Friday 17 July 2015

Talking the Talk and Fitting In: Troubling the Practices of Speaking 'What You Are Worth' in Higher Education in the UK

By Michelle Addison and Victoria, G. Mountford, Newcastle University

This blog is based on a more in-depth article in Sociological Research Online, published in May 2015. We are both interested in how ways of talking, and accent, have taken on symbolic meaning in higher education (HE). We wrote this piece together because we are becoming increasingly concerned that in a climate of uncertainty in HE we are seeing that the importance of demonstrating one's impact, value and worth comes down to more than just productivity, qualifications and experience. It’s becoming more about who you are as a person – the ‘personality package’ (Brown et al., 2003). Yet distinctions operate to ascribe (classed) value and some people occupy a privileged position where their body and their voice are read as valued whereas others are not so lucky and cannot adapt or escape how they are seen and heard by others, regardless of other work or achievements. We base our discussions upon data from two qualitative research studies with employees (Addison) and undergraduate students (Mountford) in a traditional Higher Education Institution (HEI) in the north of England (Mountford’s also included students from a nearby post-1992 HEI), which are contextualised within this climate of marketization of HE in the UK. Whilst market logic and discourse pervade the field of HE, situating meritocracy and hard work as the key driver for success, our data tell a slightly different story of persistently reactivated cultural classed codes forming distinctions of worth and value within these educational spaces.

How we talk says a lot about us and what kind of person we wish to be. Talking matters, but why do we think that talking about talking matters here, why now? Talking the talk is a valuable currency, our accents and specifically the way we talk, the words we choose and how we say them (for example, local phrases, swearing and slang), are resurfacing as conductors of value in HE and beyond. The way we talk is part of our person, our self and our own personal histories and circumstances; our bodies are vehicles from which classed value judgments are constantly read and reactivated in everyday exchanges and interactions. Knowing how to speak ‘worth’ in HE is important, tricky to get right, and can help or hinder the person in terms of getting ahead, depending on whether they know how to play the game. Particular ways of talking then, affect feelings of 'fitting in' or 'standing out' which can provoke strong emotions including shame or defiance to the affective judgements of ‘deficiency’ assigned to our voices (Loveday, 2015; Reay et al 2009; Abraham and Ingram 2013; Taylor 2012). In our article (2015) we focus our attention on practices of fitting in and belonging, and how this relates to ways of 'talking the talk'. What we do know is that talking a certain way shapes belonging in HE, and talking the right or wrong talk is connected to social judgements about class. Many people working and studying in higher education are classed because of the way they talk, and this can often be painful for some, while conferring advantage on others.

I still feel like these people are clever[er] than us, probably more wealthy – and I don't know…why I think that…when I'm listening to them other people speak it just […] so easy to understand and I think I imagine them trying to understand me…now I'm so concerned about you know, fully pronunciating […] – you know what I mean, you're like kind of trying harder but because you're trying so hard you get really nervous and you kind of clam up and everything.
(Craig, 23, Working-class student, Mountford’s study)

It's not changing what you know, erm, if you speak with a so called 'Queen's English' that's how all the people who are professional or who are higher up life, that's how they speak, it's almost like that's what you should be like, but it's not really is it?
(Simon, Surveyor, 31, lower middle class, Addison’s study)

I'm like trying to so hard to speak, you know, quite poshly - and I've not got a really strong accent anyway but like I find myself like trying really hard but most of the time they can tell I'm from like Manchester (laughs)[…] but they just assume that you're more […] I suppose, common in a way and that you're not as well educated and you're poorer
(Faye, 18, middle-class, student, Mountford’s study)

Alan, he is still here, he has a very, very, very broad [northern] accent and they used to laugh at him! Behind his back, which is worse of course, he was very able and very good at what he did […] it is interesting there is this assumption that if you have this posh accent then you should be a lawyer, or a judge, and it comes with it that you are clever.
(Linsey, Temporary Lecturer, 51, unsure of class position, Addison’s study)

Accents and ways of talking are part of embodied class identities; whilst some ways of talking, for instance, via accent, carry connotations of intelligence, other regionalised accents are positioned as lacking value, as well as other cultural meanings (Lawler 1999). A classificatory system operates to organise and codify language, accent, and ways of talking according to class. Whilst the ‘Geordie’ (north east English) accent was associated with the locale of the research sites and no doubt therefore part of a broader notion of ‘fitting in’ to the locale, this prominent accent within the walls of HE had an alternative effect of ‘standing out’ within the classed space of the university. In certain social spaces and around certain people, talking a certain way can take on, or lose, value.

The game that is being played in HE is about knowing how and when to 'talk the talk': that is knowing when to put on ‘poshness’, or dial down dialect (if that option is available of course!). The ‘Geordie’ will always be a Geordie as they say, with all of the historically working-class idioms and cultural connotations that are attached to this accent: so being able to play the game and get ahead by sounding ‘posh’ is just not an option for either of us authors, or many of our participants that we spoke to. Knowing how talk and accent are codified and laden with value is a vital resource in getting ahead of the pack in times of increased competition; recent reports on employers using a ‘poshness test’ (see Weaver, 2015; Ashley et al., 2015) reinforces these data and the claims we make. Mobilizing whatever capital is available in order to secure one's social position is not a new concept (Skeggs 1997, Adkins 1995; McDowell 1997) but what we highlight is that, perhaps more than ever, talking matters. This is a particularly interesting social and political time to be using accent and ways of talking to get ahead to present a particular kind of classed image. As Watson (2010) discusses too, the impetus to cement a strong and valuable image via elite status in these austere times, and beat the competition, is affecting everyone who works and studies in an educational establishment, from academics and students to cleaners (see also Chapelo 2010; Addison 2012; Taylor 2012).


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Addison , M. (2013) 'Knowing you way within and across classed spaces: The (Re)making and (Un)doing of identities of value within Higher Education in the UK' in TAYLOR, Y (ed.) Educational Diversity: The Subject of Difference and Different Subjects' Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire Palgrave Macmillan. p. 236-256
Ashley, L.; Duberley, J.; Sommerlad, H. & Scolarious, D. (2015) A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professios’. London: Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission

Brown, P.; Hesketh, P. and Williams, S. (2002) 'Employability in a Knowledge Driven Economy' in Journal of Education and Work 16 (2): 107-126.

Chapelo, C . (2010) 'What defines 'successful' university brands?' in International Journal of Public Sector Management', 23(2)

Lawler, S . (1999) 'Getting Out and Getting Away': Women's Narratives of Class Mobility' in Feminist Review 63(3): p.3-24

Loveday, V. (2015) ‘Embodying Deficiency Through ‘Affective Practice’: Shame, Relationality, and the Lived Experience of Social Class and Gender in Higher Education’ Sociology 49 (3): 1-16

Reay, D; Crozier, G. and Clayton, J. (2009) '"Strangers in Paradise" - Working-class Students in Elite Universities' in Sociology, 43(6): p. 1103-1121.

Taylor, Y . (2012) Fitting into Place? Class and Gender Geographies and Temporalities. Surrey: Ashgate

Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage.

Watson, C. (2010) 'Accountability, transparency, redundancy: academic identities in an era of 'excellence'' in British Educational Research Journal, First.Weaver, M. (2015) 'Poshness tests' block working-class applicants at top companies.’ The Guardian. Monday 15th June 2015. [Last accessed 14th July 2015]