Diversity or Convention: The Obstacle of Cultural Capital in Academia

The Source
By: Guest contributor, Wed Sep 20 2023

Written by Dr Ashley Gardner


Author: Guest contributor

Earlier this year, Springer Nature published its first diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) report, titled “Insights into diversity, equity & inclusion in the global research community”. The report examines how diversity, equity, and inclusion are understood in the research community, identifying barriers to achieving  greater DEI, and highlighting opportunities for change. In this new blog series, early career researchers who participated in the report, share their own personal stories and views about DEI in academia, and ways to further advance diversity and inclusion.

Pierre Bourdieu introduced the term “cultural capital” to refer to an individual’s reserve of social resources [1]. Much like economic capital, cultural capital is influenced by one’s family during childhood, but can be purposefully or passively accumulated throughout life. If this concept were to be adapted to academic research, a scientist’s cultural capital may include their conduct, communication, and self-presentation.

When I began graduate school, I felt lucky to be there. Many of my peers had come from backgrounds that better prepared them for academia. They went to a private or well-resourced public high school and a prominent college. They had the means to participate in multiple summer research programs. They had parents with a college degree and experience in the professional environment. I did not have these advantages, but I was fortunate to have access to federal Pell grant funding to get me through college and the federal McNair Scholars Program to give me a fighting chance for graduate school. I knew the odds were against me; a study from the UK in 2016 showed that, although 35% of the general population grew up in a working-class family, only 15% of scientists fell into that category [2]. At the time, my father was a plumber and my mother worked in the office of a roofing company. But I had made it to graduate school. It was a level playing field now, right?

While I think I noticed subconsciously before then, it was when I attended my first conference that it became clear: despite having a scientific understanding, I did not have the cultural capital that was needed to navigate academia. I was oblivious to rules that seemed so obvious to others:

  • I instinctively asked questions because I was curious to know the answer, but I was now expected only to ask questions if they added value to the conversation.
  • I was expected to communicate eloquently and succinctly, but obscure and overly technical language continued to be a barrier for me in conversation (what is the purpose of speech, if not to understand and to be understood?).
  • I had difficulty determining when and how to approach others for scientific conversation. Years later, I still do not have the ability to simultaneously eat from a tiny plate and hold a drink while networking around a tiny poseur table.

I struggled to feel like I belonged amongst scientists who valued the established cultural archetype. When trying to understand the standards I was expected to adhere to, I questioned their importance. Why am I expected to buy a professional wardrobe on a graduate student budget? Why must I refrain from using non-neutral colours when presenting my data? Why is “paucity” a better word than “scarcity”? I was told these were standards meant to limit distractions and clarify the message. Surely, though, the intelligent individuals I was surrounded by were able to understand words written in comic sans? When I overheard senior members of another lab tell an undergraduate student that her slides with a dusty pink outline were “too feminine”, I started to wonder, to what extent were they simply distracted by their own judgements?

Success in academia is dependent on peer-review, and my experiences suggest this extends beyond submitted papers and grants. My own cultural values were incompatible with my academic career goals, so I needed to adapt. I was fortunate to be surrounded by peers and mentors that guided me. Without this support, and my own tenacity to “walk the walk”, the feelings of inadequacy may have been enough to make me leave my program. Even now that I have received my degree, I still worry my lack of cultural capital will leave any potential future employers, funding agencies, and journal reviewers unimpressed.

The experience of lacking cultural capital is difficult to explain to those who have not been in a similar position. To some extent, we all struggle with social norms of academia. Yet, I hope that sharing my experience will encourage discussion regarding the additional burden placed upon individuals from non-traditional backgrounds. High expectations of cultural capital and stringent definitions of what constitutes proper academic decorum impedes the recruitment and success of these individuals. Encouraging diversity means accepting those with different styles of conduct, communication, and self-presentation. We, as inclusive scientists, may need to challenge the current conventions and redefine what we value in academic culture.

Unlock the full insights of Springer Nature’s “Insights into diversity, equity and inclusion in the global research community” report by reading and downloading the paper.

[1] Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction.

[2] D. Laurison and S. Friedman (2016) Am. Soc. Rev. 81, 668–695

P_Ashley Gardner © Springer Nature 2023
About the Author:

Ashley Gardner, Ph.D. is a neuroimmunologist who specializes in the study of neuroinflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases. Dr. Gardner grew up in the rural town of Breese, Illinois and graduated with a B.S. from Murray State University in 2017. She received her doctorate from the University of Michigan and began her postdoctoral work at the Jackson Laboratory in the lab of Dr. Lenny Shultz in January of 2023. Outside of her research, Dr. Gardner gives back to the community through her work as an EMS driver and as an editor and co-host for the Antibuddies Podcast.


Author: Guest contributor

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