This paper investigates the cultural mechanisms that enable some working-class youth to achieve upward mobility, operationalized as the attainment of a four-year college degree. Most sociological literature finds that culture reproduces class status by transmitting a particular kind of self. However, a growing body of literature examines how psychological traits such as future orientation, a sense of control over one’s life, and persistence lead to different outcomes within the same group. We build a bridge between these literatures using narrative theory. We argue that stories of the self – and how that self relates to the future – are contingent, developed through ongoing social interactions with adults and gate-keeping institutions. Our data consist of interview and life history data with 90 working-class and 129 middle-class young adults. We find that upwardly mobile working-class respondents who earn college degrees embody a stronger sense of “the agentic self” than their continuing working-class peers. We demonstrate that these cultural differences are the result of everyday, routine conversations and interactions with adults that create and sustain the agentic self. However, we find that successfully performing the agentic self demands procedural knowledge, material resources, and skills that remain unequally distributed across social classes.
American Journal of Cultural Sociology – Springer Journals
Published: Jun 20, 2017