Conceptualising educational and career aspirations in the middle years of schooling 

Year: 2012

Author: Albright, James, Gore, Jenny, Smith, Maxwell, Southgate, Erica, Holmes, Kathryn, Ellis, Hywel

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Building on Gottfredson's (2002)theory of career development, we seek to empirically explore sociological questions about differences for social groups. Specifically, do students in the middle years from low SES backgrounds circumscribe and compromise their career aspirations, and at an earlier age, than their higher SES peers, and if so why? The mainly psychological literature on children's career development pays only modest attention to social issues (mainly gender and race) and little attention to SES (Hartung, Porfeli, & Vondracek, 2005). The few longitudinal studies that do exist, from Europe (Ferreira, et al., 2007)and North America (Helwig, 2008), have limited applicability to the Australian context due to the specificity of their cohorts.

While Bourdieu's and Becker's conceptions of capital differ, combining them into a framework is feasible (Alloway, et al., 2004; Chin & Phillips, 2004)as it allows for an exploration of both Beckerian rationalist decision-making and Bourdeiuan reflective and pre-reflective modes of action (Reay, 2004). Becker and Tomes' (1986)idea of human capital, or rational decision-making based on potential gains in productivity as compared with direct/indirect costs, is used to gain insights into academic preparation for tertiary education (e.g. academic achievement, curriculum advice and pathways, test results, planning and saving efforts for educational expenses). Bourdieu's theory of capital interaction is used to conceptualize both the basic components of differential distribution of education attainment, achievement and aspiration as well as their reproduction over time and exceptions to this reproduction (Bourdieu, 1986). We use Bourdieu's notions of economic capital (resources generated through labour: income, property, wealth, etc); social capital (resources available from membership in durable, powerful networks, material and nonmaterial support, etc); and cultural capital (resources linked to value-based systems: education, reputation, language skills, etc), to identify family, school and community factors constructing students' aspirations, particularly those from low SES backgrounds. We use a capitals framework as a means of understanding not just what different groups of students learn about the world of work and their future in it, but when they learn it, and most importantly, how they learn it through familial, peer and school dynamics (Watson & McMahon, 2005). The study of students from low SES backgrounds who have relatively high aspirations and high levels of achievement (Q4) will require us to explore the extent to which Bourdieu provides the conceptual tools for theorising this group and, in so doing, problematise Bourdieu's theory.