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Search for Knowledge and Recognition

Hannah Hoechner

3. Theorising education

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3.1 Introduction

1I propose an analytical framework that draws mainly on the anthropology and sociology of education, to answer the two questions: why families opt for Almajirci and what the Almajirai learn while enrolled. Levinson and Holland (1996) offer an enabling conceptual framework for analysing why families make certain educational choices, what young people learn through these, and what implications their learning may have for the continuation or disruption of existing cultural and socio-economic power structures. They suggest looking at education in terms of a “cultural production of the educated person.” I take this suggestion up and combine it with “thinking tools” (Bourdieu in Wacquant 1989: 50) offered by the two social theorists, Bourdieu and de Certeau.

3.2 The cultural production of the educated person

  • 1 Admittedly, the alternative option—modern education—does not guarantee economic success either and (...)

2The first question this thesis is grappling with is this: why do families opt for an educational system that (at least at first sight) seems highly likely to perpetuate their economic marginalisation?1 More than 30 years ago Willis (1977) asked a very similar question. He wondered how (and why) working-class boys, through their oppositional behaviour in school, perpetuate their own subordination. While Willis wrote about universal Western-type schooling in the “developed world,” the issue at stake is similar. As regards the Almajiri system, the “decision” to accept continued economic marginality is made already “upstream,” when families decide about their children’s education, rather than negotiated within the classroom. While I will argue later on that the Almajirai in many instances challenge their parents’ decision to “accept” such marginality for their children, the question remains: how can we understand this decision in the first place?

3Willis proposes the term “cultural production,” meaning the production of certain cultural styles and competencies (Levinson & Holland 1996: 5), to conceptualise educational processes. He builds on Bourdieu’s insights into the role that culture—the skewed valuation of different cultural styles and competencies—plays for reproducing inequality in liberal societies (Bourdieu & Passeron 1977). Instead of challenging the existing distribution of cultural capital, education offers a forum for its owners to celebrate their achievements, which may be why those who do not already possess such capital choose to opt out. Educational ideals therefore both mirror and reproduce existing inequalities.

4Willis (1981) criticises Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural reproduction” for denying the agency and creativity of the dominated classes in the process. He asserts instead that it is only “through struggle, contestation and a partial penetration of [existing] structures” that dominated groups end up taking an active hand in their continued subordination by aspiring to educational ideals that will not help them overcome their structural disadvantage (1977: 175). He argues that the processes are specifically cultural, as “[s]tructural determinations act, not by direct mechanical effect, but by mediation through the cultural level” (174). The working-class boys were aware that for them the promise that respect could be exchanged for knowledge, knowledge for certification, and certification for better jobs did not hold. Resistant humour—“having a laff”—was their “own creation in light of that realization” (Levinson & Holland 1996: 14).

5While Willis’ notion of cultural production is useful in that it acknowledges the agency marginalised groups may exercise while perpetuating their own subordination, for two reasons it needs to be recast in order to be an enabling “thinking tool” for the Almajiri context:

6First, Willis is mainly concerned with the reproduction of class inequalities. Levinson and Holland contend that his focus is too narrow, given the importance of other determinants of life chances in addition to or instead of class, such as gender, race, ethnicity, or religion—particularly in “developing world” contexts. Second, Willis tries to explain essentially why things remain the same: why existing structures are reproduced. The direct applicability of his work is therefore limited in contexts of rapid socio-economic and cultural change. In the case of the Almajirai, this objection is particularly relevant. As I will outline in this thesis, even though their parents do not necessarily envisage this, the Almajirai, through their engagements in the urban economy, eventually become to some extent “urbanised.” While more research is needed to ascertain whether they actually encounter opportunities to succeed economically, they certainly aspire to do so and thus do not necessarily become the “losing winners” Willis describes (see Collins 2009: 36).

7If decoupled from its association with “social reproduction” and instead associated with a more flexible notion, the concept of “cultural production” may, however, still prove useful. Levinson and Holland propose replacing “social reproduction” with the concept of a culturally variable “educated person,” as a privileged vantage point from which to explore forms of cultural production (1996: 3). Instead of exploring how education enables different groups to position themselves in the class structure, the question should be how education enables them to acquire (or not) certain skills and forms of knowledge (or “capitals,” as I will argue later) that define the “educated person” in specific contexts. The notion of the “educated person,” I maintain, provides access to important insights of the anthropology of education:

8Firstly, anthropologists suggest that what counts as important knowledge to live a socially, morally, spiritually, economically, and politically successful life varies across time, space, cultures, social groups, etc. Definitions of the fully knowledgeable person, the “person endowed with maximum ‘cultural capital’” (ibid. 21), are thus context-specific and relative. The recognition that competing notions of the “educated person” may exist makes it possible to apprehend the politics involved in pursuing certain educational ideals. In Chapter Six, I analyse the forms of capital considered valuable in the context of the Almajiri system. In Chapter Seven, I investigate how the Almajirai, who, throughout their stay in urban Kano, come in contact with alternative ideals of the “educated person”—out of tune with or even in contradiction to the educational ideal sustaining the system—contest this ideal.

9Secondly, a broad notion of the “educated person” makes it possible to capture that education is about more than the acquisition of formal skills and may thus occur in multiple spaces. Wood suggests that the idea that “children must be taught in order to learn, let alone the expectation that they will do so in classrooms, is by no means a universal one” (1988: 16). In Chapter Six, I demonstrate that the Almajiri practice acknowledges that learning processes also take place outside the classroom and without formal instruction. It is understood that children learn by “being” (e.g. being away from home) and “doing” (e.g. earning their own livelihood).

10Thirdly, to acknowledge that learning may take place even without teaching, and that teaching does not necessarily translate into learning, highlights the politics involved in producing—or failing to produce—certain “educated persons” (see Skinner & Holland 1996; Poluha 2004; Froerer 2007). Erickson, for instance, argues about Western-type schooling that

[s]tudents in school, like other humans, learn constantly. When we say they are “not learning” what we mean is that they are not learning what school authorities… intend for them to learn as the result of intentional instruction… Learning what is deliberately taught can be seen as a form of political assent. Not learning can be seen as a form of political resistance. (1987: 343-344)

11In Chapter Seven, I explore the political dimension of the Almajirai’s learning, by looking at the knowledge and skills the students acquire (or learn to aspire to) which are not provided for by the Almajiri system.

3.3 Investigating the details of cultural production

  • 2 By skills, I mean tangible embodied practices that can be put to use later in life. By knowledge, (...)
  • 3 While Willis’ endeavour to make sense of the fact that the powerless seem to take a hand in their (...)

12I analyse two stages of cultural production in this thesis. First, on the level of aspirations, I explore how the educational ideal sustaining the Almajiri practice is produced (Chapter Six). Second, on the level of practical knowledge and skills,2 I investigate how enrolment in the system produces “educated persons” (Chapter Seven). I contend, however, that these “educated persons” also learn certain ideals and aspirations that challenge and recast the original ideal of an “educated person,” thus (again on the level of aspirations) actually triggering the production of new ideals of the “educated person.”3

13I propose “thinking tools” to analyse processes of cultural production in more detail on two levels: firstly, I propose to explore the “struggle, contestation and… partial penetration of [existing] structures” (Willis 1977: 175) through the lens of de Certeau’s (1984) concept of “tactics.” I argue that this is a useful analytical tool to locate cultural productions within wider power structures, capturing the forms and effects of resistance by the weak. Secondly, turning to Bourdieu’s field theory (1986/2004), I suggest ways of conceptualising what these cultural productions actually produce in terms of different forms of capital.

Cultural production through “tactics”

14The weak, de Certeau says, are neither “passive” nor “docile” (1984: xii) but resist and subvert the structures they are subjected to through the “clandestine forms” of their “dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity” (ibid. xiv-xv). They do this “not by rejecting or altering them, but by using them with respect to ends and references foreign to the system they [have] no choice but to accept… [T]heir use of the dominant social order [deflects] its power, which they [lack] the means to challenge; they [escape] it without leaving it” (ibid. xiii).

15De Certeau defines “strategy” as the manipulation of force-relationships by autonomous actors firmly established in time and space and thus able to generate relations with exterior others (ibid. xix). A “tactic,” on the contrary, is the mode of action available to the weak, acting in a physical or social space that is not their own. A “tactic” “must play on and with a terrain imposed on it” (ibid. 37). It “must constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into ‘opportunities.’” The weak depend on “continually [turning] to their own ends forces alien to them” (ibid. xix).

16In Chapter Six, I propose that the educational ideal of the Almajiri system can be understood as such a “tactic” of the weak. By focussing their educational aspirations on realms in which they have a chance of succeeding (the social, moral, and spiritual realms, rather than the economic), those opting for Almajirci can maintain a self-definition as “potentially achieving”—despite their apparent economic marginality, which they lack the power to end. In Chapter Seven, I contend that the Almajirai’s struggles to maintain a positive self-definition in the face of disapproval and rejection, and their manoeuvres to achieve skills and forms of knowledge they are excluded from, should be understood as an expression of their “tactical creativity.”

Cultural production of different forms of capital

17In his field theory, Bourdieu posits that social actors operate in various fields of activity using different resources specific to these, which he calls different forms of capital. According to Bourdieu, capitals are not necessarily economic and may for instance be social or cultural and thus be of symbolic rather than material nature. Bourdieu’s theory captures the value that intangible resources, such as prestige, social standing, or spiritual assets, may have for people. It also recognises that economic capital may be inoperable in certain fields (Bourdieu 1990). This makes it possible to transcend the idea that “human capital” is the only form of capital one may acquire (or fail to acquire) through education.

18To think in terms of capital about the various resources people aspire to in order to live successful lives is helpful as it allows the use of concepts such as accumulation (i.e. processes of acquiring certain resources), “market value” (i.e. the valuation of specific resources at a given point in time), and conversion (i.e. transformation of resources operable in one field of activity into resources operable in another field) (e.g. Kane 2003). Conversion rates and the “market value” of certain forms of capital can, moreover, be understood as dynamic. Certain forms of capital may “devalue” or “appreciate” in accordance with changing historical, cultural, and socio-economic circumstances. I argue that what the Almajirai actually learn (or at least attempt and aspire to learn) has to be understood as the outcome of a dynamic struggle over access to different forms of capital, over the definition of their respective values, and over conversion rates between them, taking place in the context of rapid socio-economic and cultural change.

19Finally, Bourdieu understands cultural capital as inscribed in the body, which functions as a “mnemonic device upon and in which the very basics of culture… are imprinted and encoded” through experience and teaching (Jenkins 1992: 75-6). I will contend in Chapter Six that the embodiment of the Qur’an through memorisation, as well as stamina in the face of physical deprivation, can best be understood through such a lens.


1 Admittedly, the alternative option—modern education—does not guarantee economic success either and is often inaccessible or of poor quality (see Chapter Four).

2 By skills, I mean tangible embodied practices that can be put to use later in life. By knowledge, while it may translate into bodily practices, I mean things known at a conscious level and potentially verbalisable.

3 While Willis’ endeavour to make sense of the fact that the powerless seem to take a hand in their own subordination is directly relevant to the first stage of this production, it is less applicable to the second stage. His notion of ‘cultural production’, however, remains applicable, as he recognises that a reproduction of former circumstances is not an automatic or necessary outcome of cultural production.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2013

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