This article is about five rural high school learners’ lived experiences of their schooling in a rural low-socio-economic residential area on the west coast of South Africa. It describes their adaptive and navigational strategies in one-dimensional assimilatory school environments. The author argues that this learning environment fails to acknowledge or take into account the learners’ unique forms of capital that they bring from their homes and communities. Despite poor academic results by learners from poor, rural backgrounds together with popular media often positioning them as deficient in the schooling system, this article suggests that it is these unique forms of capital which are central in supporting such learners to remain in school and that these generalisations often conceal an undiscovered world of navigational strategies that these learners use to stay on course, and that is the focus of this investigation.
Much has been written about youth subjectivity formation in different South African contexts (Fillies and Fataar 2015; Bray, Gooskens, Kahn, Moses and Seekings 2010; Fataar 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012; Soudien 2004, 2007; Swartz 2009). Soudien’s research, for example, offers insights into how the hope and belief of youth are tested in the post-apartheid era as they struggle with their parents to survive in a fast-changing society. He also describes how these experiences have important implications for these learners’ learning experiences (Soudien 2007). Bray and colleagues (2010) offer a rich sociological description of the general assumptions about youths’ learning experiences in different communities and school contexts. Swartz’s description of poor, rural youths’ microsystems and how agency in them comes to the fore (2009:5), offers a good overview of the contextual factors to take into account in a study of youth subjectivity. Fataar (2012) analyses how geography and social space come to bear in youths’ interaction with their lived and school spaces. His emphasis is on how changing environmental factors within the social spaces inhabited by young people influences their mobility and the adaptations they make, as well as their navigational practices as they carve out educational pathways for themselves.
The schooling practices of learners from poor, rural areas are situated in a broader system of social relations that stretches way beyond the school. Democratic South Africa inherited a fragmented education system from the apartheid era which eventually led to deep inequality among races and specific geographical areas. In post-apartheid South Africa, despite learners’ right to equal education as espoused in article 29(1) of the Constitution (RSA 1996), many poor rural learners find themselves trapped in school environments that have not changed significantly and which do not support their learning needs. Spaul (2011) describes South Africa as having a two-tier school world: one for the poor communities, situated mostly in working-class communities and rural areas, where schools are labelled as quintile 1–3 schools, and a second tier, found in affluent communities labelled quintile 4 and 5 schools. Quintile 1–3 schools still suffer from historical shortcomings and lack basic infrastructure such as adequate classrooms, water and electricity, telephone lines, internet access and functional libraries. Socio-economic factors like poverty and unemployment in the areas concerned directly impact on the quality and educational experiences of the children who live there.
Using qualitative, ethnographic methods, this article investigates how these learners position themselves in, and give meaning to, a schooling system that measures everyone against the same performance-driven standards. As a qualitative researcher, I attempt to provide an in-depth description of the five participants’ navigational practices at school based on observation, subjective exploration and interpretation of reality. Using a qualitative approach enabled me to come to understand the participants’ frame of reference as, according to Cohen, Manion and Morrison (2000:19), one’s interpretation of the social world stems from one’s inherent frame of reference. Qualitative research thus allows one to zoom in on how individuals act at the intersection of fast-changing macro-community processes and micro-circumstances.
An ethnographic research approach enables the researcher to gain a deeper insight into the social interactions, forms of behaviour and assumptions in groups, teams, organisations and communities (Reeves, Kuper and Hodges 2008:512). Ethnographic research embeds the researcher into the world of the participants in the research, and as such allows the researcher to gain an in-depth understanding of their social environment. This form of research also holds the potential for the researcher to gain an insight into what might otherwise not have been revealed through the use of interviews. The research for this article employed a postmodern, ethnographic approach that aimed to question knowledge that is generally accepted [my emphasis] as reliable2 (Denzin and Lincoln 1998:291). The focus, therefore, was on investigating and exposing learner practices and knowledge, such as the navigational practices of poor rural learners, that often remains unnoticed.
The data for this study was collected from five purposefully selected high school learners. Pseudonyms are used for the learners to protect their identity and the necessary ethical clearance was obtained from all the relevant stakeholders. The participants in the study all came from working-class families, were in the same grade (11) and attended the same school in a rural town approximately 130 km north of Cape Town. The learners are representative of the generic black population living in working-class conditions in the rural town. I spent time in the learners’ school and classrooms where I made video observations of the participants in their learning environment in order to gain an insider perspective of how they how they go about their learning. In addition, I conducted semi-structured interviews with each participant and used documentary evidence such as diaries, school report cards and workbooks to ensure consistency of the data gained from the observations and interviews.
This article draws on Bourdieu’s concepts of practice, field, habitus and capital to provide the theoretical tools for understanding young peoples’ engagement with the field of school. The value of Bourdieu’s social-scientific perspective is that it provides us with a lens to understand poor, rural students’ internal dispositions in relation to external influences. For Bourdieu (1990:190), “the body is in the social world, but the social world is also in the body”. His concepts, therefore, enable me to elucidate the analytic focus of this article.
Drawing on the analysis of the research data, this article describes how learners’ school achievements are a result of the extent to which their forms of capitals coincide with the expected school outcomes as established by the education system (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977:22). The article thus argues that those learners who achieve at school are able to present the necessary habitus and corresponding capitals that fit with what the school purports as ideal. However, in many instances schools do not value the capitals that learners from poor backgrounds bring to the school contexts, and consequently these learners often don’t do well in school or are seen as incompetent in the schooling system.
In response, therefore, what this article brings to the fore, is a discussion on how the limiting learning environments of poor, rural schools force learners to create unconventional navigational practices that draw on their embodied capitals from their homes and communities, that allow them to stay on course throughout their school career. The article concludes by showing how they draw on the use of alternative forms of capitals such as aspiration, belief and imagination as a platform to develop a viable self-schooled habitus.
Keywords: capital; habitus; learners; navigational practices; poor; rural areas; self-schooled habitus