Author: Andreea Cărăvan
In my Bachelor’s thesis, I look at the quantity and specific type of resources that students at the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work, Sociology and Anthropology department, Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca have, in terms of cultural and economic capital, in order to see what assets are more valuable for academic success and more importantly in getting socialized on a more profound level in the institutional culture of the faculty, while implicitly becoming a part of Cluj-Napoca’s cultural and intellectual landscape. My hypothesis, and the question my research will try to answer, is that working-class students face greater difficulties when confronted with the elite practices of higher educational institutions, especially because, for our faculty, the most relevant type of capital is the linguistic one (in Bourdieu’s concepts), that these students lack. These linguistic competences help them acquire cultural capital that in turn makes them visible to other students and most importantly to the teachers, process in which they gain social capital. At the intersection of all these, some of the students develop an academic habitus, a habitus that includes intellectual aspirations, debating socio-economic topics, going to liberal and/or left-leaning events, identifying with a left-leaning worldview, all of these being mediated by the faculty and the teachers. More than that, this is a habitus that presupposes active participation in some of Cluj-Napoca’s left-leaning NGO’s and cultural and intellectual spaces, or working together with people from these places, such as tranzit.ro, Fabrica de Pensule, Casa Tranzit, Reactor de creatie si experiment.
In order to confirm and explain this thesis, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 3rd year Sociology and Anthropology students from the BBU in Cluj, assuming that their experience with the faculty is more or less complete at this point. In the same time, I enabled all of my knowledge about the faculty I gained in these three years, employing the auto-ethnography method. I divided my interview in three thematically parts: 1. Social origin; 2. Experience of the faculty; 3. Participation in the city’s cultural field.
The first part of my research contains questions that reveal our respondents’ life trajectory, parent’s status and occupation, and schooling, which determines their objective position in the social space through the economic and cultural capital that they possess. As stated by Pierre Bourdieu (1980), in the social space, agents or groups of individuals are statistically distributed according to two differentiation principles: economic capital and cultural capital. This accounts for their objective position in a power field, given by their total hold of global capital, as well as for the different weight of every specific capital. We have thus two big coordinates by which an individual sets his path in life. Having this so called ‘pragmatic sense’, this consciousness of their own social position defined in opposition with others, young adults that need to go to university evaluate their own career options and choose a professional trajectory. Where the economic capital can’t be further given to the next generations, the strategy of the family will be investing in higher education, with the wish that the child becomes capable of self-sustaining financially by the time they finish their education. But these resources that they have will determine an interest on one of two extremes: the intellectual-artistic pole versus the business pole (Bourdieu, 1980).
Starting from the different types of resources one individual has, that constrains the eventual possibilities they have in their life, meaning that it makes the agent in cause gain specific dispositions, I formulated, in the first part, questions that reveal the students’ objective position in the social field before going to college, if there is a similarity of class (in Bourdieu’s concepts, a proximity of the social subjects in the social field) between them, and how their social position accounts for their academic success. One of my goals was to discover the social origin, status and professional occupation of their parents, the scholarly progress of the respondents and lastly the relationship they have with other institutions as well as organizations (for example voluntary work, NGOs). In any case, getting here and being thrown directly into the institutional culture of the faculty, their life changes inevitably. In Marvin W. Peterson’s definition, the concept of ‘institutional culture’ focuses on ‘patterns of organizational behavior and values, ideas, beliefs or ideologies that the members have in regard with their organization or its activity.’ (Peterson, 1990). To be specific, this faculty’s institutional culture, considering its purpose stated on its website, the responses in the interviews, my personal experience and analyzing the courses content, consists first of all in the way in which teachers relate to the students (i.e. in a very open, horizontal way), secondly in the very texts, books and articles that we have to read during classes, and last but not least, in the axiological positioning of the theories and activist practices of the faculty members and students towards some specific discourses about social life. I wanted to understand how intellectual resources that students already have, and the ones that they acquire through reading the texts at seminars, contribute to decoding the specific discourse, the sociological jargon which the teachers use and to what extent the product of this interaction (students-teachers) is, in fact, a hierarchy that reproduces cultural capital inequalities.
I believe the linguistic aspect is crucial for the process of acquiring an academic habitus. In his work ‘Homo Academicus’, Bourdieu discusses the distinct intellectual type of the University teacher, which he believes has a very specific habitus. (Bourdieu, 1988). The teachers, as revealed in the interviews, are the centre of the process of socialization in the faculty’s ‘culture’ and I believe that some of the students actually acquire a part of the teachers own habitus, such as going to conferences and intellectual events, book launches of a certain group of authors, reading scientific papers, writing papers (in their own free time, not as a homework). They begin leading a lifestyle that presupposes participation in the larger cultural scene of Cluj-Napoca, especially around the spaces of Acasa, tranzit.ro, Fabrica de Pensule, Reactor de creație și experiment, as shown by observations and interviews. The way in which some students are integrated in this scene, first of all, through the teachers that actively invite students to go to events held in this places, or book launches with people around publications like CriticAtac, that discuss social and ideological matters. In my thesis I try to reconstruct the network that is created through these places and publications, which I believe can be seized best if looking at the people and ideas that intersect at ‘Școala de Vara de la Telciu.’
My personal interest in this research topic appeared as an effort to understand my own position in the social group of the faculty, among my colleagues and teachers, and in the larger intellectual field of Cluj-Napoca, because of which I redefined myself. I wanted to explain my world and its inconsistencies, and most of all I wanted to understand why it is that only certain students feel ‘like home’ in this faculty, while others are marginalized.
Results and interview analysis
The first thematic part of my interviews concerns the social origin of my respondents. What I tried to do is find out if there is a correlation between their class similarity (in regards to their family’s occupational status and resources) and the level of their academic success. My hypothesis was that working-class students that came from families with very little resources had a strikingly different attitude towards education than their higher-class students. However, with very few exceptions, the students I interviewed were using higher education to overcome their social position, in other words as a conscious strategy for social mobility.
Defining their objective position in social space in accordance to their volume and composition of capital, I identified five general class situations by which I can describe the students’ social status, resources and possible career trajectories. While my classifications are purely theoretical and do not include many variables, I believe they can be used as a tool for understanding how different resources and attitudes are employed by students coming from various social classes or class fractions in order to cope with the university, and most importantly, how does the higher education experience differ in terms of acquiring a new habitus. Let us go into detail: I divided my respondents by their parent’s occupational status, their material resources, and overall cultural capital and attitudes towards education. What resulted is the following model:
- Students of working-class social origin who have precarious living conditions, very low economic capital, very low, scholastic-only cultural capital. Here we have students that generally are the first in their families with higher-education. Their parents and older siblings have jobs such as clerk, carpenter, tinsmith, driver, assembly line worker, and those with vocational schools work as police-men, firemen, and nurses. In this category we can find a lot of older students that, after a few years working, decided to go back to studying.
- Working-class students, very low economic capital, cultural capital gained through a sort of auto-didacticism pursued with the reason to succeed in life through education, an attitude instilled by their families. In this situation we can find students with extremely precarious material situations, but with a very powerful drive to go to university, because they were inspired by older siblings that overcame their condition, or by teachers and friends they considered intellectual models.
- Students with parents that have office jobs (N.B. mostly poorly paid), low economic capital, cultural capital gained with the help of their parents, in school, but mostly still in an autodidact manner. This category differs from the one above in the fact that these students’ parents have higher-education diplomas, but other than that it is extremely similar in many ways I will later explain.
- Students with high economic capital, cultural capital in terms of linguistic capital and scholastic knowledge, generally do not have intellectual preoccupations, but rather pragmatic purposes. Here we find students with parents with higher education qualifications, with good, prestigious, highly paid occupations (such as prefect, teacher, inspector, in some cases even business owners). University is, for them, a family strategy to maintain their position in social space.
- THE EXCEPTIONS, the students that come from families with both economic and legitimate cultural capital, with parents educated in the field of humanities and working as professors or researchers, occupations that are perfectly in line with an elite habitus of the intellectual field.
All students have very distinct life trajectories, but if we look at them as individuals that are part of a certain class or class fraction, we can identify patterns in their strategies for social reproduction or social mobility. Considering their objective resources, each student makes career choices in accordance to their objective possibilities and interests. The democratization of education allows access of lower classes to universities now, but their attitudes towards culture still differ, and they might still feel a certain distance from the intellectual, elite field.
Strategies for social mobility/reproduction
Strategies for social mobility
Talking to my respondents, I realized that ever since high school, a lot of them wanted to find means through which they could ascend in the social field of power, a way in which they could overcome their material precarity and low social status. I identified two main strategies that they used: first of all, early employment, in an attempt at economic independence, and second of all, trying to build up their cultural capital through education.
Early employment was the action plan of a lot of the working-class, low economic capital students. Some of them started working as early as 14 years old, wishing to ‘make their own money’. One of my respondents told me:
‘My family offered me everything, maybe more than I deserved, my father worked until he was 78 years old, constructions, for me and my brothers and sister, but I wanted to work for my money. I didn’t really know how to handle them anyway. I was working a lot, in my last year of high school I worked until the final two weeks. In high school I wanted to be a hostess, and then I wanted to be a stewardess, so much I felt like crying, but I had to lose a lot of weight for that, have perfect teeth… Anyway, after high school I finally went working abroad, in England and Cyprus.’ (M., 25, female)
This quote is extremely relevant in understanding how working-class children endeavor to transform their life, to succeed in a career. Unsatisfied with her family’s material deficiencies, she tried to become independent as soon as possible. It is interesting to see how she valued occupations such as hostess and stewardess as successful careers, and how she emphasized the aesthetic aspect of the body needed to perform such a job. She believes in a personal responsibility of success, but it is her embodied class habitus that was incongruent with her career expectations.
Another respondent considers his parents’ life trajectory is really relevant: they lived in an orphanage, started working at the age of 16, respectively 18, and do not have higher education. These factors made the respondent desire autonomy and independence: “this had some repercussions upon me through dad’s constant pressure that he had in my personal life. Some sort of pragmatism and also the fear that I won’t get a job…and that’s not ok (T., 22, male) This type of subjectivities generated by material needs persist even in working-class students’s discourse who enroll in university. As early as from first year, students, especially those coming from rural or small town areas, arriving in Cluj, start looking for a job in order to acquire economic independence from their parents, or in some cases simply subsist: ‘In my first year my mother fell sick, so I was working 12 hours per day in the weekends, now I wish I had better studied in order to get a scholarship.’ (S., 23, female)
At the opposite pole we have students that value cultural, symbolic and institutional capital and believe that through higher education they can secure their material needs, but most importantly a good status. Especially in families where only one member has succeeded in ascendant social mobility and has transmitted to the children the idea that higher education gives you personal value, even if they do not possess high cultural capital, they will insist that without a diploma they will not succeed in a career and in life: ‘My father only went to high school, works at DeLonghi, my older brother works as a driver, but my mother is chief accountant at the Hall, she went to the faculty of Economics. We were never able to move to the city because of my father who wanted to stay and take care of his parents… This is why my mother always told me that I should go to university and absolutely find someone that will have the same status as me. If I have higher education qualifications, he needs to have this too.’ (D., 22, female)
On the other hand, there are students who were always taught that higher education is a means (the means) for social ascendance: One respondent’s grandparents were village intellectuals, their grandmother was a primary school teacher, the other grandparents worked in the city, she was a university French teacher, and he was an engineer. One respondent told me: ‘So my parents went to university because there was this idea that if you have higher education you won’t be poor, you’ll be relevant on the job market, economically independent, you know.’ (D., 22, male) These are the students that will develop intellectual aspirations, and will try to rise in status, rather than in economic capital.
One ideological aspect of making education available for working-class students is the belief that education is a means for personal development (Baxter& Britton, 2001). Many of my respondents see the BA as an experience out of which they can benefit in terms of evolving, growing as a person. University is perceived as empowering (Baxter, Britton, 2001), first of all because it’s a requirement for having a career, but most importantly because it allows them to increase their self-respect and gain independence. This idea is present almost as a rule with students that worked for a few years before enrolling into University: they didn’t follow the inertia of continuing their studies and wanted to ‘make their own money’, but as they say, at some point they felt that something was missing from their life, and were not content to just working lower-paid jobs that do not require a university degree.
Strategies for class reproduction
If we take the occupational status of the parents in accounting for the social origin of the students, and describe their trajectory in the social space in accordance to their objective possibilities of what status they can acquire with a diploma in Sociology, we can definitely see patterns of strategies for class reproduction through higher education. I am referring here to the students that come from families where at least one parent has higher education and have office jobs, or even more prestigious occupations such as teacher, prefect etc. Them not pursuing a career that requires a university diploma would mean de-classing, and in their subjective experience, a personal failure.
One individual’s response is extremely interesting here. They told me that their mother went to Law school and short time after that also to the faculty of Letters. Now she works as a prefect, and their father is a school teacher of social sciences. The respondent said their mother is a role-model for them, and this is why they want to pursue a career in politics as well. The family’s strategy of social reproduction is clear even from their pressuring the child to stay in the ‘highest rated’ high school, even when the student wanted to change it. They also told me explicitly that they need the graduation diploma in order to further pursue their career, which they already commenced with the help of their mother.
Social reproduction strategies are even more the case in students that fall into the category of the exceptions: both their parents have higher education qualifications, specifically in the humanities spectrum, and from early age, they transmitted dispositions, beliefs, behaviors, cultural taste to their children. In other words, the academic habitus of the parents is already embodied by the students. While for some of them Sociology constitutes a space of refuge from their parent’s/class aspirations regarding their careers, it is still a choice for status preservation. However, this, as I said, is an exception. Most of the students who aim at the same position in the social field of their parents are the ones that are interested in simply having an office, well-paid job. What is interesting about this category, are their personal anxieties generated by oscillating between the need for material security guaranteed by corporate employment, and the alienation they feel towards professions outside the intellectual field, due to their valuing of culture.
Objective possibilities when enrolling into University
One of the distinctive features of the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work is its accessibility, both material and bureaucratic. Materially it provides a lot of grants so the student doesn’t have to pay for education and also it’s worth noting that the competition for these grants is pretty low. Bureaucratically the departments of sociology and anthropology don’t have any entrance tests apart from an application file with a motivational letter. These factors make that the faculty is ‘in reach’ for people from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. The reality is that even if lower classes have now easier access to higher education, the proportion of students that do not finish their BA studies and/or continue with an MA is still pretty high (Thomas, 2002). In other words, while academic participation has increased, academic success has still a long way to go.
Apart from their objective resources, we need to take into account the subjective experience of transitioning to a student lifestyle, one’s academic preparedness (feeling ready to study in a university), their personal academic experience (how they relate to the curriculum, teachers, assignments and last but not least, their relationship to other colleagues (Thomas, 2002). Especially in the case of students that come from very distant cities, finding colleagues with which they can talk and relate closely can be one of the most important variable in keeping them in school and contributing to their academic success. The focus in my thesis is to understand the experiences of students coming from working class families, presumably with parents with no higher education, that can’t provide the cultural capital needed to feel comfortable and to know ‘the rules of the game’.
It is legitimate to assume that sociology, like many domains in humanities and arts, requires a specific use of language and concepts that are often counter-intuitive and ambiguous, i.e. is heavily theoretical and intellectual. This means that any student, independent of his/her background, is required to take part in the process of socialization both in sociological theory and in the institutional culture, due to the intellectual specificity of this area of study. Of course, speaking in deterministic fashion, an individual that has good middle education has better predisposition to be socialized i.e. if they have a better set of linguistic ‘technical’ skills that eases them in this particular field of study, although they have no knowledge of it (like the low-privileged student) they have better skills to adapt to it. That is why my consideration is that a student from a working class background faces a greater distance from sociology than a more privileged one, even in the hypothetical case: if both of them are completely clueless towards what sociology means when enrolling. It is worth mentioning that the dichotomy of low-privileged/well-privileged is purely theoretical and the clear cut distinction is hardly found in reality (maybe only in the case of extremes), however, we presume that students whose parents don’t have higher education are subjected to greater habitus transformation or even ‘habitus cleft’ (Bourdieu, 2008) which means that acquiring of new practices and beliefs is alienating both in the matters of their current habitus state and their family, friends, etc (Baxter, 2001). In other words, the upward mobility in the case of these individuals comes with significant personal sacrifices. I want to focus on the adapting process of students with working class backgrounds, their first reactions, the challenges they encounter and the way in which new practices of habitus are internalized or not. In order to do that, I will explain how sociology is a choice that derives from their field of objective possibilities, in accordance to their resources, and how are the latter relevant in academic success.
One statistical reality of my research sample is that the overwhelming majority of the students I talked to have been students of philology or social sciences in high school, in other words students which had already halved their possible career trajectories in 9th grade, when they chose the humanities field over hard sciences. Even the students that come from hard-science specialization, they themselves state that they ‘never really liked math’, were not top students, and rather liked the literature or social sciences classes (most of them were forced into following such specializations because of family or peer pressure, so they never felt like they belong there).
Another impressive discovery was the fact that Sociology did not represent their first choice. Many of them wanted to go to Arts faculty, Architecture, Letters, Law, Psychology (N.B. Specializations very close to sociology in the field of disciplines) or to Police Academy/Music Academy (in order to have a very clear profession after graduation). But their material resources were an impediment. Here I will cite a few of my respondents: ‘I also got admitted to Letters faculty, but without scholarship (cu taxa)’, ‘I was always very confused about what I should do, but I always liked arts and I thought that was what I was gonna do, something like architecture’(S. 23, female), ‘I wanted to go to Music Academy, but I didn’t afford to pay for extra classes with Academy teachers and I failed an exam’,(D., 22, female) ‘I got admitted into Journalism right under the scholarship line (am intrat fix prima sub linie) but I didn’t want my brother to pay for my school’(M., 22, female). Even for those who tried the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work as their first option, generally they try for Human Resources or Social work specializations, but then again, these are domains with higher competition and if they cannot afford to pay for their studies, in the inertia of enrolling into higher university they are left with the closest alternative: the sociology/anthropology department.
The next step in my analysis was to explore the linguistic dimension of their cultural capital. Supposing that in the humanities specializations of high school, the focus is on literature, history, English and social sciences, I wondered why is it that not all of my colleagues enjoy the curriculum, why they are not active in class and even more, why not all of them understand what sociology means as a discipline in general, and what is different about those who do like and understand it. I asked them questions about what was most difficult for them since the first year, and the answers were strikingly similar among individuals coming from the same social class or class fraction.
Working-class students, the students in my first category, turned out to lack actual capacities to read and learn effortlessly, linguistic capital in order to understand the lectures and seminar texts, and even strategies of making themselves visible in class (i.e. actively participating in seminar discussions, relaxed attitude in class). A lot of them expected it to be similar with what is thought is high school at the Sociology school subject, and they were very disappointed when they understood that it is much more than that, with an emphasis on sociological theory and quantitative research. One of the first impediment for them is the fact that they lack the boldness to actually speak in class, so even when they do not understand the topic, they are afraid to ask questions: ‘I can’t say anything, teachers intimidate me’, ‘I can’t talk in class, I don’t like to say anything if it’s not asked of me, I’m not used to this’(M., 22, female).
Another difficulty for working-class students, especially if they come from rural or small town schools, is the actual work volume, the number of pages they had to read every week, writing papers every semester and so on, and because of this they don’t really know where to start. Feeling so undirected, they cannot adapt fast enough to the institutional demands, and so they fall behind with class work and readings. Because of this, they fail to grasp the theoretical, methodological and epistemological aspects of Sociology, the difference between its paradigms, the meta-commentaries, sometimes even what is legitimate and what is not. As one of my respondents put it: ‘I don’t really understand if they agree with what they’re teaching us or not.’(D., 22, female) For a coherent example, let us try to understand the experience of one of my colleagues:
‘I never grew to like this faculty because I was used to just getting precise instructions what to do in school, and some teachers here do not give us neither a structure, class materials and sometimes not even the texts we’re supposed to read…And I don’t even have this habit of reading every day. And TSM (Modern Sociological Theories class), for example, was so loaded, seminar tests, mid-term, difficult final exam… Then again, I never understood the Paradigms class. I simply can’t like something just because they say it’s good. Like, I enjoyed Foucault but I never liked Weber.’ (working-class student)
From the beginning to the moment of the interview and onwards, this student felt always ‘out of place’ in this faculty. I asked her why she didn’t just quit. Her answer was very clear: she made the conscious choice to stay in school, even if she could not adapt at all, because her parents invested too much in her living in Cluj, ‘where life is very expensive’, and she felt like she would lose all that money, and on the other hand, she strongly believes that a university diploma will help her in her career. She talks about what she wanted to do instead of Sociology, about her dream to pursue a classical canto career, remembering all the details in her high school music classes. She is not the only one to hold this nostalgia for lost origins, many other students try to explain their present unsuccessful situation as the result of their failing to be admitted in the faculty that they wished for. But if we compare her experience (that has common variables with the rest of the working-class students) with the experience of our colleagues from the other categories I mentioned above, we can find stunning differences:
‘I had difficulties, but not because of the teachers, but because of me, cause I wasn’t paying attention. I am already used to not being able to understand what they are saying, but in the first year I freaked out, I couldn’t understand a thing, I had to look everything up on the internet, I didn’t know what ‘capitalism’ means… I lost all (theoretical) bases and now I really don’t understand much.” (Working-class student) ‘First semester was totally bland, it was all too easy, I was coming from a school environment where I had to put a lot of effort into it, so I was unimpressed.’ (Higher-class student)
As the years go by and topics get more in-depth and difficulty level rises, all interviewed students agree that theoretical classes were the most complex and demanding classes, i.e. Modern Sociological Theories, Contemporary Sociological Theories and Paradigms (most frequently mentioned in the interviews).
I would like to go further by analyzing the following quote: ‘I liked a lot subjects such as social psychology or sociology of the family, but some disciplines I simply don’t understand, like statistics and TSM, and sometimes I ask myself what am I doing here.’ (M.,22, female) This is a very common example of preference polarization among students, in regards to ‘applied’ courses as opposed to ‘theoretical’ courses. I believe this aspect is the most crucial detail in understanding academic success and the process of acquiring an academic habitus for the faculty’s students. My hypothesis is that the difference between students with a ‘taste for theory’ and students that are pragmatically oriented is the volume of their linguistic capital. I do not refer here to the possession of a sociological jargon (although this will also be later incorporated), but rather to a capacity for decoding complex messages, a broad, neologisms-imbued vocabulary, mastery over grammar, and finally, a proficient level of English. The fact that a lot of seminar texts are in English is one of the first filters that rule out working-class students that neither did benefit from good foreign languages classes nor developed an interest in any extracurricular, counter-cultural hobbies (such as watching foreign movies) by which they could have been more familiar with English. But unfortunately this is not the only obstacle that working-class, low-cultural-capital students have to face. In my interviews I had a specific question about their reading habits before faculty. Some of them told me that they always hated reading, and were interested only in the symbolic value of their diplomas on the job market, and this is why they are interested in disciplines and classes that can help them in getting a job: ‘I didn’t really read…I liked N’s class cause we discussed present matters, what happens in Cluj, why are rent prices going up, and this facultative class in which we learned the difference between gross and net income.’ (D., 22, female) Their lack of linguistic capital throws them into an endless loop: they do not understand the texts, they don’t ask for explanations, they read less and less, understand less and less of what it is taught, and end up feeling completely alienated from the faculty’s world. At the specific pole, we have the students that employ their linguistic capital into decoding the seminar texts, understand the arguments that are presented in class, have discussions around them, and even have extracurricular debates on the class topics.
However, there are students that do not lack linguistic capital, have academic success (in terms of high grades) but simply do not like sociology and do not develop an academic habitus: ‘I had difficulties, especially in the beginning, but now as well, because of the academic language. I saw that some of our colleagues can use it because they read…I read too and I understand but I don’t assimilate so much, I’m simpler.’(A., 22, female)
I believe these are the students that, in their strategies of either reproducing, or overcoming their family’s social condition, are very pragmatically oriented: they might have some economic capital that can sustain them into trying to build up a career, they might be engaged in volunteer work (valuing the volunteering experience as more helpful than the theoretical knowledge they are taught in school), or, and this is a particular category of students, they might feel at odds with the faculty’s general progressive values because they come from a conservative or religious background.
When I asked a working-class student who had difficulties, both materially and school-related, why they decided to stay in school in spite of everything, they told me: ‘Well, I wanted to leave, cause the exam sessions were hard and I thought it was too much to study, but I had already dropped out from another faculty and my parents send me money…I couldn’t afford it. Although I guess I would have chosen a more pragmatic domain, not so theoretical… But you know, last year I started reading more…and it’s actually interesting, and things have changed.’ (S., 23, female).
This Bachelor’s thesis is a story of individual life trajectories that meet at the Faculty of Sociology, UBB, Cluj-Napoca. Coming from very different social classes or class fractions, students experience university life in a very contrasting way one from another and have individual purposes. Social origin, economic and cultural capital, and personal attitudes towards education account for academic success and integration in the social field of the faculty and cultural landscape of the city. Following Bourdieu’s class analysis and considerations on educational institutions as inequality-reproducing mechanisms, my paper discusses the role of class habitus in the difficulties of working-class students encounter when they try to adapt to elite practices of a higher education institution such as the University.
Schools require mastery of certain cultural practices that lower-class students do not embody, and because of this they feel alienated from them, being unable to keep up with the class work, weekly readings, proficient use of grammar and eloquent vocabulary, as well as understanding legitimate culture (Bourdieu, 1984). However, there are students who internalize this new structure of behaviors, practices and dispositions of the school, through a ‘habitus cleft’, process in which they become estranged by their social origin, and their identity changes, gaining a sense of distinction from their kin (Bourdieu, 2008). In my research I tried to explore this change in habitus experienced by the students, as well as the process of marginalization of the ones that do not get re-socialized in the culture of the faculty, keeping in mind that for all the students, higher education is a strategy for either social mobility, or class reproduction.
A lot of responses in my interviews revealed that the students either followed the projections and aspirations of their parents (for example, aiming to go into politics because their parents are into politics and can transfer their resources directly to them), or, on the contrary, trying as hard as possible to detach from their parents social condition, either through economic mobility (by getting a job when they arrive in Cluj) or by becoming intellectuals (acquiring an academic habitus). It is clear in a lot of my interviews that the students coming from families with low economic capital, with parents with no higher education, see college as a way of upward social mobility. Their cultural capital is also not inherited, but built in a sort of autodidact way, through their schooling or more often extra-curricular experience. Considering their social condition, Sociology represents a choice that derives from the practical reason through which both the adolescent and their family sense its proximity in the field of objective (material and intellectual) possibilities, taking into account the too great of a distance between their resources and what the prestigious faculties like medicine and law require (Bourdieu, 1984).
However, despite their previous expectations of what the Faculty of Sociology and Social Work entails, they find out that it is heavily theoretical and it requires a specific use of language and concepts, as well as a lot effort in terms of reading and writing academic papers. My paper tried to ascertain the differences in the level of difficulty to understand and assimilate sociological knowledge between working-class students that did not possess either economic or cultural (linguistic) capital, and their colleagues who, instilled with a positive attitude towards education, they gained cultural capital either through their parents, or through auto-didacticism.
When confronted with the institutional culture of the faculty, the students have various responses: some cannot cope with the class work volume, so they try to find the easy way out, they do not read the seminar texts and so they fall behind and are marginalized; others, because they do posses certain resources (I refer here especially to linguistic capital) treat the faculty as a means for symbolic social ascendance, and thus they are concerned only with institutional validation through the diploma and experience; and last but not least, some students that possess linguistic capital and/or strategies to make themselves visible in class assimilate more cultural capital, they gain social capital in the process and thus are very well integrated in the field. I believe that this last category comprises students that experience a specific habitus change, and so acquire a certain kind of academic habitus. A habitus that entails academic reading and writing in their spare time, debating social issues, attending events of sociological nature, organizing such events, and subscribing to certain values. My respondents define this axiological line around what can be called positive attitudes towards minority (religious, ethnic and so on) tolerance, social equality, gender equality, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, social inclusion, left-leaning political values etc.
By analyzing my interviews, I identified a polarization between students that share all these, as well as a ‘taste for theoretical classes’, and pragmatically oriented students that enjoy more grounded classes, such as Organizational management. I believe this is one extremely relevant dimension to take into account when trying to understand educational inequalities and achieving academic success. I considered the difference to be the volume of the students’ linguistic capital, i.e. English competences, capacity to decode academic language (complex words, neologisms), proficient grammar use and possession of a broad vocabulary. To summarize, the students who cannot decode the language of the teachers and the meta-commentaries implicit of the social field, cannot acquire this specific type of academic habitus.
These dispositions, behaviors and attitudes function as a classifying mechanism through which these students ascertain their sense of self, in opposition to their colleagues and other social fields (such as their home environment) (Bourdieu, 1984). Because of this, students that do not share this habitus are marginalized and excluded from certain practices, exclusion that is somehow internalized. As for how that happens, one of my respondents explained to me: “if you don’t have the knowledge (i.e. cultural capital), you have a choice. You can choose who you wanna be, with whom you wanna hang out.’ (S., 23, female) Of course this choice is nowhere near being clear-cut will power, but rather a sense of belonging to a certain kind of lifestyle.
However, being part of this network doesn’t necessarily mean that the student has acquired an academic habitus. There are students who acquired the social capital needed to be part of this micro-society, but they lack the cultural and linguistic capital, while having something like a general feel on what sociology and critical thinking is. In the same time, those that have or obtain both linguistic/cultural and social capital, get into a feedback loop: you have the words that get the people, you have the people that give you the words.
While a longitudinal study in which we follow students’ life trajectory and the acquired occupational status after university would give even a deeper understanding of how social origin accounts for academic and personal success, I believe that my research is still a very relevant instrument in explaining inequalities of chances between students and the strategies they employ in order to overcome their social position. I intend to continue my research by an additional statistical analysis on variables such as family income, level of schooling, in order to determine a clearer class membership for students and how these specific variables influence their life trajectory.
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