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  • Print publication year: 1996
  • Online publication date: June 2012

10 - Implications for Theories Explaining Educational Inequality


The reasons for the inequality in educational outcomes, which break out along ethnic, gender, racial, and class lines in American society, has been a matter of intense debate. Some explanations blame genetically transmitted deficiencies between racial and ethnic groups (Jensen, 1969; Herrnstein, 1974; Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), others attribute differences to the failure of hard work and effort (Parsons, 1959; Davis & Moore, 1945). More recent and controversial theories blame government-sponsored welfare systems for poverty and inequality (Murray, 1984), while others blame the stratifying effects of such school sorting practices as tracking, testing, poor counseling, and ability grouping (Rosenbaum, 1976; Erickson & Schultz, 1982; Oakes, 1985; Oakes et al., 1992).

One of the most persuasive arguments in the debate about inequality is “reproduction theory,” which suggests that inequality is the consequence of capitalist structures and forces that constrain the mobility of lower-class youth (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977a, 1977b). Our research, although conducted on a relatively small number of students and in a relatively small number of schools in one school district, invites us to reconsider some of the basic principles of reproduction theory and its explanation of the causes of inequality.


Two concepts that are central to reproduction theory are Bourdieu's notions of cultural capital and social capital. Our materials suggest some modifications in both of those ideas are in order.