ELT – A history of (symbolic) violence?

Apologies for the long hiatus. As the new academic year starts over here in Japan I’ll hopefully be able to start posting regularly again. I think I may be a bit intellectually out of my depth on this one, but, hey, it’s not as though anyone actually reads these things to pull me up on anything, right?! OK, here goes:

I was dipping into Bourdieu and Passeron’s 1977 treatise “Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture” the other day for a juicy quote that I could use in a literature review and ended up reading through most of Book 1 (“Foundations of a Theory of Symbolic Violence”), coming perilously close to half understanding it at one point! At the beginning they state that: “All pedagogic action (PA), objectively, is symbolic violence”. I suppose they were being deliberately provocative, but I have to admit that I was a little taken aback and shocked by the use of the word “violence” in this context. Less than 48 hours after reading this I clicked on a link in my Twitter feed and found myself reading Paul Walsh’s much shared blog post about inequality and power in ELT, “Stop the Violence!”. There was that word again: “violence”. Hmmm….

Although Bourdieu and Passeron are largely referring to state education and wider society, and Walsh very specifically targets the ELT industry (largely in the UK), there seems to be a number of parallels to be made.

In Walsh’s thought-provoking post he singles out textbooks/coursebooks, job security and competition as interlinked examples of “violence” in the ELT sphere. For Walsh (as far as I understand it, at least), the textbook/coursebook takes power away from the teachers and learners and puts it into the hands of the publishers and ELT gatekeepers. This is referred to by Bourdieu and Passeron when they state that: “the dominant system of education tends to secure a monopoly of legitimate symbolic violence” (p. 6) and that “PA can produce its own specifically symbolic effect only to the extent that it is exerted within a relation of pedagogic communication” (p. 7), in this case the almighty textbook or coursebook.

The second strand of Walsh’s argument is that this hegemony is perpetuated because of the precarious nature of most ELT teachers’ employment conditions, which constrains their ability to refuse and resist, and by the institutional authority of the Cambridge and Trinity qualifications. This lack of control and enforced uncertainty is again reflected in Bourdieu and Passeron’s assertion that “the laws of the market which fixes the economic or symbolic value… are one of the mechanisms…through which social reproduction, defined as the reproduction of the structure of the relations of force between the classes, is accomplished” (p. 11) and their identification of an “academic docility which is expressed in, among other things, their particular sensitivity to the symbolic affect of punishments or rewards and more precisely to the social-certification effect of academic qualifications” (p. 28).

The third, and interrelated part to Walsh’s concept of violence in ELT is the competition inherent in SIGs and Teacher Associations that play groups off against one another and ensure that the largest and most powerful ones are the ones that set the agenda and marginalise the dissenters. Inevitably, Bourdieu and Passeron have something to say about this as well: “the pedagogic transmitters are from the outset designated as fit to transmit, hence entitled to impose its reception and test its inculcation by means of socially approved or guaranteed sanctions” (p. 20).

So, while I agree with Walsh on all points, I’d like to emphasise the “symbolic” nature of this “violence” and extend it out to cover wider issues in ELT. What about the symbolic violence of discriminatory hiring practices that ‘non-native speaker’ teachers endure? Or the symbolic violence of reducing certain ‘native speaker’ teachers to the role of exotic curiosity and entertainer? Or the symbolic violence of heteronormative content in ELT materials against LGBTQ teachers?

As Walsh states and as Bourdieu and Passeron confirm, the level of dominance and the degree of symbolic violence is historically variable and depends upon “(1) the degree to which the state of the balance of power hinders the dominant classes from invoking the brute fact of domination as the principle legitimating their domination; and (2) the degree of unification of the market on which the symbolic and economic value of the product of the different PAs is constituted” (p. 14). In this 21st Century world of hyper-connected blogging and social media that gives voice and an international platform to anyone with an Internet connection, there has never been a better time to upset the balance of power and to unite in disengaging from and splintering the mainstream institutions and dominant discourse that has held back so much innovation and progress in ELT and perpetuated symbolic violence against so many for so long.


Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J-C. (1977). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage: London

Read Paul Walsh’s article here: http://decentralisedteachingandlearning.com/stop-the-violence/


5 thoughts on “ELT – A history of (symbolic) violence?”

  1. Nice post, Luke. While I would not like to speak for Paul or TaWSIG as a whole, I can say that the concerns of heteronormativity, foreign exoticism and discriminatory hiring practices do concern many of us in the (unaffiliated) SIG.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post Luke. You extend and deepen the analysis in a way I hadn’t thought of. Myself, I’m still on the fence about pedagogy because there are ways of thinking about pedagogy that side-step totalizing critiques (or critiques that veer on the totalizing) I feel; and I think pedagogy can also be a source of illumination.

    I’m thinking of the work of Jacques Ranciere. Pedagogy is central to books such as ‘Proletarian Nights’ and ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation’. http://abahlali.org/files/Ranciere.pdf

    Anyway, I enjoyed the post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Paul – your original post gave me a lot to think about!

      I agree about being wary of being too one-sided and also think (and sincerely hope!) that pedagogy can also be a force for good. Thanks for the link too, I hadn’t heard of it before, but it looks interesting and is now sitting on my desktop ready to tackle on tomorrow’s commute!


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