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Aspirations, Education and Social Justice: Applying Sen and Bourdieu

reviewed by Katy Swalwell & Quentin Wheeler-Bell - March 23, 2015

coverTitle: Aspirations, Education and Social Justice: Applying Sen and Bourdieu
Author(s): Caroline Sarojini Hart
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1472572025, Pages: 208, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Aspirations, Education and Social Justice: Applying Sen and Bourdieu sets out to explore the ideas of Amartya Sen and Pierre Bourdieu in relation to data about students’ aspirations for higher education amidst policies aiming to widen university participation. Although merging normative and empirical scholarship is not new, the “normative turn” is increasingly acknowledged as essential for scholars working within critical or social justice traditions (Allen & Reich, 2013; Hayward, 2000; Hess & McAvoy, 2014; Sayer, 1992). This is an exciting development, as philosophical tools are designed to address ethical tensions and moral dilemmas arising within empirical analysis, while empirical work grounds philosophical abstractions within concrete reality. This fusion has great potential, but typically requires scholars with training in these different disciplines to work collaboratively in order to do it well. Hart’s book—a worthwhile endeavor with possibilities for both theoretical and practical contributions—ultimately fails to provide either clear theoretical arguments or cogent empirical analysis, and thus suffers from stretching itself too thinly.

In Chapter One, Hart rightfully begins her book by situating higher education policy shifts in the United Kingdom within broader political and ideological contexts. This chapter, however, lacked the detail and focus needed to help the reader understand the forces behind these trends (Ball, 2012; Ball & Junemann, 2012). In particular, the link between policy changes and the weakening of democracy is underdeveloped, despite being essential to an application of Sen’s capabilities theory of justice (Terzi, 2010; Walker & Unterhalter, 2010).

In Chapter Two, Hart introduces readers to Sen’s work with an overview of his capabilities approach, as well as others’ contributions to and critiques of this theory. In Chapter Three, Hart summarizes Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital, outlines a linear two-stage process of converting capital to capability, relates Bourdieu’s concept of field to Sen’s capabilities approach, and diagrams factors influencing young people’s aspirational development. Throughout this introduction to her Sen-Bourdieu analytical framework (SBAF), Hart raises important questions like “whether a particular field of action, such as education, can be reconstituted to be less threatening to individuals by reducing the dissonance between habitus and field and therefore increasing capability” (p. 63). Having Sen and Bourdieu’s works speak to each other promises to be quite interesting and fruitful; however, the SBAF framework upon which her data analysis hinges demands more thorough explanation. Drawing upon key theorists engaged in similar inquiry would strengthen her argument. For example, Andrew Sayer has written extensively on combining a Bourdieu-Sen framework in a manner that is empirically grounded and normatively rich (Sayer, 2005; Sayer, 2011). Similarly, Emirbayer and Mische’s (1998) classic article develops a theory of agency that takes Bourdieu’s insights seriously while acknowledging its normative dimensions. Engaging this literature would have strengthened Hart’s attempt to combine Sen and Bourdieu, and helped clarify her empirical study.

Chapter Four transitions from normative theory to empirical work by identifying eight challenges and by operationalizing Sen’s capabilities approach. Hart introduces readers to two case studies in which she engaged high school students in group interviews, surveys, and individual follow-up interviews. The narrative descriptions of data collection could benefit from a table to organize the information more clearly, with additional details about how Hart analyzed the data sets. Without a clear sense of the overarching research questions, the reader leaves this chapter a bit confused.

Chapter Five begins by articulating a multi-dimensional and dynamic “aspiration set” that helps to determine an individual’s “capability set” (p. 80). Hart divides this set into four levels and four types, and focuses on how these are converted to capabilities in Chapter Six. Chapter Seven explores six students’ “choice pathways” in order to understand how their options narrow amidst a policy discourse of choice expansion, further explained in Chapter Eight. Though the links between her data and her analysis are not always clear, Hart ultimately concludes that, “aspirations are not hierarchical, linear or constant” (p. 181). In Chapter Nine, she makes recommendations for policy and institutional practices that include giving young people more information about post-secondary options and abolishing a hierarchy of aspirations. Her most interesting suggestion is to shift success indicators away from common measures like exam scores towards students’ abilities to convert aspirations into capabilities—in other words, from “widening participation” to “expanding capability” (p. 195).

Throughout her empirical analysis, Sen’s work seems to overpower Bourdieu’s. Though a case can be made that students should be allowed to “identify their own aspirations ... rather than [guide] students towards aspirations predetermined by government policy” (p. 85), how can Bourdieu help us understand the ways in which aspirations reproduce existing inequalities? Hart gives scant attention to how aspirations may be linked to race, class, and gender—despite her evidence prompting such an analysis. Why, for instance, are female students more likely to indicate being fearful of sharing their aspirations (p. 89)? Why are women less likely to be concerned about financial barriers to achieving their goals when compared with men (p. 115)? Throughout her analysis, Hart hints at a more sophisticated understanding of what is happening—the “insidious forms of power ... where individuals decide not to strive ... because they deem themselves ineligible” (p. 92) or how certain capabilities “are constrained by funding policies” (p. 93), but fails to pursue these lines of inquiry. Doing so would have added new insight for understanding Bourdieu’s concept of domination alongside Sen’s concept of agency.

Lastly, though social justice is in the title of the book, her empirical evidence is not mobilized in a way that helps explain how U.K. higher education policies advance or fail to advance justice. Instead, justice is conceived of as individual aspirations. Most conceptions of social justice, however, require us to strive for something more than alignment between aspiration and capability (Brighouse & Robeyns, 2010) and require rethinking the relationship between higher education and democracy (Fraser, 1997; Olson, 2006).

Overall, Hart’s book is an ambitious undertaking that serves as an invitation for others to explore the normative and empirical usefulness of merging Sen and Bourdieu. It also inadvertently argues for the importance of empirical researchers to collaborate with philosophers to produce scholarship that is theoretically sophisticated, evidence-based, and useful. While this book falls short of successfully combining normative theory with empirical research, readers should look forward to other works by Hart. By attending to the theoretical and evidentiary shortcomings of this book, her work will become a pillar for scholars attempting to combine normative theory with empirical research.


Allen, D. S., & Reich, R. (Eds.). (2013). Education, justice, and democracy. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Ball, S. J. (2012). Global education inc.: New policy networks and the neoliberal imaginary. New York, NY: Routledge.

Ball, S. J., & Junemann, C. (2012). Networks, new governance and education. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Brighouse, H., & Robeyns, I. (Eds.). (2010). Measuring justice: Primary goods and capabilities. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

Fraser, N. (1997). Justice Interruptus : Critical reflections on the “postsocialist” condition. New York, NY: Routlege.

Hayward, C. R. (2000). De-facing power. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2014). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Olson, K. (2006). Reflexive democracy: political equality and the welfare state. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Sayer, A. (1992). Method in social science: Revised 2nd edition. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sayer, A. (2005). The moral significance of class. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Terzi, L. (2010). Justice and equality in education: A capability perspective on disability and special educational needs. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Walker, M., & Unterhalter, E. (2010). Amartya Sen’s capability approach and social justice in education. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17907, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:52:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Katy Swalwell
    Iowa State University
    E-mail Author
    KATY SWALWELL is a professor of education at Iowa State University who researches social justice education in K-12 social studies. She is the author of Educating Activist Allies: Social Justice Pedagogy with the Suburban and Urban Elite (Routledge, 2013).
  • Quentin Wheeler-Bell
    Kent State University
    E-mail Author
    QUENTIN WHEELER-BELL is an assistant professor in Cultural Foundations at Kent State University. His research interests include normative theory, critical theory, civil society and the public sphere, and radical conceptions of civic education.
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