Educating the Ritas

By Sarah McLaughlin, BA(Hons), MSC. PGCE, School of Education, University of Bristol (Doctorate in Education student)

Educating the Ritas – My research into the interaction between habitus and field for working class women on an Access to Higher Education (HE) course.

Willy Russell’s (1981) play ‘Educating Rita’ presents a biography of Rita – a white working-class woman who returns to education as a mature student and faces conflict with her sense of self as she embarks upon a journey of self-discovery and erudition. Rita has her eyes and mind opened through her studies yet struggles as she becomes aware of her social class identity, and her role as a working-class wife starts to conflict with the educated woman she emerges into. Rita’s social class identity is reconstructed, and she rejects the gender roles and expectations put upon her by her marriage and class. Rita struggles with how to inhabit her time at university compared to her time at home and at the pub with friends. This causes inner turmoil as she straddles two different worlds. For Rita, education provides power and emancipation but not without a struggle or crisis of identity. Rita’s story is familiar to many of my own students.

My experience as an Access to HE sociology lecturer

As a tutor and lecturer, I see many ‘Ritas’: mature women, who are often mothers, carers and partners returning to education with the ambition of learning and developing themselves academically, and for some qualifying into professional careers such as a nurse, social worker, biologist, and a university graduate. During their time on the course, as education opens their eyes and changes their mindsets, internal conflicts can occur for students who question who they are, who they are becoming and whether the person they are becoming should mean a rejection of their original social class identity or roles ascribed to them as women. This is significant because upward social mobility does not come without sacrifice (Lee and Kramer, 2012) and may lead to changes in relationships with friends and family, and a reflexive struggle with class identity. These struggles and changes are crucial to understanding whether, and how, their identity is changing and if that change creates a divide between them and their social class origins.

The influence of Pierre Bourdieu upon the research

Habitus is a concept developed by Pierre Bourdieu (1977), and comprises of socially-ingrained dispositions, skills and habits, and the general ways in which the social world is perceived by us as we go about our social lives.

People’s habitus can be altered by new experiences and pedagogical action. It is the point of ‘pedagogical action’ where students taking an Access to HE course may find themselves reflecting upon or struggling with their sense of class identity. When people encounter a new and contradictory field, such as a return to education, an internalisation of divided structures, or ‘dialectical confrontation’ (Bourdieu, 2002) may be caused, and it is at this point a ‘cleft habitus’ may occur, whereby their habitus may become split during their journey from the person they were and the person they are developing into as they progress towards university (Abrahams and Ingram, 2013).

Competing worlds: a cleft habitus

Habitus highlights the role of unconscious and internalised cultural signals that perpetuate the power and impact of cultural differences structured by one’s history and class position in society. Friedman (2014) discuss the psycho-social impacts of a cleft habitus and how the shift in field and habitus may cause psychological pains, generating a sense of being torn between two competing worlds, or creating a sense of being held back from middle class acceptance.

For Access to HE students, their competing worlds are that of their working-class roots, their friends, family and partners, as they progress through education towards university – traditionally considered a middle-class world. According to Bourdieu, class conditions our social circles, topics of conversation, dress, the social spaces people frequent, and the ways we think. Ingram and Abrahams (2016) further the theorising of habitus and consider the powerful ways in which this position can sometimes be a resource, even though it can also be painful. My study will explore whether, and in what ways, students may negotiate the multiple fields of home life and education as they grow academically and culturally yet exist in multiple social spaces at the same time.

Painful negotiations?

Working class identity may not be easily reconciled with educational success, and success can come with great emotional cost through a sacrificing of one’s working class identity. When attempting to be  educationally  successful, working class students may be left struggling with divided loyalties and contradictions, endangering their sense of ‘fitting in’ with either working class or middle-class culture, and dislocation (Ingram, 2018).

During my work as a lecturer I have witnessed students experiencing such ‘painful negotiations’ –  feeling guilty about wanting to spend more time with their new friends at college as they enjoy discussing their modules and become more aware of new information, politics and media, for example. They find themselves learning new vocabularies and discourses relating to their disciplines and seeing the world through new perspectives. Their newfound interests may be a move away from topics of conversations with existing friends and family, and this can be problematic. Gender roles can also play a part in a student’s sense of identity. Many students are mothers and carers, but their course demands their time and attention which means juggling home responsibilities. Feeling as though they are neglecting their mothering role due to time spent on essays and in college, is a common issue. Sometimes relationships suffer as partners may feel left out or left behind as they see their partner changing and raising their aspirations. They may worry where they fit into their partner’s new trajectories, or even feel threatened. This can be difficult and sometimes leads to students giving up their studies as they cannot handle the emotional and physical pressures.

Experiences, aspirations and identities of working class women

The experiences of working class women are therefore the focus of my research. My research seeks to further understand how returning to education has the potential for shifts and changes to people’s habitus. Furthermore, the study will analyse whether Ingram and Abraham’s (2016) consideration of empowerment resonates with the Access to HE students and whether, as Bourdieu (1990:116) suggests, their habitus is a ‘product of social conditionings’ and therefore a history which is ‘endlessly transformed’, raising or lowering their levels of expectations and aspirations.

It is important to gain an understanding of how the students respond to any sense of habitus interruptions, and the extent to which their experiences are mediated by class, race and gender. An intersectional approach to the analysis will therefore be taken.

My research in progress….

So, I have just received ethical approval for my research pertaining to social class in the context of an Access to HE course. Through a Bourdieusian analysis I aim to explore whether working class female students experience a cleft habitus and, if so, whether this may cause struggles during their journey to HE. The question posed is ‘How does an Access to HE course shape the aspirations, experience and identities of mature working class women?’ My next step is to write questions for the focus groups and semi-structured interviews with students at the end of the academic year. What we can take from previous research so far is that social class is more influential in shaping and influencing an individual’s life and social mobility can highlight an individual’s sense of their identity and social class, and aspirations to change. For working class students  social mobility can cause a sense of confusion and tension, or feelings of being torn and sometimes not fitting in. I am at an exciting point in my research journey, anything could happen from here and I hope to update you with my progress in the future.

Sarah McLaughlin is an Access to Higher Education, and A level sociology lecturer at a further education college and a Doctorate in Education researcher with the University of Bristol.


Abrahams, J. and Ingram, N. (2013). The Chameleon Habitus Exploring Local Students Negotiations of Multiple Fields. Sociological Research Online, 18(4).

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, S. (2014). The Price of the Ticket: Rethinking the Experience of Social Mobility. Sociology, 48(2), 352–368.

Ingram, N. and Abrahams, J. (2016). Stepping outside of oneself. How a cleft-habitus can lead to greater reflexivity through occupying “the third space”. In J. Thatcher, J., Ingram, N. Burke, C. and Abrahams (Ed.), Bourdieu: The Next Generation. The development of Bordieu’s intellectual heritage in contemporary UK sociology. (pp. 141–156). Routledge.

Ingram, N. (2011). Within school and beyond the gate: The complexities of being educationally successful and working class. Sociology, 45(2), 287–302.

Lee, E.M. and Kramer, R. (2012). Out with the Old, In with the New? Habitus and Social Mobility at Selective Colleges. Sociology of Education, 86(1).

Reay, D. (2002). Class, authenticity and the transition to higher education for mature students. Sociological Review, 50(3), 398–418.

Reay, D. (2004). ‘It’s all becoming a habitus’: beyond the habitual use of habitus in educational research. British Journal of Sociology of Education., 25(4), 431–444.

Article originally published on The Sociological Review: Educating the Ritas – The Sociological Review