I’ve recently been reading some papers in Educational Sociology that make use of biographical narratives in order to understand the experience of “non-traditional” students in Higher Education. “Non-traditional” students are those who, by class, ethnicity and/or gender, are under-represented in university courses. They are usually the first person in their family to enter Higher Education. One of the articles seeks to explain why a disproportionate number of such students drop out: this is a European phenomenon. (1)All the authors draw on the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His key concept habitus gives a framework for exploring the individual’s path through education. Essentially this idea claims that an individual is constituted not only by his psychology and genetic makeup but also by “the objective networks and cultural traditions in which he lives.” His notion of “cultural capital” goes a long way to explaining the mismatch between the students’ expectations of education and their actual experience.
All the papers draw on research which records and analyses interviews with students over a number of years. These give a realistic insight into the stress experienced by students struggling to cope not only with the cognitive demands of their courses but also with the responsibilities of independent living and often having to take menial jobs on minimum wage in order to survive. These biographies show the importance of friends and tutors in supporting them through the changes they go through.
One of the most illuminating ideas to emerge from these studies is that of “transformation”: the student’s concept of themselves, their relationship to education and the wider world are changed by the experience, whether successful or not, of Higher Education.
(1) Field, John, Merrill, Barbara, Morgan-Klein, Natalie (2010): Researching Higher Education Access, Retention and Dropout through a European Biographical Approach
(2) Hodkinson, Phil and sparkes, Andrew P(1997): Careership: a sociological theory of career decision making, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol 18, No. 1, 1997
(3) Bloomer, Martin and Hodkinson, Phil (2000): Learning Careers: Continuity and change in young people’s dispositions to learning, British Educational Research Journal, 26:5 583-595