[xmca] Allan Luke on Race and Language as Capital

From: Steve Gabosch <stevegabosch who-is-at me.com>
Date: Sat Nov 08 2008 - 21:27:53 PST

I've been reading over and thinking about Allan Luke's paper, Race and
Language as Capital in School: A Sociological Template for Language
Education Reform, which is posted on the lchc site here:

I heard Allan speak at an AERA conference a few years ago. He gave an
impressive talk and was well-received. Wikipedia has a little article
on him here:

Luke's paper discusses how to view, critique and synthesize a variety
of existing strategies to end racial and linguistic discrimination in
the school systems, using Bourdieu's concepts of habitus, capital, and

First, a little on the theory behind the paper. My take on Luke's
analytical framework goes in two directions.

On one hand, I like aspects of the way Luke uses the concepts of
habitus and capital to describe issues of racial and linguistic
discrimination, and strategies to overcome it in the school setting.
He uses these concepts in ways that reveal **descriptive** and
**analytical* power when looking at the the individual and
intersubjective levels of racism and linguistic repression, and they
prove useful to him when he generalizes about different strategies to
overcome discrimination, oppression and cultural repression in the

On the other hand, I see problems with the concepts of habitus and
capital to the extent they are used as more than just metaphors and
are mistaken for having sociological **explanatory** power. I suppose
this is a kind of "the emperor has no clothes" kind of perspective on
my part, but I'll take the risk and be blunt: Bourdieu's theory of
social and cultural capital strikes me as little more than offering
new terms and metaphors to describe things, but not explain them. In
other words, while his theory about "capital" adds some new ideas on
how to do the "what does it look like" side of analysis and
description, it adds little or nothing on the "why does this or that
happen" side.

Perhaps Luke's paper and his use of the concept of cultural and social
capital could spark a discussion of Bourdieu's article "Forms of
Capital" sometime. I have some thoughts on something I think I see
Bourdieu doing. I see him **compressing** together different levels
of reality, such as the socio-economic, the socio-cultural, and
cultural-psychological, thereby losing a handle on the generative/
emergent cause and effect relationship between these different
integrative levels. These levels operate under different
developmental dynamics and time frames - while at the very same time,
they interpenetrate and inter-transform one another. Both of these
aspects are vital for theorizing, describing, analyzing and
intervening in any aspect of social reality.

What I see Bourdieu as doing has similarities to, but is different
from, reductionism. I call it "compressionism." In some ways,
according to a view I am developing, compressionism is the opposite of
reductionism. Both reductionism and compressionism can offer
interesting insights and metaphors in the short term, but both can
also quickly become one-sided and obfuscatory if used mechanically and
exclusively. These two approaches tend to overstate one aspect or the
other of the complex relationship between integrative levels. The
solution must be to see and understand both aspects, and all sides of
the thing being investigated. Compressionism and reductionism (and
lots of methodological -isms - structuralism, functionalism,
relativism, etc.) can be used as helpful tools for thinking and asking
questions - but are not so helpful, in my opinion, when used as
methods to draw conclusions with.

Bourdieu's "Forms of Capital" can be found at:

Now to some commentary on the content of the paper.

Luke's articulate and potent discussion of discrimination and
oppression regarding racism and linguistic repression creates the
impression that an explanation is being advanced. But on closer
examination, I don't see an explanation in this paper. Just a
description. And a solid, outspoken one, may I add, which I
appreciate. This is perfectly okay - science is about both
explanation and description.

Luke applies his descriptive framework to various strategies that are
being tried in various schools to overcome aspects of discrimination.
He analyzes each approach in terms of habitus, which I found
interesting. Increased descriptive power leads to sharper analysis,
which leads to better questions, which leads to deeper explanations,
so this is a good road.

Generally speaking, the concepts of habitus and what could be
metaphorically called "personal capital" seem to help fill a need in
our language to point to and describe, in precise terms, an
individual's accumulated and practiced cultural and historical
connections. I am thinking that once we get clearer on the
explanatory limitations of these concepts, we can better harness their
descriptive strengths. Luke offers examples of how to effectively use
these descriptive strengths in his paper.

I'll finish up my little commentary on Luke's paper by quoting
snippets from his summary of suggested solutions. Luke is offering
some interesting ideas for synthesizing a variety of approaches into
something he calls a "whole-school" approach. Many ideas I have heard
on xmca, at AERA conferences, etc. are contained in this summary.

a) ... recognise and evaluate the cultural capital that students bring
to school.
b) Change the lingua franca of the school field: depending upon
community and student aspirations, it would provide a balanced program
of English as a Second Language and/or bilingual program ...
c) Change the regulative rules of interaction in the school field: ...
complement and reflect student cultural and community practices of
exchange and gifting, paralinguistics and gesture and turn-taking.
d) Revise the curriculum ...
e) ... engage students with a broad analysis of how social fields
discriminate, their rules of exchange, and who they historically have
included and excluded.
f) Remake teacher habitus ...

- Steve

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