28 SES 13, Investigating the Capacity to Aspire
Recent public debates in the United Kingdom have lamented a 'poverty of aspirations' among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. In these debates, stagnating (upwards) social mobility is linked to a lack of ambition among working-class young people to aim for more esteemed occupational and educational trajectories (Hollingworth & Allen, 2013). This debate can be seen as symptomatic for wider policy trends in which individuals are held responsible for their success on the labour market and beyond (Bradford & Hey, 2007; Raco, 2009). At a European level, this is evident in strategies of activation and employability (Spohrer, 2011). The question arises of how young people from disadvantaged backgrounds envisage their futures in the light of the public pressures to 'aim higher.
The paper aims to examine young people’s accounts on their future aspirations through the lenses of the work of Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Young people’s constructions of their future selves are analysed drawing on both authors’ notions of how power is enacted through bodies and minds of individuals. Drawing on empirical interview data, the paper explores the ways in which young people construct their (future) selves by negotiating official discourses.
Drawing on Bourdieu’s concept of 'habitus' as an embodiment of (past and present) structural positions, young people’s orientation towards the future can be seen as an intuitive anticipation of “objective chances” (Bourdieu, 1974). While Bourdieu’s work shines a light on the intersection of social structure and subjectivity, Foucault’s work provides an understanding of the ways in which individuals become subject through drawing on discursively shaped subject positions (Foucault, 1982). From a Foucaultian perspective, young people’s constructions of their future selves could be understood as processes of adopting, negotiating and resisting official discourses of aspiration.
Employing both Bourdieu’s and Foucault’s work in the analysis of young people’s aspirations promises an insight into the intersection of official discourses with habitus positions (see also Zipin et al., 2013). It allows conceptualising young people’s aspirations as both shaped in social contexts and actively negotiated by adopting and/or resistancing discursive positions.
Allen, K. and Hollingworth, S. (2013) 'Social class, place and urban young people's aspirations for work in the knowledge economy: "Sticky subjects" or "cosmopolitan creatives"?.' Urban Studies 50(3), pp. 499-517. Bourdieu, P. (1974). The school as a conservative force: scholastic and cultural inequalities. In Eggleston, J. (Ed.) Contemporary Research in the Sociology of Education (pp. 32-46). London: Methuan & Co. Bradford, S., & Hey, V. (2007). Successful subjectivities? The successification of class, ethnic and gender positions. Journal of Education Policy, 22(6), 595-614. Foucault, M. (1982). Afterword: The subject and power. In H. L. Dreyfus & P. Rabinow (Eds.), Michel Foucault: Beyond structuralism and hermeneutics (pp. 208-226). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Raco, M. (2009). From expectations to aspirations: State modernisation, urban policy, and the existential politics of welfare in the UK. Political Geography, 28(7), 436-444. Spohrer, K. (2011) “Deconstructing 'Aspiration': UK policy debates and European policy trends”, European Educational Research Journal, 10(1), 53-63. Zipin, L., Sellar, S., Brennan, M., & Gale, T. (2013). Educating for Futures in Marginalized Regions: A sociological framework for rethinking and researching aspirations. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 1-20.
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