The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 11: The Psychological Sanctions of Social Mobility

In the previous article in this series, we discussed reflexivity as a usually temporary mode of being in which a person may become aware of their habitus due to it being so incongruent with its current field. A person’s reflection on their situation is usually temporary as they find ways to adapt to it- once this is resolved, a person continues social practice quite stably. However, we also highlighted that in the real world, class, fields, habituses, are quite continuous and so it follows that reflexivity shouldn’t be considered something discrete either.

Despite this, we are still able to grasp points at which categories tend to appear depending on our methodological outlook. For one of the dominant theorists of social mobility, John Goldthorpe, whose work was extremely influential for the development of the UK’s National Statistics Socio-economic Classification, class is largely about what one’s occupation is. For those using the Bourdieusian framework, this is just one aspect of social practice which determines and is determined by one’s forms of capital (not just economic, although it is the dominant form). Nevertheless, again it’s still possible to derive large social classes which make it possible for us to even think about concepts like social mobility- the largest well known study of this kind being “A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment” (2013) in Sage Journal Sociology by Savage, Devine, Cunningham, Taylor, Li, Hjellbrekke, Le Roux, Friedman and Miles.

Keeping this in mind and returning to our following of Friedman’s article, we see how the feeling of “not fitting in” is not the result of a simple clash of personalities, or some individual failing due to perhaps poor social skills, but that these social skills, perhaps the accompanying or produced anxiety, and even the emotional intensity of such feelings and thoughts is a reflection of habitus and field incongruence. In the section “Habitus clivé” (p. 139), Friedman highlights how differences in cultural capital may be the more dominant form required for practice in a particular field. He points out how displaying one’s virtue of deserving a place in particular social space dominated by economic capital can be easier than in other spaces since all that is required of us is to show we can afford highly valued products, like expensive cars. How this follows or reflects economic capital being the dominant form in most social space is beyond the scope of this series.

Friedman continues with the example of someone practising in a field where cultural capital is the dominant form to show how her refusal to change certain behaviours, which we can theorise as embodied cultural capital, inhibits her progress in the field. Moreover, this person is aware of the changes required of her in order to be more socially mobile and stops themselves changing as though it would be a betrayal of her authentic self, again reaffirming the psychic component of class. Friedman mentions other similar examples which under the scrutiny of the individual psychologist (individual as in those who do not fully consider the social background and mobility of a person on their psychology) could be interpreted as “imposter syndrome”.

Psychological sanctions as by-products of social mobility are not just experienced individually and Friedman goes on to highlight how even social cognition is affected. Feelings of shame and guilt also become barriers between family members that have not similarly experienced social mobility. The shared experience of occupying certain positions in social mobility, which thus instill in people a certain habitus, allows those with it to connect more emotionally.

In a previous article in this series, I discussed my own experiences of disconnect due to social mobility and practices of resistance to class stigma. Some of the practices described by those in Friedman’s article, although not directly calling out the desires that produce such behaviours as a product of anxiety about such stigma, the similarities between these experiences is clear. Just as clear unfortunately, is how reflecting on this fact, at least for me personally, leads to more cynicism. The cleft habitus is damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t which is why I think Friedman dedicates extra words in the article to the example of Anna, for whom reflection on this fact causes her to cry. Those who are rapidly upwardly socially mobile it seems are doomed to inherit the dispositions of a class that will never fully accept them, and in doing so, become not just physically, but psychically separated from their class of origin.

Other times in my own life, although not in such a painful manner, I have experienced such moments of hysteresis that have brought the fact of my cleft habitus into consciousness. In workplaces, this mostly occurs when people treat me differently after learning about my having a first class honours degree, or when feeling unable to socialise due to the different types of cultural tastes gained through attending university. In these cases, the cultural capital of certain tastes is not available to be converted into the social capital of friendships at work, effectively a negative sanction on the overall capital one has (and one must be careful here to emphasise that this statement is not about intentions, as though I should like to get on with workmates just so that I can reap some sort of other benefit- it is simply a description of what happens in terms of capitals and even when such intentions are present, often they are in themselves other forms of capital, as a disposition towards accumulation of capital is more likely to be present in certain class positions).

An example of this was when worked at a factory last year, I failed to get on with many of my colleagues although I did make some friendships. This seemed largely due to not having the correct cultural capital which is less interested in intellectual things. At times, with friends I made, this capital was congruent but inhibited by the language barrier. This was usually when I made work friends with foreign origin workers, mostly Hungarian and Polish, that had been more intellectual in their home countries but due to their cultural capital not being recognised in the UK, could not mobilise it for the economic capital of a better job.

One friend I made and remained close with was British and also more interested in intellectual pursuits and fitness, things that are not quite as common in the current working-class habitus in the UK. I was surprised to learn my friend, coming from a more middle-class background than myself, was not a student or graduate but learning why can provide further proof for the idea that economic capital is the dominant form. Although money and property are obvious forms of economic capital, the important thing about what they do for a person’s social practice is provide distance from economic necessity and therefore freedom to pursue other human interests, including leisure, education, “higher culture”. For my friend, although having the potential in terms of cultural capital to pursue higher education was perhaps mostly limited by economic capital of having had children younger, and so having less time to invest the economic capital of time not spent doing paid work. Of course, the fact that this situation was so limiting shows a lower social position than that of many, especially more upper, middle-class people but it still shows the dominance of economic capital in determining social position, and the links between other forms of capital.

In the next article in this series, we will return to Reay’s main thesis about the psychological landscape of social class and discuss criticisms of Bourdieu’s theory. As we will see, for some, like Michael Burawoy and myself, Bourdieu’s theory, especially of the habitus, could be updated with key insights from contemporary psychology. I also elaborate more on how my undergraduate research in philosophy and psychology of action has influenced my own social theory.


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