Bourdieu goes to Dublin: Class and Capital in Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”


I loved Normal People, which I received as a Christmas gift and read last weekend. It centres on the relationship between Marianne and Connell, two young people from a small town near Sligo whose continuing friendship and intermittent love affair carries on from their final year at school to their time as scholarship holders at Trinity College, Dublin.

At the start their relationship is defined by class –  Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family – and by cultural fit – Marianne is a despised outsider, Connell is the popular footballer. Neither, Connell in particular, is willing to acknowledge their friendship publicly, and that does not change when they move to Dublin. What does change is their cultural fit, as Marianne swims in her new environment as smoothly as a fish in water, while Connell is unable to adjust to college life while simultaneously losing his ability to relate to his old life.

Rooney is an avowedly political writer, so it comes as no surprise that her novels map the remarkable recent journey of capitalism in Ireland. One particularly unappealing and entitled character is described as son of one of the people who caused the financial crisis (‘not figuratively, one of the actual people involved’). His friends wear plum chinos and waxed jackets, build their social capital through the debating society, and take their future for granted – all in utter contrast to Connell’s dispositions.

I was struck by the extent to which Normal People is a Bourdieusian project, examining the ways in which people’s habitus promotes or constrains their access to cultural and social capital. For working class Connell, fumbling his way through unfamiliar social and culrural terrain, higher education is an unsettling experience, even as he succeeds academically. And for Marianne as much as for Connell, the dissonance between one’s own values and intimate desires and those one must perform can lead to anxiety, even severe depression. What, indeed, are ‘normal people’?

The book is also a love story, though one whose sexual politics I found disturbing, and which centres around misunderstandings and missed opportunities. And it is a kind of morality tale for millienials, in which people demonstrate over Gaza together, and use emails and texts to maintain or end their social bonds, even on occasion when they are in the same house. I’m not taking my copy to Oxfam, which is where most of our books end up after we’ve read them, because I want to read it again.


Education, organisations and civil society

I’m just back from the annual conference of the Commission of Organizational Education of the German Society for Educational Research. This year’s topic was ‘Organization and Civil Society’, a theme close to my own interests in adult learning in connection with social capital and active citizenship.

New Picture

The topic was obviously an attractive one: as well as the two keynotes, one in German and one in English, there were 25 papers. A high proportion of papers came from postgraduate researchers, which suggests that the future of this area should be in safe hands. Highlights included studies of:

  • learning through different types of ‘citizen science’, including such grassroots initiatives as the Quantified Self movement;
  • learning and identity in migrants’ voluntary organisations;
  • the development of support for basic literacies in labour office programmes for the unemployed.

Both keynotes came from outside educational studies, which related to a feature of the conference that I found interesting: many of the papers drew on contemporary management and organisational studies, with neo-institutionalism being a particularly strong source of conceptual inspiration.

Among other strong intellectual influences were Pierre Bourdieu, whose work on cultural capital and habitus informed a number of studies of civil society organisations. Unsurprisingly, Bourdieu’s concept of social capital, which relates to the role of networks in elite formation, received little attention.

The other strong thread was reference to contemporary discussions of learning, including organisational learning. Key here were thinkers like Illeris, who have developed broad theories of learning based on syntheses of more empirical literature. If the Communities of Practice or professional learning literatures were discussed in any of the strands, I missed it.

Methodological preoccupations surfaced in a number of discussions of papers drawing on qualitative data. A number of presenters emphasised that they had undertaken a systematic approach to content analysis, and this attracted quite a lot of discussion. I was struck particularly by the influence of Ralf Bohnsack’s work on reconstructive social research, a book that has made virtually no impact in the English-speaking world – though it has parallels with the way in which I and other colleagues have used ‘sensitising concepts’ (including that of ‘habitus’) to guide qualitative data analysis.

I was struck by the lack of clarity and consensus around the idea of civil society. Some papers treated schools and similar formal state institutions as part of civil society, some included major charitable agencies, and others limited their focus to voluntary and community groups.

Interestingly, the conference took place in the Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt, a ‘university of applied science’ associated with the Lutheran church, whose tradition of diaconical service had a significance influence on the development of the welfare state in Germany. And it allowed me to visit the artists’ colony at Mathildenhöhe, an extraordinary collection of art nouveau buildings sponsored by the Grand Duke Ernst Lugwig.



Symbolic violence and poverty porn

I’ve been thinking off and on about Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence. His well-known book on Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture started with a discussion of ‘a theory of symbolic violence’, which defined it in terms of the power to ‘impose meanings and impose them as legitimate by concealing the power relations which are the basis of its force’. He went on to describe all ‘pedagogic action’ as ‘symbolic violence in so far as it is the imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power’.

While never returning to the idea in such depth, Bourdieu continued to use it in broadly similar terms. But it has never had the same currency as the other key ideas that he helped to generate. A search of the British Journal of Sociology of Education returned 53 papers which used the concept in some way, compared with 331 which referred to cultural capital and 247 which referred to habitus. Even social capital, with 159 mentions, fared better than symbolic violence. A quick check of the British Education Index confirmed my hunch that it is less popular than these other typically Bourdieusian concepts.

While I have drawn on Bourdieu in my own work, I have never warmed to the idea of symbolic violence. I can see what he is getting at, but I find it excessive. Even as a metaphor, it is a hyperbole which is good at capturing the attention but bad at explaining anything. Worse, it can distract us from the role of actual, physical violence, whether in the form of dangerous working conditions that cause direct or indirect damage to people’s bodies, or in the form of deliberately inflicted harm of the kind that is all too common within families.

Still, Bourdieu was on to something. Elsewhere he talked about the insults that the respectable feel free to heap upon the marginalised and poor, as well as the gentler disdain of the ‘culture of condescension’ found between different strata of the bourgeoisie. And of course people can then internalise these demeaning and scornful attitudes, seeing themselves as somehow worth less than other people. I was particularly struck by this while reading Vicky Duckworth’s excellent study of adult literacy learners in Oldham, which is one of the few sociological studies in our times to use Bourdieu’s idea.

And our times are certainly prompting me to think about how we – the comfortable and respectable – relate to the marginalised and dispossessed in our own society. Duckworth’s book made me think about the way in which different people are responding to Benefits Street, the Channel Four series which portrays people living on benefits in a single Birmingham street. For some conservative commentators, the programme has triggered opportunities to quote exactly the sort of language that Duckworth notes in her study: the street is ‘filthy’, a ‘moral cesspit’ inhabited by ‘scrounging vermin’. Against that we have the equally stigmatising disdain of those who turn their backs on ‘poverty porn’ – the mirror image of the shame that the stigmatised experience when confronted by the respectable.

Television documentaries like Benefits Street and The Scheme are double-edged. They reinforce a culture of blame, yet at the same time they force viewers to contemplate fellow citizens who otherwise they avoid seeing. For after all, we live in cosy suburbs and dormitory villages, we commute to work by car, we shop in anonymous warehouses – what are these behaviours about if not avoiding those parts of our society that we prefer not to see?

I have never come across a writer who bemoans ‘poverty porn’ yet who then goes on to explain what kind of documentaries on poverty they would prefer to see – or how they would reach a popular audience. It seems pretty reasonable to conclude that these critics are therefore saying that documentary film makers should avoid poverty; and that audiences, if they must contemplate these things, should turn to fiction. I strongly disagree; I loved such films as Ken Loach’s Sweet 16 or Peter Mullan’s Neds, but there is also a place for documentary film. I am afraid that simply scorning it as ‘poverty porn’ is also a distancing technique.

Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Paul Passeron, Reproduction in education, society and culture, Sage, 1977 (original French edition 1970)

Using offensive language – a user’s guide

How should we treat language and attitudes that once were common, and which we now find unacceptable? I’m facing up to this problem when describing labour colonies for people with disabilities. These colonies were fairly widespread in Britain before 1939, and a variety of terms were used by their founders and managers to describe their inmates.

I’m feeling slightly sensitive about this issue, as I recently walked into a language skirmish largely of my own making. In a presentation on higher education, I referred to Joan Bakewell’s commendable campaigning on behalf of part-time higher education. As most of the audience came from a generation who are unlikely to remember her, I briefly said who she was, and also referred to a derogatory way in which she was described by many in my own generation. At least one person was offended by this, and said so (though not to me at the time).

Language skirmishes are frequent, and easily survived, but this one made me think. How should we handle the problem in academic writing? My own research has produced many examples of terms and ideas that we would now find deeply offensive, and I hesitated long and hard about whether I should include those that referred to people with learning disabilities or who suffered from mental ill-health.

In the end, I used the terms that contemporaries used. For the most part, I was using direct quotes, so it should be pretty clear to a reader that this is the case, but I also added a very short footnote to make it explicit and ambiguous. While I added no such explanation to justify the inclusion of language that expresses anti-Semitic views, fear of the Chinese, loathing for the Irish, and racial hatred in general, I think it is clear that I am quoting, and not approving, these contemporary perspectives.

Will that stop someone getting offended when they read this material? Probably not, but at least my intention is clear. And I don’t like the alternatives. One is for me to interject on every occasion that this particular term or view is unacceptable to me; that seems utterly ahistorical. The other is to ignore completely any scheme that was developed by people who used a language for their inmates that people like me now find offensive; that seems to me utterly dishonest.

Am I entirely comfortable with my compromise? Not really, but I can live with it (and the occasional complaint that I expect to receive). I’d love to hear from anyone who has a better solution. But thinking about it today made me aware of the one body of objectionable language that I haven’t really thought about: namely, how people used to talk about people from the working class.

I’ve written about the period between 1880 and 1939, then the powerful and comfortable thought nothing of describing unemployed men in the most disparaging terms. They took it for granted that they could attack and undermine the standing and respect of those whom they saw as their moral and social, and not just economic, inferiors. The language they used about people’s bodies and dignity was just what Pierre Bourdieu was talking about when he spoke of ‘symbolic violence’.

Why didn’t I reflect on this before starting today’s blog? Is it that we once more live in a similar culture, where mockery and disdain colour so many conversations about ‘neds’ or ‘chavs’, and where the unemployed are again portrayed casually as layabouts and slobs who deserve nothing from the rest of us but contempt?