont, S. 1995. Discourse and reproduction: essays in honour of Basil Bernstein.
  • Cresskill, NJ, Hampton. Bernstein, B. 1958. Some sociological determinants of perception: an enquiry into sub-cultural differences. British journal of sociology (London), vol. 9, no. 1, p. 159-74.

–. 1960. Language and social class: a research note. British journal of sociology (London), vol. 11, no. 3, p. 271-76.

–. 1961a. Social structure, language and learning. Educational research (London), vol. 3, no. 3, p. 163-76.

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Copyright notice

This text was originally published in Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXXI, no. 4, December 2001.

Reproduced with permission. For a PDF version of the article, use:

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