The Social Formation of Adult Learners

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006

Simon Warren & Sue Webb, The Institute for Lifelong Learning, School of Education, University of Sheffield.


This paper focuses upon the decision-making process of one adult learner– Jenny (not her real name) - to enrol in formal learning. Jenny appears to resemble the notion of the responsible and active citizen of lifelong learning policy discourse, seeking to maximise her personal assets as a caring individual for employment in the health and social care market. In this paperwe seek to understand the interaction between history, economics, institutional cultures, education policy and individual agency, and how these interactions make it possible for Jenny to be a particular kind of learner. Before going into Jenny’s story we contextualise it by problematising briefly the current education policy framework; outlining our research questions, and our methodological approach.

Policy problem – risk society and the responsible learner

The current British Labour Government presents a policy narrative that can be understood as forming a taken for granted commonsense view of the world – the world as globalisation. It is argued across a range of policy texts that global processes of economic restructuring have reconfigured the relationship between national economies and global markets, refashioning the kinds of skills and knowledge perceived as necessary for economic growth and competitiveness, and that technological developments, as part of the globalisation process, are viewed as transforming the labour process, with consequent impacts upon traditional notions of career and working lives (see Brown & Lauder, 1992, Coffield, 1999, Department for Education and Employment, 2001, Department for Education and Skills, 2005, Department for Education and Skills, 2006, Department for Trade and Industry, 1998). In particular, globalisation is seen as introducing new risks and uncertainties, disrupting traditional patterns of transition into and through employment (Department for Education and Skills, 2006, Field, 2000, Field, 2001, Strain & Field, 1997).

The field of post-compulsory education and training (PCET)in Britainis dominated by a skills agenda and an economisation of education, which seeseducation being more closely tied to economic objectives. Although policy discourses still deploy a rhetoric of education for personal development, it is clear that this is subsumed beneath economically oriented policy drivers. For instance, the new FE White paper calls for a priority focus on the employability of 16-19 year olds and up-skilling the adult workforce. When viewed in relation to the Government’s education and skills strategy for 14-19 year olds, FE colleges appear to be education providers of last resort, offering a second chance for those who have failed in compulsory education or have not taken a more academic route into higher education. PCET is to be demand driven, in that it is to be responsive to the skills and knowledge employers require. There is an overwhelming policy emphasis on the management of youth transitions from compulsory education into training and employment. In terms of adult learners the emerging PCET field prioritises adults already in employment. While the language is of up-skilling the workforce, this is realised through a policy and funding commitment to the achievement of a Level 2 entitlement for all adults without a previous full L2 qualification. Emphasis is given to the raising of basic skills, in particular the weighting within L2 provision of adult basic literacy and numeracy. Leisure learning or learning for self-development are recognised, but marginalised. Finally, policy priorities are driven by funding commitments for qualifications accredited within the national qualifications framework. This framework increasingly stresses vocational learning in the workplace rather than in college. The field of PCET can be seen as a field in transition. The emergent field is driven by discourses drawn from the fields of economics and politics.

In response to this politically constructed policy problem, policy solutions invoke the ‘responsible learner’ as a central character in educational policy narratives. These policy discourses are informed by areas of social theory, particularly ‘reflexive modernity’ (Giddens, 1998, Giddens, 2000) and ‘risk society’ (Beck-Gernsheim, 1996, Beck & Ritter, 1992), where the ‘responsible learner’ is imagined as a reflexive agent in a post-traditional society. James Avis (2000: 196) has noted this process in the field of post-compulsory education and training (PCET) as one where ‘We are to become responsible for our own actions as individuals, investing in our own development thus increasing our capacity as human capital’. This is a process identified elsewhere. Andreas Fejes has noted this process of responsibilisation of adult learners in Sweden (Fejes, 2005). We should not be surprised by this. Stephen Ball and Martin Thrupp (Ball, 1999, Thrupp, 2001), in their analyses of the impact of market mechanisms on secondary school choice, have identified a process of ‘policy borrowing’. Very similar policy discourses circulate globally through policy and governmental networks and are taken up by ideologically different governments, and deployed within specific cultural contexts. These discourses owe their similarity to their emergence from such global non-governmental bodies such as the World Bank, the WTO, and the OECD. Economic and political discourses, generated from within the globalisation orthodoxy of these bodies are imported into the field of education in a process of cross-field effects (Lingard et al., 2005).

Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, other theorists deal with this sense of reflexivity differently. In particular, writers such as Nicholas Rose have deployed the concept of governmentality to discuss the way the social regulation of people for particular political projects, has far from diminished in the way reflexive modernity theories would suggest (Rose, 1996, Rose, 1999, Rose & Miller, 1992). Instead, Rose proposes that we can detect empirical changes in the discursive formation of Western societies, particularly under the influence of neo-liberal politics and economics. Rose argues that neo-liberalism has required the construction of new forms of agency. As neo-liberal policies seek to hollow out the state by shifting social responsibility onto individuals, so a ‘responsible’ individual needs to be constructed. Rose and others point to the discursive work engaged in to construct such a social agent who can imagine themselves as carrying the weight of newly individualized responsibilities (see also Dean, 1999).

This process of ‘responsibilisation’ has prompted some to argue that hegemonic policy formations in the field of PCET constitute new forms of domination and governmentality within capitalist society. They argue that PCET is constructed as a space for the moral regulation of individuals; where they are called upon to work upon themselves in order to make themselves more amenable to the demands of mobile capital (Avis, 2000, Crowther, 2004, Martin, 2003). From this perspective the depiction in policy texts of certain communities in deficit terms, as lacking motivation, aspiration or positive cultures of learning, work as legitimising discourses (see for example Social Exclusion Unit, 2001). These communities are then made amenable to policy intervention, to being worked upon by expert knowledge, and required to change their behaviours; involving the management of their learning dispositions. There is then in the discourses of lifelong learning an economically rational agent able to work upon themselves in order to maximise their self-interest; an agent that is enterprising. This is a highly normative depiction, and one that, as Crowther and Martin have argued, lends itself to moral regulation.

So what? Whilst the ‘responsible learner’ exists in discourse, it is a matter for empirical investigation to discern to what extent it exists in practice. In particular, for individuals who appear to be engaging in reflexive practices – adults who ‘choose’ to engage with formal learning, what is it that they do and what is it about their practices that makes them ‘responsible learners’? Do the discursive constructions of reflexive agent adequately capture the real practices agents engage in? Is the ‘responsible learner’ simply an ideological deceit that disguises the reproduction of the social order? This is the bases of this paper and the research we are conducting.


We are currently concluding a pilot project in order to refine our research questions and methodology. The pilot project is being conducted in two different learning sites – a part-time modern foreign languages course in a University adult education department and a full-time and a part-time vocational social care and health course in a Further Education college. The research is situated in a city, in northern England, undergoing structural change. This former industrial centre has witnessed major economic restructuring, involving the demise of heavy industry and its replacement with service industries. The city has also experienced important demographic changes with its population becoming significantly more multicultural. This is important for the research. Hegemonic policy discourse suggests that the kind of structural change the city has undergone represents the kind of change with past practices the current policy formation is designed to address. We have also been concerned to identify learners who would appear to face objective moments of reflexivity – a 40 year old woman returning to learning, a young woman from an asylum seeking family looking to improve her labour market position, and a young man engaged in a leisure learning course but working in a newly internationalised high-tech steel industry. The two learning sites represent something of the diversity of the local education and training sector. So far, three students, two course tutors and two course directors have been interviewed. We are currently interviewing key players in the education and training market in the area, as well as collating relevant economic and social statistics.

The research focuses on individuals at the point of engagement with formal learning to explore their understanding of how they became involved in formal learning and the meaning of this in their lives now and in the future. We are concerned with exploring the policy rationale that structural change has demanded,and including, not only, changes in the nature of educational provision, but the active constitution of new dispositions to learning – the ‘responsible learner’. We are concerned not just with exploring concepts of ‘responsibility’, ‘reflexivity’ and ‘agency’, but whether this leads to substantial change in people’s lives or whether it reproduces the social order through new forms of governmentality in the face of the retrenchment of the state. The research is guided by three questions:

  • Do learners constitute their identities as part of a reflexive project?
  • What is the nature of this possible reflexivity and in what ways is it related to notions of rationality or pre-reflexive agency?
  • How is reflexivity related to structural change and action?

In order to explore these questions firstly, the empirical work details how local labour, education and training markets are structured; and what relationship particular learning sites and courses have to those markets; what the social, economic and political forces are that constitute local learning, institutional and vocational cultures; and what particular formations of labour markets and local education and training markets give rise to those particular cultures. Secondly, we explore the kinds of identity work that adults have to engage in, in the context of social and economic transformations, and determine what resources – social, cultural and economic can and do people draw upon in this identity-work, and how successful they are; indeed, we ask what would be the criteria for success? In all this we explore to what extent historically imagined communities, whether they be locational, classed, gendered or raced, still influence the emerging learner identities of adults entering PCET. And we explore whether participation in education, of whatever kind, is part of a reflexive project, of consciously transforming their identities. These questions are quite different from those posed by policy.

Habitus, field and articulated moments

Our research is focused on both policy and methodological problems. As stated above the policy problem we are investigating is that of the ‘responsible learner’. The methodological problem is that in researching the practices and processes of responsibilisation, how can we move beyond individual decision-making stories and tales to an empirical understanding ofthe immanence of structure in practice? Elsewhere we have critiqued other contemporary approaches to researching structure in practice within the PCET field (Webb & Warren, 2006). In other words, how do we empirically research habitus?

We are informed by Bourdieu’s theoretical framework. As with others we are drawn to Bourdieu as a way of overcoming the dualism between agency and social structure. We are conscious of the critiques of Bourdieu’s framework and methodology (see Adkins, 2004, Kenway & McLeod, 2004, McNay, 2004, McRobbie, 2002). However, we agree with Bourdieu’s own statement that his concepts are thinking tools (Bourdieu, 2003) and, as such it is legitimate to use them as part of a conceptual toolkit (Bowe et al., 1994) with which to critically examine and provide interpretations of the ‘responsible learner’. The questions posed above can be reformulated in term of the concepts of field, capital and habitus.

Our methodology involves a structural analysis of the PCET field through interviews with the local funding council (the LSC), course directors, course tutors, and analysis of educational and labour market statistics. These data also enable us to define the particular structure of the field through identification of local circuits of education and training. This includes developing an understanding of the way different educational institutions, courses, qualifications and progression routes are related to each other, the distinctions between different circuits and the hierarchical organisation of these circuits (see Ball et al., 1998 for a discussion of 'circuits'). Our analysis would therefore seek to situate the particular courses adult learners had enrolled in within these different circuits of education and training. We would conduct a similar analysis of local labour markets, in terms of circuits of capital and skills, and similarly attempt to situate adult learners within these circuits.

The other theoretical approach we take considers identity, whether of place (including institutions) and people, as being produced at the nexus of movements within the domains of economy, culture, and politics - as ‘articulated moments’ (Massey, 1994). This builds on the idea of social formations (and transformations) being constituted through the articulation of heterogeneous elements. This understanding maintains the sense of durability and the immanence of social structure provided by Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, and extends the improvisational nature of habitus. It focuses on the material conditions for the constitution of identities. It also stresses the contingent and historical location of identity formation, that identity does not fully escape the historical processes that have made that particular formation possible, but also holds out the possibility of there being other potential formations.

Figure A below provides a diagrammatic representation of this approach.

Jenny’s Story

We want to turn now to Jenny. Jenny is a 40 year old white mother of four children, recently separated from her husband. She is enrolled on a part-time vocational GCSE (Level 2) Health and Social Care course at an FE College. Although Jenny is currently in receipt of welfare benefits, her family background is of self-employment in the catering and hospitality sector. At the point where we interviewed Jenny she had just completed her first of three semesters. She was close enough to her entry onto the course to reflect back on her motivations, and far enough through the course to project forward into a possible future world. As well as the interview with Jenny, we interviewed her course tutor and the course director within the FE College.

While discussion with Jenny explored her rationale for enrolling on that particular course, and within that particular institution, and how these might relate to her life-course; interviews with the institutional players (course tutor and director) explored institutional habitus and the location of the course within the local education and training market. We explore Jenny as a ‘responsible learner’ through two related stories – Jenny’s story of her self, and the institutional story – a story of policy frameworks, financial regulation and competition in an education and training market.

Jenny and her ‘caring’ self – social reproduction or a break in social trajectory?

Jenny’s story appears as an amazingly reflexive and rational account of a ‘caring’ identity being given the opportunity to be realised. ‘Caring’ appeared in her narrative as a central feature of her identity work.

Within Jenny’s narrative there was a strong sense of Jenny having a core ‘caring’ identity that revealed itself in terms of recurring references to how she had a ‘natural’ disposition towards caring for others. This was exemplified in the recounting of Jenny’s role in the care for her dying aunt. In the account provided by Jenny the caring for her dying aunt becomes the key moment where a caring identity is imagined in terms of employment in caring work,

‘My aunty died 11 years ago with cancer and various family members helped to look after her in the last few months and it was her that actually said you ought to go into something like this and she said you’re the only one in the family didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. She thought I’d got a natural aptitude for it’.

Caring is depicted as a ‘natural aptitude’, as something that Jenny is good at, and which should be realised through paid employment. Within the whole narrative this moment is pivotal. This moment is seen as laying the foundation for Jenny’s eventual entry into caring work and re-engagement with formal learning. Within the narrative this caring identity is almost always imagined in terms of paid employment. There is a sense that as part of Jenny’s ‘practical logic’ she assumes that her symbolic and cultural capital should be exchanged for economic capital. Of course this is partly imposed by the fact that she was being interviewed about her participation in a ‘caring’ course. However, as with the women in Beverley Skeggs’ study of ‘respectability’, caring appeared to provide Jenny with certain symbolic resources with which to construct a particular gendered identity (Skeggs, 1997). As noted by Beverly Skeggs in relation to the women in her study, these investments in the self can be traded in a wider context where ‘Education was the means by which they could convert their caring capital into an economic resource in the labour market’ (Skeggs, 1997: 82). The courses that Jenny has enrolled on become investments in this ‘caring self’. In this sense Jenny appears to match the image of the ‘responsible learner’.