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1103‘Strangers in Paradise’? Working-class Students in Elite UniversitiesDiane ReayUniversity of CambridgeGill CrozierRoehampton UniversityJohn ClaytonUniversity of SunderlandABSTRACTThis article draws on case studies of nine working-class students at Southern, an elite university.1It attempts to understand the complexities of identities in flux through Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and field. Bourdieu (1990a) argues that when an individual encounters an unfamiliar field, habitus is transformed. He also writes of how the movement of habitus across new, unfamiliar fields results in ‘a habitus divided against itself’ (Bourdieu, 1999a). Our data suggest more nuanced understandings in which the challenge of the unfamiliar results in a range of creative adaptations and multi-faceted responses. They display dispositions of self-scrutiny and self-improvement – almost ‘a constant fashioning and re-fashioning of the self’ but one that still retains key valued aspects of a working-class self. Inevitably, however, there are tensions and ambivalences, and the article explores these, as well as the very evident gains for working-class students of academic success in an elite HE institution.KEY WORDSelite universities / habitus / working-class studentsSociologyCopyright © The Author(s) 2009, Reprints and permissions: BSA Publications Ltd®Volume 43(6): 1103–1121DOI: 10.1177/0038038509345700
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1104SociologyVolume 43 Number 6 December 2009IntroductionBetween 2002 and 2006 the proportion of working-class students in UK universities declined slightly, despite government pressure to increase their numbers. The percentage fell between 2005 and 2006 from 28.6 per cent to 28.2 per cent (Blair, 2006). Over the same period Southern University’s state school admissions dropped to 57.9 per cent, while its percentage of students from low-income families fell to 12.4. Since then there has been a further fall in the proportion of students from low-income families both at UK universities in general and at Southern in particular (Frean, 2007; Grimston, 2009; Pallis, 2008; Paton, 2007). It is against this background that our ESRC TLRP research project2has been conducted and the focus of this article is on a group we have called ‘strangers in paradise’, nine working-class students3in an elite English university (although as will become clearer through the course of this article in a number of ways the working-class students are not strangers nor, for the most part, would they perceive themselves to be ‘in paradise’).These nine students, all highly academically successful, present a particular challenge for commonsense conflations of working class with ‘average’ or ‘low’ ability and indifferent educational attainment (Weis, 1990; Willis, 1977). None of the parents of the nine students have been to university themselves, although one father, now retired, has started a business studies course at a new university.
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