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

Early experience of class has a large effect on the working lives of graduates, discovers Huw Morris

September 3, 2015
Review: Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures, by Ciaran Burke

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.

To date, analyses of graduate social mobility have tended to focus on the widening access and participation practices of staff in higher education institutions and secondary schools, as well as the recruitment practices of employers. Recent studies have also considered the experiences of young people at low- and high-status universities and those working in highly paid professions. But the limitations of this academic and policy gaze mean that it has remained less clear how young people from working-class and middle-class backgrounds at mid-ranking institutions are negotiating what Burke describes as “a congested graduate market characterised by devalued degrees and significantly more graduates than graduate positions”.

Burke’s work serves to bring the educational and employment experiences of a broader range of recent graduates into sharper focus through an analysis of what he defines as five distinct groups: the strategic middle class, the strategic working class, the converted working class, the entitled middle class and the static working class. He argues that these groups are differentiated by their members’ aspirations and expectations, as well as by the strategies they use to realise their career ambitions.

Members of the two strategic groups, both middle class and working class, demonstrated an understanding of the educational market and “an ability to play the game”. The families of the two middle-class groups were shown to play a key role in the creation and reinforcement of these attitudes through encouragement to participate in extracurricular activities with a view to building cultural and social capital. However, it was only those graduates who acted strategically and reflectively who achieved a lasting middle-class occupational position. In contrast, the members of the entitled middle-class group whom Burke interviewed had seemingly felt born to this greatness, and professed to aspire to greatness, but appear to have hoped, like many of their contemporaries in the converted or static working-class groups, that this greatness would be thrust upon them while they held routine non‑graduate service jobs.

The main conclusion that Burke draws is that early experiences of class before higher education continue to have a central impact on the working lives of graduates long after they have left university. This is not because of their educational achievements but rather because of what they are not aware of, or do not find for themselves when playing (or being played) in the game of finding a career. The grounds for hope revealed by Burke’s study is that individuals, through their own strategies or through supported reflective action, can rewrite this cast(e)ing.

What is surprising about Burke’s conclusions are the factors that appear to be less significant, including the interviewees’ gender, their ethno-national identity (including religion) and the assumed status of the university they attended. The author concedes that his finding that “gender did not appear to have had a great influence over respondents’ [educational and employment] trajectories” needs to be combined with his observation that motherhood does indeed have an influence; and he goes on to explain that the small size of the sample in this study means that he is limited in what he can identify as attributable to gender. For similar reasons of scale and resource, there are other factors that are not commented on, including interviewees’ age, subject of study, and disability.

Notwithstanding its unexpected conclusions, Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures can stand as a fine example of a successful PhD made into a good book. Like the education and employment lives of the young people who are the focus of this study, the creation of a book is a process as much as a product; and, like them, it is only part way through that process. Whether it will be well received more widely, will inspire others and will go on to have significant impact remains to be seen.

What Burke’s book reveals to this reviewer is, first, the need to help young people and their families gain a better understanding of “the game” of graduate social mobility, and, second, the part that employers could play in rewriting the rules of a process that is becoming more costly and less like a game.

Huw Morris is director of skills, higher education and lifelong learning in the Welsh government and visiting professor of higher and further education, University of Salford.


Culture, Capitals and Graduate Futures: Degrees of Class
By Ciaran Burke
Society for Research into Higher Education/Routledge, 184pp, £90.00 and £26.99
ISBN 9781138840539 and 40546
Published 4 September 2015


The author

Author Ciaran BurkeCiaran 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.

“It is quite a small city, and there is not a lot of room for large demarcations of social space. Where I grew up was on the cusp of both the leafy affluent streets and areas that were predominantly social housing. From a young age, I was aware of differences between local neighbourhoods and was curious as to why they existed in this form,” he says. 

“People have often joked that I’ll never leave Belfast! In fact, I am about to move to Plymouth, to start a new job in their sociology department. I’m moving along with Sydney, my wife, and our dog and rabbit. Sydney somehow manages to balance being an English lecturer, running a small craft business and keeping me sane. It has been amazingly helpful to have a live-in copy-editor throughout the PhD process and publication of the book – although at times I think she would like to instate an office hours policy.” 

As a child, Burke was “quite studious. The Northern Ireland education system is a little different; we had the 11+ transfer exam, which decided whether a student went to a grammar or secondary school. On passing my 11+ – and I must admit to only just passing – I went to the local grammar school, where there was the expectation that one would be studious.

“I was always supported by my parents in my interest in more academic subjects, and they allowed me to choose my A-levels and degree course. My dad encouraged me to take an interest in politics and social justice – I imagine I was one of only a few 12-year-olds sitting up until dawn watching the general election results (a tradition I’m still holding true to today).” 

Burke took his undergraduate degree at Queen’s University Belfast, and recalls being “determined and ambitious. Coming from a working-class background and going to a working-class grammar school (another quirk of the Northern Irish education system), education was seen as fundamental in finding a secure and happy life.

“Like most people, my ambition required validation – the support of my social theory lecturer (Matt Wood, who would eventually become one of my doctoral supervisors) gave me the confidence to be ambitious. Upon graduating from my undergraduate degree in sociology, I started a PhD funded by the Department for Employment and Learning. To achieve the required grades, a large portion of my undergraduate was solitary; however, on starting my PhD, I found a community of likewise solitary scholars all to happy to discuss just about anything over a coffee.”

Asked to compare Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, Burke replies, “It’s so different being a student and a staff member, even when you’re a doctoral student with some teaching responsibility. Queen’s is where I cut my teeth, but Ulster has allowed me to develop my role as a lecturer. Coming from a Bourdieusian background, I expected quite a difference between Queen’s and Ulster – one is a redbrick Russell Group institution and the other is a ‘new’ university. I think the most surprising thing I observed was the level of parity between the institutions in terms of research. There are clear differences between the levels of resources available to staff members for research, but [at Ulster] this was seen as an obstacle to overcome rather than a hindrance.”

Burke plays a key role in the British Sociological Association’s Bourdieu Study Group, which “was founded out of a number of successful postgraduate events, partly funded by the BSA. The group has grown to five co-convenors: Nicola Ingram, Jenny Thatcher, Jessie Abrahams, Kirsty Morrin and myself. Our aim is simple: to support a community of scholars (both academic and postgraduate) to discuss and apply Bourdieusian social theory within their research. We do this through organising conferences and workshops and, most recently, we have completed an edited collection for the BSA’s new book series, also with Routledge.”

Invited to give a brief summary of the importance of Pierre Bourdieu’s work to a non-specialist, Burke replies: “C. Wright Mills, an eminent sociologist, argued quite simply that ‘neither the life of the individual nor the history of society can be understood without understanding both’. At its core, sociology is about looking at the relationship between structures (rules, institutions, etc) and agency (individuals, choice, etc) and how these two aspects of society influence what we do. Competing social theories have often exclusively favoured either structure or agency over the other; Bourdieu’s social theory attempts to combine structure and agency. Through applying concepts – what Bourdieu referred to as his ‘thinking tools’ – Bourdieu provides a structural and agentic account for why we do that we do. 

“Bourdieu has been criticised for giving too much favour to structure, but I would argue that this is a pragmatic portrayal of the social construction of our society. It is within this portrayal that we can find Bourdieu’s key message: in the age of increased individualism, structures still play a role.” 

In his own experience as a student and lecturer, and looking at his own research and that of other scholars, would Burke say that state-educated undergraduates from low-income backgrounds and with limited social capital are being conned when they are told that a university education is the way to get on in life?

Burke replies: “I don’t think that state-educated undergraduates from low-income backgrounds are being conned into thinking that education will lead to increased life chances/social mobility. In a knowledge economy, higher education is a prerequisite for a large number of jobs.

“But where there is a problem – and I would use the word ‘conned’ – is the message that qualifications, isolated from other resources, will provide an opportunity for increased life chances. My research and previous work has illustrated that there is a classed division in attitudes towards higher education and graduate employment. Middle-class students/graduates are, to borrow a Bourdieusian turn of phrase, more equipped to play the game and understand that, in the context of increased participation in higher education, they need additional resources, such as extracurricular activities and work experience. In contrast, working-class students put their faith in the buying power of educational capital – a currency that has experienced a continued devaluation, despite the policy rhetoric to the contrary.” 

If he were given a sizeable grant to study some aspect of higher education in Northern Ireland or the UK generally, what would he choose to research?

“A key resource in helping students – in particular, working-class students – understand the labour market is the careers service. Research has shown that only a small percentage of students avail themselves of the resources their university careers service provides, across all classes,” Burke notes.

“The issue is, however, that middle-class students have other resources at their disposal (cultural and social capital) while their working-class counterparts do not. I would like to study ways in which careers services can be better integrated not only into the higher education curriculum but also between secondary level education and tertiary level, as there is an apparent disconnect between careers advice at these two levels.” 

What gives him hope? “The community of scholars I have met through the BSA Bourdieu Study Group, and people I have worked with over the years. There is a clear commitment to social justice within UK sociology, and I find that inspiring.” 

Karen Shook

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Print headline: Learning the rules of the game

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