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Cosmo girls : new configurations of class and femininity in elite educational settings
conference contributionposted on 2010-01-01, 00:00 authored by Claire CharlesClaire Charles, A Allan
In this paper we offer a unique contribution to understandings of schooling as a site for the production of social class difference, by bringing together recent work on middle-class educational identities in neoliberal times (O’Flynn and Petersen 2007, Reay et al 2007, 2008) with explorations of classed femininity from the field of critical girlhood studies (Harris 2004, Ringrose and Walkerdine 2008). Drawing on data generated in two recent research projects in Australia and the UK our aim will be to explore how class mediates the construction of young femininities in the private girls’ school. Our particular focus will be on exploring how articulations of identity within such schools are configured through discourses of mobility and global social responsibility. In line with the broader ‘cultural turn’ in the social sciences (Devine 2005) we discuss class and femininity in this paper in cultural and symbolic terms. We draw on Butler’s (1993) notions of performativity to understand the multiple and processual nature of identity constitution and Bourdieu’s (1987) understandings of class (based on symbolic struggles for capital in social space) to enable us to explore the ‘subjective micro distinctions’ through which class is expressed, embodied and lived; viewing class as a set of fictional discourses that inscribe and produce identities (Walkerdine et al 2001). This understanding of class, as something that is ‘done’ rather than something that ‘we are’, was deemed particularly important in these studies of elite education, for the research was undertaken in schools where class was apparently ‘everywhere and nowhere’, never named or ‘directly known as class’ (Lawler 2005, Skeggs 2004). This underplaying of class identity is often linked to neo-liberalism, and in this paper we would like to link these constructions of ‘the private school girl’ with neoliberal subjectivity by focusing on two main characteristics. First we will consider the notion of mobility, where we will discuss the ways in which these girls constructed themselves as ‘cosmo’ girls (global citizens at ease with traversing national borders) and the ways in which the schools supported this through educational practices which enabled the students and their families ‘to exploit and strategically pursue economic and cultural capital’ (Doherty et al 2009). We will also focus on the struggles that the schools and students encountered as they attempted to juggle these discourses of global mobility with more traditional discourses of privilege (often associated with national boundaries and based within a predominantly British model of schooling steeped in colonial history). Second, we will look at discourses of responsibility, to explore how these girls were incited to take responsibility for themselves and their futures but also to embrace diversity and to commit themselves to social service. We will also examine the competing discourses of instrumentalism and social justice that were at play in these schools.