Grappling with Bernstein

Bernstein, B. and Solomon, J. (1999) ‘Pedagogy, Identity and the Construction of a Theory of Symbolic Control’: Basil Bernstein questioned by Joseph Solomon. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 20 (2), pp.265-279.

In this conversation Bernstein is describing his proposal for a common language for discussing pedagogic phenomena. He uses ‘pedagogy’ in the broadest of senses, to include any interaction with an aim to influence, for example newspaper articles, TV news reports, films, conversations, etc..

Bernstein sees all pedagogic ‘devices’ as having rules of distribution (access), recontextualisation and evaluation (standards to be attained), which may be autonomous from each other. Rules may conflict with others, particularly those from ‘official’ (formal) and ‘local’ (informal) positions. He uses the metaphor of an ‘arena’ for where and how these conflicts play out.

He speaks about the role of identity  – how we think and act, and what we believe in relation to others, and other groups – and points out that what is said (the message) influences the ‘voice’ as perceived by others.

Overall, Bernstein appears to be talking in a logical way about fairly basic ideas – for example – the limitations of models for explaining the social world, and the need for us to constantly reevaluate those models in light of what we know of reality. However, he is using his own very explicit language that is devoid of the metaphors I and many others will be attuned to. To our ears it is at first mysterious – even impenetrable. It sounds like Bernstein would prefer that we all use his language as a common way of describing social (esp. pedagogic) phenomena. Many people clearly think he’s onto something, and I expect that Bernstein’s theory explains a lot of stuff that continues to be – perhaps needlessly – chewed over. On the other hand, there may be those who feel that such explicitness sucks all the joy and poeticism out of academic discourse. Reading the conversation between Bernstein and Solomon was not an enjoyable experience; it didn’t evoke anything of the real world, or stimulate any emotion in me beyond a kind of amused puzzlement. These days I prefer a less literal form of description. However, I was used to running in traditional, 12mm drop cushioned running shoes with a 150pm cadence, and it is a challenging and not always enjoyable experience transitioning to barefoot running at 180, but I’m under no illusion that the former was better. However I fear linguistics is a little less cut-and-dried than biomechanics.

Unsurprisingly, I found the Wikipedia entry on Bernstein much more penetrable, and recognised Bernstein’s own writing style in the description of ‘elaborate code’. Was he consciously using elaborate code in order to make his work more accessible, or to demonstrate the principle through the medium? I think this is progress – referring to Wikipedia *after* struggling through the primary source 😉

I found the Atherton quote of personal interest: “Everyone uses restricted code communication some of the time. It would be a very peculiar and cold family which did not have its own language.” Haha. I wouldn’t describe my family as cold (although others often describe them as such). Certainly difficult to connect with and feel a part of – but Bernstein’s code theory helps to explain this. I’m now thinking I should just interact with them using the more elaborate code they are comfortable with, and give up hankering after something more familiar (they have told me that they wish I could accept them the way they are!). I took a brief look at Atherton’s pages on the Doceo website and they are brilliant – a dummies’ guide to Bernstein’s code theory, with the examples I so desperately wanted in the first instance. Atherton also comments briefly on Bernstein’s own ‘wilfuly obscurantist’ writing, with a link to this lovely blog post on academic writing in general.

What’s the relevance of all this? I wanted to read Bernstein because I’m reading around the topics of pedagogy and power, access to learning, and cultural capital – and trying to relate it to teacher education in particular. There are several points of relevance in here; one is in considering the various pedagogic devices that influence the teachers I work with in terms of their distribution, recontextualisation and evaluation (including those that originate with me). Another is in considering the restricted code or codes that exist – perhaps overlap – in our interactions on and about the course. I’ve got plenty more to read but will try to link back to these tiny little hooks and see if I have anything else to hang on them.

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