Forming an interest in the field: The ‘illusio’ of higher education

In our study of young people, we draw on the Bourdieusian concept of illusio to help unpack what becoming a university student essentially means to them, well before the point of enrolment. Illusio is an oft-ignored component of Bourdieu’s oeuvre but has recently gained traction among educational researchers and sociologists as a productive analytic lens in much the same way as his customary ‘thinking tools’ of habitus, capital and field. Indeed, there is growing agreement that illusio should be considered a core relational component of Bourdieu’s framework (Colley & Guery, 2015; Thrcadgold, 2017). Accordingly, we tease out our use of the concept within the broader domain of Bourdieu’s work.

Broadly speaking, we interpret illusio as an individual’s interest in a specific field. With field understood as a spatial metaphor to elucidate a distinct arena of social action, such as the higher education sector, we understand illusio as one’s interest in the ‘game’ that takes place within, and in relation to, this field. Bourdieu often refers to everyday social practices as a ‘game’, drawing attention to underlying dimensions of power as individuals engage in a struggle for distinction. As such, if one has an illusio, they are ‘caught up in and by the game’ (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 76); that is, they believe that the game is worth their time and energy, and therefore worth participating in or ‘playing’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). What is at stake within the game is capital - to conserve or accumulate symbolically legitimised economic, cultural and social resources. However, it is important to highlight here that this competition is far from a level playing field, as the volume and structure of one’s capital also acts as a form of currency - that is, ‘players’ come to the game from very different social positions, shaped by their habitus, or dispositions - while simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, the value of capital hinges on the very existence of the game.

Conceptually, then, we see illusio as a fundamental component of the perpetuation of a field. Although fields are dynamic entities that change over time, it is illusio that continues to reinforce the unquestioned shared beliefs of the game and, motivated by its practices, social actors can be seen as having a shared interest that it is something worthwhile (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). An important caveat here is that individuals do not have to agree with the overall game itself; rather, they only have to see it as sufficiently important to pursue and struggle over (Thrcadgold, 2017). This point is particularly relevant to the field of higher education where, on the one hand, a degree is almost a prerequisite for gaining access to a professional career, yet, on the other hand, it provides no guarantee of securing a job - even more so in the context of credential inflation (Brown, Power, Tholen, & Allouch, 2016). In this way, illusio is dialectically related to Bourdieu’s notion of indifference, which he uses to capture the way some social actors are ‘unmoved’ by the game (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992); such as those who do not accept - or even actively reject - the value placed on higher education.

Key to an understanding of illusio is that different kinds of interest exist in relation to the same field. At the macro-level, there is the grand illusio of governments and institutions (Colley, 2012) - the illusio that social actors are urged or expected to adopt (Threadgold, 2017). In the field of Australian higher education, we see this as the coupling of personal and national investment (that is, constructing university as both a private good and public good), and therefore a fundamentally economic interest. Arguably, in Bourdieu’s framework, all ‘games’ have a core economic grounding. However, individuals also develop their own illusio in the same field, which ‘ultimately have economic consequences, but arc not always expressed in overt economic terms’ (Grenfell, 2014, p. 156).

For young people, in particular, illusio is manifest in seeing university as a field worth aspiring to (Threadgold, 2019). For this reason, our analysis concentrates on young people who articulate a desire to go to university in the future. But, illusio can be expressed in different ways depending on how and why they see higher education as desirable to them. Our concern, therefore, is to understand the ways in which young people are ‘taken in by the game’, and the extent to which their outlooks and values align with the official rhetoric that has come to characterise university students as ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’.

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