Re: [xmca] Allan Luke on Race and Language as Capital

From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke who-is-at>
Date: Mon Nov 24 2008 - 07:49:23 PST

As I happen to know Allan Luke fairly well, as well as most of the
research and theory he relies on in this chapter, I thought I would add
my two (euro-)cents.

I admire Allan's own practical political work, esp. in Queensland
(Australia) to get a more just and socially critical curriculum, esp.
around literacy education, officially approved in a place that had been
as socially conservative as any American "red state". He also brought
some needed and welcome post-liberal critical perspective to some of the
otherwise quite progressive wider movements in Australia and
internationally around the teaching of writing across the curriculum
(cf. the genre approach).

In this chapter, he is apparently addressing the school reform movement,
and trying to develop an over-arching discourse about the educational
needs of oppressed groups, to, in his terms, avoid wasteful conflict
among those who feel oppressed because of race/ethnicity vs.
gender/sexuality vs. class vs. language vs. ....

He is also particularly trying to remind reformers and critical
theorists on the left of the importance of language as a category of

All this is to the good, I think. But I'm not sure how well his efforts
can succeed with some key issues left insufficiently (IMHO) addressed.

Here are a few points, and those who prefer optimistic analyses may want
to stop reading here.

I was puzzled at the beginning of the essay by his conclusion that
oppression is mainly an effect of ruling class men in power, even though
the material reality which maintains the power of oppressive ideologies
is the physical violence against the oppressed, and especially those who
defy or raise a voice against those ideologies ... which is carried out
primarily by young males with relatively little social or political
power. In the US, for example, and culturally similar places, these are
european-descent younger males of working class backgrounds, who commit
the violence. Absent that violence, I think, it would be far more common
and effective for women, gays, non-european ethnicities, to challenge
the ideologies which by and large, I think, do not fool them into
misrecognizing their immediate interests. (Immediate interests have
rather complex and tenuous connections, however, to electoral politics.)

There are two problems here. First, what the social dynamics is that
connects ruling class men who establish discriminatory policies and
authorize oppressive ideologies to those who enforce the oppression
violently and bodily? Second, and closely related, how is it that these
two allied groups are on opposite sides of the traditional division by
class? How do the natural enemies of the ruling class, according to
classical Marxist theory, become its primary and essential supporters?
(both the casual bashers and the police, military recruits, etc.) And
what explanation (I know about hegemony theory, misrecognition, etc.)
makes sense of this for working class young males, and not equally for
those on the opposite side of all the other principles of iniquitous

My second puzzle is about the use of Bourdieu, in a way he himself might
approve, which does not sit well with me. I see the great contribution
of Bourdieu as the deconstruction of essentialist theories of class (or
similarly of gender, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, language, etc.)
by demonstrating that (most clearly for class in his book Distinction)
what we are taught to see as a singular category and principle of
division is in fact a vast many-dimensional space of dispositions,
preferences, values, and behaviors across everything from how we speak,
to what we read, to what we eat, to how we move, to whom we vote for ...
and that these different dimensions NEED NOT correlate with one another,
forcing us to look for the explanations of why, in many cases they do
... and in many (if fewer) other cases, they do not.

Essentialism, whether about race, or class, or gender, or sexuality, or
language, is a low-dimensional ideological reduction of the actual
complexity of human diversity. It always functions to ground some sort
of oppressive discourse, obviously or invisibly.

But Bourdieu took only the first steps along this line because modernist
sociology simply does not know what to do if deprived of small,
manageable sets of analytic distinctions and categories. From Durkheim
onwards (and perhaps back to Marx as well, though Marx was a bit more
careful, and had a clearer political justification for his categories).

Allan Luke is not moving very far beyond the residual, "critical
essentialism" we might call it, left by Bourdieu. In fact he seems to
fall back on simple, even dichotomous categories, in much of his
discussion. Or at least in trying to provide a unifying framework for
the various anti-oppressive movements on the left, he does not tackle
the task of undoing the essentialisms on which they remain based.

I will say at this point that he does make one very good and strong
argument for a unified approach ... not simply across different
principles of division/oppression, but across the different
institutional contexts within which oppression/discrimination takes on
its several characteristic forms and logics of practice. And that is, in
the case of kids in schools, that they move daily between school and
home and peer group and popular media culture and new media practices,
etc. etc. They live along traversals across institutional boundaries,
and so just trying to reform what happens inside schools is probably not
going to work for them.

As this post is getting rather long, let me leave the rest for a part 2,
to say more about this, and about Allan's proposals for reform.


Mike Cole wrote:
> Thanks for your summary and comments, Steve. I have been finding Allan's
> article difficult to grasp as a whole, perhaps because I am insufficiently
> schooled i Bourdieu and his relationship to other contemporary thinkers and
> Marx. If we could get a joint reading of "Forms of Capital" perhaps it would
> help. The use of many hypenated ""-capital that are in the discussions I
> participate in often confuse me as to their (often implicit) causal claims.
> Two, perhaps, useful small comments.
> One, I strongly recognized Allan's comment that the use of colour is "not
> the exclusive domain of any particular dominant class or colour of male
> patriarch, followed by listing of various forms of domination that occur,
> among other ways,
> ""not just white upon black and brown, but yellow upon white, black upon
> black."
> In the Liberia of the 1970's, and I suspect now, color was not the
> characteristic upon which racism was organized. I was classified along with
> President Tubman using the same term, an amalgam of "civilized, rich,
> powerful, to be feared, etc."
> and people from Monrovia spoke of the people among whom I worked as
> aborigines. I have seen similar phenomena in Japan vis a vis Koreans and
> from Allan's broad experience, he must have seen every possible combination
> of distinction used as a form of essentialized racism.
> Second, re school practices that offer solutions. Little to argue with there
> other than the manifest inability to get such an ensemble of practices
> instituted. I can add on practice, however, at an explicitly anti-racist
> school my kids attended. It
> was manifested in a producation of the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy gets blown
> out of Kansas a white girl and appears again in Oz as a black girl, but her
> identity has manifestly/symbolically not changed: an explicit,
> institutionalize rejection of skin color as a phenotypic marker of a
> distinction that makes a difference.
> Apropos of the enormous challenges remaining after the election and
> Michael's comments earlier today, a story in the NY Times today about the
> southern state of Alabama explains that many democrats could not bring
> themselves to vote for Obama, although rejecting Bush, as a result of which
> a pretty nasty law forbidding adoption of children by non-married couples
> passed. A great deal has remained the same (ditto here in California),
> including the very important illusion that assembly line workers at Ford
> are, and are supposed to be, part of the middle class.
> I hope others will help enlighten me and others concerning the important
> issues
> raised by Allan and your commentary. If you could get folks to follow you
> and lead a discussion of forms of capital, that would be great.
> mike
> On Sat, Nov 8, 2008 at 9:27 PM, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:
>> 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 field.
>> 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 classroom.
>> 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
>> _______________________________________________
>> xmca mailing list
> _______________________________________________
> xmca mailing list

*Jay L. Lemke*
University of Michigan
(on leave 2008-9)
xmca mailing list
Received on Mon Nov 24 07:53:46 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Mon Dec 01 2008 - 12:52:40 PST