A Habitus Listening Guide for Exploring Educational and Social Inequality


By Arif Naveed

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As a consequence of insufficient attention paid to the ways of eliciting and listening to the voices of the poor, much of the research on poverty tends to subsume a tremendous diversity of aspirations and experiences of the poor from across the world. Educational research in the context of international development is often implicated in the problematic construction of the poor whose life it aims to understand and represent. Increasing demands for rethinking the ways of engagement with the ‘Other’ — particularly the poor in the non-Western contexts — echo both Michel Foucault who warned us of the ‘indignity of speaking for the others’, and Gayatri Spivak who made a convincing case against speaking for the poor whilst arguing for the ways to speak to and listen to them.

Understanding educational aspirations of those experiencing poverty, particularly in the Global South, requires moving away from the individualised models of research so as to pay closer attention to the collective aspects of their lives. Recognising the relational nature of the social life in such contexts, where the conditions of poverty are reproduced or challenged, in turn has bearing on the methods used to generate voice-based qualitative data as well as approaches taken to interpret such data.

Qualitative researchers need to carefully listen to the relational dispositions, ambitions and values of young people as well as their local cultural environments, to the intimate gendered dynamics, and social identifications. A theoretically informed approach to listening to voice offers far deeper insights about the reproduction and transformation of poverty and its dialectic relationship with schooling.

It is with this realisation that we have developed an alternative approach to listening to the complexity in the voices of the poor by drawing upon the emerging tradition of family histories research on poverty by Davis, Hulme and Kim, the insights from contemporary narrative theory and Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction of inequality. Inspired originally by approaches toward an attentive listening to the voices of research participants advanced by Brown and Gilligan, our Habitus Listening Guide, outlined in a paper in Comparative Education, brings families’ engagement with the social and economic inequalities and the unequal outcomes of schooling — in the distinctive context of rural Pakistan — to the fore. Such a labour-intensive approach to analysing qualitative data enables us to hear the complex poly-vocal voices of those living in poverty, extending our understanding of the intergenerational and gendered social and educational (im)mobilities.

To link the micro-level narratives with macro level social-structural processes at work in the reproduction of inequality, we also offer a new perspective on operationalising and contextualising Bourdieu’s concept of habitus (that refers to the ways in which individuals internalise the external social order through the schemes of perceptions, thoughts and embodiments) for voice-based empirical research. The Guide offers a way of hearing the durable dispositions, perceptions, aspirations, ambitions, interactions and strategies in relation to education and its social and economic outcomes.

The Habitus Listening Guide is structured into four distinct rounds of listening to the voice data of the four members of the same family including father, mother, and a son and daughter. The first social structural listening is aimed at developing an understanding of the structure of the relative positions within which the family is situated, how its members think, act and take positions by virtue of the various forms and volumes of their (economic, social, cultural) capital — what Bourdieu calls field. At this stage, we under-read the transcripts, exclude many details, perspectives, thoughts and emotions while hearing the distinctive yet overlapping perspectives of the family members to reconstruct the educational biographies. This round of listening allows us to reconstruct the educational and social trajectory of the family such that it uncovers the ways in which social conditions of origins are reproduced (past survives the present and perpetuates into future), or are subtly transformed.

We then move on to examine the ways these outlined social structures are acted upon in everyday life, and are spoken about, differently between the generations of parents and their children in our second horizontal intergenerational listening. Here, we pair the narratives of the father with that of the mother, and of the son with that of daughter, generating what we call inter-narrativity — the complex ways in which the two voices relate to, and converge and diverge from each other. When listening and comparing the two paired transcripts carefully over and over again, we treat these data as time– space situated interpretations of life and experience and attend to the terms with which the two narratives, of husband and wife, and son and daughter, speak to each other. In addition to the relationships present, established, maintained and challenged within these voices, there are relationships between their generational voices with the effect that the four family members co-construct a collective narrative about education and its impact on their lives.

The third vertical gender listening round reveals how gendered pairing can illuminate the role of schooling in family decision-making in ways that reproduce and/or transform gender order in and through schooling. Here, we compare the masculine identities, choices and aspirations of the father and son, with the feminine identities, choices and aspirations of the mother and daughter. This gendered listening allows us to develop a structural and dialogic analysis of the intra-family gender narrative revealing the moments/patterns of gender congruences but also cross gender negotiation. By attending to the structure of speech and the contextual information outside the particular segments of the transcripts, we suggest that qualitative researchers should try to understand the how and why of the complex gender narratives at play in the family in relation to schooling and its social outcomes.

Such a process of multi-layered listening drew our attention to the religious values in family life. Our final round of mythic-ritual listening therefore recognised that religion and religious identity offer philosophical orientation that shape individuals’ understanding of their world as opposed to assuming research subjects as secular agents. We were alerted by Bourdieu that religious references in the context of poverty may support a particular form of ‘structuration of the perception and thinking of the world’ and hence contribute to the maintenance of poverty and social inequality. At the same time, we are attentive to the instances when religious beliefs are called into play when inspiring strategies to disrupt the power structures, in shaping strong educational values, and political and educational strategies against poverty with religious duty.

By developing a sophisticated, theoretically informed method to engage with the experiential, perspectival and dispositional data from the members of poor families, the Habitus Listening Guide offers a way of observing the effects of mass schooling on the lives of the poor. It illustrates that the social change associated with schooling is ‘erratic, negotiated, resisted, rejected as well as grasped, reflected, internalised and embodied’ whilst arguing that ‘small changes are precisely how the family as a group might move forward without disrupting the order which it tries to maintain, even in the face of acute poverty.’ It is through such a careful listening that we could hear the non-linear and poly-vocal voices of the poor that extend our understanding of the differences and diversity even within one family in the backdrop of the hegemonic and universalising models of inquiry.

Arif Naveed has a PhD in Economics and Sociology of Education from Cambridge and his doctoral research examined the role of schooling in intergenerational social mobility in Pakistan. He is interested in the social, economic and cultural consequences of mass schooling in the Global South. Arif tweets @arif_naveed

This blog is reposted from a special collection published by The Sociological Review.https://www.thesociologicalreview.com/a-habitus-listening-guide-for-exploring-educational-and-social-inequality/