Book review: Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research

One of Bourdieu’s most utilised concepts is that of habitus. This volume offers an insight into the multitude of ways in which it has been operationalised by researchers in a diverse range of fields. As Costa and Murphy outline in their introduction, Habitus is best thought of as a ‘theory-method’ and as Bourdieu’s ‘attempt to bridge the divide between theory and practice’ (p.3). The volume demonstrates how this is possible by drawing on research from a diverse range of disciplines such as education, youth studies, criminology, migration and digital technologies. Through this, it certainly meets the goal of the authors of showing how concepts can transcend disciplinary boundaries. It also claims to posit a case for the ‘unexplored potential of such concepts to spark interdisciplinary work and cross-sectoral innovation’ (p.14). This is something, however, that only time will tell although certainly the range of studies offer the potential for seeing the wide uses for the concept. What this volume also offers it a focus on the contestation of the concept of habitus and some insights on how researchers can take it forward and develop it within their own contexts. One example of this would be Garth Stahl’s chapter that proposes a notion of a ‘egalitarian habitus’ (p.27).

Drawing from research utilising a range of methods, it shows how habitus has been operationalised in qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods work. It draws on work using secondary statistical data, biographical research, case studies and interviews, Through this, it demonstrates the complexity and the utility of habitus as a concept showing that its use is not bounded by methodology or disciplinary boundaries.

What this volume also offers is a detailed exploration of how each researcher has come to the concept and utilised it within their research through well written, accessible and engaging accounts of work from a wide disciplinary base. In bringing research together in this way, it makes visible the thinking processes that are often lost within journal articles, realising the goal of making visible the link between theory and practice set out by Costa and Murphy. As such, this volume would be an excellent text for any scholars trying to grapple with how to move from theory to application. This would be especially useful for postgraduate students starting out in social research or grappling with understanding the application behind Bourdieu’s concepts.


Costa, C. and Murphy, M. (eds.) (2015). Bourdieu, Habitus and Social Research, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan


Whose hashtag is it anyway? The perils of not promoting tweeting at #ESA2015 or is that #ESA15?

Since 2012 and my first British Sociological Association conference, I have seen the increasing value of twitter as a mechanism of making social connections, engaging in wider discussion of plenaries and getting advice of sessions that may be of interest. Unfortunately, not all conference organisers seem to have discovered this benefit.

On travelling to the 12th European Sociological Association Conference in Prague, I expected to see what most national conferences seem to do; a promoted hash tag to tweet about the conference. It was evident early on that this wasn’t happening (although some photocopied signs appeared later in the conference). This conference had 3500 delegates so it would be safe to assume that at least a proportion of these would have a twitter presence.

It can be seen from analysis of posts involving the hashtag that the lack of a promoted hash tag had an impact on who was tweeting and the volume of these tweets. Wasim Ahmed (@was3120) ran an a analysis by nodeXL which found that in the whole conference there were 1637 tweets using the hash tag from 579 users. If we compare this to the analysis run by the BSA digital sociology group on the 2013 BSA conference, there were 1497 tweets from 328 users during a conference with far fewer delegates (790).

This is potentially problematic as twitter is in many ways expected as a back channel at a conference. Even the controversy surrounding the Ecological Society of America’s request for tweeters to ask permission before tweeting still acknowledged the presence of twitter as a core element of the conference.

It might therefore be helpful for future organising committees to understand how having an official hashtag might have helped this specific conference

  •  the sheer volume of papers

I am positive that I am not the only delegate who found the sheer number of papers a challenge to choose from. With 37 research networks and 7 research streams in addition to a number of other plenaries and ‘mid-day specials’, it was easy to miss interesting papers or sessions, in fact I noted that many people stuck to one network for the duration. By having an active hashtag, it can allow delegates to find that hidden gem they missed, for instance it was a tweet from Drew Dalton (@DrewDalton1980) that alerted me to a fascinating session on methods that I would have missed otherwise.

  •  Ways of negotiating clashes in interesting papers

With this sheer volume of papers, clashes are inevitable. What a twitter back channel also allows is a ‘feel’ for missed papers or sessions to be garnered through others comments. This enables engagement with the content or enough detail to decide if you wish to contact the researcher directly for a copy of the paper.

  • Interacting with speakers 

This is one aspect that is almost essential in a programme this size. For example my own paper was in a 90 minute session with 4 other papers. This allowed for 12 minutes delivery and 2 or at most 3 questions. By creating an alternative form of engagement with the speaker, it allows much more productivity in terms of gathering feedback on a paper.

  • The social aspect of a conference

In a conference of this scale (3500 delegates) twitter has so much potential for forming networks and finding people with similar interests it is a lifesaver for those people who, like me, did not know many people before the conference.

  • Feedback

The use of twitter as a back channel that was monitored locally may have picked up the issues with audio during Bauman’s plenary which may have been addressed quickly, thus reducing the frustration reported on twitter from not being able to hear the talk. In the defence of the organising committee, gaining feedback was attempted on a Facebook post, however it would have been more effective to monitor a hash tag and to directly respond on there as it could have offered more instant feedback, especially on Wi-Fi, water and queuing issues.

Hopefully lessons will be learned for ESA 2017 and by others reading this blog who are organising their own conferences.


What’s this blog got to do with it?

I was going to entitle this blog “A blog on why I  haven’t blogged” and if you look at the date of the last post, that is exactly what it is. Strangely, it doesn’t seem that long since I did blog and this is what this post is actually about.

As I have discussed, previously on my blog, writing blog posts is almost a cathartic process for me. The actual value being in the production and writing down of my ideas in order to work through them and understand them. I was last blogging at a very specific time; namely that of the transition from masters to doctoral study where I needed a focus to work through my reading. This in many ways has been removed by the process of writing and preparing a number of assignments for the postgraduate certificate in research methods that accompanies the PhD process at Staffordshire and through my musings written to create a basis for supervision discussions.

In revisiting these, I can see how my previous blogging has influenced these and the way I have worked through my thoughts. I can also see some useful lessons that will hopefully improve future blogging endeavours. In all honesty, however, there is an element of angst in not having blogged for a while. This is why I felt I needed to write something but I have been torn when I was thinking about what to write about.

This, potentially is a dilemma for many doctoral students. Do I post about my own project before I publish elements of it? Do I reduce my postings to ones of methodology and process? Or do I blog on tangential issues? I don’t actually know the answer at this point in time but it is likely to be the subject of another blog post in the near future. I have a number of conference papers coming up over the next few months and maybe attending these conferences will spark some ideas for more blog posts, who knows.

Pat Thomson has written a blog about how she generates ideas for posts but for me at this moment in time, I’m not sure if this would draw away from the focus on my actual project. That being said, the notion of thinking in public through blogging and twitter is something I am exploring ‘on the side’ of my doctoral project so this might be a useful focus for the blog.

Of course, one other area which seems to receive lots of traffic on the blog is my book reviews and in terms of overlap with my doctoral work, these are quite safe territory, but then I wonder if I should be trying to target these at journals instead on my blog?

Answers in the comments or on twitter please! @jonrainford


Book Review: English and Bolton – Bourdieu for Educators

In this text, Fenwick W. English and Cheryl L. Bolton aim to fill a much-needed gap in the literature; a text that makes Bourdieu’s work accessible to practitioners. Whilst there are a number of introductory texts, the examples often do not resonate with practitioners who may not come from a social science background. It is clear that two authors with a background of practice have developed this text and understand exactly the issues that make Bourdieu’s work a challenge for practitioners to understand. Using real world examples within educational practice from across sectors, age ranges and geographical settings, the text takes Bourdieu’s concepts and embeds them in situations that will hold resonance for practitioners.

Whilst the work of Pierre Bourdieu is a go to source of theoretical concepts for many educational researchers, his work is not always fully engaged with effectively by these researchers, especially those without a background in sociology or social theory. This often means that some of his more complex ideas are not fully engaged with. This volume aims to bring Bourdieu’s ideas to a wider audience and it does this well by contextualizing his ideas in relation to issues that practitioners can closely relate to. It also demystifies some of Bourdieu’s more complex ideas by explaining them in clear English with real world examples from both sides of the Atlantic. As a practitioner, this also added an interesting dimension to the text as not only did it clearly elucidate some of Bourdieu’s concepts but it also gave an insight into educational settings that were not familiar.

The book first introduces the concepts and vocabulary central to Bourdieu’s work before examining their use in study of institutions, curriculum and leadership. The final chapter then examines the impact and relevance of his work on today’s education system. Whilst the book should not be treated as a sole resource on Bourdieu, it offers a useful entry point into his work for those who may initially be overwhelmed by some of the language and vocabulary that Bourdieu uses so that they can better understand the utility of his work as a theoretical framework within Education. As such I would highly recommend it as a text for practitioners entering the world of social research in order to both introduce and signpost the works within Bourdieu’s oeuvre that are most useful to the issues that concern them.

English, F.L. and Bolton, C.L. (2015). Bourdieu for Educators. London: Sage

widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening participation seminar 2

Unlike the previous seminar that was focused more on research and its value in widening participation, the second in the series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars had a distinct focus on the nature of outreach work and how to evaluate its success. What was distinct from the three papers and the plenary discussions is the heterogeneous nature of what work is done and how institutions judge its success. In the opening, Annette Hayton posed the issue of how reporting, evaluation and research can often form discreet entities that can be divorced from practice. There were many issues raised over the day but I will pull out some of the key issues and my reflection on these.

The first paper given by Colin McCaig explored his work on content and discourse analysis of Access Agreements from 2006 and 2012 across 10 pre-1992 and 10 post-1992 universities. His paper addressed many key issues but the most striking was how much of the focus at primary level was coming from pre-1992 institutions. I would suggest that this is in some ways problematic as the overwhelming discourse from the pre-1992 institutions was that they wanted to work with ‘the brightest’, ‘the best’ and ‘high attainers’. Does this mean that in some cases these primary children may be developing a sense that if they do not make it to a pre-1992 university that they are in some way deficient or have failed? *

Also interesting in Colin’s paper was the shifts in language in Access Agreements between 2006 and 2012. Changes were more prevalent in post-1992 institutions that moved from talking about institutional focused issues to those centered on individuals. In pre-1992 institutions there was less change but, the main change in focus was around the role of widening participation as a civic virtue. This marked change in post-1992’s and more static approach in pre-1992’s may offer some insights into the thinking of institutional leadership teams onto why they should do widening participation work.

The second paper was a whistle stop tour by Carole Leathwood through a DfE funded study into school and college strategies to raise aspirations. I was very pleased to hear Carole’s reflection on the problematic nature of the steering groups insistence on using the term raising aspirations. As I have written about before, the issues is not one of low aspirations but mismatched or poorly channeled aspiration, which Carole helpfully termed an ‘Expectation Gap’. What worries me however is even despite a growing acknowledgement that the discourse of raising aspirations is problematic that there seems to be a reluctance to abandon it.

The study was relatively extensive and looked at 400 schools and 100 colleges with a telephone survey and 9 schools and 2 colleges as case studies. What was interesting was that 98% of colleges and 97% of schools said they did some ‘aspiration raising work’ and that there was a unanimous message that all options should be discussed, not just Higher Education. This resonates very much with feedback from teachers about events we have run with them valuing the fact we discuss all options open to young people and is often a criticism of other widening participation events they have participated in. This is something that is worth all practioners in the field taking some time to reflect on.

The study cited many elements that make a difference and I think it is useful to summarise them here:

  • Whole school and college culture that engages in this work
  • Well organized and structured programme
  • Advice on subject choice
  • Student finance advice
  • Dedicated specialist staff in schools
  • Vising speakers / Alumni
  • Personalised one to one support
  • Mentoring
  • University visits and Summer Schools

Overwhelmingly, it is these visits that were cited by both students and teachers as having the most profound impact although they also noted the issues of cost in being able to attend these visits. There was clearly a London effect where these schools were doing more and the transport issue could be a key factor in this. I would also suggest that getting student ambassadors into London schools is a far easier prospect than into a rural school with limited transport links or at a distance from a university campus. Carole’s paper raised many more issues and I would highly recommend any practitioners to spend some time to read the full report.

The final paper was a case study of the University of Bath’s attempts to create a framework for evaluating widening participation work. They identified clear issues with previous lack of correlation of aims and objectives which made it hard to find a focus for evaluation. For each level of intervention, they identified five dimensions: know, choose, become, practice and understand. They then ensured that there were objectives for each. This then created a much more systematic way of approaching evaluation. What was interesting to reflect upon was how much of the evaluation practioners may often do in a tacit or ad-hoc way as part of their own reflective practice through debriefs but that may not be systematically recorded. What was also useful to reflect upon was the diverse approach to evaluation in terms of measuring understanding through quizzes, surveys, peer evaluation of work and focus groups. One of the challenges when we talk about evaluation can be the narrow conception of evaluation as a paper form and this is something to be reflected upon – the multifaceted dimensions of evaluation and how to capture this effectively in a systematic way.

This second seminar offered much to reflect upon both in terms of what we do but how we measure what is done in widening participation. There can be a tendency to reduce evaluation to a must do task that is reducible to easily reportable numerical data in terms of participation, target groups and engagement but this can miss the transformative power of widening participation which is in many ways the real value of this type of work. It isn’t simply how many students an institution can work with but how many lives this type of work can transform.

(*this is a different interpretation to the original post due to misinterpreting the data)

Full presentations now available here

higher education, PhD, widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening Participation seminar 1

I attended the first in a series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars on researching and evaluating widening participation yesterday. This series aims to blur the boundaries between researchers and practitioners in this area in order to pose questions and challenge to how this work is evaluated and informed by research.

The day consisted of two sociologically focused research papers, a practice case study and then group discussions on questions posed back to the audience. This format was really useful as it allowed us to reflect on the implications and the value of what we had heard earlier in the day.

The first paper by Dr Vikki Boliver used UCAS data to statistically explore the impact of ethnicity on offers by selective universities made to young home applicants. She found that even when data was controlled for other factors such as social class and educational attainment that there was still a significant impact of ethnicity on the likelihood of being made an offer. She  explored a number of commonly given explanations, namely they are less likely to achieve the grades needed for admission, they study the wrong subjects at A-level or they choose highly over subscribed subjects. Her analysis showed that whilst these factors have some effect, they do not fully explain what is happening. She also posed a fourth explanation, that admissions selectors may be seeking to admit a student body that is representative of the wider population. Whilst Ethnicity is not given to selectors, she argued that application forms have many clue in terms of names and what is written in personal statements. One interesting question from this first paper was that if a number of international students are likely to be admitted to an institution, does this make home selection more skewed to white students in order to ensure the cohort is representative of a wider population. Furthermore, how do selectors judge representativeness? Vikki also highlighted the challenges posed to researchers wanting to look into these areas due to the limits on data that UCAS will make public. One suggestion made by the audience was to make is accessible in a anonymised form.

The second paper by Professor David James looked at some issues raised in the study of white middle class school choice that he undertook from 2011-13 with Diane Reay and Gill Crozier. He also highlighted the way in which his study problematises using school postcode data as a way to judge the need for WP interventions for given children. When middle class parents choose to send their children to local schools which may be areas of deprivation, they are often doing so because they understand the system and know that they will get extra attention as they are seen as a valuable commodity. As such, they may be more likely to be selected as ‘gifted and talented’ or put forward for WP interventions, even though they may not be the young people who need these interventions the most.

He also raised important issues around WP research such as what should be the unit of focus, is it the individuals or arguably should we be looking at the systems and structures that shape the actions of individuals? He posed the question of what drives WP policy and practice, highlighting the competing needs of social good and economic needs of both individuals and institutions. Through this paper, David showed the importance of taking a sociological viewpoint on WP, even when working in practice as these sorts of issues may be hidden by a purely data driven view of who WP interventions should be targeted at.

Both these papers and the issues they raised made me consider my own experience as a teacher and the way predicted grades that were submitted to UCAS often became a point of negotiation for middle class parents whereas working class parents often took them as absolutes. This shows the role class may have in privileging the chance of getting offers from more selective institutions.

The final paper was a case study of how Goldsmiths Fine Art programme developed a summer school to make the institution more accessible to local students from FE colleges. They did this through a summer school and ongoing support of portfolio reviews and mock interviews. What was interesting in this case study was the way in which academic staff who were initially resistant to ‘doing WP’ found that these local student have ended up enriching the course and bringing very local issues and experience into the institution. To put a sociological lens onto it, what Goldsmiths did differently was to alter the institutional habitus to make the students feel like part of the institution opposed to bringing them in an expecting them to adapt to the institution. This raises the important question of who needs to change in WP interventions; the individual, or the institution, or is it both?

The final discussion session engaged with many of these issues in more depth, namely those surrounding how these issues should inform admission practices, the access to UCAS data and where the focus of evaluation should be. Given the potential links between names and ethnicity, should applications be anonymised to admissions staff? How can we ensure that these trends and issues can be researched when the data is currently not available at the level of detail needed to do so in order to hold institutions to account? Finally, do we need to do more to show not only the statistical impact of intervention but the rich changes that interventions have, should we perhaps be arguing for reporting that values the submission of case studies as well as broader demographic data?

I believe the sessions will appear as a podcast in the near future and the powerpoints made available through the SRHE website.

The next session is on 9th Feb and booking can be found here


Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.


Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press