The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 2: Class-based Bullying, Fear & Envy

A personal preamble

I am writing the second part of this article series nearly 2 months after writing the original for a few reasons. I have been distracted by other writing projects like my book on the social determinants of freedom and the long form article on Bourdieu from a couple of weeks ago. I have been using up my free will, capacity to focus, ego power, productive energy, whatever you want to call it, on going sober for October. I had been meaning to take a break from alcohol for a while and the “go sober for October” sponsorship campaign raising money for MacMillan cancer support charity seemed like a good opportunity to push myself with some extra extrinsic motivation.

My struggles with addictions will probably be touched upon more, if not in this article, at some point later in this series but hopefully just confessing I was putting my energy into battling addiction will be enough for many readers to understand and appreciate the delay in my continuing this series. Nevertheless, this battle was not the main reason for delaying this series, as evidenced by my continuing to publish other works. The main reason for delaying this series has been its content.

As I said in the opening article for this series, in it I will be discussing my own experiences, particularly about my emotional life. This series requires me to critically analyse myself and experiences, doing my best to at once consider the objective conditions that have led to my subjective view of the world and myself, and to consider how my subjective position effects my ability to objectify the world and my position in it. In self-analysis it seems there are many more opportunities to fail to recognise biases, or tell if one is fixating on certain points which might be less relevant from another view, or if something subjectively significant is so enough that it has an objective effect.

Other risks I take in doing such an analysis include being perceived as a fanatic about Bourdieu, especially as I could be considered as copying Bourdieu’s Sketch For A Self-Analysis, or similarly as he wrote in that very book, I could be accused of self-indulgence. To the first accusation, I can only say that I am interested in Bourdieu’s work insofar as it has been most useful to my own work and I’ve not found much else that has connected with my experiences of the world so profoundly. Also, I am not only a fan of Bourdieu as should be evident by my other writing and research projects. Secondly, risking accusations of plagiarism again, I try to do this as a reflexive exercise in order to improve my research methodology, my writing and research, and myself.

Reflexivity is not simply a matter of reflection, but as I understand it, it is done with certain goals in mind about increasing understanding of the world. For me personally, it is done with an understanding that my understanding leads to better thinking and reasoning about the world, which makes me more free. (Perhaps one day I’ll be writing in such a way that will have me pre-emptively defending myself against possible accusations of me being some sort of dogmatic Kantian.) With this series, I have these goals in mind and also, like with my other work, part of my ambition is to imbue the reader with a similar disposition towards reflexivity as I have come to possess. Ask yourself, why are you reading this, why do you think I am writing it, just as I write it, I constantly ask myself “why am I writing this?”, “how does my upbringing, social position/trajectory effect how and what I think/write about?”.

I already have a feeling that apart from my first book, this is going to be one of my most ambitious projects to date. I hope it is as enjoyable to read as it has been onerous for me to write, and that the burden I felt writing and researching it does not transfer to the writing, but reflects an effort that will lead you to trust that everything forthcoming is real and true.


In the previous article, I introduced Diane Reay’s article The Psychic Landscape of Social Class and repeated how her aim was to show that the psychological implications of social class are often, in her view, relegated to the world of individual psychology. Social class is not simply about economic classification, or as in some prominent research, such as that using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC), about what occupation one has. Rather, social class even effects the ways we think and feel.

Continuing Reay’s article, she focuses on education as her area of specialisation and drawing upon her empirical research in that field. Other research shows that the education system is a key point of socialisation and education as an institution, along with the family, is one of they most significant experiences which develop everyone. This might seem obvious to some, considering that school and family life takes up the majority of most people’s most formative years, where we might consider formative years as containing those “critical periods” of development in the field of psychology. Nonetheless, it is still worth highlighting because it shows the importance of social research in these particular fields rather than, for example, areas such as employment. Reay admits that her outline of what she calls the psychic landscape is limited in its generalisability, as it is mostly drawn from a few case studies, but there is still plenty of data we can begin to make sketches about.

Reay begins introducing data by looking at the idea of class envy and anger. She refers to a group discussion situation with some children, who would likely be about 10 or 11, talking about the local area. A middle-class child is insulted by working-class children for being “posh” and he intuitively tries to downplay his social advantage, thus showing an, at the very least implicit, understanding of social class insofar as it entails privileges versus deprivation. Reay points out that although there exist acknowledged scripts about racism and sexism within the education system, “classism has never been part of the agenda” (p. 915). It should also be noted that this kind of “unwarranted bullying” goes both ways and Reay points out that this usually depends on which group is the majority. In other words, if the class is mostly working-class, the middle-class children are likely singled out, and if the class is mostly middle-class, the working-class children are likely singled out.

My own memories of school are tainted with gaps in memory, not as far as I know due to any major trauma, but my childhood was significantly traumatic enough that I became accustomed to dissociating in times of stress. Here I suppose is a good point to explain that I suffer from Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (also commonly known as Borderline Personality Disorder or BPD). I am not sure which type as I have only been diagnosed by my general practitioner and never seen a psychiatrist or psychologist but, looking at the symptoms and reflecting on my past and (sometimes but not nearly as often) current behaviours, I have come to accept this diagnosis as probably accurate.

Despite this problem, there are still some significant memories, or just general experiences of school I can remember that also support the picture of the psychic landscape painted by Reay above. I went to a few different schools growing up (at least 2 primary schools I remember and 2 (and a bit) secondary schools) which forced me to learn about how to make friends and get on with new people quickly. Reflecting on this, I feel like this pseudo-skill has contributed to that symptom of BPD which is described as “a pervasive pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships”, which helped me survive moving schools or home, at least more regularly than most children do, but now acts as a disadvantage in adult social life.

I find it fairly easy to be social but am often far too open about my personal life, which I think sometimes puts pressure on others to reciprocate or perhaps it is just my intensity that puts them off. Sometimes this intensity and willingness to be honest about everything I have experienced in life can come across as interesting and honest so it is a trait I really don’t care about being rid of. I have learned, since being able to reflect on this after being diagnosed, to take socialising with strangers more slowly but more generally I still struggle with this and, on bad days, it causes me anxiety, on too-good days, I delude myself into thinking I’m better than those who reject me for being perhaps too friendly. This aspect of my being is considered in my diagnosis probably as part of the unstable self-concept, which I have learned to overcome by asking for evaluation by people I trust and taking more consideration of objective assessments. For example, when feeling intellectually insecure I try to remind myself of my fairly consistent high academic performance.

Another problem probably related to this aspect of the diagnosis is my tendency to dive into things without much reservation. This isn’t completely impulsive as I usually am quite reasonable about the kind of path in life I take but the level at which I engage with it is often quite impulsive and irrationally intense. For example, when I was reflecting on my more personal spiritual beliefs, possibly residual from my Catholic upbringing, I thought it might be good to try attending church again after over a decade. I ended up going to all different church events and being thoroughly involved with the community quite immediately, and even going to a prayer festival only weeks after re-entering that community. I engaged with it in terms of taking up the role of being a Catholic completely straight away despite on a rational level still feeling fairly sceptical about it. Similarly, when returning to the political field after years of non-participation, I was ended up going all out with my participation in Trotskyist politics despite, as with the experiences returning to Catholicism, being quite sceptical on a rational level. Any similarities between religion and the political organisation of Trotskyists is intentional but I will probably discuss those things another time. Hopefully it suffices to say for now that on reflection I feel like my extreme receptiveness to both groups was symptomatic of my impulsivity and now, looking back, I feel like I was taken advantage of.

Returning to following Reay’s article, she points out that, particularly since the 90s, there has been an effort to rectify the differences in academic achievement which seem to be classed. As I have discussed a little in my article on Bourdieu’s theories, as I understand it, this reflects differences in cultural capital which are attained at home and valued in education.

For those individuals in the dominant classes, at home symbolic mastery is inherited via the parents’ unconscious reproduction of symbolic mastery in everyday life. This symbolic mastery then seems to act as an innate disposition towards symbolic mastery, the most valued in the education system, and so acts as a form of capital to be accumulated, and which can later be converted and exchanged- for better employment prospects for example. Parents inculcate the values of valuing their symbolic mastery and this disposition towards accumulating this mastery as cultural capital appears to workers in the education system as an innate talent and/or drive for academic pursuits, which in education is further re-affirmed as valuable. Later, for successful individuals in the dominant class background able to mobilise their education as cultural capital to position themselves high up in class hierarchy, their valuing of the mastery they acquired exerts structural influence on the fields they dominate about which type of mastery is privileged, thus reproducing the entire structure.

Conversely, for the dominated classes symbolic mastery isn’t fostered at home as parents don’t have the symbolic mastery for them to inherit through imitation. They enter the education system without valuing this form of mastery and so cannot mobilise the disposition towards symbolic mastery as a capital for them to accumulate. Of course, there is more to this about the reproduction of class and capital in the education system, especially if we also consider how doxa, that is belief, about the education system supports or sets-up-to-fail individuals from certain class backgrounds, and the complicating matter of social mobility […]

(In Defense Of Bourdieu. Press control+f and type some of this quote into the search bad (on windows) to find this part of the article.)

Reay goes on to write about, with evidence from case studies, how working-class children internalise an understanding of their low academic achievement as pathological, which in Bourdieusian terms translates to them accepting and valuing symbolic mastery, which is required for academic achievement, as privileged over practical mastery. They come to accept the doxa, the orthodoxy, that academic achievement makes one worth more and so on one level misrecognise that their acceptance of this doxa perpetuates its privileged value which keeps them in a dominated position by reproducing general class relations, and on another level, they understand this which is why it leads to class based bullying.

The general acceptance, and so keeping the doxa orthodox, of the higher value of symbolic over practical mastery is also an example of what Bourdieu called “symbolic violence”. In this example, when working-class children reproduce the privileged value of symbolic mastery, even in their, at least unconscious, understanding of its arbirtrariness since it is hereditary so leading to “unwarranted bullying”, they also symbolically are violent to themselves.

In Reay’s article, the case study evidence of this is when children talk about themselves as potentially becoming “a nobody” if they fail to achieve academically. As Reay says “[This child] provides a poignant summation of class destinies and how they are tied to academic achievement, illuminating how class has entered psychological categories as a way of socially regulating normativity and pathology. Both white working-class girls have already internalised an understanding of their low achievement as pathological.” (p. 916-7).  Moreover, it shows how children, at least unconsciously, understand that class origins usually determine class outcomes, making them perhaps jealous and/or angry, leading to bullying behaviours.

As I said in In Defense Of Bourdieu, social class and its reproduction seemingly sets some children up to fail, but there are exceptions to the rule (and exceptions prove rules), such as class mobility. In the next article in this series, I will briefly self-analyse my own class mobility and reasons for my scholastic disposition towards symbolic mastery, which might partly explain my high academic achievement, considering my own class origins. Indeed, part of why I have connected with Bourdieu’s work so much has been that I have, at least as much as one can perceive at only 25 years old, been fairly socially mobile. I will also further explain the concept of cleft habitus and make some initial connections between my cleft habitus and my BPD.

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