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Using Bourdieu in my PhD on Parental Influence: Irene Kleanthous Writes

Published in Research Students by Irene Kleanthous on January 31, 2013

Using Bourdieu in my PhD on Parental Influence: Irene Kleanthous Writes
[image (c) Le service photo du Conseil général du Val-de-Marne] In this post, Irene talks about her use of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas in her successfully defended PhD – for more detail see her chapter in the forthcoming book Social Theory and Education Research….

In my PhD I explored adolescent students’ perceptions of parental influence and their dispositions to study mathematically-demanding courses in Higher Education, drawing on six family case studies’ interviews. I come from a background in Primary Education and Psychology and I never thought I would use a theory of sociology for my PhD. But I found Bourdieu’s theory useful for my thesis because it is widely applied in educational research for investigating parental influence especially in primary education, although it is not so common for exploring parental influence in adolescence. Thus, I used Bourdieu’s theory slightly differently from what other people did in the past. I did use most of his theoretical concepts: capital, habitus, practice and field but I also tried to extend Bourdieu’s theory in my thesis. I used some of his theoretical concepts, which are not so widely used, to theorise the phenomenon of ‘denial’ of parental influence from adolescent students. In my PhD I argued that parental influence is ‘misrecognised’ by adolescent students and their parents, and thus it could be a form of ‘symbolic violence’.

Bourdieu wrote about symbolic violence in almost all his books: The Logic of Practice, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture and Masculine Domination are only a few. He originally used the term to talk about symbolic violence exercised through the educational system to advantage the middle-class students and to disadvantage the working-class students: by legitimatising the dominant culture at school the working-class students are self-excluded from school (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990).

But he also talked about symbolic violence between genders and generations. He argues that intergenerational relations are driven by the ‘logic of debt’ (Bourdieu, 1980) and those who possess more capital in a field can exercise symbolic violence ‘with the complicity of those who suffer from it’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Thus, I conceptualise a family as a field, where parents possess more capital than their children and are in the position to exercise symbolic violence on their children by making their capital available to them. I argue that the ‘denial’ of parental influence in adolescent students’ interviews regarding their educational choices for future studies in Higher Education, serves as a ‘misrecognition’ of parental influence.

And although all these might sound impressive I struggled with Bourdieu’s theory at first, and I read most of his books twice and maybe three times before I can say ‘I get it’! I was fortunate to participate in a Bourdieu reading group at the University of Manchester during my doctoral studies, which really helped me to clarify some of his terminology and the way people interpret his work. I hope this blog will be a place for interaction and will provide food for thought. I believe that only through discussing how social theory is applied in various contexts can someone be convinced of its value for educational research.

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About the author /

Irene completed her PhD studies in Mathematics Education at the University of Manchester in 2012. She explored adolescent students’ dispositions towards mathematics and perceptions of parental influence, applying Bourdieu’s theory and using mixed research methods in her thesis. Her doctoral studies were funded by the School of Education (University of Manchester) and the A.G. Leventis Foundation (Cyprus). She was involved in various research projects at the University of Manchester where she worked as a Research Assistant. Irene’s most recent academic position was at the European University of Cyprus where she taught educational research methods and didactics of mathematics for the BEd in Primary Education. You can contact Irene direct at

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  1. Fiona Christie

    Hi Irene,

    A very interesting post which I read with the triple ID as parent (of adolescents), as careers adviser and as newbie educational researcher.

    I want to check I have understood you. Do you mean that some adolescents deny the influence of their parents, although reality is that they are very much influenced by the habitus they have grown up in with their family?

    What does Bourdieuan theory say about this phenomenon of adolescence in which young people manifest a desire to be opposite of what thier parents are? At want point can individuals really reflect on how their background influenced them. I know I was certainly very much a grown up before I could step out of myself and reflect on how I was a product of my parents’ habitus. Is the adolescent who denies family influence just another way of how habitus represented especially in more individualistic western culture?


  2. Irene

    Hi Fiona,

    I am not sure I have the answers for all of your questions. What I found in my data is that adolescent students ‘denied’ parental influence in their interviews but there were instances where they were self-contradictory and the students said something that revealed parental influence e.g. A student said she wanted to study Archaeology and History and her parents didn’t influence her decision making but her dad used to buy books in Archaeology for her.

    I can’t say with certainty at what age people are able to reflect and ‘admit’ their parents’ influence because I didn’t have any adult students in my sample. It should be the case though that in adulthood people are more reflective of their family influence. I noticed immigrant students in my sample being more reflective than native students but I can’t say that western society is the reason for native students not being reflective.

    I think what Bourdieu would say is that middle-class native students are like ‘fish in the water’, which don’t have to reflect on their family influence on their habitus because their habitus matches the field and they take studying at university for granted. I hope this makes sense 🙂


    • Fiona Christie

      Thanks Irene, I only just saw your reply. That’s helpful. Still interesting to wonder what Bourdieuan theory may say about teenagers who rebel and do the opposite of what parents may value. I wonder if wider community comes in here and capital from that source. I think Putnam written about this, though not read him yet.

  3. Jeffery Quaye

    Hi Irene,
    I followed your work via a publication in the BSRLM. I find your research interesting. Currently, I am exploring the students’ attitudes towards mathematics and achievement in mathematics in my PhD research. I am particularly interested in the complex interplay between social class, gender and ethnicity with ATM and AIM. Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of habitus, capital and field are central to the development of my understanding, of the primary cause of students deeply embedded disposition towards mathematics and unequal achievement of students originating from different social classes.

  4. David Gatsos

    Hi Irene,

    I enjoyed reading your work in the newly published book edited by Mark Murphy. I’m working on a dissertation on epistemology and I’m wanting to use Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (and potentially symbolic violence) to provide a justification for questions on a quantitative analysis survey for my research. Are there any publications that outline how he went about his research and what kinds of questions he used? I’m looking, and finding a lot of information on his theory, but little that explicitly outlines how he went about his research.


    • Irene Kleanthous

      Dear Duke,

      apologies for the late reply. I somehow missed this post 🙂 Bourdieu himself used quantitative methods in two of his classics books: Distinction and Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. You can read these two books to see how he used statistics to identify patterns of taste in Distinction. He also used some statistics in his book Reproduction, so you can see how he went about his research from these two books.


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