Habitus conflicts and experiences of symbolic violence as obstacles for non-traditional students

Erna Nairz, Klaus Feldmann, Judith Spiegl

Publication: Scientific journalJournal articlepeer-review


Despite an expansion of educational opportunities throughout the EU, access to university is still distributed based on social inequality. This tendency can be observed in all EU countries, with Germany, Austria and Slovakia showing particularly low levels of upward mobility. Many working-class students or other non-traditional students never even contemplate entering the field of higher education; others achieve university entry, but fail to overcome the obstacles faced in this field. Drawing on Bourdieu’s theoretical-methodological approach and based on 12 narrative, problem-centred interviews, this study presents a general habitus-oriented analysis of non-traditional university drop outs. We then focus on one case study to describe how the habitus of a non-traditional student is preformed through his family and school background and conflicts with the university field and its institutional habitus requirements. We show that students with a strong sense of their social position and ‘place’ (Bourdieu, 1990; Goffman, 1951) are particularly at risk of feeling like ‘cultural outsiders’ in the higher education field, a situation that leads to increased fears of failure. We conclude with a reflection on the relevance of Bourdieu’s relational thinking for understanding and addressing the underlying mechanisms of social inequality and a discussion of measures necessary to improve graduation rates for non-traditional students in Europe.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12 - 29
JournalEuropean Educational Research Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Austrian Classification of Fields of Science and Technology (ÖFOS)

  • 504005 Educational sociology
  • 504007 Empirical social research
  • 503006 Educational research
  • 503018 University didactics
  • 503
  • 503009 Adult education
  • 504021 Migration research

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