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«Sally Baker* and B.J. Brown Abstract We use the concept of habitus to illuminate the autobiographical narratives of participants from disadvantaged ...»

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Habitus and Homeland: Educational

Aspirations, Family Life and Culture in

Autobiographical Narratives of

Educational Experience in Rural Wales

Sally Baker* and B.J. Brown


We use the concept of habitus to illuminate the autobiographical narratives of participants from disadvantaged backgrounds in mid-twentieth century rural Wales who were

successful at university. The participants’ constructions of their habitus and aspirations

drew upon a number of themes that intersected with their ideas of Welsh culture. Images of Welsh culture, history and national identity played a significant role in their accounts.

The participants’ ‘aspirational habitus’ involved a rich blend of images and symbolic resources and a sense that they had a right to be at university. This has implications for how we conceive of habitus and its role in guiding people from rural to largely urban intellectual cultures. The participants’ experiences were made possible by virtue of the isolation of their rural communities and the corresponding significance of their social milieu, which consolidated their value system by attaching considerable significance to educational achievement.

Introduction T his article uses Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ to illuminate a sense of national culture encouraging educational aspiration. This was done through exploring the narratives of 10 participants between the ages of 49 and 72 who grew up with disadvantage in rural Wales. Their biographies demonstrate how their sense of culture, history and national identity were bound up with their success at university.

Previous work investigating people who were from disadvantaged groups who accessed higher education has deployed the concept of habitus (although that term is not always used) to illuminate the sense of difference felt when the students contrasted their own backgrounds with the atmosphere encountered in higher education (Archer and Hutchings 2000; Reay 2004a). Habitus has been elaborated to include aspects relating to embodiment, agency and the interplay between past and present, © 2008 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2008 European Society for Rural Sociology.

Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 48, Number 1, January 2008 ISSN 0038–0199 58 Baker and Brown and individual and collective phenomena to make sense of cultural behaviour and experience (Reay 2004b). Bourdieu defines habitus as the ‘system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment or as classificatory principles as well as being the organising principles of action’ (Bourdieu 1990, p. 13). One’s habitus is an individually operationalised set of expectations and understandings based on the collection of experiences one encounters that shape one’s sense of the ‘rules of the game’. Habitus is a ‘generative schema’, consisting of systems of durable, transposable dispositions (Bourdieu 1977, p. 85) which are implicated in the reproduction of social order. According to Sulkunen (1982, p. 108), the ‘habitus of a group or class defines a symbolic order within which it conducts its practices – in everyday life as well as in the feast’. Through their practice of a particular kind of habitus, a social group may gain cultural capital. This conveys legitimacy, itself reinforced by educational, cultural and artistic institutions. One’s habitus is the product of one’s individual history but also of the whole collective history of family and class (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 91). Bourdieu attempts to theorise how material conditions of social class and economic inequality could be manifest in

culture and in the individual’s socio-psychological organisation:

[T]he social order is progressively inscribed in people’s minds. Social divisions become principles of division, organizing the image of the social world. Objective limits become a sense of limits, a practical anticipation of objective limits acquired by experience of objective limits, a ‘sense of one’s place’ which leads one to exclude oneself from the goods, persons, places and so forth from which one is excluded. (Bourdieu 1984, p. 471) Habitus is not entirely about restriction and exclusion. We use it to explain how our participants from rural Welsh backgrounds who experienced economic disadvantage on a regional and individual level successfully entered and navigated their way through university. Their habituses developed in a particular historical context spanning two generations who grew up in the mid-twentieth century. We use the concept of habitus in a flexible, non-deterministic sense, as facilitating the growth of individuals into new circumstances as well as trammelling them within familiar ones (Reay 2004a).

We extend Bourdieu’s (1977) concept and speak tentatively of an ‘aspirational habitus’. Our participants from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in rural Wales describe how the sense in their families that education was valuable culminated in their going to university. This was more than ‘aspiration’. Educational values were embedded and remembered as being held by people in the wider community who had little formal education. Habitus was not always a mindset or style of life that clashed with the ethos of a university education. Some participants seemed to have been prepared for university, despite growing up in considerable economic disadvantage and having no family tradition of participating in university education. We describe how the interviewees grew up feeling that members of their family and community had been unfairly denied a university education and with the expectation that they would enjoy that privilege. Some of these participants explicitly subscribed to ideas of the Welsh being a cultured, literary people with a hunger for education. In contrast with much of the literature relating to economically disadvantaged people entering university, our participants felt that they had the right to be there.

© 2008 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2008 European Society for Rural Sociology.

Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 48, Number 1, January 2008 Habitus and homeland We attempt to elucidate the experiences shown by 10 individuals from Wales possessing the putative aspirational habitus that may have enabled them to succeed at university. This was explored by means of interviews with the participants, all of whom grew up in Welsh-speaking communities. The effects of Welsh culture and the sense of history represent a relatively unexplored aspect of habitus, but its importance was noted by Bourdieu: ‘the subject is not the instantaneous ego of a sort of singular cogito, but the individual trace of an entire collective history’ (Bourdieu 1990, p. 91).

A pervasive image of Wales is that of a nation that valued education, producing ‘preachers and teachers’, despite debate as to whether this notion is a romantic invention (Morgan 1986). The stereotypical image of the Welsh orientation to education is reflected in the founding of the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University), where in the late nineteenth century scholarships were funded by subscriptions raised from the local quarrymen and working-class farmers to educate their own children (Williams 1985). Academic achievement despite rural hardship is emphasised in the biographical narratives of Welsh literati such as Kate Roberts (1891–1985). There are frequent accounts of overcoming hardship through education, such as in the story of John William Thomas, (‘Arfonwyson’), (1805–1840), a quarryman who became the supervisor at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Smiles (1884) gives accounts of self-taught labourers from North Wales attending evening classes and subsequently entering universities. The perceived tradition of valuing literary and cultural achievement is manifested in the popularity of Eisteddfodau.

These competitive festivals of the arts, in their present form, owe much to the revival of interest in Welsh-language culture in the nineteenth century, but much of the ceremony alludes to images of an imagined rural past with druidic overtones. The focus on poetry and music corresponds to the high profile of bards (poets) in popular Welsh history.

Wales consists largely of relatively disadvantaged, often rural, communities. The late twentieth century has seen a progressive decline in industrial and spiritual life (Evans 2000). Although participants described something distinctive about ‘Wales’ and the ‘Welsh’, life in industrial urban south Wales is considerably different from life in Snowdonia. However, as Jones (1992, p. 330), observes: ‘the Welsh have for centuries sustained an identity... despite... a recent history that has witnessed massive immigration and integrationist pressures’. This sense of national identity can be traced over the last century and a half. Jones (1992, p. 332) argued that during this period a distinctive Welsh self-image was formulated: ‘an identity rooted in a specific combination of social and economic conditions’.

For many, there is still a distinctive sense of identity, history and associated habitus (McCall 2001), which structured family life and persisted through geographical movement and intermarriage. Our participants grew up in Wales at a time when many in Wales still perceived an existing ‘Welsh culture’ infused with religious ‘nonconformism’ – a group of theologies dissenting from the Anglican Church (Larsen 1999), which owed much to the Methodist movement (Jones 2004). Through the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the centrality of chapel life to many Welsh communities amounted to what Chambers and Thompson (2005) call ‘nonconformist hegemony’. From the nineteenth century to the present day, identity politics in Wales involves multiple socio-spatial identities and ‘manifold borders or © 2008 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2008 European Society for Rural Sociology.

Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 48, Number 1, January 2008 60 Baker and Brown boundaries that give form to these identities’ (Jones and Fowler 2007, p. 91). Identities and their related boundaries, spaces and ‘territories’, may be meticulously constructed, narrated and maintained at local and community level, and represent a way of sustaining knowledge and cultural capital.

There have been challenges to the notion of a ‘Welsh culture’. Jones (1982, p. 55) refers to ‘the propagandists of Welsh culture’, maintaining that during the late nineteenth century ‘the middle-class non-conformist elite, through the agencies of chapel and press, re-defined the idea of Wales in its own image’. The image has been long-lasting and powerful. We explore its contributions to the habitus of the participants and how they felt it constituted a distinctively ‘Welsh experience’, informing

educational aspirations:

The habitus acquired in the family is at the basis of the structuring of school experiences; the habitus transformed by the action of the school, itself diversifed, is in turn at the basis of all subsequent experiences... and so on, from restructuring to restructuring. (Bourdieu 1992 [1972], p. 134).

Although Welsh society changed greatly in the late twentieth century (Chaney et al.

2001; Jones 2004), the idea of a Welsh culture has proved robust. Images and ideas of Welsh culture, as well as national identity and the cultural construction of Welsh history, infuse the aspirational habitus described and are of sufficient significance to warrant further study. This study explores the contribution of such images to notions of habitus and the participants’ orientation to education. Bourdieu’s formulation of culture differs from the definition of the term usually found in anthropology or cultural studies. In these disciplines culture is taken to be reflected in ordinary life (Williams 1958; Hall 1986). Bourdieu, on the other hand, uses ‘culture’ to denote the phenomena which a society sees as being ‘the best that has been thought and said, regarded as the summits of achieved civilization’ (Hall 1986, p. 59). Culture is the thought, action and artistic production that a dominant group sees as the most valuable, enabling Bourdieu to reinforce the idea that culture is a form of capital. The everyday practice of ordinary people is habitus that becomes culture inasmuch as it is imbued with value. Habitus represents an attempt to move away from homogenised, bounded notions of culture, or even class culture, sub-culture and identity (Hall, 1980; Clarke et al. 1997), offering a way out of such static notions. The participants transformed their lifestyles yet their habitus represents a core of continuity.

Some historians (e.g. Jones 1982; Manning 2002, 2004) have pointed to the way that Welsh culture involved an active reconstruction of the past and a carefully crafted sense of history, foregrounding the role of matters such as work, language, piety, the arts and scholarship. The insight from Bourdieu is that by recreating and reconfirming this sense of history, people add value to and create the kind of culture that can compete with the more prestigious varieties flourishing in universities and that can permit the holder to make a smooth transition from childhood to being a student.

It is with this conception of habitus and culture in mind that the present study was undertaken, with a view to exploring how people from rural communities believed their experiences as youngsters related to their feelings about university and subsequent career development.

© 2008 The Authors. Journal Compilation © 2008 European Society for Rural Sociology.

Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 48, Number 1, January 2008 Habitus and homeland Table 1: Profile of the participants in this study

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