[part of the launch week for the book: Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research: The art of application (published this week by Palgrave). My chapter is called: Young People and the Web: Understanding their Engagement with Online Information through the Concept of Habitus]
Back in 1990 because, after I had been offered a place to study Sociology at Bristol University, I attended the department’s open day. After talking to no one all day, I turned down Bristol’s offer of a place. I had left a small town in a South Wales valley and I found, on arrival at Bristol, everyone there was just too posh and self-assured to be approachable. Having never visited Canterbury, I ended up at Kent University, which in many ways was equally dominated by an upper and middle class intake.
Since then, I have always been fascinated by how someone’s classed socialisation can produce their mind-set. The sharp, pre-Thatcherite, visible class distinctions that defined my parent’s life in South Wales were, by 1990, rapidly fading. Icons of Welsh class consciousness were being erased from the landscape; pits were filled in and levelled to make way for Japanese technology manufactures; slag heaps were cultivated for garden theme parks; workman’s halls were demolished to make room for shopping malls; rugby was professionalised and assimilated into the entertainment industry. At Kent however, these pre-Thatcherite distinctions existed in the dress codes, body language, social networks and attitudes of students. In particular, I remember one student who was the archetypical playboy with a soft-top sports car who was admired for his blasé attitude to his studies. Although he is undoubtedly technically skilled, after painting his father’s friends he is now one of Britain’s most feted portrait artists.
Fast forward to the 00s, after escaping a career in London’s IT business sector, I was a secondary school teacher in a mixed, predominately white working class comprehensive school. I taught Media Studies and ICT. During my lessons students would often come out with all sorts of nonsense they had read on the World Wide Web: the moon landings were an elaborate hoax; 9/11 was an inside job; and so on. The Web, for them, seemed to embody a certain counter-cultural kudos and credibility that eluded most teachers. It would have been easy to laugh at the students in the staffroom; dismiss them as stupid, gullible, poorly educated, and incapable of critical thinking. Yet, I knew from working with them, this would be a lazy, unfair assessment and there was something much more complicated and interesting going on that reflects subtle, sometimes invisible embodiments of social class.
From a Bourdieusian perspective, particularly through the concept of habitus and its empirical operationalisation, we see that a person’s fundamental cognitive and physical dispositions are configured by how they respond to the social spaces they inhabit. As sociologists grasp for new definitions of social class that make sense of what the stats tell us about inequality and political affinities, Bourdieu offered a rich conceptual framework to describe the embodiments of social class that I discovered in my research using ethnographic research techniques.