Conquering with Capital: Cultural Resources' Role in Combating Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Contributing to Educational Attainment

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
CLM.4.02 (Clement House)
Morgan Johnstonbaugh, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Key Questions:

While socioeconomic barriers to learning have been well documented by scholars in education, sociology, and social policy, further research is required to account for the cultural tools that students rely upon to navigate educational systems. Uncovering students’ reliance on these resources complicates our understanding of educational opportunity and presents new opportunities to policymakers who are tasked with increasing educational attainment for low-income students. The goal of this analysis is to understand how socioeconomic status affects the cultural tools and barriers that students use and encounter. By focusing on female college students who come from low and high-socioeconomic backgrounds and attended high-quality primary and secondary (K-12) schools, I identify the factors beyond high quality schooling that contribute to high levels of educational attainment.

Theoretical Issues:

Tracing the processes and events that shape students’ educational trajectories is an ideal way to disentangle Pierre Bourdieu’s interwoven concepts — field, habitus, and capital — and incorporate them into a useful model for furthering our theoretical and applied understanding of how socioeconomic status influences educational attainment. A Bourdieusian theoretical framework is especially useful because it accounts for the where, when, who, and how of the student experience, calling specific attention to the ways in which institutions like home and school interact and shape the individual, modifying both capital accumulation and habitus formation. Low-income students may be disadvantaged by the misalignment of both roles and rules in different fields and limited access to activities and knowledge that are necessary to build portfolios of capital that enable future educational attainment. This process contributes to the development of the habitus, or dispositions, and the experience of field-habitus match and clash, a phenomenon that has a significant effect on students’ pursuit of higher education.


I conducted 20 ethnographic interviews with current undergraduate students and one recent graduate, ages 18 to 23, from an elite women’s university in the northeastern United States. While all interviewees attended middle or high-income primary and secondary schools, they came from low and high-income families. I analyzed my data using qualitative, interpretative analysis, uncovering influential themes that revealed the unique resources that low-income students used to traverse obstacles.


My findings confirm and extend observations collected in prior studies on the complex relationship between socioeconomic status and education. Low-income students experience numerous structural, cultural, and social barriers that prevent them from taking advantage of academic and extracurricular opportunities, inhibiting the growth of their portfolios of capital. In contrast to high-income families who had access to an abundance of cultural capital, low-income families relied more heavily on social capital to access critical cultural knowledge and navigate educational systems. They also incorporated greater levels of informal cultural capital into their children’s socialization and exhibited high levels of resourcefulness. While entering a strong educational system is often perceived as a definitive step to accessing high-quality educational resources, it is actually an important intermediary step within a more complex process. Thus, these findings demonstrate how increasing educational opportunity and attainment necessitates access to cultural resources.