Category Archives: academia

I’m an academic but I don’t want to be middle class

I will always remember reading Bourdieu’s Distinction for the first time. It was like a long drawn out gasp of realisation that my own life was being described. Bourdieu made sense of the nagging and debilitating feelings of unbelonging over the years as I entered various institutional and cultural ‘fields’ (as Bourdieu calls them).

This sense of outsideness began at school (a middle class institution) and hearing John McDonnell recently talk about the injustice of ‘working class shame’ endured by children who sometimes have neither the economic sufficiency nor the savoir faire to negotiate the middle class education system actually reduced me to tears.

I remember a teacher at secondary school making us pronounce our aitches and unflatten our vowels; it was all very Pygmalion. 

Then there was my unbelonging in the Church of England, a quintessentially middle class expression of a faith that elevates the poor in sentimentalised rhetoric. But try being a working class girl in a choir full of public schoolboys, and try developing confidence (and don’t confuse loquaciousness with self-esteem) in a place where a Yorkshire accent (and its accrual of working class meaning) was as anomalous in the pulpit as a woman (and if you think things have changed for the better, please read my thesis).

I once had a coughing fit in church and a very posh woman in pearls handed me a delicate lace handkerchief. I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I dabbed my mouth and offered it back. She told me to take it home and wash it and give it back the following week. I took it home and threw it away. Fuck you, lady.

Throughout my working life – carrying a university education as a visa into middle class occupations (with indefinite leave to stay) – my regional accent and my class habits were an ill-fit in the higher echelons of local government. I have been a ‘voice out of place’ to paraphrase Sara Ahmed’s (2018) notion of ‘bodies out of place’, who in turn paraphrases Mary Douglas’ (1966) notion of dirt as ‘matter out of place’. These are all connected: the out-of-placeness generates abjection. And abjection generates shame.

My entry into academia bears all these same hallmarks of unbelonging. Bourdieu’s discussion of ‘habitus’, types of ‘capital’, ‘field’ and ‘doxa’ was an epiphany to me: social class forces had shaped my life and experience of the world. Who knew? I have often felt a disjuncture between who I am and where I am; my (middle class) trajectory does not match my (working class) habitus. Coupled with a gendered imposter syndrome, the awkwardness that comes with not quite belonging, having to learn the doxa (the rules of a given field) rather than having an implicit understanding of how things work, can add up to a psychic discomfort that plays out as disadvantage in the social world.

Whilst Bourdieu helps to understand some of the feelings of unbelonging when you step out of class habitus, he doesn’t solve the problems it causes, except to say that individual agency can overcome the more structural and cultural impediments. What I have come to understand, though, is that my visa that allows entry into a middle class field such as academia diminishes the working class capital that I bring with me. The doxa – the prevailing understanding of how to speak, behave, act, think, and present – are not working class. I can act as though I were middle class, but can I ever not be working class? It feels like I am required to undergo a cultural DNA transplant, a forgetting of who I am and what has formed me.

I don’t think I’ve ever said this aloud before: I actually don’t want to be middle class. I want to be a working class academic. 

It was at this year’s British Sociological Association conference that I had a further epiphany – that there were other working class academics who have not gone through the exhausting process of reinventing themselves as middle class to fit in, but who paid the price for this resistance. Thanks to the powerful witness of academics Yvette Taylor and Maddie Breeze, I had my moment of catharsis and my resistance to middle class colonisation of my sense of self was redoubled.

Knowing there are other working class academics who do not obfuscate their sense of class identity is the most amazing news to me. Now I’ve started to look, working class academics are ‘coming out’ everywhere. I thought myself alone in my reluctance to disavow my background simply because I’ve gone through the legitimisation of higher education (another Bourdieusian idea, you have to be educated by the system: autodidacts need not apply).

The social media thread #workingclassacademic I think is a way of saying that working class habitus is to be valued, rather than erased. Whilst there is nothing OK about being poor (frankly, it’s shit), being working class is a culturally rich identity that is problematised because of the way we stratify social status hierarchically in the UK. Bourdieu’s Distinction reveals how, to maintain some cultural fields as elite, what is most valued coincides with perceived class boundaries: which means a working class person is disruptive if she is an opera aficionado, a connoisseur of wine, art or literature, especially if she refuses to decamp from her working class habitus. ‘Cultural capital’ is really a way of saying the middle classes have superior taste from which the working class are alienated (I don’t mean that to sound so Marxist, but if the cap fits….).

#workingclassacademic is a resistance. We bring working class capital to academia because it needs us. Academia will be intellectually richer, culturally more vibrant, socially more diverse if working class identity is not set at odds with being educated and articulate.

I am a working class academic. I am not a contradiction in terms.