Class Practices : How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs

Devine, Fiona
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

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Cover of book In this book Devine interviews 24 teachers and 24 doctors, half from the UK (Manchester) and half from the US (Boston), along with their partners. She uses her data to analyse middle class strategies for securing advantage in the educational and occupational systems.

Class Practices is set within the conceptual framework articulated by Sorokin in the 1920s and developed more recently by Bourdieu and Goldthorpe. It conceives of a stratified structure of occupational space which each generation has to fill. Families effectively compete against each other to secure advantage for their offspring and the result is class competition. The major empirical finding of such work has been the stability of relative mobility chances and Devine sees her qualitative research as an examination of the micro foundations of such macro 'class reproduction'. Devine locates herself theoretically with a discussion of attempts by Bourdieu and more recently Goldthorpe to articulate micro mechanisms (for a discussion of mechanisms see the introduction to Hedström and Swedburg 1998) to explain the reproduction of success. Their theories view members of classes as possessing differing amounts of 'capital' which they can employ to help secure advantage. Devine thus uses concepts of economic, social and cultural capital to structure her analysis of life-history data from semi-structured interviews.

Each form of capital has a pair of chapters devoted to it. The first chapter of each pair focuses on the respondents as children and the strategies that their parents employed on their behalf. The second views respondents as adults and examines their strategies for their offspring. This strategy allows Devine to get more analysis out of her data examining two chronological data points per respondent rather than one. The sample is from a diversity of class backgrounds but is homogeneous in class destination and thus offers no scope for cross-class comparison of the current generation of parents. Devine therefore has to be careful not to discuss middle class strategies in implicit relation to working class strategies which she has no data on. Devine's basic findings are that the middle class is itself stratified by levels of economic, social and cultural capital; that middle class reproduction (particularly for semi-professionals) is not as simple as a caricature of middle class advantage might imply and appears harder in the US than the UK and that the middle class do employ economic, social and cultural capital in a variety of different ways to help their children succeed.

I think there are two main traps into which such biographical research can fall. First it can end up being an unfocussed mixture of poor quality social history, quasi-quantitative speculation about causal forces or mechanisms and cross-class and cross-national comparison with an inadequate sample size. At times Class Practices slips towards this, but in general it manages to stick to discussing the mechanisms extant within the data. Having achieved this, the second danger is a lack of structure and theoretical insight, which can result in the simple reporting of what different people happen to have said in response to questioning. Here the use of three forms of capital does structure the analysis reasonably neatly and allows Devine to make generalisations from her data. However, this reader was left feeling that the book would have benefited from more explicit structuring of relations between different mechanisms. The analysis used a framework of 'capital', and employed concepts like desire, constraint, opportunity and strategy, but little explicit distinction seemed to be made between a mechanism, a strategy, an action or a thought process. More individuation and naming of mechanisms would also have been useful. A more in depth analysis of some aspects of mechanisms would have been interesting too. For example, if theories like rational choice are making ontological claims (which presumably they have to be if they are truly causal) then they are making assertions about what goes on in people's heads. It would have been interesting then to report not just what people did in reaction to opportunities and constraints (the bare mechanism), but to quiz them further on why they acted in that way in an attempt to get behind what 'good' means to them in relation to jobs or school choice and to explore the process of making decisions.

Having said this, Class Practices, with its qualitative focus on micro-mechanisms, is a welcome addition to the class literature. Such work is the only way to examine mechanisms as they occur at the 'coal face' of social action and can make intelligible sense of lives as they are actually experienced by actors rather than simplified by theorists.

John Reed
University of Oxford