Aspirations for futures as a complex formation among students in high-poverty regions

Year: 2012

Author: Zipin, Lew, Sellar, Sam, Brennan, Marie, Gale, Trevor

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Since the 'Bradley' Review of Australian Higher Education, 'aspirations' have become a key focus of Australian educational policy. Government wants greater numbers of students from 'low SES' regions to enter higher education; yet young people from these regions do not complete school in numbers sufficient to meet targets. The Bradley Review and other policies summon the explanation that these students and their families lack aspirations that drive educational success toward better futures; hence, 'raising aspirations' is needed. Our paper briefly critiques the deficit view underpinning this construction of 'aspirations', entailing individualist-psychological assumptions about 'motivating forces' that 'successful' people have but others lack. We then draw on research projects in which we have been involved - interviewing students and families about future expectations and hopes; and engaging students as researchers of funds of knowledge in their life-worlds - to make a theoretical argument that young peoples' 'aspirations' are complex phenomena, constituted by multiple cultural resources that carry divergent logics, inhering in different social-cultural mediums. We theorise three key logics/mediums of aspirational sense among students with whom we have engaged: 

  • a doxic logic for aspiring, inhering in populist-ideological mediations;
  • a habituated logic for aspiring, inhering in biographic-historical conditions (embodied as habitus) among people in given social-structural positions; and
  • emergent senses of potential alternative futures, inhering in lived-social cultural resources that we call funds of aspiration.

In amplifying these three logics/mediums for aspiring, we develop a theoretical framework for re-thinking 'aspirations' - particularly aspirations within new 'structures of feeling' that are emerging in the social-cultural lives of young people, currently forming, we argue, in struggles with difficulties and obstacles of 'dark times'. Based on our prior research, we argue that emergent aspirations do not have a language for ready expression in interviews or even deep-ethnographic research. Rather, to make them researchable, they need to be capacitated into articulation through pro-active processes that, in a broad sense, we call 'educative'. Finally, we outline a methodological approach for capacitating aspirations of young people in schools of a high-poverty region, which we are mobilising in recently-begun ARC Discovery research.

Our conceptual framework combines (a) Bourdieuian critical sociology; (b) the funds of knowledge approach of Luis Moll, Norma Gonzalez and associates; (c) Raymond Williams' theorisation of structures of feeling; and (d) Arjun Appadurai's conception of cultural assets and pro-active processes for developing 'the capacity to aspire'.