Tag Archives: sociology

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.

The Law of Attraction: Would Bourdieu Approve?

51RswbgKulL__SY355_If you have never come across the Law of Attraction it is probably best described as a philosophy that mixes spirituality, psychology and quantum physics.  The mass appeal of the Law of Attraction over the last decade is understandable.  It offers us a cosmic Other and hope.  Packaged for a mass audience, an entire industry has been generated offering us a way out of the small space we have been allocated in life.  Graham Lineham hilariously lampooned it in an episode of the ‘IT Crowd’ and the idea of thoughts manifesting things is bound to attract derision.  The most interesting idea, for this discussion, lay at the heart of The Law of Attraction; our thoughts and actions are determined by paradigms – clusters of habits- that have been imprinted on our subconscious by external forces since birth.  Bourdieu, a French sociologist called this our ‘habitus’ and reading his work significantly raised my consciousness about my own working class paradigm and why I often feel uncomfortable in situations that fall outside this conditioning.  The lag between my class and gender habitus and arenas in which I wish to operate is known in Bourdieu’s framework as the hysteresis effect.  My habitus is a comfort zone that has propelled me on a particular trajectory and my beliefs and actions are geared towards this, subconsciously (and if I’m honest, sometimes consciously).  Bourdieu’s work is a way of viewing class and gender boundaries as a socially determined means of protecting distinction and privilege.  If I don’t like the trajectory my habitus has prepared me for, then I need to stretch that habitus.

If we ignore the metaphysics, the Law of Attraction has something in common with Bourdieu’s sociological framework; it recognises this gap between habitus and individual ambition, seeing the de-programming of our subconscious as a way out of a socially restrictive existence.  If we want to be wealthy, so goes the teaching, then we should ‘act as if’ we already are.  Dress, talk and act like a millionaire.  For Bourdieu, this is learning the rules (the doxa) of a new game in order for us to expand our habitus and equip ourselves to operate in a different sphere and at a different level, losing those feelings of discomfort.  Changing our attitudes, knowledge and behaviours is, in Bourdieusian language, accruing cultural capital.  The Law of Attraction sees this as alignment between our desires, emotions and actions – throw in some help from the Universe and it is a heady mix.  Where Bourdieu and the Law of Attraction diverge is in the balance between individual free will and structural power; Bourdieu sees this as a subtle interplay where individuals must negotiate structural boundaries that are externally constructed for the benefit of the dominant class (and we can see this very clearly in terms of gender).

Feminism’s goal is to encourage self-actualisation in women.  This could be seen as entirely compatible with the philosophy of the Law of Attraction.  It encourages a ‘know thyself’ consciousness-raising that might well be helpful to women who, in the same way that class throws a boundary around our identity, find their culturally-approved feminine identity suffocating.  Breaking free from oppressive paradigms means unlearning beliefs, attitudes and behaviours with which we have been inculcated – shifting from a patriarchal paradigm to one of emancipation.  The recognition that we have been conditioned by external forces to accept certain ideas is powerful.  If we can unlearn, for example, those masculine and feminine traits that appear ‘natural’ to us we have a much better chance of achieving an androgynous future (yes, this is a good thing!).  Of course, the Law of Attraction does not have an explicit feminist agenda and – let’s face it – most of us just want to get rich.

Blurring the rational/emotional dichotomy may be good for us.  The Law of Attraction challenges our acceptance of the mind/body split.  Certainly, women have often found themselves on the wrong side of these binaries ever since Apollo and Dionysus split our psyches into two.  A philosophy that allows individuals to step outside their habitus and challenge social order is a step in the right direction.  I am wondering aloud whether some of the techniques in the Law of Attraction can be sociologically applied to undo our gender and class conditioning.  Imagine if children could freely explore their potential free of class or gender conditioning.  Imagine if women could slough off limiting ideas of femininity and just be.  I’m not sure Bourdieu would have wholly approved of the selling of a dream to people, but I do think he would have been fascinated by the sociology of it.

Epilogue

Although I have long since parted company with religion, I do want to have an open mind about the metaphysics.  In some ways I can buy into the idea of dissatisfaction being the driver for achievement and who wouldn’t want a shortcut?  Quantum physics is weird and if electrons can be in two places at once, if Schrodinger’s cat can be alive and dead at the same time then maybe something at the Planck level can work for us.  Unfortunately, if I try and visualise a pile of cash I now only see Prof. Brian Cox rolling his eyes.  But if in one of the infinite realities out there I am uber successful, could it be this one?