Panel K.06 — Understanding the nuances of first-generation students’ experiences from a Bourdieusian Perspective – Challenges and Opportunities

Convenors Franziska Lessky (University of Innsbruck, Austria); Flora Petrik (University of Tübingen, Germany); Nicola Ingram (University College Cork, Ireland)

Keywords first generation, higher education, social inequality, Bourdieu, working-class


Previous research in the sociology of education has made extensive use of Bourdieu’s relational theory in examining inequalities in educational outcomes for first-generation and working-class students (Reay et al. 2009; Bathmaker et al. 2016; Ingram et al. 2023). Bourdieu’s conceptual tools have proved fruitful in analysing the challenges that these students may face in higher education and in shedding light on the mechanisms by which existing inequalities are perpetuated. A prevailing argument posits that the habits, tastes, and attitudes (habitus), as well as the resources (capital), cultivated by individuals from less privileged backgrounds during their formative years are less recognised or even rejected within the educational system (field), compared to their counterparts from more advantaged backgrounds who inherit a legacy of and thus affinity to university attendance (Bourdieu 1984; Bourdieu & Passeron 1990). Essentially, this perspective suggests that the practices of families from privileged backgrounds align more seamlessly with the performance and behavioural requirements of the educational system than those of families from less advantaged backgrounds.

In recent years, however, literature has emerged which argues that this strand of research has created a deficit discourse around first-generation learners, focusing solely on the barriers and discrimination these students face rather than, for example, highlighting the capitals they bring to the university environment and how they engage with the social spaces of higher education (O’Shea et al. 2017; Romito 2022). Throughout these discussions, attention is frequently drawn not just to the inertia but also to the adaptability of habitus, field, and configurations of capital, as well as the nuanced nature of experiences. Some scholars contend that, for example, conflicts related to habitus and lack of belonging do not reflect the dominant experience of first-generation students in higher education (Miethe 2023). As a result, a growing body of literature combines Bourdieu’s relational theory with other theoretical perspectives, such as Sen’s capabilities approach, Yosso’s cultural wealth model, or Butler’s theory of subjectivation to illuminate the heterogeneity within this student group and to grasp both aspects of transformation and reproduction in the field of education.

This panel draws on this current discussion by presenting research that aims to take into account the nuances of first-generation and working-class students’ experiences. The abstracts in this panel will present different ways in which a Bourdieusian perspective can be combined with other theoretical and analytical tools to illuminate the experiences of first-generation and working-class students and will critically reflect on the potential challenges and opportunities that these attempts present. In doing so, the panel contributes to a deeper understanding of the intricate relationship between education and social (in)justice within the context of contemporary societal transformations.


Guidelines and abstracts submission