Monday, August 08, 2011

Your cultural capital is showing

Everyone who grew up lower-middle-class and ended up at a posh high school or college has stories of feeling out-of-place because they didn't know about arugula, because they had to work in the summers, etc. This is what "privilege" is generally in reference to, when everyone discussed comes from the West, from a background where at the very least they had enough to eat, but where within those limitations there's a wide, wide range of capital, cultural and economic, and this guy Bourdieu will tell you all about it.

There's also, however, the question of specific privilege - of the kinds of advantage that kick in only if your parents are in a field that's tough to break into and you yourself want to break into it. (See: the various Jagger offspring.) After being directed to Timothy Burke's don't-go that isn't really a don't-go, I got stuck at item two:

"For first-generation college students or students who have little familiarity with the hidden codes and assumptions of an elite liberal-arts institution, making it all transparent is absolutely critical."

(Not stuck-stuck, and I will probably have to post again re: interdisciplinarity.)

If your parents are not professors, if your parents are not professors in the field you wish to enter, you don't know anything. While being the daughter of a gastroenterologist has its benefits, and while my parents and some grandparents attended college, I can't say I grew up knowing the difference between funded and un-funded humanities PhD programs. Nor did I learn, from this, about how one gets tenure. Virtually everything I knew about applying to grad school came from having watched college classmates go through the process, from having asked college professors for advice. That's how I knew, for example, "[t]hat you don’t need to do a terminal MA first in one program as preparation for doctoral study." This is not some kind of ambient class-based thing, like knowing what Andover is or having a favorite painting at the Met.

And I screwed much of it up. I applied in what turns out was the wrong field (although thankfully the relevant dept. channeled me into the right one). I made appointments to meet important profs as I was still applying, something I learned only years later (via prof and grad student blogs, as it happens) is a major faux pas. I initially thought that I was going to grad school to write about French Jewish passivity during the Dreyfus Affair... only to learn that not only had this been written about a ton, but the (not-so-recent) book in which this argument was most famously made has been torn apart by every serious scholar in the field ever since. The obvious as well as the not-so-obvious have been pointed out to me over these past few years, or I've discovered them on my own. Cultural capital no doubt made it easier for me to figure these things out, and economic capital helped insofar as I did not have to pay for my parents' lives, just my own. But the idea that there's a class of college student really, really ready for academia is only true insofar as some college students are the children of academics.

Ultimately, I'm not sure how Burke's advice differs from Pannapacker's. While Pannapacker tells you not to go unless you're independently wealthy, Burke as good as says grad school's too risky if you're not the child of one but preferably two successful scholars in your academic area:

A student who loves literary criticism with a transforming passion but who has no idea how tenure works, where money comes from in a university, how scholars actually publish, what the big picture of disciplinarity is like, which famous literary critic is actually a notorious asshole, and so on, is heading for trouble at the exits if they decide to go to graduate school.
Yikes. By that standard, nearly all advanced graduate students are in big trouble, and the few that aren't have been spending so much time researching the inner workings of academia that they might want to give their own research another look.

The question of how to make academia more accessible to those of all backgrounds is really two separate ones, one of which is about social mobility, the other of which is about making sure that the field is open even to those who were not discussing the obscure author who will ultimately be their dissertation topic around the dinner table growing up. Of course, if academia's as doomed as all that, the real question is how to find employment for the children of Comp Lit profs.


Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, I'm not too convinced by this either. The code he's talking about seems to be one that's really easy to crack or one that no one actually knows. At one end, it consists of things anyone with internet access can easily learn, like whether the person they'd like to study with is dead. At the other end, it's ephemeral forms of snobbery rather than concrete knowledge, things that usually even those entrenched in the field aren't really settled on. For example, whether Professor of Your Dreams is an insufferable asshole is usually a more subjective evaluation than whether he is dead. This is not a matter of secret code, but of personal rivalries and enmities, so the answer depends on whether you ask this guy's friends or his enemies.

Same goes for obscure disciplinary debates like whether some theory or method that you happened to like as an undergrad is, like, so mid-'60s (or, mid-1860s, if you happen to be a Marxist). Maybe some people would like that to be the case, but it's probably not an established fact of any sort. If you can argue for its continued relevance in any particular setting, people will generally yield. Unless Burke's point is that the way to succeed in grad school is by jumping on every disciplinary trend's bandwagon simultaneously, this is less about knowing a code and more about finding a place within the discipline where you can fit with relative comfort.

Britta said...

I think though, there is a cultural capital that is somewhere in between being handed the key to the castle and growing up lower middle class, which involves knowing not the knowledge itself, but the knowledge of how to get the knowledge you need. That's in part where I differ from MSI. To someone with that sort of capital, these things look obvious and self-evident, but to those without, these things appear opaque. I think this is one key aspect of class/cultural capital that rarely gets discussed, and which isn't predicated on material wealth or connections, but rather a sort of disposition (one might say habitus). These are things that to all of us were able to do successfully (even if imperfectly, and I too cringe when I remember some of the mistakes I made when applying to grad school or what I'd do differently), even though none of us are the children of professors, because we have a certain sort of cultural capital. In part, it's entitlement (and not in a bad way), but a sort of, "I feel entitled to help from this professor" "I feel entitled to information," and this entitlement stems from comfort in a certain milieu and a lack of intimidation. This entitlement is also a sort of, "I belong in this world, and I am willing to do within reason what I need to do to be here." Another part of it is literacy. Knowing what to ask and how to ask it--knowing that if you don't get the answer you like or needed the first time, it might be that you need to ask the question differently, or you need to ask the question of someone else. It means knowing that persistence does pay off, but it has to be the right type of persistence, etc.

All these intangible things are, I think, skills that make a difference in people's lives, but are hard to quantify, and they're also related in part to things like personality, sharpness, etc, which are more individual and less class-based traits (i.e. some people just pick up the rules of the game easier, regardless of class). It's easier to talk about things like connections and money (and of course those can matter as well) because those are much more visible. (It's also true money can make up for not having some of these skills, if you have, say, parents who are willing to do the work for you or hire someone to do the work.) I think this is also where some of the YPIS people talk past each other. I'm not defending much of that sort of stuff, which is frankly ridiculous (like the stuff about Tavi), but on the one hand, people who say, "you got there because of your privilege" vs. "I worked hard/won a scholarship" are talking past each other a bit. On the first side, there's a tendency to attribute success, even success by someone "against the odds" as being due to wealth and connections. On the opposite side, there's an inability to see that what appears obvious isn't, and the fact it seems obvious is in part because of a certain type of privilege (i.e. did you know what scholarship to apply for? Did you know how to spin your middle classness as diversity rather than a "I didn't have opportunity to do cool stuff"? Did your parents say, "apply to Harvard, you'll get a full ride since we're middle class" or did they say "oh, those fancy schools cost more than we make in a year. don't bother applying, we could never afford it, and anyways, you'd probably not get in anyways.")

Britta said...

Conversations on standardized tests are an example of this. The dialogue always assumes that either 1) you're poor, and don't test that well, or 2) you're "wealthy" (ie. UMC) and could afford classes and coaching, and did well. Option 3, you had neither classes nor coaches but did well anyways, is never mentioned, as though the only way a person can get a 1600 is through Kaplan. The thing with option 3 though, is it's harder to quantify and the link isn't as clear cut. Does the fact that some people don't have to study and can score highly mean 1) there are innate intelligence differences? 2) there are innate test-taking skill differences? 3) that people can pick up SAT-helpful knowledge (i.e. vocab, problem solving) from their everyday lives if they grow up in the right environment, which is a sort of privilege but it's less direct than the person whose parents pay $200/hour for a coach?

I read Tim a bit more generously, and I don't think what he's saying is that "only children of academics should be academics," but rather, there's a set of innate rules/knowledge you need to have, and some people will pick it up more or less easily, but being from that environment gives you a leg up. I don't think he's telling other people not to go, just being explicit that there's a set of rules you have to learn, and you need to learn it to be successful.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Agreed with your agreement. I'd only add that some of what Burke's suggesting is knowing far more about academia than you will need to in early grad school if not at all. I mean, there are grad students who make it their business to know the inner workings of academia, and this can't hurt, exactly, but it can also be a waste of time, time better spent on things grad students are actually judged on.


I agree that there are advantages stemming from class that are not career-specific, and indeed made reference to that in this post. (Where I wrote, "Cultural capital no doubt made it easier for me to figure these things out, and economic capital helped insofar as I did not have to pay for my parents' lives, just my own.") But the point of this post was that we're very, very accustomed to assuming that cultural and economic capital make life easier (in academia, as elsewhere), whereas we rarely discuss the extent to which kids of profs in the same field are at an advantage. Meaning, one often hears that it helps in grad school a) to be independently wealthy (which is especially true for the un-funded, but funding is low enough that either way... thus how even being "wealthy" enough not to need to support anyone but yourself is most useful), and b) that those department wine-and-cheese events are much easier if you already know what brie is, and how to mingle at that kind of party. These things are so true and so understood that I saw no point in devoting this post to them. And I do think that also covers what it means if you do well on the SAT without a prep course but with cultural capital - ask the YPISing chorus, they'll tell you anything short of 1600, if your parents own more than 3 books, would have been surprising.

What's different once you reach the post-college world of professional specialization is that you start to see the limits of economic or cultural capital-in-a-general-sense. You start to see how much easier it is to be a cobbler like your father, his father, etc. I agree with MSI that much of what Burke says one simply must know is a mix of unknowable and easily Googleable. But I do think it's worth pointing out that there is a group of college seniors up to the task, and these are (although Burke himself does not specify this) the kids of profs in the field they themselves wish to enter.

This is something I'd been meaning to bring up, actually, since Flavia linked to a post that was ultimately picked up by Slate, by a male grad student who grew up working-class and who attributes his upbringing to how much he appreciates having the opportunity to read and write for a living. Much of what he mentioned about not knowing initially how the system worked... it was clear that what he meant was, his class background held him back, but it occurred to me that virtually no one UMC would have known these things either, and that the only people who would have known them are those who come from academic families.

Miss Self-Important said...

What Britta describes sounds like either being smart in the least sociologically manipulable way (getting a good SAT score b/c you read a lot and so already know the vocab or intuitively grasp the basic math that's on the test so you don't need test prep) or being sociable and people-savvy (knowing how and whom to ask questions). These seem to be character traits that help people succeed always and everywhere, so I'm not sure what use there is in treating them like "forms of privilege" specific to academia.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think what Britta's getting at is, the children of life's winners are bound to have picked up winner-ness along the way, and so when these folks succeed in academia (or any other pursuit), their parents are actually kinda-sorta responsible, even if their parents are not employed in the same line of work. My objection here wasn't that this isn't true - of course it's true - but rather that we know it's true.

Of course, there's huge variation in terms of how well-read or socially-capable even children from the same home turn out. Meaning, if we must discuss this in terms of "privilege," some is straightforward, from-the-parents, other is just luck, and it is luck to be born with these tendencies.

Nicholas said...

Perhaps a tangent, but what else are blog comments for?:

I finally managed to figure out why Burke's advice seemed to me strange, and not nearly so helpful as his previous advice despite being pitched as a sequel to the same: it's really most about his status as a professor at a high-level school that is not in the upper tier, grad school-wise. So the mix of knowledge he recommends is a combination, as has been said, of the will-eventually-learn-anyway and the nobody-knows-and-perhaps-couldn't-know, and the otherwise odd reference to how not having PhD students keeps him a step behind the discipline as a whole. Both make sense as gatekeeper-y behavior if not as practical advice for prospective grad students.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I'm all for tangents, but am not sure I'm following you here. In what way is the writer serving as gatekeeper? Is he addressing college students at Swarthmore (which I didn't know had any grad school - I'd thought it was a super-elite liberal-arts college)? How does the mix of advice he provides relate to his not having PhD students?

Anonymous said...

I think you are overreading what Burke is saying. I don't remotely see the analogy to Pannapacker, since by my lights he never says that only people who are children of academics should go to graduate school, and even if one thinks he is, it is plain that he hardly endorses that state of affairs.

Rather, he is simply, and I think, quite realistically, noting some of the significant drawbacks to attending graduate school in the humanities -- especially interdisciplinary programs -- and suggesting, quite rightly, in my view, that children of academics have an enormous advantage in navigating the treacherous shoals.

I cannot see how he is wrong in this belief, nor that, given the immensity of the obstacles arrayed against tournament-seekers, the "cultural capital" obtained by having parents as academics is an extraordinary advantage. Part of your own example seems to support this idea, if anecdotally.

In any event, even if this is wrong, I was more interested in his take on interdisciplinarity, so I'll look forward to your posting on that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Unless I missed it, Burke didn't say a word about the children of academics. What he did say was that you need to know various things to succeed in grad school, things that I noted you'd only know if your parents happened to be academics. This was a topic I'd intended to write about - the difference between overall privilege and knowing the ins and outs of a particular tough-to-break-into field - and that post struck me as a good lead into it.

Anyway, as MSI points out, much of the super-obscure knowledge is subjective anyway, or is stuff you pick up along the way. My own sense is that the main way it "helps" grad students to have academics as parents is that these are people who grew up knowing that the career exists. As it goes with all of us, what the parents do is the career default. It simply doesn't occur to many college students to become profs, not necessarily because it's out-of-reach in some exclusive way, but perhaps because it had never occurred to them not to become lawyers. As for how much it helps to be from a family of academics once you've been admitted, I suppose there's extra pressure to make it work, but fields are so specialized that I can't imagine parents help that much at that stage.

Anonymous said...


You missed it. To wit:

"I can tell you which future graduate students generally already have the keys to the kingdom before they even start: the children of academics."

I don't disagree with the rest of your response here, but I see nothing in it that controverts anything Burke says.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Thanks - you're right, I missed it! So at least he sees this. I guess then, the questions are, is academia especially inaccessible to those whose parents do something else? No doubt the children of accountants and IT workers consider going into those fields simply because they know the fields exist, and as such are overrepresented. Does the extra knowledge that comes with being the kid of a prof help that much, or is it more that it only occurs to you to become one if that's the job you'd been hearing about all your life?

Britta said...

Ok, several things:
1) MSI, I think the difference is while you see the things I mentioned as totally innate, I see them as also at least in part culturally formed. I guess I'm trying to get at the concept of habitus, which is both mostly invisible and also very much culturally determined. Yes, certainly there's innate variation in things that go into intelligence and aptitude and personality, but whether or not you know the hidden codes of UMC-ness and can inhabit comfortably that world and language is very much a class thing, and very much does make a difference. Also, of course, life circumstances influence people in one way or another--e.g. it's harder to be quiet and bookish if you come from a culture where reading is denigrated, or you have no time or space to read, or little access to books, etc.

2) With children of academics, I think there's several things being conflated. One is knowledge that you can, in fact, be an academic, another is knowing certain codes, i.e. how to network academically, what analytic writing looks like, and finally, a third is insider knowledge like who's important in the field, who's an asshole, what's trendy, etc.

Arguably the third type of knowledge is little known by most grad school applicants, and probably least important to know beforehand. This is in part what grad school teaches you.

I'd say the second and first are ones that children of academics might be more likely to unconsciously pick up, but it's certainly not the case that only they exclusively pick it up.

To draw from the famous personal example data point, after taking a class in it at school, I decided at age 8 that I would be an anthropologist. My parents, a SAHM with a law degree and an urban planner, did not discourage me and did not say, "what's anthropology?" but rather said, "great! here's my copy of Margaret Mead I read in college." It helped that my family had college professors in their social circle, and also knew quirky types of people who were not formally anthropologists but had done anthropology type stuff (excavated Anasazi ruins, lived with a tribe of headhunters in Borneo and a Lakota indian tribe, were artists with interests in folk art and weaving, etc.), and who were totally supportive of my odd interests. For my 9th birthday, my neighbor gave me tickets to hear Dr. Donald Johansson, the guy who discovered Lucy give a talk. For my 11th birthday, my mother gave me a rigid heddle loom and another friend taught me indigenous Mayan weaving techniques. I gained no inside knowledge into the internal politics of the contemporary anthropology field (or much knowledge of contemporary anthropology--any knowledge of anthropology I had before studying it in college was at least 30 years out of date), but I definitely got exposure to anthropological types of interests and anthropological materials, and "anthropologist" always seemed like a viable career. Again, my family, even my non-college educated grandmother, would say things like, "when you write your Phd thesis..." or "after you get your doctorate..." leading me to internalize the idea that naturally I would get a doctorate. What exactly I would study varied a bit, but that I would study something was just assumed. Instead of seeming like a totally far out, impossible thing, getting a PhD in a social science or science was, from as long as I can remember, my life plan (I found something from kindergarten where I wrote that when I grew up I wanted to be a biologist).

Britta said...

This is, in part related to class--I didn't grow up in a ghetto surrounded by functionally illiterate people who worked 2-3 minimum wage jobs, neither did I grow up say, in a small town where "intellectuals" were regularly insulted and college wasn't something anyone I knew did and where I never would have even heard of anthropology, or I could have gone to schools which didn't have the resources or inclination to offer anthropology classes to 2nd graders, or any other number of similar circumstances.

Of course, in other ways, it's not related to class at all, but more a certain American subculture: I could have had parents with the same jobs, same income, who could have been totally unsupportive, whose friends all had conventional careers, and where I was strongly channeled into something practical. I could have been from a very wealthy family and a similar sort of thing could be the case. I could have been pressured to go into business, or law, or do something that makes money, I could have been pressured to maintain a certain standard of living that being an anthropologist precludes. I could have gone to any number of schools, even posh private ones, where it would not have crossed anyone's mind to offer anthropology classes to elementary schoolers.

Also, as MSI points out, there's an element of personality involved. I could have not been freakishly precocious, but instead been a "normal" kid with normal interests, and instead spent my pre-teen years crushing on boys instead of reading "Yali, Last of his tribe."

So...long anecdote aside, there are all sorts of variables that go into things like this. The problem with cultural capital as a term is it's kind of a crude measure (and it's actually not really used in sociology or anthropology for this reason). "Cultural capital" isn't some homogenous substance you have more or less of, it's also very dependent on subcultures, context, etc. There are certain class markers that can maybe be indicative of an intellectual class nationwide (reading the New Yorker?), but what Tim is getting at is less something about more or less privilege, but rather belonging to a certain subculture of Americans, which academics tend to be in. To not be in this class doesn't make you in general less privileged, but it means that you will, if entering it, have to learn how to fit in, as opposed to those who were born into it, who will grow up with that innate cultural knowledge.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Your situation strikes me as... unique, as well as way above and beyond what's necessary to succeed in grad school. I suspect most of us grad students didn't even quite know our fields existed at 9, or even perhaps at 19. Heck, some of us have yet to convince our families that grad school is a good choice for us - a far cry from having heard about our future doctorates in childhood. Or maybe your case isn't that unique - I do feel as though I know many grad students who grew up in the kind of intellectual environment you describe, maybe not with parents who are profs (or profs in the same field), but who would have disappointed, not delighted, their parents if they'd announced they were going into finance.

As for how that background helps in academia... I think it helps someone like you, who's doing really well in a field they're passionate about. It's not so helpful to the kid who's been told he'll one day get a PhD since toddlerhood, and who either doesn't get into any doctoral programs, or do but are just kind of plugging through, because it's their default. So on the one hand, it's privilege, but on the other, the do-what-you're-expected-to default channels many people into inappropriate-for-them fields.

And... and I'll confess I've somewhat forgotten the point of this thread! But another thing this is reminding me is that often enough, people from that kind of high-cultural-capital background are great at presenting themselves as underdogs, both in and out of academia, by focusing (for example) on the small town they grew up in, skipping the fact that they only lived there because their parents were profs at a university there. So maybe part of what's gotten to me, not so much about Burke's post in particular, but about the way the discussion of privilege and academia goes in general, is that it's often super-opaque who has the kind of advantages that help in academia.

Britta said...

Haha thanks, though I wouldn't say I'm doing "really well" in my program, more like, slowly crawling through :P (and...I just found out the project I've been planning on doing is not only not doable, but also probably illegal and would get my informants in trouble. I'm realizing the drawback of having to work with real humans, and actually apply theory to real life :P I have a plan B so it's not the end of the world, but it's reinforcing that anthropology is not a breeze ) But, it is true I didn't just decide to get a doctorate because I liked my anthro classes and I didn't know what else to do with my life, and maybe (hopefully??) that will give me drive to have a slightly better chance at getting a job on the other side?

But yes, I agree that there's a subset of YPIS people who claim the mantle of being downtrodden for themselves, and focus on growing up with only one car, or one tv, or whatever, and conveniently forget to point out their parents discussed shakespeare at the dinner table every night.

I also agree the the flip side is, you can be from a financially well off family but not have the keys to succeed in academia, which is where the "be independently wealthy" doesn't really always work out.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The "be independently wealthy" bit only makes sense in terms of, this is something that allows you to go to grad school regardless of the funding you get, regardless of the job outcomes possible afterwards. But independently wealthy =/= content with being a dabbler. For college seniors from rich families who do, in fact, want a career in academia, it still matters whether they're funded or not, whether there are jobs at the other end or not, even if, like one friend-of-a-friend I can think of, they're so rich they can simply let the fellowship checks pile up, while everyone else waits with baited breath for each direct-deposit.

Oh, and it's much easier not to have to work with anyone still living. Yay 19th century!