Thursday, 5 May 2016

Kleanthous, I. (2013). Bourdieu applied: Exploring perceived parental influence on adolescent students’ educational choices for studies in higher education.

This final chapter on Bourdieu in Murphy’s book on social theory and education research

Kleanthous, I. (2013). Bourdieu applied: Exploring perceived parental influence on adolescent students’ educational choices for studies in higher education. In M. Murphy (Ed.), Social theory and education research: Understanding Foucault, Habermas, Bourdieu and Derrida. (pp. 153-168). Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.

This chapter is based on family case studies in Cyprus – an exploration of familial capital and how it affects parental influence on students moving to HE. Different forms of parental capital are displayed – economic (buying private tutoring), social (visiting parental workplaces) and cultural (through increased educational knowledge). The adolescents deny parental influence, instead stating that their decisions are arrived at autonomously.

A range of studies have explored the use of familial capital in influencing children’s educational choices. However, the author suggests that there is evidence of symbolic violence – this is “misrecognised” by parents and adolescents due to the unconscious nature of parental influence.


Habitus and cultural capital have been widely used to explore the involvement of parents in their child’s education. Reay et al. (2011) looked at class inequalities in decision making with regard to HE – they found that working class families had less knowledge about post-compulsory education, with working class students entering different universities to their middle class counterparts (p. 858). This may be due to the “informational capital” held by middle class parents. The informational capital aids the student in traversing admissions processes, etc. and involves parental interaction with the educational system at an early stage.

The author used Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of habitus and capital to explore the extent of parental influence on choice of HEI. She used the concept of symbolic violence, with children misrecognising the violence exercised upon them with their own complicity – the adolescents deny being influenced by their parents.

An overview of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework

Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) define class habitus as “the structural affinity of habituses belonging to the same class, capable of generating practices that are convergent and objectively orchestrated outside of any collective ‘intention’ or consciousness” (p. 125). Bourdieu and Passeron (1990): the middle class students’ habitus is absorbed from familial actions and from parental social class, and the way this aligns with the educational system.

The author discusses Bourdieu’s conceptual tool of habitus: “those resources whose distributions define the social structure and whose deployment figures centrally in the reproduction of that structure” (p. 156). As well as economic capital, there is social capital, with the capital based on connections within and between social groups, and also cultural capital consisting of cultural knowledge and a set of credentials based on education and knowledge. The author quotes Bourdieu’s definition of informational capital, one part of cultural capital. The intra- and intergenerational basis of informational capital leads to investment in education.

Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction suggests that it is the intergenerational passing on of cultural capital that influences the level of cultural capital gained and success experienced in education. Ultimately, this is influenced by social class.

It is Bourdieu and Passeron’s view that middle class students have a habitus closely aligned with the requirements of the education system; these students can blend with the linguistic and cultural requirements of the dominant culture.

Bourdieu on family and symbolic violence

Being part of what Bourdieu calls a ‘normal’ family is a privilege which aids in “the accumulation and transmission of economic and cultural capital”. The family maintains social structure and transmits capital intergenerationally.

Middle class parents use their capital to enhance their children’s educational opportunities. However, the author seeks to understand whether capital is sufficient a tool to theorise the role of parental influence. She suggests that the influence of parents can be considered as a form of symbolic violence. Bourdieu sees symbolic violence as being the key to social relations, present in a gift exchange society.

Bourdieu defines these gifts as “moral obligations and emotional attachments created and maintained by the generous gift” – symbolic violence. The author suggests that parental influence is symbolic violence; the denial of this influence is ‘misrecognition’. The investment by parents of time and money in their child’s education creates a ‘debt’. Parents have more power in the family field, due to the higher amount of capital they have. This leads to an imbalance in power relations between parent and child, enabling symbolic violence to affect their child.

Methodology for the study was in depth interviews with parents and children from secondary schools in Cyprus.

Findings – familial capital

Students misrecognise parental influence, denying parental influence. Students claim to draw on parental capital, e.g. economic capital (private tutorials) and social capital (workplace information). Cultural capital predisposed the students towards study at HE.

Denial of parental influence

Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic violence was used to discuss the misrecognition of parental influence. The author suggests that parental influence is a form of symbolic violence, with financial support making a moral obligation to continue in education. The differential in cultural capital between parents and children allows parents to exert symbolic violence on the children.

Misrecognition of parental influence from parents

Parents are more aware of their use of their cultural, economic and social capital in enhancing the education of their children. Parents also misrecognised their influence on their children, believing that their children’s choice was autonomous.

Discussion of findings on parental influence

Parental influence is subtle and often denied by both parents and students, but students acknowledge that they use their parents’ capital. Denial of parental influence and the unconscious effects on students’ habitus led the author to view parental influence as symbolic violence, which is misrecognised.

Bourdieu suggests that “symbolic violence is at the heart of every social relationship” – “the dominated collaborate in their own exploitation through affectation or admiration” (p. 111).

The author feels that there is misrecognition of parental influence with adolescents denying being influenced. However the idea of aiming for HE is a response to the habitus of the family – it is what a middle class family does.

The author discussed the ideas as to whether shared familial beliefs is ‘familial habitus’ (Reay, 2010) or familial doxa (Atkinson, 2011). She suggests that, for Reay, habitus is viewed by Bourdieu as “a product of early childhood experience” (p. 164) and that this is closely affected by parental educational achievement. Atkinson (2011) suggests that Reay’s idea of ‘familial habitus’ is incorrect and instead these shared familial beliefs are familial doxa. What is possible is shaped by the family, based on its capital and how the generations develop, based on a joint family history.

The author considers that her work uses the family as a field that “inculcates students’ habitus” (p. 165). Because there is a differential in the power held between parents and children, the parents can exert symbolic violence on the children.

Reflection on the use of Bourdieu’s theory in educational research

The author suggests that her research shows that middle class families enhance the choices of their children with regard to HE through different forms of capital. She is concerned that the use of capital is just a descriptive tool rather than an in depth analysis with regard to educational research.

She suggests that symbolic violence can be used to explore power relations in the family field and that this concept can be used in conjunction with familial capital to understand parental influence.

Theorists after Bourdieu developed the concepts of familial habitus and familial doxa – Bourdieu viewed family as a “field which inculcates habitus as part of the pedagogic work of the family (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Whilst Bourdieu’s theories can be further developed, it is important to maintain their consistency.


In Bourdieu’s ‘Distinction’ (1984) he provides a formula for his theoretical framework:

            (Habitus x Capital) + Field = Practice

This demonstrates his concern in highlighting the interaction between theoretical concepts. Habitus is constructed by engagement in practice with the field but it also thereby structures the field. The equation is key in reminding us that there are vital interrelations between Bourdieu’s concepts and tools.

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