Unequal Childhoods: Underlying theory

Lareau and the work of Pierre Bourdieu

Let’s start with a quote from Appendix B (p 361):

Bourdieu argues that individuals of different social locations are socialized differently. This socialization provides children, and later adults, with a sense of what is comfortable or what is natural (he terms this habitus). These background experiences also shape the amount and forms of resources (capital) individuals inherit and draw upon as they confront various institutional arrangements (fields) in the social world.

She later notes:

Bourdieu is always attuned to power, especially the dominations of powerful groups over scarce resources. He is interested in the power of individuals to define what constitutes a highly valued activity, but also to the reasons why particular social practices are valued more highly than others. Indeed, Bourdieu sees a pattern of domination and inequality at the heart of the social structure.

Now she’s not saying that the households from the suburban schools–where ‘concerted cultivation’ is more likely witnessed as a general childrearing practice–are dominating those poor and working class families from inner city schools where ‘natural growth’ as a childrearing practice is more likely to be found. This is the general structure within which these habits can be found and observed. In other words, certain institutions prevail in society, certain forms of capital are more valuable in navigating these institutions in adulthood, and children from the ‘concerted cultivation’ households are more likely to grow up in an environment where they acquire the skills and familiarity that will allow them to succeed, economically, as adults in the workplace. They acquire the capital that is most useful for navigating the institutional terrain that they will confront.

This does not mean that children who had more freedom, less structure, and less exposure to either the capital or institutions while growing up cannot become successful. But the odds may be slimmer, and ‘success’ may look different. For example, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, masons, hairdressers, tailors, etc.–people with trade skills–can succeed in the job market. But their options may be limited, certain opportunities requiring advanced degrees closed off or more difficult to attain. Whereas those from ‘concerted cultivation’ households can also become mechanics or electricians, but may also pursue professions that require a bachelors, masters or other advanced degree (keep in mind, none of this speaks to work ethic, but some kinds of work will offer adults more rewards in the labor force).

Back to Lareau’s discussion of Bourdieu and power. If certain groups seem to possess the kinds of capital (human capital, ‘cultural’ capital, social capital, financial capital) that bodes well for ‘success,’ people from those groups may be more likely to populate positions of power, authority and influence in a society. Their ways of viewing society and the paths to success, as Lareau puts it, might mean that ‘individuals tend to see their society’s social arrangements as legitimate’ and their status, privilege, and similar social rewards more likely ‘earned.’ Even if they have had cumulative advantages all along the way from childhood (e.g., private schools, tutors, competitive sports, music instruction) through adolescence and into a smooth transition to adulthood. This socially constructed perception of societal structure may appear to the casual observer as simply meritocracy. If you ‘made’ it, you earned it. If you didn’t, it’s your own fault. And … where have (or perhaps haven’t) we encountered that logic before?

Now Lareau isn’t taking on all that and claiming her observations and generalizations are perfectly reflected in Bourdieu’s writings. Her graduate assistants didn’t have that large of a sample of households, and that much training to observe everything. So they made choices–they would look at: 1) children’s leisure activities; 2) the use of language in the home, and; 3) the ‘interventions of adults in children’s institutional lives (especially, in this case, the institution of education). But she concludes that when all of these are considered together, they represent a set of learned practices and mindsets, and that these sets differ based on the patterns of childrearing found in the home, and those patterns more often than not differ based on social class (with race playing a secondary role).

But what about social mobility, you might (should) be asking yourselves? Lareau, channeling Bourdieu (p. 362-63):

It is possible to adopt new habits later in life, but these late-acquired dispositions lack the comfortable (natural) feel associated with those learned in childhood (the ‘habitus‘).

Further, she notes the ‘stratifying’ nature of social structure in reducing social mobility (p. 363):

[Bourdieu] would never suggest, for example, that more parents could improve their children’s school success by adopting particular practices. Instead, he would point out that the number of elite slots in society is limited. Thus, any effort to spread an elite practice to all members of the society would result in the practice being devalued and replaced by a different sorting mechanism.

What Lareau is suggesting, using Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts of capital (the resources and ‘tools’ acquired), field (which she describes through institutions, such as the institution of education or the economy), and habitus (the socialization process), is how class is ‘reproduced’ and inequality hardened into stratification through the ways in which children learn about the social world through their home lives and their intimate kin and friends. The two ‘ways’ she identifies are (all together now . . . one, two, three) . . .¬† ‘natural growth’ and ‘concerted cultivation’. Neither is ‘better,’ but one leads to more relevant preparation for a life amid bureaucratic institutions. And we are not simply rote products of our socialization, we can change our trajectories–and EOU for instance has a very good track record of graduating first-generation students (I count myself and my siblings among that latter group, at different schools)–but we may always feel more familiar, if not always more comfortable, with our own upbringing and socialization. Our habitus¬†(which in French means to what we are accustomed, with what we are familiar).