‘Miraculous exceptions’: what can autobiography tell us about why some disadvantaged students succeed in higher education?
Written by Dr Tim Pitman, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
This study examines the use of the autobiographical research method, where information is gathered from a participant’s largely or wholly unstructured construction of narrative. It considers the experiences of three ‘miraculous exceptions’: university graduates from low socio-economic backgrounds, who are traditionally under-represented in higher education. The analysis adapts Bourdieuian notions of economic, cultural and social capital to examine the interrelationship between various factors contributing to educational success. Findings from this study suggest that although the relationship between structure, agency and capital is highly complex, there is greater potential for ongoing educational ‘outreach’ activities to inspire disadvantaged students – and their parents – to consider higher education as an aspiration. However, the challenges in validating the rich information derived from autobiography are also explored. In order to improve the rigour of the research approach, it is recommended that the autobiographical method is used in conjunction with other methodological tools, rather than in isolation.
Pitman, T. (2013). ‘Miraculous exceptions’: what can autobiography tell us about why some disadvantaged students succeed in higher education? Higher Education Research & Development, 32(1). 30-42. DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2012.750278.