The art of application: theorising aspiration with habitus

Written by Heather. Posted in News

Talk of aspiration has been running through social policy in the United Kingdom and beyond for decades. Labour and Conservative politicians see it as a way to address inequality and to get working-class people to become more socially mobile. Prime Minister David Cameron called the UK an ‘aspiration nation’ and opposition leadership candidate Andy Burnham opened his campaign with his intention to make Labour ‘the party of aspiration’. In such pronouncements, aspiration remains alarmingly vague. In this guest post, Garth Stahl explores how we can use the theoretical tools of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu to study the identity negotiations surrounding aspiration, and particularly the aspirations of working-class young men and their sense of value.

As a social theorist, Bourdieu’s theory of practice shows how privilege and domination are produced through the interaction of individual dispositions or habitus and various social contexts, including schools and universities, that he calls fields. He also emphasises the role capital in these interactions, that can be economic, cultural or social. Bourdieu’s conceptual tools are designed to help us understand human action. In particular, the tool of habitus explores how the beliefs that individuals carry with them are translated into practices as they transfer through the various fields in which they interact.

What does habitus bring to an analysis of aspiration?

Habitus allows social researchers to move beyond narrow conceptions of aspiration based on motivation, goal-orientation and choice to a social analysis which highlights the influence of social context, distinction and negotiation. Aspirations develop largely through a student’s access and experiences with cultural, economic and social capital. My work considers how the dominant discourses of risk influence learner identities. These are neoliberal in that they prioritise a view of aspiration that is competitive, economic and status based and that purport learning-equals-earning.

Habitus captures how social class gets inside us. It shows how things like aspirations which feel very individual actually come out of collective histories. Pierre Bourdieu, writing with Loic Wacquant, speaks about how our ideas about power become part of our habitus, influencing even how we perceive things.

I have found habitus to offer a lot of potential for understanding how students come to see themselves as aspirant individuals. For working-class students, the experience of education is fraught with potential risks and embarrassments, where the majority feel, as Diane Reay puts it, ‘powerlessness and educational worthlessness’. Embracing an idea of ‘success’ that is ‘natural’ for middle-class people (university degree, white-collar job etc) requires challenging identity negotiations for working-class youth.

According to Bourdieu, the tool of habitus is intended to capture ‘the intentionality without intention, the knowledge without cognitive intent, the pre-reflective’. It offers a way to understand where agents invest their energies, as they make sense of what is possible with the cards they have been dealt. So, habitus shows how agents operate within constraints, how aspirations are collections of individual trajectories/histories, and how the habitus mediates what is possible from a limited range of possibilities.

How do I operationalise it?

Operating unconsciously and consciously, habitus is multifaceted. It is embodiment, a compilation of collective and individual trajectories, fluid and restrained. Incorporating agency, and not fully determined by structure, habitus represents a constant interaction between structure and agency where both reside within the habitus, mutually shaping one another.

From the standpoint of a social researcher, as Wacqaunt wrote, habitus is at once the ‘anchor, the compass, and the course of ethnographic journey’. I think of it as a constantly evolving negotiation by individuals, simultaneously resisting and accepting . As I think with habitus, I’m aware that this negotiation is constrained by each person’s socio-economic position. It is through this negotiation that aspirations are formed. The ‘level of aspiration of individuals is essentially determined by the probability (judged intuitively by means of previous successes or failures) of achieving the desired goal’.

One example of this is how the boys in my study dis-identified with aspirations that were primarily financial. Harry claimed, “I don’t want people to think that I love money. I want them to think I give something back, that, like, it works both ways, that I’m not greedy”. The majority of my participants did not want to be seen as desiring profit-driven employment, instead drawing attention to the value of family and friends. Harry knows he does not possess the capital to successfully play the game. So, within his habitus there is a process of amelioration and compromise, ‘reworking older traditions of working class mutual aid and collective self-improvement’. To desire money would have interfered with these young men’s conception of ‘loyalty to self’ and also the average/‘middling’ learner identity they came to embody.

As the habitus is always permeable to experience, the young men in my study work to reconcile competing ideas of what it is to be an upwardly-mobile neoliberal subject and simultaneously an authentic white, working-class male. Habitus, equipped with strategies and moving through fields, allows for a nuanced exploration into how they reconcile these competing ideas of success.

While policymakers cite a deeply embedded culture of low aspiration as a cause of antisocial behaviour and academic underachievement, habitus shows us that aspiration itself is a complex identity negotiation.

About the author

Garth Stahl (@GarthStahl) is a Lecturer in Literacy and Sociology at University of South Australia. He is a theorist of sociology of education. His research interests lie on the nexus of neoliberalism and socio-cultural studies of education, identity, equity/inequality and social change. Of particular interest to him is exploring counternarratives to neoliberalism around ‘value’ and ‘respectability’ for working-class youth. His book, entitled Identity, Neoliberalism and Aspiration: Educating White Working-class Boys is now available from Routledge.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

Leave a comment


  • School of Sport and Education, Brunel University
    Kingston Lane, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH


Follow Us

Celebrity Culture and Young People’s Aspirations

Built with HTML5 and CSS3
Copyright © 2012

Web Design by Bowler Hat