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Friday, September 04, 2015

Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures: Degrees of Class, by Ciaran Burke

Photo: Huw Morris
Book of the week: Early experience of class has a large effect on the working lives of graduates, discovers Huw Morris, director of skills, higher education and lifelong learning in the Welsh government and visiting professor of higher and further education, University of Salford.

Routes into middle-class occupations for people from working-class backgrounds, and the form and availability of those routes, have been the focus of academic debate, policymaking and political concern for more than half a century.

Academic research has furnished both empirical evidence and theoretical justification to support investment in higher education by both governments and students themselves, from US economist Gary Becker’s Nobel prizewinning account in the early 1960s of human capital formation, to more recent work by the UK-based scholars Phillip Brown, Andy Green and Hugh Lauder on the “Dutch auction” for skills.

The reports of committees of policymakers, from those chaired by Sir Colin Anderson and Lord Robbins in 1960 and 1963 to those of Lord Dearing and Lord Browne of Madingley in 1997 and 2010, have also made the case for using public funds to finance the living costs of students and the running costs of institutions. Through this financial support, it has been argued, the future wealth of the UK and the social mobility of its young might be assured. In the words of Alan Milburn, a Labour former Cabinet minister and now chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, such support works through “unleashing aspiration” and providing “fair access to the professions”.

Ciaran Burke here provides a timely examination of what is often characterised as the linear and meritocratic relationship between higher education and middle-class employment. Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures, his first book, is based on his PhD research, and draws on a series of life-history interviews with 27 graduates – men and women, self-defined working-class and middle-class – of Northern Ireland’s two universities in the 10-year period before 2012.

He interprets the information that he collected from his interviewees with reference to the work of Pierre Bourdieu, making use of the now-familiar conceptual tools of habitus and field, as well as economic, cultural and social capital. To those not versed in the use of these terms by this eminent French sociologist and his followers (and at the risk of gross oversimplification), these words are used to refer respectively to the way things are done, the social sphere within which action takes place, as well as the money, knowledge and acquaintances available to the interviewees as they try to get a job. Burke seeks to avoid an overly determinist account of his interviewees’ educational and employment trajectories by combining his Bourdieusian analysis with an assessment of their aspirations and expectations, as well as the strategies they use to obtain these goals.
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Additional resources 

Based on the life history interviews of graduates and framed through a Bourdieusian sociological lens, Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures explores...

The author
Ciaran Burke, lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster and co-convenor of the British Sociology Association’s Bourdieu Study Group, was born in Belfast. 

Source: Times Higher Education