Learning careers and the social space: exploring the fragile identities of adult returners in the new further education
This paper examines the concept of 'learning careers' as a way of understanding the processes through which adults return to education. It particularly considers the ways in which adults from groups who are at risk of social exclusion develop identities that enable them to engage with learning. The concept of learning careers is derived from symbolic interactionist theory, with its origins in the work of the Chicago School. To illuminate the concept of learning career, the paper presents qualitative data produced in a research study set in Scotland in which the processes that underpinned participation and non-participation in further education (FE) colleges were explored. FE colleges constitute spaces that occupy a specific location in relation to the social milieux inhabited by many working-class adults, so that engaging in learning involves a degree of socio-cultural boundary-crossing. The paper draws on theories of the social space that derive ultimately from attempts to operationalize Bourdieu's concept of 'habitus'. Bourdieu used this term to denote systems of durable, transposable dispositions, internalized subjectively by actors as a consequence of their objective positions within the social space, which in turn constituted the underlying principle of generation and structuring of practices and representations. In Bourdieu's own words: 'To speak of habitus is to assert that the individual, and even the personal, the subjective, is social, collective. Habitus is socialized subjectivity' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 126). We also draw on the concept of status passages, including personal factors and social relationships, as well as institutional responses to the needs of non-traditional adult learners in the formation of learning careers and the patterns that these careers assume. We also argue that learning identities should be seen as fluid or even fragile, rather than fixed and unidirectional.