About this blog post

I am currently back working on my MA Ed. after taking six months off while I relocated from India to Western Europe during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the great things about living where I do now is that the government pay you a certain amount of leave annually to take time from work if you are working on further education. So I have just finished a week where I completely immersed myself in this topic. Apart from quite a bit of reading I had done beforehand, this paper is pretty much a product of one week at the computer, so please forgive its lack of polish. I tend to get overly consumed in whatever I am working on in the moment and I feel very fortunate to be able to take that time to research and deeply ponder the issues within the subject area. Part of the remit of this assignment was to turn a critical lens, be reflexive in my chosen area and use research in the field of sociology to analyse the issues. Some people who read this will be former or current colleagues and as such they should not take this personally but as more of commentary of what I have experienced in the field that is backed by the research I have encountered.

While the sociologist I have used to base this paper on is Pierre Bourdieu, I have relied very heavily on the work of Professor David Kirk, his many papers that delve into the history of PE, his excellent book PE Futures and other work I have done in this area previously. I also have to thank Dillon Landi for his guidance and suggestion that I use Bourdieu as the basis of my paper.


April 29, 2021


In this paper, I seek out to investigate and critically analyze the epistemological practices in physical education curriculum that have evolved from corporeal origins into what is a sports techniques or what is commonly referred to as multi-activity programming (MAP), which is the existing predominant model, particularly in secondary schools, despite there being many criticisms of its efficacy (Kulinna 2008, Kirk 1997, 1998, 2006, Siedentop 1997). I will also discuss how engendered norms exist within the field and practice of PE and how these norms are valued and perpetuated. Using Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of practice, field, habitus and capital I will examine why such practices remain, why the change in the practice of teaching and learning physical education is necessary for its legitimate existence and the difficulty the profession faces in enacting these changes. Bourdieu’s work has been used in the past to help explain engendered practices in Physical Education by Brown (2010), the body as a form of capital by Shilling (1991, 1993), intergenerational reproduction of habitus in PE (Brown & Evans, 2004) and while discussing possible PE futures by Kirk (2010). I will then highlight and discuss the relevant work and conclude my paper by discussing some progressions in the field and signposting further possibilities for change.  

The Sociology of Bourdieu

Pierre Bourdieu was a French philosopher that after spending time in Algeria in the 1950s, experienced what has been described as a ‘practical conversion from philosophy to social science’ (Saunders, 2010). This change in interest is explained by Kate Huppatz in ThePhilosopher’s Zone (2010) who suggests that after his experience with military service in war-torn Algeria, even though philosophy asked the big questions, sociology was a better tool to explain the grim realities of his experience there. Key to the work of Bourdieu was how he provided a cultural approach to class, deeply interested in how everyday cultural practices had implications to social stratification and power. He offered a different approach to understanding social class that had not been offered before (Huppatz, 2010). Bourdieu made efforts to establish culture as a sociological force that was equal to the economic determinants (Defrance, 1995). In his early studies of the behavioural logic of the Algerian immigrant, he attempts to show that cultural behaviour (movies, books etc) and economic phenomena (market structure, unemployment etc) both are influential cultural determinants (ibid). A second object of study to Bourdieu was the inequality of access to culture and education, thereby reinforcing the reproduction of class structures. In further work by Bourdieu and Passeron, they examined the success of educational performance from an effect of class culture as passed on by family and the environment (ibid). In an interview in the documentary Sociology is a Martial Art (2002), Bourdieu says

(Translation) “There is a beautiful study done by an American sociologist, which shows that middle-class children, children from the bourgeoisie, know how to give the teacher just what she wants because they come from the same background.

The teacher’s just like mummy. The teacher calls them ‘my darling’ or ‘honey’, and they’re happy. They know how to react, so they are well perceived, they get good marks and they are happy.

So you have certain factors that depend on prior knowledge, not school knowledge but just as important, how to behave, not to throw your school bag on the floor, how to keep your notebooks tidy etc.”

From this, we can see that Bourdieu challenged the assumption that schools were meritocratic and he called them out for being complicit in the reproduction of class inequality. In particular, he singled out educational institutions, especially universities as culprits in channelling and distributing cultural capital and it is of course the wealthy that have primary access to universities, complicit in producing and reproducing privilege (Huppatz, 2010)

Despite social class having primacy in his work, Bourdieu places the body or ‘embodiment’ central to his theory, thus legitimising his views in relation to sport and physical education (Brown, 2005). 

Interrelationship of field, habitus, capital and practice.

Bourdieu defines the terms of field, habitus, capital and practice individually and separately; however, as Brown (2005) illustrates, keeping them together helps us understand that there is an interrelationship between them that addresses the agency and structure when articulating relationships between the individual, their body and society. 

Figure 1. Definitions of field, habitus, capital and practice (Brown, 2005, p.5)

“when taken together, the practical, relational constructs of habitus, field and capital enable us to consider a cultural economy of PE and sport in school. The relationship between field, habitus and capital is therefore a symbiotic “ (Brown, 2005, p.5)

Or, as Bourdieu (1998, p. 52) describes it, a ‘cybernetic or semiological one’

Field is characterized by a specialized activity centered on a specific issue (e.g literature, art, sport etc). All the agents within a field share a vested interest in the central object and they also belong to the field. Relationships between the agents (e.g teachers, universities, students and governing bodies) are established, with a hierarchy of specific values, like excellence (Defrance, 1995). 

Using the definitions and notions of interconnectedness above, I will outline and unpack thoughts as to how Physical Education in schools has evolved and continues to replicate the (mal)practices through a cycle of ‘field’ as it is has evolved and is presented, generating ‘habitus’ through ‘practice’, the accumulation of physical and social ‘capital’ by teachers and pupils, into the reinforced ‘habitus’ of subsequently trained PE teachers and completing the generational replication of the cycle into the ‘field’.

The Field of Physical Education

As a teacher of Physical Education in an international school for the past 20+ years, I can readily see the influences of the United Kingdom, Australia and USA on the field of PE as it is delivered in this setting (I currently work in Western Europe and my PE department has two Australians, five British and one European member). It is for those reasons that I will focus most of my historical observations on those countries. In attempting to understand how modern PE programs have evolved into their current contested form it is necessary to briefly map this historical course of the field. To this end, I will demarcate two separate eras of history, pre-war (1880-1939) and post-war until the present day. 

Pre War

In pre-war PE we saw a significant departure from what we might see in contemporary Western society. When now the term ‘physical education’ encapsulates sport, fitness, health, aesthetic and leisure activities, the beginning of PE in schools was an early form of gymnastics. It is important to note here that the term ‘gymnastics’ has also been a contested field with it being at various times in history aesthetic, calisthenic, Olympic or expressive and the use of the term here is to be an all-encompassing label. In David Kirk’s inaugural lecture at Leeds University in 2006, “The Idea of Physical Education and its Discontents”, he recounts that in the United Kingdom, from the 1880s right up until the 1950s, schools used Ling Gymnastics, a practice of intricate joint movements done while free-standing, developed by a Swedish physical therapist, Per Henrik Ling. This system was also favoured by the British Navy. Physical Education during that era was a female-dominated profession and Ling gymnastics was their doctrine. The practice existed mostly in private girls’ schools but in 1909 the Board of Education officially adopted Ling Gymnastics for use in government schools throughout Britain. The practice was very prescriptive and required a very high degree of precision of movement and expertise from the instructor. The private schools had the highest quality of instructors, while the best training background and the instruction in government schools relied heavily on the manuals that were provided (Kirk 1997). Ling gymnastics continued as the predominant method until the 1930s when some practitioners began experimenting with performing the movements to music, emphasising the rhythmic qualities of the movements. This was on the basis of criticisms of the gymnastics by the gymnasts themselves, who sought a more ‘natural’ and less precise movement experience. The work of Rudolf Laban, an Austro-Hungarian dance artist and theorist, described as “the founding father of expressional dance” and one of the most important figures in the history of dance (Dorr, 2008), whose practice, thence known as educational gymnastics, gained momentum at this time, in the face of the fierce opposition of proponents of the old school gymnastics. 

In Australian schools in this era, similar practices of drill gymnastics were being delivered in government schools. These practices were based on the work of a Prussian immigrant, and resident in the colony of Victoria, Gustav Techow. Techow wrote a volume in 1866 called ‘Manual of Gymnastic Exercises for the Use of Schools and at Home’. Techow was very explicit and went into great detail as to how these series of exercises should be performed, from the spacing and orientation of the participants to the count and range of motion required for each exercise, in turn. 

“Shoulders and body, square to the front, the heels in line and closed, the knees straight and firmly braced back; the feet turned out so as to form an angle of sixty degrees, the arms straight down from the shoulders, the elbows turned in and close to the sides so as to bring the palms of the hands full to the front, the five fingers close together, the hips and shoulders drawn back, the chest advanced, the body straight and inclining forward so as to have its weight bearing on the fore part of the feet, the head erect without being thrown back, the eyes straight to the front. (Techow, 1866, pp. 3–4) 

Techow had deeper reasons than just schooling the physical, increasing the capacity of the participant and treating the body as a school of work. He believed that the practices enforced a form of self and societal discipline. 

“the development of corporeal regulation through a system of physical culture was a central, essential, indeed, constitutive, element of a well-ordered society” (Kirk, 1997). 

This manner of enforcing discipline and compliance was a common feature of education at this time, with classroom subjects instructed similarly with neat lines of desks and chairs all facing front, teacher out front and a one size fits all approach instilling this form of social regulation. This type of meticulous and intended control over the body is very evident in the writings of Foucault, whose primary work centred on how the body can be developed and made serviceable for capitalist development (Shilling, 1991). 

Post War

At this time in history, the competing discourses of the purpose of PE were emerging (Kirk, 2009). In Australia, in the 1940s the role of PE programs to detect deformation and carry out physical health checks was taken on by the various health departments and had become separate from the PE instruction in schools. In 1941 the National Fitness Act was passed in parliament and was the catalyst for a three-year diploma program in universities for Physical Education. The term ‘physical education’ had now come to encompass not only formal exercises but swimming, games, rhythmic exercises, folk dancing, practical hygiene and remedial exercises based on the needs of the individual (Kirk, 1997). It is worth noting that at this point in time games and sports were already part of schooling but they were only in the form of extra-curricular activities, not the mainstream curriculum. Crawford (1991) suggests that the encouragement or participation in these games for the purpose of physical development was an attempt to repair the national physique and notions of play, enjoyment and enthusiasm began to emerge as explicit objectives for development. Clement (1995) posits that this is a departure from the Foucauldian wielding of power towards the influence of Bourdieu is obvious as it introduces the notions of strategy and competition by the agents. At this time Kirk (1997) also points out that this ‘liberalisation’ of physical education was also to benefit all, not just the socially privileged, elite or talented. Kirk goes on to point out that this access across class cultures for the right to play and learn games “probably continues to be the single most significant conjoining of concepts underpinning contemporary physical education programs in Australia since it positioned sport as pivotal to the educational legitimation of physical education” (Kirk 1997).

In the UK there was also a significant paradigm shift in the field of physical education. The leaving age of school children was raised to 15 years and with that was an increased demand for PE teachers. These teachers came into the field with a diverse range of backgrounds and interests from the traditional Ling gymnastics dogma. Since a great deal of the new PE professional were male we bein to see more of a gendered approach to physical education. The experiences of the war helped shape some of these new perspectives and with the addition of the work and study of scientists like T.L de Lorne from the USA, who developed and utilised the methods of training overload for medical patients with muscular disabilities, which was then converted to making soldiers out of civilians. Through these ideas, Morgan and Adamson built programs for the general population, thus circuit training was born (Kirk, 1997). This practice of linking exercise with physical performance was primarily used for males in competitive sporting environments with an emphasis on cardiovascular and muscular gains, mimicking the demands of the sports in which they participated. From here the men involved in the physical education programs of the day made the leap that therefore sport would be the logical way in which the body could be trained with the desired effect of athleticism, far more than the effects provided by the practitioners of the Ling gymnastics (Kirk, 2006). In 1955, David Munrow, the then Director of Physical Education at Birmingham University, published a text called Pure and Applied Gymnastics.  In it, he writes in a thinly veiled manner that challenges the gymnastics-oriented practices and applauds the new directions of the field moving towards sport as physical education.

“The men have made overt acknowledgement that other skills are as important and have ‘diluted’ the gymnastic skill content of gymnasium work so that now boys may be seen practising basketball shots and manoeuvres, carrying out heading practices or practising sprint starting … The women, in the main, have…’diluted’ the traditional gymnastic skills by a quite different device. They have ceased both to name and to teach them. Instead, a description is given, in general terms, of a task involving apparatus and individual solutions are encouraged. A much wider range of solutions is thus possible; some may include traditional skills but many will not.” (Munrow, 1955, p.276) 

Munrow is stating that the work of gymnastics can be supplanted by sports skills that are broken down, analysed biomechanically, practised and then reintroduced into the whole form of the sport. The whole/part/whole method of teaching sport and using it as a pillar of physical education was to become a long-lasting tenet for many years to come and indeed makes up a large portion of how physical education is currently delivered (Kirk 2006, 2009, 2010, Dillon et al 2016, Kirk & Macdonald, 1998) and labelled as multi-activity programming or MAP (Alexander, 2008)

The Habitus of practice in PE 

Habitus is a word that Bourdieu used to describe the way we internalise social structures and norms and is central to his understanding of the world (Huppatz, 2009). It is a word that is used to describe the way we internalise our histories and that directs our practices, socially and our ways of understanding the world (ibid). While each of us has our own unique histories and unique habitus we also have a collective habitus because we share those histories with others within our class group. It directs our likes and dislikes so that the members within that class have similar tastes that operate on our bodies and minds without explicit coordination. Habitus within the field of physical education is dictated by the agents with the field, namely the teachers, students, schools and the PE teacher training (PETE) of universities. 

MAP programming in schools has evolved successfully internationally as the habitus for the last 60 years due in part to the industrialist model of schools that has to factor in two significant constraints, time and space. Kirk in Run Your Life (2021) explains that these fundamental coordinates of space, that is designated teaching spaces (gymnasium, classroom, fields) and time, especially in the case of secondary schools where they are typically hour to hour cycles through the subjects. Physical Education has lobbied hard for its legitimate place in the timetable and agued for their hourly slot. He goes on to say that in a mixed motivation and ability class that has only practically 35 minutes, once changing, travel and set up time is done at the beginning and end of the lesson, teaching sport techniques is really the only sane solution. With the growing popularity of community sport programs, the competence and confidence gap with a class set is becoming even broader and the gap is continuing to widen, making the actual playing of the sport in it game form more difficult to do. While in theory this diversity of lesson content provides an opportunity to address the varied goals of physical education and exposes students to activities that they may elect to continue for a lifetime. In recent years, however, the multiactivity model has received increasing criticism for its lack of depth, inability to engage all students, and failure to offer a truly diverse array of activities. Alexander (2008) decries the value of this approach whereby units are neither long enough nor contain substantial skill competency and thus result in negligible transferable concepts to other units of work. Drummond & Pill (2011) also suggest that while the intent is to cover as broad a base of knowledge and skills as possible, it frequently remains disparate, unlinked and lacking in coherence as to what is available to students in their community and ‘life beyond the school gate’. Pill (2016) also highlights what was characterised by Alexander, Taggart and Medland (1993) called ‘teaching perspectives’, in that PE grading and assessment is commonly on perceptions of student effort and compliance and not on evidence of learning content of substance. Pill (2016) goes on to assert the findings of O’Connor (2006), whereby many Australian students feel that after eleven years of compulsory physical education, they have learnt what they cannot do rather than what is possible, due to MAP program design and a behaviourist teaching approach. Perhaps even more damning is the perspective offered by Alexander (2013) that schools ‘keep secrets’ from outsiders. 

1. Due to MAP they struggle to show confirmation of PE’s evidential contribution to motor skills development; 

2. Due to substantially directive and practice style pedagogy emphasising technical reproduction of stylised sport-specific movements they don’t develop game performance (as this requires a conceptual- tactical focus uncommon in many MAPs); 

3. That while often tested, they don’t develop fitness due to the dominance of drill and practice style tasks that invoke low levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA). 

I have long been of the view that PE teachers were once students in PE that adapted well to the MAP model. That is, they already had the requisite physical skills that enabled them to adapt and thrive in a range of activities and this success perpetuates an ongoing cycle of repetition of the MAP model. PE is often taught by teachers that have a background in competitive sports and games and this may be at the heart of why PE teachers struggle in an alternative approach. This view is supported by Brown & Evans (2004) who claim in their research that there is an ‘intergenerational reproduction’ whereby “teachers are implicitly recruiting teachers in their own image” (p.64) This is precisely what Huppatz (2009) is describing when she states that habitus is the embodiment or internalisation of norms and common social ideas that generate behaviours in certain groups of society. Clement (1995) and Defrance (1995) both lay the fault of this habitus with the agent, in this case, the PE teacher, who is limited in diversity, acting on the social world without having a just or perfect vision of the situation. These actions of the agent are mostly automatic and unconscious, based on reflex rather than rational choice, supporting Bourdieu’s opposition to the theory of rational choice.


Everyday cultural practices have implications for social stratification, and power. Bourdieu (1986) identified several types of capital that would determine a person’s class or social standing: economic, educational, social and cultural capital. Bourdieu theorised that individuals with the most capital would have the most opportunities within a society. While all possibly warrant further application to PE, I will focus on cultural capital. Cultural capital is all learned cultural competencies and knowledges (Huppatz, 2010). When you learn a language, an instrument or how to play a sport, you invest in cultural capital. But cultural capital can be other things as well, like your style of dress and the way you decorate your home (ibid). A further subdivision of cultural capital is physical capital or the embodied state. Brown (1998) identifies that the desired ‘state of being’ physically may not necessarily come from application in the subject of PE and could probably be produced elsewhere, but still be considered valuable. he continues to state that there are particular masculine manifestations of embodied capital in PE and sport including ‘predominantly mesomorphic physique; demonstration of practical ability; a strong competitive disposition; highly contextualised and coded emotional displays; a willing acceptance of physical contact, pain and effort in sport; and perhaps above all, an orientation towards control and dominance over others’ (ibid, p.10). While these traits are inherently or biologically male, they do lend themselves strongly to the engendered stereotypes of maleness. Shilling (1991) states that these, as the dominant traits, naturally and unfairly favour males in the PE and sporting environment. The female aesthetic or perceived weakness of females is not seen as suitable for development, with athleticism and strength looked down upon over ‘the tyranny of slenderness’. Furthermore, the female body becomes something that gains capital as something that can only either be objectified or commodified. Consequently, there becomes a practice where ‘sports that are suitable for girls’ become commonplace. These activities are usually aesthetic or expressive in nature like dance and gymnastics or if in a game form then it is likely a non-contact form like netball. There has, however, been more of a social acceptance of females playing more traditionally masculine sports like football (soccer) and cricket, yet the predominant narrative of masculine females participating in these sports remains. When the curriculum for male-only or co-ed classes moves to these aesthetic or expressive movement units, the tendency, especially by male PE teachers is to teach them from a solely athletic perspective. This notion of gender-norming continues as the habitus of PE.

Brown (2010) identifies that the typical PE teacher draws on their habitus, of success in a broad range of physical pursuits, ‘strategically to construct legitimacy in order to protect, develop or convert their social and cultural capital, and in doing so their actions ripple out into the field of PE thereby sustaining the spatial relations and practical logic that make the field identifiable’ (p.18). These teachers offer the illusion that PE is a meritocratic pursuit and that with obedience and effort success is obtainable for anyone. They are quick to give examples of class climbing through social and cultural capital acquisition through sport and hold up examples of athletes like David Beckham and Diego Maradonna that have climbed to the top echelons of society from meagre working-class backgrounds. While these examples certainly hold up that these sport stars have converted physical capital into social and cultural capital, it is assumed that the physical prowess was gained not in a PE class but was most probably an asset. Here once again the confluence of sporting and PE success exists as does the undeniable reluctance of agents or holders of cultural capital to voluntarily loosen their grasp on that capital. They live and relive the glory of sporting success and elevate the sporting successful in the program with honour boards and walks of fame, perpetuating and taking credit for a set of externally acquired physical skills that are transferred into the learning of sport techniques in a competitive, hierarchical setting.


In David Kirk’s book Physical Education Futures (2010) he offers three possible futures for the field of physical education. The first and most likely is ‘more of the same’. This future postulates that politicians and policymakers remain unaware of the problems that the subject has, as outlined in this paper. The voices of sociologists, feminists and teachers that are critical pedagogists are unheard and the habitus of PE remains. Kirk says that one possible scenario is that the cure to the growing obesity and inactivity epidemic is more curriculum time, more funding and more trained teachers leading to literally ‘more’ of the same as there is fundamentally nothing changed in the delivery of the subject. A strong argument for the supporters of the PE as sport-techniques and multi-activity programming is the egalitarianism or inherent apparent meritocracy that comes with participants crossing class barriers as a result of success in sport. As a practitioner for over 20 years, I can say anecdotally that this is extraordinarily rare, relevant to probably fractions of a single percentage point and when it does happen, probably not the result of a PE program but of co-curricular or community club involvement. PE teachers can probably see little to gain from upsetting the current habitus. Physical education has the legitimacy and parity of any subject, at least in terms of policy. It has its place in a ‘balanced’ curriculum and existing practitioners are unlikely to want to lose the cultural capital they have created by having to retrain in alternate pedagogies. 

The second possible future that Kirk outlines is ‘radical reform’. In an interview with Andy Vassily on the Run Your Life Podcast, Kirk states we should “Put a bomb under the whole lot, blow it up and start again”. We cannot do effective PE within the limited structure that industrialist age schooling has been organised around. Locke (1992) observes that if the dominant model is not broken, it is not working well. There is ‘disturbing levels of student alienation, program marginality in the school curriculum, deep and destructive role conflicts within those who teach’ (p.362). He states that this level of problem can not be repaired, only replaced and start from scratch. Kirk suggests a variety of PE pedagogical models that primarily make explicit the ‘affect’ of PE.  The affective domain includes social, emotional and cognitive development, using the physical task as the context. Turning the focus to the affective skill gives students capacities that provide success in team, communicative, confrontational and resilient environments. Such models already exist and are well researched and validated. Models like Sport Education, Cooperative Learning, Teaching for Social and Personal Responsibility and tactical games approaches are used widely but are nowhere the predominant model in schools (Metzler, 2005). Total reform is a mammoth task and the sociology of Bourdieu shows that there would certainly be some carryover of the present and past, perpetuated by the agents within the field. Kirk points to only other time in history when there has been a generational shift in practice, between the two world wars. This is the era that saw the influx of new teachers, predominantly men, with new ideas and philosophy that radically changed the field. He suggests that the only current space that could accommodate an influx of newly trained PE teachers would be the primary school system, where currently there is a distinct lack of subject matter experts in the field. These are but two possibilities of many for complete reform and indeed there is much discussion surrounding this topic. 

A third possible future for PE, and the one Kirk thinks least likely, is extinction. However, without radical reform it becomes the most likely. If the field of PE continues in its predominant form it will inevitably come under the scrutiny of those that wish to see it more financially viable and accountable. If the accountability lies in the form of test scores, we will see an increase in examined or theoretical PE in schools and the cost-cutters will employ the much cheaper sports coach and the ‘weekend trained’ physical trainer, leading to the extinction of the PE teacher habitus that we endure currently.


The relevance of Bourdieu’s sociology is extremely relevant in this undertaking of how I have attempted to understand the replication of practice in the field of physical education. His formulation of the concepts of cultural capital, field, practice and habitus has given me the opportunity to unpack, give language to and explain the current stalemate the profession finds itself in. It has allowed me to view the actions of agents through the lens of being unconsciously complicit in perpetuating the status quo. While pleasing that it has given me the framework to understand, paradoxically it also demonstrates the probability of social continuity within the field. Perhaps it is on us, in the field, to adopt the view of the social scientist being reflexive of our practice, examine how our own habitus and consider the innate bias that it possesses. Some taste for change is apparent and there is a growing body of agents that are preparing to pivot and create a more inclusive and representative habitus.


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