Travels in extreme social mobility: Prestige, professional identity and the 'price of the ticket' for first-in-family medical students

Year: 2016

Author: Southgate, Erica

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The massification of Western higher education has led to an increase in students from non-traditional backgrounds attending university (Altbach, 2013). The term non-traditional student describes people who have historically been under-represented in universities, including people from first-in-family (FiF) backgrounds. Despite the success of widening participation policy in increasing the social diversity of higher education, non-traditional students remain vastly under-represented in elite institutions (Gale, 2011; Reay, Crozier and Clayton, 2009) and in high status degrees such as law, engineering, architecture, and particularly medicine (Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada, 2012; Cleland et al. 2012). To date, there has been limited empirical exploration of the experiences of FiF students in medical education (or other high status degrees). There are very few critical examinations of such extreme social mobility, where people travel great social distance from relatively humble family of origin into university and the most prestigious degrees, and finally into their associated professions. The presentation seeks to address this gap by exploring the experiences of 20 domestic FiF Indigenous and non-Indigenous medical students. The presentation begins by critically outlining the concept of social mobility and theorising its most extreme cases, including the literature on the ‘price of the ticket’ of social mobility (Friedman, 2013). It then describes the eclectic theoretical lenses that were used to interpret data including Goffman’s (1963) notion of stigma and Skegg’s (2004) tools for class analysis. It goes on to provide a description of the study design, methodology and epistemological position. This is followed by an analysis of the semi-structured interview data with a focus on the stages and key aspects of their social mobility journey including: (1) FiF student perspectives on family background, schooling and aspiration to medicine; (2) experiences of being different in medical education; and, (3) socio-cultural identity and professional identity formation related to future prospects in the profession. It concludes by arguing that while there is a price to the ticket of social mobility in the form of some identity ambivalence and the occasional experience of stigma, more often participants view their social and cultural backgrounds as a valuable professional resource.