Academics from Working Class and Impoverished Backgrounds: “You Always Remain Slightly an Outsider, and That's Not a Bad Thing.”

Saturday, 21 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Bea WATERFIELD, Western University, Canada, Dalhousie University, Canada
Tameera MOHAMED, Dalhousie University, Canada
Merlinda WEINBERG, Dalhousie University, Canada
Education has long been understood as the primary way for individuals to experience upward class mobility, escaping the disadvantages of lower social class status. However, elite environments can be exclusionary for those who may lack the cultural capital, social capital, and habitus required to successfully integrate in these social fields.

This paper draws on interviews with ten Canadian academics who self-identified as having working-class or impoverished family origins. Semi-structured interviews asked about experiences of belonging and marginality, inclusion and exclusion. The results suggest that even those who pursue high levels of education and are ‘successfully’ socially mobile may continue to experience daily class-related struggles. All participants reported tensions around social mobility and their shift from working-class roots to being upper-middle-class academics, reminded of their class backgrounds and ‘difference’ daily as they engaged in the social and cultural realms of academia. As participants increasingly moved into the upper echelons of academia, they felt further from their roots, culture, and families, making social mobility an emotionally fraught experience. Many participants referred to academia as a “game” they had learned to play, and felt both isolated in and disenchanted with their work lives. Some felt unable to achieve the social change they aspired to in pursuing academic careers.

Examining lived experiences of social mobility demonstrates that it is much more than an increase in economic capital. In the exclusionary environment of higher education, the process of upward social mobility itself can be a struggle; even those who successfully “play the game” of academia struggle daily with the cultural capital and habitus required in elite environments like the university. Upward social mobility often means a distance from one’s roots, which may leave individuals feeling that they do not belong in either the environments they have come from or those they now find themselves occupying.