Coming to Terms With Being a Working Class Academic
I know I have a great deal of privilege. I am a white, thirty-something, well-educated, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied man from Britain. Life is relatively easy for me, and I am well aware of it. But I am also a working class PhD candidate, and academia is one of the few places in which I have ever felt like a minority. People like to think that anyone can make it in the academic world; that it is a meritocracy in which the brightest and best get the support and funding that they deserve, but to be blunt, this is a fantasy.
Academia, despite the efforts of many well-meaning organisations and individuals, is still an elitist institution. We who have entered the industry from a less privileged class position experience both undergraduate and postgraduate study in a very different way to those who arrived here via the predestined path; a path that is open to those who live in a world where it is ‘normal’ to get a PhD, or even to go to university at all. Rather than giving advice, this post identifies some of the underlying causes of the underrepresentation of working class people in postgraduate study. I will try, though, to reflect upon some of the things I have learnt (both about myself and about my chosen ‘career’) while starting out as a working class academic, and I will make a few suggestions that others in a similar position might find useful.
I have talked about this many times with friends and colleagues, but have avoided writing about it until now. I think this is because class (particularly in Britain) can lead to very complicated and sometimes heated debates; it just seems to touch a nerve. Class, for me, is really about capital. And it is the combination of social, cultural and economic forms of capital (or lack of them) that defines a person’s social (dis)advantage, so I will discuss each of these in turn. First, though, I should address what I mean by ‘being working class’.
We are all working class now?
Unfortunately, many people seem to believe this to be the case; and the Labor Party has even gone as far as to say that the working class no longer exists in the UK. But neither of these things are true. There appears to be some confusion, partly because people who are definitely not working class sometimes prefer to say they are, while others who ‘obviously’ are working class would prefer to identify themselves as middle class. For this reason I need to clarify what I mean, and what I don’t mean, by ‘working class’ in this context.
Being working class is not as simple as having had parents who needed to work to support the family. If that were the case it would include almost everyone who studies or works in a university. I have had conversations when people have told me, for example, that they are working class because their father started his own (successful) business and that their mother is a part-time university lecturer. I understand why people think this means that they are working class, but I would argue that this is incorrect.
Rather than working class meaning that you work, I believe it can be better understood as a personal state of mind or way of being that has been defined and shaped by growing up in a family situation that lacked the necessary economic, cultural and social capital to begin life with a ‘normal’ level of opportunity (this is discussed in detail by Reay et al. 2009). If your parents were poor due to unfortunate circumstances, but studied at university level, it is different. If your parents were working class, but did well in life and can support you financially through university, that too is different. Even if they have jobs that would be defined as working class, but read regularly, engage in ‘intellectual’ discussions, and encouraged you to do the same, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t working class but it does make a big difference to your future.
I grew up in a household where my parents were unemployed for long periods of time during (and in the wake of) Thatcherite Britain (here is an interesting article about class and Thatcher). Among my family and friends it was seen as a bit weird to read; there was no bookshelf in my house and I have no memory of my parents ever reading a book at home. This isn’t really surprising because neither of them finished school and both have struggled with literacy throughout their lives. They have never been, and never will be, in a position to help me financially. I am from a working class background, but if I have children, they probably won’t be. Even if I were unemployed during their childhood they would be far less disadvantaged because my partner (who is also working class) and I now have significantly more social and cultural capital than our parents ever did, primarily because we have both been to university.
That is not to say that people who lack one form of capital in their early lives do not have significant challenges to overcome, but it is the combination of a dearth in all three that makes being working class (by my very narrow definition) particularly difficult in the world of academia.
Bourdieu (whose work is at the root of this post) described social capital as:
‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group’.
Ironically, without the necessary cultural capital, interpreting what this quote means is quite difficult! In short, it says that if you have the right social relationships, and belong to the right groups or organisations (e.g. a family, a social class, a school, a political party, etc), you will have more opportunities. Most working class people do not have the relationships that are necessary to access this social advantage.
There is evidence that social capital has a direct impact on whether people continue to higher education and also which universities they will attend. For example, the secondary school you attend, the relationships those schools have with universities and the social/class backgrounds the pupils and their parents, influence the decisions you make and the access you have to courses. As Brooks (2008) notes ‘differences in the social composition of schools and colleges and their norms and practices can have considerable impact on the social capital available to young people and the resources upon which they can draw when making their decisions about higher education’. The result is that in both the UK and the US those who go to private schools (almost exclusively middle or upper class children) are far more likely to decide to study further and are also able to enter elite universities (such as Oxford or Harvard) with lower academic achievements than those who attend state schools (p. 1366). If people who identify themselves as working class (up to 60% of the population) do manage to get to university, they do so as part of a minority group: on average, 32% of UK students are working class, while in elite universities (of which Oxford is the most selective) this is as low as 11.5%. Once enrolled, the relationships and networks that working class people have access to is also limited, we are ‘strangers in paradise’.
In a previous post as part of the Graduate Advice Month on Sociology Lens, Lee Thorpe Jr identified how few role models he had, and how little support was offered to him during his undergraduate study. Moreover, his experience as a working class student was compounded by also being a gay man of colour. I think it would be fair to assume that anyone who is from a working class background and identifies as part of other marginalised groups is affected by a lack of social capital to an even greater degree. The advice that Lee Thorpe Jr offers, which I will reiterate here, is-
- When you find a supportive community, regardless of its size, help to foster it.
- Look for those professors who will help you with opportunities.
- Do not be afraid to reach out for help.
I couldn’t agree more. My own experience at the University of Portsmouth was that there were people, both in my cohort and in the faculty, that were sympathetic to my position and even a few who could identify with me through their own experience. Once I found them and asked for help they were incredibly supportive; some of them have become mentors and even close personal friends, helping me every step along the way in my academic career. They have supported me when applying for courses, guided me through the labyrinth of academic bureaucracy, and provided glowing references.
Going beyond our immediate networks within the university, organisations like the Association of Working Class Academics (which I didn’t know existed before writing this post) ‘advocates for students and faculty of poverty- and working-class origins, strives to implement reforms designed to assure greater class equity within colleges and universities […and…] establishes relationships and connections.’ These types of networks allow working class academics to come together to support one another, and to create and benefit from alternative forms of social capital. It is crucial that we do not simply struggle to access the social capital that is out of reach, but instead we identify ourselves and others in order to create our own community and our own social capital within academia.
Cultural capital can be understood as the personal experiences and characteristics that emerge from having (or not having) access to social and economic capital. As Bourdieu notes, this exists in three states:
‘the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), […] and in the institutionalized state, […such as…] educational qualifications.’
Though academic courses supposedly start students off from the beginning, if you have grown up in a family that reads about and discusses politics, economics, business, geography, history or anything else that might be considered ‘general knowledge’; seamlessly slipping into academia is far easier and takes a lot less self-reflection and adjustment. Working class people, on the other hand, must assimilate ourselves in a culture that is not designed for us. This entails developing an identity that is disconnected from our past. As we change the way we speak, the way we write and the way we think, as we develop new relationships and become interested in things that are outside of our class culture, we risk alienating ourselves from our families, friends and communities (see e.g. Matthys, 2013).
I have been lucky, in that my family (despite not really understanding what I do or why I do it) have always been supportive. This support is invaluable, but the distance that has developed between us over the years is obvious. I want to be able to talk to my parents about the stresses and strains of academic life, I want them to understand what it actually entails to do a PhD, and I want to be able to explain my research to them (although, as discussed in this previous post, I can barely explain it to other academics).
I feel different to them because, as I have gained access to more cultural capital and, as my experience has diverged from theirs, I have changed… a lot! An example (and one that I regret) is that I have lost my regional accent. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but it signifies something more to me (my colleague here on Sociology Lens has discussed this in more detail). When I am with my family, I know that I sound different to them (though the odd word I say gives away my West Country origins); I have left my accent, and subsequently part of my identity, behind. I don’t doubt that this is a direct result of subconsciously trying to fit into my new world. Susan (on the AWCA website) summaries how important maintaining a class identity is. She states that being a working-class academic means ‘Staying true to my roots, always standing alongside working class and other marginalized groups, implicating capital in my scholarship and my teaching.’ When I was younger, I was ashamed of my accent, it gave away my social position and made me feel inferior. Now, I am embarrassed that I ever felt like that.
Cultural capital also has a direct impact on our academic achievements. I remember the first essay I wrote at university. I worked so hard on it, but I had no idea what was expected of me, what was ‘acceptable’ academic language or what sources were ‘legitimate’. I tried to use big words, not really understanding what they meant, and I talked about my opinion, rather than just the ‘facts’. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good, but it did give me a starting point from which I could begin to learn how to write. I found out that my reading and writing levels were significantly lower than would be expected at university. It had nothing to do with my intelligence, I just hadn’t developed it in the ways that other people had. This is not uncommon, working class people tend to fall behind on literacy at every stage of education.
Over my first year, in order to catch up I took additional literacy and academic writing classes (the University of Portsmouth had a great Academic Skills department that offered one-on-one classes for people in my position), but it wasn’t easy. I am lucky in that I have a somewhat determined and confident personality, but I still felt embarrassed by how far behind I was (even though I was eight years older than a lot of the other students) and often felt that I was out of my depth, that I didn’t deserve to be there. The additional pressure that it put on me was evident. I just had to do more work than other people to get the same grades. Of course, learning to write ‘academically’ is hard for everyone, but for many working class students it is like learning a whole new language.
It is difficult to give advice on this, because it is something I continue to struggle with. But I can say this: what we as working class people might lack in cultural capital is more than made up for in experience, tenacity and insight. I have often felt that having grown up in a working class home I have a more intuitive understanding of some social/cultural phenomenon than some of my more privileged classmates. I also believe that it has significantly influenced my approach to study, my interest in ‘development’, poverty and (in)justice and my determination to ‘prove myself’ every step of the way. As a friend commented on Facebook recently, when you are working class, studying is not just something you do because it is the done thing, it is a big risk to take, and demands a major commitment. She told me that while at university she lived in the knowledge that she would never have a second chance. She said ‘I could not afford to not pass, or to change my mind’. I felt exactly the same in my undergraduate degree, and I wouldn’t wish this extra pressure on anyone, but I believe that this commitment, despite any disadvantages we might have, also leads to working class people performing just as well as students from more privileged class backgrounds, and sometimes (because working class people that have made it this far are a more select group) even out performing them (Martin, 2010, p. 31).
In many ways this is the most obvious and most significant factor in the experience of working class students lives. There are so many advantages to having more economic capital that I won’t even be able to scratch the surface of them here. It has even been argued that access to social and cultural capital are really only the result of how much money you have. Though, I am not convinced it is quite so clear-cut, with enough money, the other obstacles are certainly easier to overcome. For example, Leah Wiener (2014) notes how her own ability to access the ‘merit-based awards’ that she used to support her education was really ‘the product of […] class privilege’. This is because (usually) scholarships to universities and other financial awards are based on the grades that you have obtained so far and your practical experience. It has little to do with your potential. The same is true when applying for postgraduate study. Those who have relevant work experience are far more likely to be accepted onto courses, but to gain this experience young people are expected to work for free. Unpaid internships have become a powerful force in strengthening the class divide, working class people just cannot do them, it is practically impossible. The ‘Gap Year’ (we working class call this ‘being unemployed’) experiences of those who (or whose parents) can afford it also provide many advantages once at university.
Those who do have additional financial support from their parents are less likely to need to work during their studies and if they do so it will often be to earn a bit of extra cash, rather than to make ends meet. I even know of a few people who were fully supported by their family throughout their study, invested their student loans and grants, and worked part-time jobs in bars and clubs for ‘fun’. By the time it came to applying for postgraduate study, those people had these mythical things called ‘savings’, meaning that they could pay for further education themselves. Or, if they were so inclined, could take six months off to do unpaid internships. Most working class people, on the other hand, leave university in almost unmanageable debt.
The additional pressure of financial struggle means that working class students (myself included) struggle to manage their time. For example, during my first masters degree I worked as a security guard on twelve-hour night shifts up to four times a week, and sometimes went straight from work to 9am classes. Other times I found work as a labourer and skipped classes altogether because the money was ‘more important’ than the lectures. The result was that I was always trying to catch up, I didn’t have as much time as other people did to study. In addition, as Martin (2010, p.324) notes, this means that working class students are far less active in campus life. They are less likely to be involved in societies, groups, campus political processes and socialising. The inevitable result is that working class people are further marginalised and continue to have less access to social and cultural capital when they reach postgraduate study.
There isn’t a great deal of advice I can give regarding economic capital; you can’t just make money appear from nowhere. However, most universities do have funds available for people who are struggling financially, and I recommend that you seek these out sooner rather than later. It wasn’t until I was really broke and considering quitting university that I found out about my university’s ‘hardship’ fund. It made a big difference to me, though I still had to work a lot to make ends meet. I know it is difficult (especially for working class people) to admit that you need help, but the money is there for those who need it and there is no shame in asking for it.
It is tempting to think that because some working class people make it through university and continue on to postgraduate study that anyone can do the same. It can and does happen, but this is not the same as saying that all those who have the potential to make it will do so. While I do believe that (in the end) it is a combination of hard work and aptitude for academia that leads to good grades, working class people need to do more hard work and have more aptitude to begin with. Until there is significant structural reform, both within higher education and across society more generally, academia will continue to marginalise anyone who has limited access to social, cultural and economic capital.
I know this has been a long post, and not much of it is really ‘advice’, but that is because it is just harder to get to postgraduate study if you are working class. No amount of advice will change that. My intention has been to show that working class people are an important part of academia and though we may not have access to the various forms of capital that might make things easier, our knowledge, experiences, and ways of being are an important part of university culture, and the research we do is unique and valuable. To make the most of this, it is imperative that working class people create networks and relationships within academia and with other working class people, especially those who are considering an academic career. By doing so, we can create our own forms of social capital and can help each other to develop our cultural capital, and access funding, support, and courses that might otherwise be out of reach. While doing so, we must not forget our class identity, because it is this that allows us to become a community of ‘working class academics’, rather than just being working class people who happen to work in academia.
Thanks for this post. I can relate to it enormously. The comments about the distance between you and your family and your concerns regarding your accent resonate particularly strongly for me. I am originally from the north of England, now living in Australia, and have lost much of the northerness i love. I am about a decade older than you and I’m now an Associate Professor largely due to the working class tenacity you refer to. Like you, I am from a family who has no idea what academic life is like, despite the fact that like yours, they are supportive – they are not against me career and are very proud of it actually but we are worlds apart.
I am not sure that this will help, and in fact might hinder, but the things you describe have been present throughout my career and are still there. I still feel like i stick out like a sore thumb, and can still be made to feel like an imposter despite being relatively successful according to the usual academic measures. I am also, like yo,u aware of my privilege which can make it very hard to even have these discussions in the first place as it can seem whiney to bemoan such a privileged lifestyle.
It’s important to name these things though, as a way of challenging them and offering solidarity to others. But again, class often gets in the way – not only because it might seem we are complaining about being in a great position but because our class roots let us know just how good a position this actually is!
It has taken me years to become comfortable in my working class, female (not to engage in one upmanship here at all but the gender angle adds yet more complexity) skin while roaming the halls of the academy and i still have difficult moments. But a turning point for me was when i decided to embrace that aspect of myself and not seek to hide it. And when i did i started to meet others in similar positions and find solidarity and support there too.
I wish you success in your career and hope to see more discussions about this topic.
Sorry for the delay in replying to this.
Thank you so much for you comments. A tutor of mine and I were talking about these things a while back and I said that hopefully as I get further along in my career I would stop having the awkwardness and feeling out of place, but he told me it never goes away, you just find ways of dealing with it.
It sounds like your experience has been similar!
I am also able to relate to this article. I am also from a poverty background, and am the only one in my family who has gone through college. After several years of teaching EFL in Mexico, I have just been accepted into a Master’s program in English Literature in the States (I want to be a professor), and am getting ready to jump back into the academic world. As such, it is a relief to read articles like this, and to know just how many people are in the same position as I am in regards to “imposter complex”, trying to relate to what is normal, and trying to scrounge together economic capital.
One relevant topic that your article didn’t discuss (I am not sure if this is just a US phenomenon, or if it goes on in England as well) is the anger that comes with a poverty background. You both mentioned being afraid to “stick out” or “give yourselves away”, but I wonder if you have also had the opposite reaction–a kind of fierce aggression and pride that actually causes you to alienate yourself further. I spent my first couple years of undergrad trying to eradicate my “redneck” accent and use big words that I was unsure of, terrified that the more privileged students were laughing at me behind my back. I resented them for what I thought they represented–wealth, entitlement, weakness. Again, I am not sure if this is just a US thing, but the working class really tend to scorn the upper and middle classes more than they deserve (not that some of it isn’t merited!), and I was raised with pretty serious prejudice against “rich people”. In my world, these amorphous, fantastical beings included pretty much anyone who owned a house big enough to have a guest room and two working vehicles. While feeling painfully inadequate much of the time, I would also lash out at people who could have helped me. I dug in the garbage for food rather than ask for “charity”, I purposefully used coarse language to make the “pansies” feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t feel okay unless I was doing better than EVERYONE in the class. I wanted to be the very best, and rub it in their over-privileged faces afterwards.
Needless to say, this behavior is appalling and I am ashamed that I ever felt it was appropriate. In my last couple of years of undergrad, I got my sh*t together, and was finally able to seek out the social capital I needed in the form of other professors and students who could either directly relate, or whom I could trust to understand. I took better care of myself (step one was to stop constantly trying to prove myself, learning to ask for help instead), and toned the aggression WAY down. I became proud of my background–like you, I imagine I wouldn’t be half as tenacious and competitive as I am without growing up where I did. I graduated Cum Laude, and was honored as the “Most Outstanding” graduate in my field for the year.
My point is not to toot my own horn, but to recognize that I was lucky. I never acted that way toward professors (working-class background, if nothing else, instills a healthy respect for authority), and I was able to draw the line at doing something that truly messed up my chances of having a future in academia. I still have occasional regressions back to the old ways of thinking, but now I recognize them for what they are and am able to channel the energy. However, I know other working-class students who weren’t so lucky, and despite being brilliant, imploded in their first few years of school.
As I mentioned before, I am gearing up to go back to school in the fall, and earn my first postgrad degree. I will be student-teaching, and hope that I can be in a position to mentor undergrads that come from similar backgrounds. I don’t want anyone to have to feel as alone as I did. As working-class academics, do you have any specific advice on how to go about creating the kinds of networks and relationships that you speak about, without inciting the resentment that is so common to poverty-background students in the face of “help”?
Great that you are starting a course! I am so happy that you found this interesting and helpful. You also made some really good points about things I missed out. There was actually a part in my first draft of this about overcoming resentment, but I took it out because it was just getting too long. I know what you mean about anger. I live my life working in an industry that I resent and am angry about. It is weird to be somewhere that you know you have only managed to get to because 1) you have been lucky and 2) you have worked damn hard! I wrote another post about feeling like an impostor, it is so, so common! But remember this; if you have got this far, you deserve to be there, as much as (if not more than) everyone else. You obviously aren’t inadequate if, despite not having had it handed to you on a plate, you have managed to get to postgrad study.
I also grew up with prejudice toward rich people and ‘smart’ people. Stuck up snobs, boffins and nerds. And as a child i rejected learning quite aggressively (I bet I was a nightmare for my teachers!). i relate to everything you are saying and I am sure many people do. I think there are more similarities between the UK and US than there are differences.
Also, don’t apologise for mentioning your achievements (no need to be humble for the sake of it!). I also got an award at the end of my undergraduate, and I am proud of it because i deserved it. I know exactly how hard I worked and the recognition was a boost to my confidence that I needed. There are so many who have an underlying anger toward academia because it is elitist and we SHOULD be angry about it, but as you say it is important to channel those feelings into something that works for you and not against to.
Sorry, this post is a bit rushed, I have some things to do right now. But regarding your last question, I think the first step (which I see this post as a part of) is to begin to talk openly about these things. The next step might be to find working class undergrads, or even visit potential students in high schools to discuss it with them and act as a mentor. This is not something I am doing right now myself, but I do hope to do it in future. I will think about this some more, but those are my first thoughts.
thanks you again for such a great response, it sounds like you have been through some tough times. It is great to be able to connect to people who really understand what it is like.
Also, I always felt as though I had to be the top of the class with every assignment. I HATED it when I wasn’t. But more than wanting to rub it in people’s faces, I didn’t want anyone to find out that I was not as smart as I was pretending to be!
I have to say this – I’m quite dismayed at how, in deliberations on class in academia, the precariat, or even underclass academic, is conspicuous by their absence. People on fragmented, temporary zero hours contracts; part-time hours; those sick and/or unable to work at their field because failure to accommodate their impairments has dis-abled them from work; the family carer also not accommodated, by the academy or society at large: all are present in reality, but not in the discourse on academic life or contemporary society at large. That the ‘underclass’ are looked down upon by the ‘working class’, the precariat by the tenured, is ignored. I have noticed this in Left and Right discourse, especially, for example, during this latest election period here in the UK. I believe it is because neoliberal forces have shaped even social science academics’ way of perceiving themselves and each other, but I’ve traced the contempt for the ‘lumpenproletariat’, in all its confused descriptions, even back to Marx himself. It’s scary how similar both ‘left’ and ‘right’ are sounding about people who cannot ‘work’ (that, is, get waged work – unpaid work, a major gendered phenomenon, remains ignored, even in this day and age and considering the feminist contribution to knowledge about this issue!) As someone who once identified as ‘working class’, I now find self-descriptions of such by academics as problematic. As it stands, I do not believe the ‘working class academic’ has any privileged insight into class stratification and its pernicious effects in academic life, and should not be claiming to speak for those of us in the underclass, or even the precariat. I believe the Left’s disdain for the unwaged is a fundamental problem that will need to be tackled urgently, whatever the result of this upcoming UK election.
Thanks for your comments, and I agree with what you are saying, I think. I am aware that I oversimplified things for the purposes of this post. I talked as if there were two classes (working class and not working class), though it is clear that things are far more complicated than that. As you say, the precariat, the underclass and those who cannot (for physical or other reasons) work are ignored, and the gender gap in unpaid work is still a major problem.
I know what you mean about choosing not to identify as working class and why this would be problematic. I disagree, though, because I think that it is important to identify oneself in order to identify the problem. If all academics rejected labels like this (working class, female, black, LGBTQ etc) and just pretended that once in academia we are all the same, it would be a disservice to all those who weren’t given the same opportunities. It would give inequality in academia a smokescreen, a false legitimacy.
As for speaking for those in the underclass or the precariat, I somewhat agree. I can’t speak for anyone else, really, and so shouldn’t claim to. Maybe I should have worded things differently to make it clear that I am speaking about my own experience and nothing else That said, though, a lot of people have contacted me following this blog to tell me that they have had near identical experiences. So maybe, for the sake of story telling (which I see as an important tool in building solidarity), speaking in a collective voice, identify and relating experiences to others is more important than dividing the people who have less than average privilege into smaller and smaller subgroups.
I do believe some working class academics have some unique insights into class, as some women have unique insights into gender politics and so on. That is not to say you have to be working class to understand class, just that our world views are shaped by our experiences and ALL experiences are valuable.
Thanks again for reading and commenting!
Then what I would say to you is that I have to identify as both a precariat and an ‘underclass’ academic. I’m disabled (and now on sick leave); I’m a full-time carer and my wonderful, intelligent daughter is one of the ‘underclass’ (the unwaged) because she is dis-abled; and my ‘academic’ job is very much precariat and low-paid. I’ve come to realise that the ‘underclass’ in particular – the unwaged – are being denied any positive identity, and are even treated as ‘less than’ the ‘working class’, even by the ‘working class’. And yes some of us are academics! I would love to have the privilege of being a ‘working class’ academic, frankly. It’s not that I don’t ‘choose’ the identity of ‘working class’: it’s that it is denied me! I’m not seeking to divide people. I’m asking those of you identifying as working class to remember you’ll have colleagues who are actually precariat and/or ‘underclass’, and that they – we – deserve full civic, human and social rights as much as you, something many of us are not getting. Our stories also have to form part of the understanding of class in academia.
Hi Angela, thanks again for your comments. As I said in my previous response, I simplified what working class means for the purposes of the post and used it to include anyway who is not part of a group who have above average advantage. I understand that within the working class (by the definition I am using here) there is a wide range of people with different experiences and degrees of disadvantage/exclusion. That is why I made it clear that, within the working class, I probably have far more advantages than most.
When I said that you chose not to identify as working class, I said that because you said you used to and now you no longer do. I thought you meant you had rejected the label through a decision. I do, though understand why you would identify more as a precariat, and it is something I can relate to, too. I have worked most of my life in jobs without contracts or with minimal contracts, I have had no career identity and when unemployed had major difficulties claiming state benefits. Even now, though I have some career identity, when I finish my PhD I may well be unemployed again.
those of us identifying as working class should, of course, remember that we have colleagues who are precariat and/or ‘underclass’, and I think most would acknowledge that ALL people deserve full civic, human and social rights. But I ask you this, why, if working class academics have no new insights into class in academia would the stories of the underclass or precariat be any different?
My opinion is that the stories and experiences of all people (and especially any marginalised peoples) are a crucial part of building an academia that goes beyond elite institutionalism.
But I didn’t actually say that working class have no ‘new insights’ as such. My issue is how ‘working class’ on the left have often claimed to have a privileged insight into class, while ignoring the underclass. To my reading Marx himself actually becomes incoherent when he writes about the ‘lumpenproletariat’, for example, though he does a lot of ‘othering’ I notice. There are some problems in how ‘working class’ identifying academics position themselves against, and sometimes – too often- engage in ‘othering’, the ‘underclass’ (which will include their colleagues). This also of course goes on in non-academic contexts. I don’t see ‘working class’ having any privileged insight into class above the underclass basically, and I think people have to also be careful not to allow themselves to ‘other’ those of us in the ‘underclass’. At the moment, we are seeing some working class representatives treating the ‘underclass’ as an afterthought, utilising charity discourse rather than social justice/full human civic and social rights discourse about unwaged people. This is happening in the political discourse as we speak, in the frenzied eve of an election here in the UK. The ‘underclass’, of course, will have some particular insights into what it is like to be the underclass, particularly in this past five years when we have been politically scapegoated and attacked in what looks more and more like a war of attrition, to the point many of us are losing our lives, or are particularly living a ‘slow death’, as ‘austerity’ is killing more people in the underclass than anywhere else, yet our rights and needs are largely absent from the political parties’ manifestos. That should be ringing alarm bells. Yet it’s not so much.
I think i misunderstood what you were saying, and yes, I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the way in which the current government treats people that you would describe as being the ‘underclass’. I have worked in drug and alcohol services (many of the people using the services had mental health issues) and I have worked in youth centres with ‘at risk’ children, many of whom went on to be long term unemployed. I have seen how austerity affected the people I worked with and it certainly does ring alarm bells! While working in both these jobs I had zero hour contracts, as i have had in many jobs. I don’t know about other working class people, but I don’t intend to other the ‘underclass’, and I apologise if I did so in this post.
All of that said, I know my own experience best, and I identify as working class and so that is what I wrote about here. It isn’t really my expertise (in an academic sense), though, and so I value all of your comments and I will definitely draw on them if I write about class in academia in future.
Thanks George, I really appreciate you taking the time to consider the points I was trying to make. I didn’t mean to co-opt the discussion either and hope I haven’t. It’s been a tough few weeks I have to admit on a more personal level: the othering of unwaged people by the media, by political groups – left and right – and by some academics, unfortunately, has led to some really painful epiphanies about how class is being considered, and has been, even by the left; even by social scientists. I think your comment about building an academic that goes beyond elite institutionalism you made earlier is spot on, though the neoliberal shift is likely to make that a tough job for all of us.
I’m using ‘underclass’ and even ‘lumpenproletariat’ purely because these are terms being assigned to unwaged people by others. The use of ‘scrounger’ rhetoric to other such people is also another major issue that academia hasn’t quite got its head around yet, with a few exceptions. My own field of research is partially related to this.
Thanks George, that’s a gorgeous reflexive piece and one with which I completely identify even though I am much older and had the advantage of having a student grant when I went uni in the 1970s.There are still so very few academics with working class backgrounds and the university remains, despite many shifts, an elite institution. I will certainly check out the group you mentioned.
Thanks for you comment. There is also the Working Class Studies Association, who emailed me following this post. They have a conference coming up at the end of this month in the US.
Glad you enjoyed the blog.
Ah the travails of the working class. If only we could be as good as our fellow academics. Keep trying, don’t forget to doff yer cap and one day we all might be lar!
One day, maybe!
Thanks for writing this piece of work. I only wished I had read this 2 years ago when I first embarked on my sociology msc at a russell group university as I spent much of the time wondering why I felt so out of place and at some points, didn’t deserve to be there – despite getting merits for all my modules. Reading Bourdieu’s work explained a lot and helped me to understand about the person I am and how I arrived in the place that I am now. I have to say though, the way I have felt as a student has probably put me off furthering my career in academia as I am looking to get back to a place where I feel “comfortable” again, if that makes sense. I think it was clear to other students and lecturers by my distinctive regional accent and lack of confidence to articulate in seminars that I was uncomfortable at uni but I never discussed it with anyone there and preferred just to get my head down and work hard. That’s why articles like this are really helpful, we need more of them! Anyway with a bit of luck i will pass my dissertation and will have achieved something I never thought I would do!
Thanks for your comment!
Part of the reason I wrote this was because I wish I had heard it a few years back. Hopefully some people will read it before it is too late! 🙂
I wrote another post called ‘5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Starting my PhD’, you might like that one, too.
Here is the link http://thesocietypages.org/sociologylens/2015/04/01/five-things-i-wish-i-had-known-before-starting-my-phd/
It is a shame that you have been put off academia, but you might find that after some time away from it, and some space to reflect, you might be draw to it again. Either way, good luck in whichever path you choose!
Really great piece. I want to spare the academic engagement or even the academic appraisal.
Simply I will say every word resonates. Even now, even doing very well in academic career terms, this resonates historically, but also in its legacy.
Thanks for writing!
I am sure there are plenty of academic criticisms that could be made of this blog post, but I am glad you avoided them and that you enjoyed it. It is great to hear from people who have experienced these things but have still ‘made it’!
Thanks for this this is an amazing piece that has helped me shape my understanding of my own discomfort that I have been experiencing. I’m in the second year of my PhD. I have wonderful supportive supervisors and staff around me but always have felt uncomfortable and out of place. It was not until I had a meeting following some research work I carried out that made me consider my “working class” life style. After reading this piece it has made me understand it’s not just because I’m not bright enough or because I am a mum to a young child but because I don’t have the social, cultural or economic capital that most of the others surrounding me have.
I completely resonate with Kerry’s comment in that I’m waiting to get back to that comfortable space, to go back into working in the FE sector where my Phd will be respected rather than having to continually strive for credibility in the world academia.I plan to do what is necessary to complete my PhD as I continually feel uncomfortable even after completing the MRes with distinction and having highly sought after supervisors who tell me I’m doing well all the time.
This in itself is creating constant cognitive dissonance as I feel I should strive to make a difference but at the same time just want a comfort zone. I will read your piece on how to survive a phd as this piece has helped me tremendously.Thanks so much for writing.
Thank you George. So much. I am reading this several decades too late for it to be of practical use, but value it greatly for validating what my thoughts and feelings were when I went though university in (supposedly egalitarian) Australia. Not just inadequate me then. I thought the argument about the importance of all three types of capital compelling and critical for education policy, which tends to focus only on economic accessibility. In many ways, I think economic capital is the easiest to deal with. It is distressing how hollow meritocracy is and how that feeling of not belonging and of being a pretender never goes away.
Hi George, I loved your post, very eloquently written all that hard work paid off! I also am in my final year of PhD and even though the university I work at is for the working classes 😉 the experiences I have had are very similar to your own, I now don’t feel as if I fit in anywhere, not at home and definitely not with the elite! People say hold on to your class and represent it and I try to but what I used to find funny I just do not find funny any more or value the things that I used to so its hard sometimes to hold on and represent it. Its funny but when I was doing my undergrad it was like being introduced into a new world where I wanted to share my experiences with everyone I knew. Whereas now I hide the fact that I am doing a PhD from friends that I meet instead using my other part time job as the descriptor of what I am up to now. I am not ashamed I just don’t want to be that different from them or have to go through the process of explaining what a PhD is or that I will be a doctor but not the GP kind. I have had many humorous mishaps rubbing elbows with the academy that no matter how hard I tried to hide it at first gave away my working class background. I also liked how you described working class as it resonated a lot with what I hear and that is that we all have different understandings of what working class is because my idea of working class is not the same as those who I work with in the university. I like Yvette Taylor she also writes about these types of experiences. Thanks for the post although I do have one question concerning it, you said we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help with our status, help with what? Gaining capital? Off now to joing the working class academics, great post thanks!
Really good article and one which I can totally relate to. Almost like reading something that I myself could have written about my own life in academia (your personal experiences). Glad that your hard work has paid off George. I still struggle with imposter syndrome regardless of grades and positive feedback and it’s almost worsening as a PhD student. Thanks for writing this – i’ll be sharing it! Best of luck for the future.
This is a really insightful post – many thanks for writing it. I’m now an early career lecturer, and in that sense have ‘made it’, but it has taken years for me to begin to feel comfortable in my own skin in this environment and I still often feel like an impostor or outsider. I can absolitely relate to what is described here in terms of some of my own experiences, and I see it being played out so predictably with undergraduates and postgraduates, as well as with staff seeking permanent contracts etc. In so many ways, some subtle and some quite overt, it is so far from being a level playing field. You really do need to be more single-minded, persevering and determined, while also trying not to lose who you are!
Very thought provoking article. I have struggled with many of the things discussed also.
I was a reasonably high-achiever at school until my teens when I went off the rails slightly. Eventually I managed to complete Sixth-Form with A-Level results that spelled DUDE (or U DED). I gave up on the idea of university and got a ‘proper’ job.
After eight years or so I applied to a university. I was accepted and found that I was actually quite good at it. I graduated with a first, got accepted on a Masters and passed that (while working two jobs to support myself through it). I was lucky enough to gain some part-time teaching work on my old undergraduate course. This developed over time and now, five years later I am employed on a permanent contract and working toward my PhD.
To me, though, academia often seems like a game where no-one has explained the rules. It feels like many of my colleagues are much more comfortable than I in various situations (taking work to conferences for example, I feel like ‘the smelly kid at big school).
I am also very aware of my good fortune. In Billy Connolly’s biography, he talks of a feeling that someone is going to sneak up behind him, clap a hand on his shoulder, and say “I hope you enjoyed yourself, you are back welding on Monday”. This is how I often feel (although I was never a welder).
Socially there have been costs as well. As I have moved on to different things, in many respects I have become alienated from my friends and family. My marriage broke down last year and my wife often cited one of the reasons for this that from her point of view, she did not have any frame of reference for what I did or how I spent so much of my time.
I would not change what I do for anything but as a recent song has it, “I’ve found the right road, but I’ve lost all my friends”.
i was 40 years old in the late 90’s when i had – achieved a university place – having gone back to night school a few years before – having reaped what i had unwittingly sewn some decades before… I remember being angry for the 3 years as i began to understand my life to that date – and the lies i’d been told by society and the media as a whole.
Portsmouth University – a great course i remember – Sociology BSc. And being told by a lecturer they had – ‘let one through the net’. (I assume they meant a scouser.) 🙂
I enjoyed this post very much – it has made me think about a Phd as old as i am. if i can scrape the money somehow? 🙂
Thanks so much for your comment. I am really glad you found it interesting and could relate to some of the content. Interesting that you studied at Portsmouth. I teach there now. What would you recommend that a lecturer/tutor could do to improve the experience of people like yourself at University?
As for going back to do a PhD, there are funds available through things like the ESRC, and sometimes other scholarships or funded research programmes. Take a look at findaphd.com or the PhD portal.
it was the late 80s
Thanks for this, it’s always reassuring to have the discomforts, losses and gains of shifting classes articulated, as it’s not such a common experience, and apparently getting less so. I was ‘lucky’ to move ‘up’ a class, but it doesn’t feel that way when I return to my home town for Christmas, and feel like an alien/snob/pretentious twerp. I too was ashamed and self conscious about my accent, and always trying to hide clues of where I’d come from, and now at 33 am embarrassed to have ever felt that way.
I’d never realised quite how class played a part in my academic experience (though recognised how it effected my social experience very clearly) so this is very enlightening. Speaking up in seminars was a huge issue fpr me, as was interacting with lecturers who I saw as almost superhuman in their superiority to me. I felt absolutely clueless about how to behave in most situations outside of the pub (this a peculiarity of my family/medical history rather than a class thing), and the smoothness with which my fellow students navigated this strange new world presented me with daily evidence of my inferiority. I relate to the comment about anger and defensiveness too, I was often battling with middle class boys about their perceived snobbery…
Thanks for writing this, and congratulations on thriving in the academy. I made it through an MA, but felt like an imposter often, and though my work equalled my peers, and my perspective on occasion made my writing stand out, I couldn’t always keep up with the conversations outside of class. Politics, geography and history weren’t topics of conversation in my family, and nor did we eat dinner (tea) at a table (on trays in front of our personal tellies).
Great article and one that speaks to my own experience a lot, too. Thank you! In my teens, my parents, in the one conversation we had on the matter, said that if I wanted to go to university I’d have to pay for it myself because they couldn’t help me. That, together with careers advisors at school telling me I should be a labourer on a building site, instilled in me the idea that university wasn’t for the likes of me. After below-par grades and several years of working retail, I ended up working in an office. I was pleased with myself just to be able to wear a tie to work that wasn’t a clip-on. When that job contract ended after a couple of years and I found myself staring down the barrel of another supermarket job, I looked at applying to university as one of a few last resort ideas.
Words can’t explain how dumb I felt when I read about how the loans system worked, and how I could have gone years ago thanks to the arrangement of not paying it back until you earn over x amount (I’m in the UK), but since I’m not the sort of person anyone thought should be going to university it was never information anyone felt like they needed to give me.
During my undergraduate degree I was working about 30 hours a week (in retail) and I was ten years older than most students. This was a bit of a hurdle for me and along with the constant feeling (and remarks from my parents) that I should be getting a “real” job at my age, it was a bit of struggle. Since half of my week was spent working at the job I was at university to get away from, feelings of not being good enough were magnified. As you say, though, there’s this constant feeling that complaining isn’t really an option. A lot of the people who were in university “automatically” complained constantly about the work which my friends and family back home were keen to tell me wasn’t like living in the “real” world. So I just shut up and carried on, with few university friends I could speak to and no-one at home who cared about the work I’m doing.
I did well enough to get a masters and to now be in my first year of PhD study. The divide between your work life and your family life you mention, that’s a killer for me, too. I’ll never forget the conversations I had after I found out I’d secured a PhD place. I’d had a PhD in mind since beginning my masters and worked hard on my application for over a year. When I told my dad I’d got in, he said, “Ah, yeah?” and then changed the subject to tell me that I’d had a demand for money in the post from a credit card company. End of conversation. Mum was equally unfussed by the whole situation and my girlfriend was just annoyed that I’d be moving away.
At the moment, I find myself in a new town with so little money, thanks to having to pay back the debt I incurred while doing my masters, that I can’t even do laundry, let alone pay for drinks at social events. Much of my free time is spent doing freelance writing online for money. Even after four years of study with consistent first class marks, I still feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about. I recently attended a public lecture with a drinks reception beforehand. I had to time it to not be too early, because I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable around all the smart people drinking wine. I was ten minutes early and felt like I was close to tears as I stood at the back of the room “checking my phone” until the lecture started. I earned a first class undergraduate degree, got a distinction in my masters, and have a place at a good university on a fully funded PhD studentship, but the further in to academia I get the dumber and more isolated I feel.
Apologies for the long post! Not very happy at the moment and your article hit a nerve. It’s hard to complain about these things face-to-face, because I just feel like I’m a white British male with a roof over my head, so I should go to therapy or shut up. And, you know, that’s a fair comment, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Anyway, great article! I’ll now go and raid the rest of your website (but no more mammoth comments, I promise!).
I was working class. With some luck i got educated in my mid 20s and the first ‘a’ result ever from a tutor changed my view of learning. Ended up with a doctorate…all degrees external. I worked throug it all and had good success in business, and even as an adjunct later supervised and examined doctorates.
The big problem throughout for me was the clash of reality and academia particularly in the social and business sciences. Academics read the literature and build their theoretical minds. They occasionally engage long enough in real work settings to see day by day, month by month, the realities. But they don”t have what i call contextual knowledge…so they approach their research from half a vaccuum ( the literature being god and real life being ignored) so we see more and more research which is just plain silly in its base, its samples, its analysis and its conclusions. I suspect coming from working class one has such a dose of reality that you see through this intellectual arrogance quite quickly. Daily we now see in the press research reported that when one inspects closely lacks a real understanding of the world. We need to establish world wide applied PhDs supervised by an academic and a practitioner both with the same status in the university system and examined similarly by both academics and practitioners. If not we will significantly cheat the people who take on post grad work to think they are relevant when they are being trained largely for irrelevancy. What a waste of great minds.
As a working class PhD who ended up teaching part time in a number of universities, this article resonates with me on a number of levels. Well thought out and written.