Grammars, Comps, and Volunteering

So, a new article (by me) was published today. Entitled ‘Recruiting young volunteers in an area of education: a qualitative case study’, it’s the fourth paper to be published from my PhD (following on from explorations of volunteer motivations, volunteering as Foucauldian control, and using confessional reflexive methods).

It’s really exciting to be in the British Journal of the Sociology of Education. It’s a journal which I have used a lot, has a lot of people I respect on the editorial board, and has a great reach. The abstract is:

This article presents findings from a small qualitative case study of a youth volunteering brokerage organisation in England, operating in an area of selective state education. Data show how brokerage workers felt grammar schools managed their students in a concerted way to improve students’ chances of attending university. Conversely, workers expressed difficulty in working with comprehensive schools, feeling they were less willing to utilise volunteering services. These impressions lead the volunteering organisation to focus intently on recruiting potential volunteers from local grammar schools. As a result there is a need to reframe current debates in the sociology of education around institutional habitus, with a focus on the perceived habitus/doxa of schools. It is ultimately this (mis)recognition of institutional practices that leads to unequal policy outcomes, in this case reinforcing the advantage of academically elite students attending grammar schools.

The paper itself is a good one (I think) as it uses quite fun and accessible qualitative data to try and make a theoretical point, which I often shy away from. It argues that, following a BJSE debate between Atkinson (here and here) and Burke, Emmerich and Ingram (here) about whether institutions can have a habitus, or whether this should be more accurately described as doxa, that ultimately it is how schools’ ‘habitus’ are (mis)recognised by policy actors, organisations, the public that effects outcomes. In this case volunteer recruiters were much keener to work with grammar schools for various practical reasons, as opposed to local comprehensive schools, who they saw as more difficult to work with, and whose students were more recalcitrant to volunteer. Obviously this ties into debates on the classed nature of volunteering (please await my long-forthcoming NVSQ article on this subject), but shows how reputation and the individuality of local school ecologies (especially those where selection occurs) can hamper policy, and stop all young people accessing volunteering.

While further recent research has pointed out the relative lack of long term impact of grammar schools, whose position as a vital tool of social mobility will not go away for some people, this paper hopefully adds a little dollop of data to this. Grammar schools don’t particularly exercise me, but here is more evidence that their existence can (unwittingly) have a negative effect on the non-selective schools around them. See the article for much more on the grammar school debate ) including the positive quoting of Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Thanks must go to Diane Reay for advice on an earlier draft (and again to Tim Strangleman and Iain Wilkinson as supervisors par excellence). Interestingly this paper was perhaps the most heavily rewritten after reviewer comments that I’ve yet done. I’d initially used Lareau’s concerted cultivation vs natural growth theoretical framework to situate the data. One reviewer pointed out that this added absolutely nothing, and she or he was completely right: I couldn’t see the wood for the theoretical trees if you will. What I believed to be excellent was utterly redundant, and it took the clarity of a peer reviewer to point this out. So while we can gripe about peer review, this paper would not have been possible without it.

Any thoughts please let me know, and if you want to read a draft of the much wider scope article about volunteering and social class and habitus, please email me at

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