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Addressing the surprising absence of class: Interdisciplinary research on careers

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The starting point for a research project is often a gap – or more specifically, the recognition that an important topic has not been addressed by previous researchers. In this week's blog, Samantha Evans discusses the surprising absence of class in some psychology research, and how she is addressing this in an interdisciplinary project on classed inequalities in work and careers.

I became interested in social class when I was exploring women’s career development for my MSc. I was actually researching age and gender, but for over half the participants, class was one of the most salient features of their stories, explaining where they started in life, justifying how far they had come and who they were now. What was equally interesting was how, for the other half of participants, class was completely absent from their accounts.

Further investigation has suggested that social class is also absent in the organisational psychology literature  - the branch of social psychology that I had chosen to specialise in. Academics propose many reasons for this – that class is difficult to define; that it may be overlooked in favour of legally protected characteristics such as race or gender, or perhaps is seen as irrelevant and invisible in an increasingly “individualised” workplace. Overall it is a surprising absence, particularly given that social class has a high profile in other disciplines such as sociology, where it is often defined in relation to people’s work and careers. 

As my thinking developed, it became clear to me that class was a matter of understanding not only how the individual is classed, but also the wider context they are in. Thus I decided to explore one particular occupation in-depth to understand how ideas of “getting in” and “getting on” are talked about, and what this then means for people from different social backgrounds. I have chosen to look at museums, partly because I used to work in this field (and this helps with data access), partly because museums are struggling to be more “open to all” and partly because as gatekeepers of our own collective culture, it is arguably important that they do share that role equally.

In the spirit of interdisciplinary research, I am drawing on the writing of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist, whose work I believe has a great potential value to organisational psychologists. His theory provides a particular way of looking at the “individual-social interface”, arguing that whilst people are constrained by the “rules” of the particular social contexts (or fields) in which they are positioned (e.g. the field of museums or higher education), they have some flexibility in how to “play the game” depending on their experiences and dispositions. Succeeding in “the game” depends on the capital (economic, social or cultural) that is valued by the field, and the amount and type of this capital that individuals possess. Thus in the museum field for example, having a certain type of cultural capital such as knowledge of art or a PhD, may be valued more highly than PR or marketing know-how, and this in itself is more accessible and attractive to some groups of people rather than others.

Indeed, key to Bourdieu’s theory is the view that “the game” is not objective and natural (as it can seem), but has been socially constructed and privileges some groups and not others. The aim of the researcher is to explore how the field has been constructed, what types of capital are valued and how people from different social backgrounds make sense of this. I am employing critical discourse analysis to do this, using interviews, focus groups, and existing texts. I have phased my data collection, looking firstly at the overall field, and secondly exploring people’s careers at an individual level. I am just embarking on a detailed analysis of the data collected for phase one, so themes and findings are emergent, though initial impressions suggest class is talked about in a number of contradictory ways, whilst  “getting in and on” is talked about mostly as an individual enterprise, both of which tend to obscure the problem of, and solution to, classed inequality. Phase two will explore this in more detail.

The aim is that this approach offers a different way of understanding and addressing classed inequality at work. Thus rather than simply increasing the representation of people from different backgrounds, and hoping for the best, this research will highlight how more structural and cultural features of context need to be addressed (as well as the possible issues of doing so). This could be used to explore other forms of inequality at work and other occupational fields. It is also a potentially useful way to understand your own self at work (perhaps as a social psychologist too!), thinking of the capital that is valued in your chosen field and finding ways to maximise what you have.

Samantha Evans is an Associate Lecturer on DD317 Advancing social psychology. To learn more about the module, you can watch a video here  https://youtu.be/dbzF4hBeBkk

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