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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

Thinking about student behaviour: Social fields and capital

I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about student behaviour this year. I think it’s important to try and understand as much as we can about student behaviour, both in and out of school, so that we can have an informed basis for our work in areas such as pastoral leadership, safeguarding, and behaviour for learning. I’ve identified four categories of factor influencing behaviour, drawing on the work of Carlene Firmin, Pierre Bourdieu, Jess Taylor, Andrew Hampton, David Moshman and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

Factors influencing behaviour:

1. Social fields (the relationships and expectations to do with the people around an individual)

2. Capital (the resources available to the individual to navigate the social fields – Bourdieu suggests financial, social and cultural as categories of capital; I would add knowledge as a fourth)

3. Habit/automisation

4. Trauma responses and coping mechanisms

In this blog I’ll be exploring the first two of this list: Social fields and capital.

1. Social Fields

Imagine visiting the shopping centre at the weekend. In this scenario there is a set of possibilities, rules, expectations, hopes and possibly fears. We might expect to get some of the essentials on our list, and hope that we find a bargain. We might anticipate that we see somebody that we know, and if we do we will probably say hello or stop for a brief chat. We probably understand that society expects us not to wear a wedding dress or our pyjamas, and that we are expected to wear something in the casual to smart-casual range. This set of relationships and expectations is our social field, as presented by Bourdieu.

For a secondary-aged student, they may visit the same physical space on the same day but inhabit a very different social field. They might expect to be variously admired, accepted, ignored, ridiculed, threatened, verbally abused or physically attacked.

The social field isn’t the physical environment but it is nonetheless intensely real.

People will typically make decisions that are rational within their social field. So when a student is deciding whether to “barge” a Year 7 student, the factors in their social field might look like the below:

(adapted from Sarah-Jayne Blakemore: The see-saw of decision making from Inventing Ourselves)

So when students do things that seem irrational or deviant to us, we need to ask about the social field that they are inhabiting, and whether we can take action to change this social field. What are the relationships, possibilities, expectations, hopes and fears that exist in our school? How can we use things like our interactions with students, our communications with students and parents/carers and the wider community, our use of sanctions and rewards, our design and supervision of the site, and so on, to shape this social field so that the seesaw tips the other way?

2. Capital

Alongside his conception of social fields, Bourdieu gives us the idea of capital: resources on which an individual can draw in order to navigate the social field.

Financial capital might give students the ability to buy the desired trainers, or to get a taxi rather than the bus. Both of these behaviours might confer an advantage when navigating a social field.

Social capital relates to the friendships, connections and alliances a person may have. A student may be able to navigate a social field differently depending on, for example, who their big brother is, who they are friends with, links within the community, and so on.

Cultural capital – Bourdieu talks about knowledge that can be used by an individual for social mobility – we might cite knowledge of trends in language, music, and clothes as examples of these, as well as knowledge of norms and expectations. Andrew Hampton argues convincingly for humour as a potentially positive form of cultural capital in Working With Boys.

I’m interested in thinking about these forms of capital because I think we see problems when we allow the social field to demand toxic forms of capital. For example, in a school where the adults are de facto not in charge, a student may draw on the threat of physical violence (establishing this threat through actual physical violence) in order to navigate the social field and achieve relative safety in this social field. In a school where students are committed to their learning, a student might draw on a cultural capital aspect of working hard in their lessons in order to be successful in this social field. I think we can understand capital as something that will always be used – and our actions in schools (in shaping the social field) can help to influence whether students draw on healthy or unhealthy capital.

What should we do with all this?

I think a lot of this theory just backs up what we already know perhaps slightly tacitly about our work in schools: students do things because of what their peers say and do, rules and expectations can influence student behaviour. I like to have the theory through because it crispens up these ideas --- understanding the theory helps me to understand just how important these things are, and how much the details matter. If we’re not out on duty in high-vis, the social field will change, and students may draw on unhealthy capital in order to navigate the field. Every time we model a constructive disagreement, empathy, long-term thinking or community responsibility, we are building healthy cultural capital for our students to draw on.

The other thing I think this thinking throws into sharp relief is the importance of student voice. We can’t ever fully understand our students' social fields – but we can seek to improve our understanding by listening to them, by finding out about the expectations, norms, relationships, hopes and fears they navigate – and then work to shape those fields positively.

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Jun 12

Thank you for this insightful article. This invitation presents a significant opportunity to reevaluate the value of a frequently misunderstood national agenda. Discussions about cultural capital are often limited to school trips, instead of encompassing dialogues with staff and students about the ethical use of resources and emerging technologies. The increasing pace of information sharing will bring exponential changes to our lives, heralding an imminent and transformative revolution. Engaging in ethical discussions can help form a shared ethos in schools, setting mutual expectations between children and adults, contrasting sharply with zero-tolerance policies.

I was particularly intrigued and I must admit that I was left wanting to read more about the last two factors influencing behaviour: habit/automation and trauma. Trauma-informed pract…

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