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

rooney

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.

 

 

Is social capital a tool for colonisation by economics?

In his book Social Capital and Social Theory, the economist Ben Fine argued that the concept of social capital was a neo-liberal Trojan Horse, designed to allow economists to colonise other disciplines. Several other authors in the Marxist tradition have followed and developed this line, and I’ve been considering their work while revising my own short text-book on theories of social capital.

But not all Marxist-influenced theorists dismiss social capital. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, thought that the economists had narrowed the concept of capital down so that it covered only one very limited type of capital, namely traded capital. The result of this, he argued, was that other types of capital – broadly, what he saw as ‘symbolic capital’ – were presented as somehow non-material, and as detached from the material interests of profit and loss. He saw his task as widening the language of capitals, and thereby broadening our understanding of how the privileged maintain their position.

In Bourdieu’s own words:

it is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduced capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognised by economic theory. Economic theory has allowed to be foisted upon it a definition of the economy of practices which is the historical invention of capitalism; and by reducing the universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange, which is objectively and subjectively oriented towards the maximisation of profit, i.e. (economically) self-interested, it has implicitly defined the other forms of exchange as non-economic, and therefore disinterested.

I’m inclined to side with Bourdieu on this. I have found his ideas of social and cultural capital helpful in understanding the self-interested way in which particular groups position themselves. They use their symbolic capital to align themselves with others who share their own interests; and they use it to disparage and stigmatise those who potentially or actually threaten their interests.

And if economists really are trying to colonise other social sciences through the concept of social capital, I reckon they are making a pretty bad job of it.

Bourdieu’s essay on the ‘forms of capital’ has been made available at: http://econ.tau.ac.il/papers/publicf/Zeltzer1.pdf