Book Review: Disposed to Learn – Schooling, Ethnicity and the Scholarly Habitus

Reviewed by Garth Stahl

Disposed to Learn: Schooling, Ethnicity and the Scholarly Habitus by Megan Watkins and Greg Noble is a thought-provoking, cohesive, and deeply engrossing monograph of research which will be of interest to scholars studying ethnicity and education using a Bourdieusian lens. Throughout their scholarship, Watkins and Noble have challenged the tendency toward the essentializing of ethnicity within multiculturalism, while presenting a more sensitive analysis of the relationship between ‘culture’ and academic outcomes. Keeping relations between ethnicity and dispositions towards learning as a central focus, this book examines the dynamics of learner differences. The work is designed to both enable the reader to gain an overview of the key debates regarding the role ethnicity plays in education before focusing on a specific research project with families of Chinese, Pasifika and Anglo backgrounds in Australia. The research presented draws from work across ten schools using survey and observational methodology. This review intends to provide an overview of Watkins and Noble’s contribution with a focus on the way their epistemological underpinnings and theoretical framework inform their analysis and discuss some of their main findings before concluding with some thoughts on the significance of the text from the perspective of an educational researcher who is interested in Bourdieusian ‘tools’ in practice.

One of the most striking things, when one first begins reading Disposed to Learn, is how assiduous Watkins and Noble are as they navigate the tricky terrain of ethnicity and learner identities. The ethnicization of educational achievement is widely discussed in popular and educational discourse, but it is a difficult area to theorize. As scholars, Watkins and Noble caution against the reductive use of ethnicity in explaining educational performance and argue that broad correlations can only be a starting point for analysis. Cultures and ethnic groups are no longer totalities and, arguably, never were. Watkins and Noble contend:

“‘Ethnicity’, ‘culture’ and ‘race’ are all complex and problematic terms evoked in discussions about educational (and economic and social) disadvantage.” (4)

Of credit to the quality of analysis to come, the authors spend a considerable amount of time (Chapters 1 and 2) putting forth the complex nature of these terms while defining key debates. These early chapters are very accessible and the analysis presented will be of substantive interest to social theorists. Critiquing the various pathologies surrounding ethnicity, Watkins and Noble discuss how ethnic-centered notions of academic attainment are taken up in the media, specifically the controversy over Amy Chau’s ‘Tiger Mother’ and the significance of privately operated academic coaching/tutoring colleges. As this book is intended to be an account of how students are ‘disposed’ to learn, Watkins and Noble continue with a key focus on how dispositions come into being and the various factors which work in practice to form these dispositions. The authors write that rather than view dispositions as innate qualities of one’s ethnic background, dispositions must be studied as specific capacities and forms of educational capital that emerge from specific practices.

As the work seeks to unearth a more nuanced understanding of tropes commonly associated with ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture,’ Watkins and Noble’s argument concerning scholarly habitus becomes an essential theoretical lens. Scholarly habitus – or what Bourdieu called the competence of ‘educational capital’ – covers the wide array of skills and knowledges that serve these functions within the schooling system. Conceptualizing within a Bourdieusian framework of practice allows Watkins and Noble to synthesize what they consider to be the factors which influence academic engagement and capacity for scholarly labor, mainly: parental engagement, aspirations, stereotypes, homework habits, spatial and corporeal congruence, schemas of perception, and student attitudes to teaching and learning. Watkins and Noble do some excellent theoretical work on capturing how the scholarly habitus forms. They write:

“The concept of a scholarly habitus is useful then in exploring the links between home and school practices, embodied dispositions and sociocultural background because it allows us to address issues of self-regulation and the possession of educational capital without falling into simplistic arguments about ‘ethnic drive.’” (8)

Through this attention to practice in the construction of a scholarly habitus, they also extend Lareau’s work on ‘accomplishment of natural growth’/‘concerted cultivation.’ This becomes a particularly excellent part of the book where Watkins and Noble are able to build upon existing social theory, while continuously drawing back to their concept of scholarly habitus, as they interrogate commonly held assumptions regarding ethnicity and academic attainment. To explore how these factors manifest, Watkins and Noble present small illustrative case studies. The case studies in Chapter 5, concerning teacher perceptions of normative behavior concerning ethicized learning styles and how school cultures influence the ongoing formation of dispositions toward academic success, remain particularly striking. In Chapter 6, the authors extend this knowledge to show how pedagogy and school cultures of discipline and control contribute to the formation of academic engagement.

What will be of significant interest to scholars in the social sciences is how staunchly Watkins and Noble argue that scholarly activities are “dependent upon bodily control” where “a certain kind of stillness affords a readiness to engage in higher order activities” (53) or what they also referred to as “productive stillness” (83). These dispositions, the authors contend, are embodied through specific practices, specifically the cultural background and resources available; Watkins and Noble argue that bodily control has tremendous productive capacities. Furthermore, they contend that to fully understand the bodily control/embodied capacities argument, bodies must be thought about in specific fields and not in terms of “abstracted notions of class or ethnicities inscribed in the habitus” (54), which may raise eyebrows for strict Bourdieusian scholars who will read this as a misinterpretation of how habitus can be utilized in educational research.

As fruitful as Bourdieu’s tools are, especially in considering the linking of home and school, Watkins and Noble explore – through a more cautious approach – how educational knowledge and skills becomes “a social mechanism of distinction and legitimation and reproduction of social power” (37). After all, they point out that not all “educational knowledge is the class-based knowledge of the powerful,” and analysis must open the door for “the socially useful skills that are largely monopolized by the powerful” (37). This point reminded me of how class is not necessarily about resources but the strategies employed around resources.

Before concluding this review, I want to critique Disposed to Learn from the perspective of a Bourdieusian scholar. While fastidious Bourdieusian scholars may expect to a larger attention paid to social class/social mobility/cultural capital, what I found particularly interesting about the work was how Watkins and Noble account for the influence of the school on the habitus. While there has been some work done in this area (cf. Atkinson 2011), it is certainly an unexplored area in Bourdieusian scholarship. Of course, it is interesting that Watkins and Noble have chosen to use Bourdieu as a theoretical lens, given his gaping silences concerning gender and race/ethnicity. Given their area of expertise and knowledge of Bourdieusian theory, I wanted to know more about how Watkins and Noble conceive of race/ethnicity working (with)in the habitus.

In order to capture the formation of educational capital, Watkins and Noble’s work is required to be expansive, in depth, and consistently theoretically robust. While it obviously is an important book for those interested in educational social theory and ethnicity, it must be noted how Watkins and Noble construct the work so it is accessible to those who do not necessarily have knowledge of these areas. The active engagement with this contentious area (which runs through the introduction, discussion, and conclusion of each chapter) enhances the scholarship. In their exploration of the formation of a scholarly habitus, Watkins and Noble meticulously balance the theory and the empirical creating a compelling narrative. In conclusion, Watkins and Noble’s investigation of the complex relationship between ethnicity, habitus and dispositions to learn shows an exciting capacity to build on existing socio-cultural work.

Works Cited:

Atkinson, W. (2011) From sociological fictions to social fictions: some Bourdieusian reflections on the concepts of ‘institutional habitus’ and ‘family habitus’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 32:3, 331-347

Dr Garth Stahl is a Lecturer in Literacy Education at University of South Australia and a researcher with the Hawke Research Institute. Previously, Garth lived and worked in London as a Teacher of English, Head of Sociology Department and consultant for nine years. Garth’s main research interests are: masculinities, Bourdieu, ethnography, urban education, educational inequalities (race, class, gender, etc), and applied sociology.


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