The impact of difference PART 2: The silent influence of Cultural Capital.

A renewed momentum?

I have made no secret of the fact that clinical psychology training has been fraught with challenges, many unexpected and most related to difference. The Division of Clinical Psychology is currently drafting its first ever Equality & Diversity strategy which emphasises the necessity to increase cultural competence within clinical psychology. It seems quite topical then to further the reflections first laid out (here) within the first part of this article and to start to explore some potential mechanisms which may bear an influence on professional processes. In the next few posts of this series, I will ask the reader to consider more implicit or tacit variables and their potential impact in terms of difference. I start here with cultural capital.

The influence of prior experience

Having 6-12 month relevant experience prior to applying for training is an essential criterion for all clinical psychology courses. In reality however, due to the competitive nature of the recruitment process and for most, the resulting need to apply more than once before obtaining a training place, most successful applicants would have worked a number of years prior to being accepted onto the doctoral course. Forming realistic views of the demands of clinical psychology training and of clinical psychology as a career prior to embarking onto its demanding (and costly) studies is naturally of crucial importance to applicants, recruiters and funders alike.

Nonetheless, some inequalities have been noted in the acquisition of relevant experience. In comparison to their White counterparts for example, BME applicants appear less likely to meet the ‘relevant experience’ requirement. Some evidence also suggests that applicants belonging to minority groups may face some additional difficulties securing assistant psychologists (AP) and research assistant (RA) posts, a key barrier, it seems, in terms of training accessibility for such groups. It still appears that those who have followed more traditional routes in terms of ‘relevant experience’ remain more likely to be accepted onto training.

Although there could be various mediating variables involved (including differences related to reference, degree classification, supervision, previous experience of psychologically informed clinical work etc.), there seems to have been no systematic study scrutinising the impact of past professional experience. I have therefore been curious about the potential influence of less visible, softer but possibly more insidious factors related to the above and, been wondering about the possible impact applicants and trainees ‘prior professional experience may bear upon their professional socialisation and in term of recruitment and assessment outcomes.

Professional socialisation and cultural expectations

Becoming a clinical psychologist necessarily entails the assimilation of in-group worldviews and the adoption of certain ways of thinking, speaking and ultimately being. For applicants and trainees who have held traditional roles, this professional socialisation would have been initiated well before their application for training. On the other hand, those who may have acquired their ‘relevant experience’ outside clinical psychology teams may not have or not have to the same degree, been socialised into presenting, communicating and indeed thinking the way clinical psychologists do (or at the very least as they are expected to).

But, is such socialisation necessary for candidates to successfully complete clinical psychology training or in other words, are there essential attributes that are acquired or believed to be acquired, during this socialisation? Could it contribute to perfectly well qualified applicants being assessed as less suitable for training? Is sufficient attention presently paid to differences in presentation which may be related to past professional socialisation and which may be further complicated by candidates’ cultural and social origins? There is currently no empirical basis upon which to base firm answers to the above questions.

However, there is an extensive body of empirical evidence demonstrating that we are more likely to like, to recruit and to support people who we perceive as being ‘similar to us’. As someone from a ‘different’ cultural and social background and with a relatively unusual professional profile, I have experienced first-hand the violence of normative expectations within training. It has been incredibly difficult to draw a line between such cultural norms and the assessment of some competencies. I have secretly harboured the hope of becoming able to distinguish with certainty the essence of clinical competence from the ‘fluff’ of cultural norms and expectations although; I recurrently question the feasibility of such a task.

Cultural Capital

Bourdieu and Passeron’s concept of cultural capital may be helpful to consider the potential difficulties which may come to light in assessing those who are ‘different’. Cultural Capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as tastes, posture, dress sense, mannerisms, etiquette etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social group. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others such as the same taste in music or the same worldview is believed to create a collective identity and a group position in relation to others. Critically, differences in cultural capital are believed to be a major source of inequality in that they can help or hinder one’s social mobility.

This is because some forms of cultural capital are valued over others and in particular the possession of the dominant culture as capital often translates into access to wealth and to structures of power. In that sense, it can be said that the more familiar one is with the dominant culture, the more cultural capital one has. The education system is posited to assume that pupils possess the same cultural capital (as those from upper and middle ‘classes’). This is one of the reasons children from lower socio-demographics backgrounds may face particular disadvantages to succeed in the education system.

The relevance of cultural capital

Bourdieu has at times been criticised for the lack of precision of some of his concepts, nonetheless, his emphasis on the non-material/economic resources possessed by socially privileged groups is noteworthy and has generated much theoretical and empirical literature within education and occupational fields. I am not aware that the framework has formed the basis of any empirical studies within professional psychology nonetheless; differences in cultural capital may be important to reflect upon in relation to current inequalities of access to the profession.

The concept invites selectors and assessors to be on the look out for ways in which dominant capital (here White and middleclass) may become normalised at systems level and therefore expected during recruitment and assessment. The framework is not only useful to consider the ways non-traditional applicants may be disadvantaged through not having acquired the expected (professional) cultural capital on their pathway to training, it also encourages us to consider the tacit knowledge which may escape those who diverge from the typical White English middle class clinical psychologist (who also tends to be female, heterosexual, and able bodied).

Thank you for reading, If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.

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Want to learn more?

Please see…

Bourdieu, P. & Passeron, J. C.(1990). Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Division of Clinical Psychology (2014). The Alternative Handbook for Postgraduate Training Courses in Clinical Psychology: 2014 Entry. Leicester: British Psychological Society.

Hemmings, R., & Simpson, J. (2008). Investigating the predictive validity of the Lancaster DClinPsy written shortlisting test on subsequent trainee performance: Final Report to the Clearing House. Doctorate in Clinical Psychology: Lancaster University.

Phillips, A., Hatton, C., & Gray, I. (2004). Factors predicting the short-listing and selection of trainee clinical psychologists: A prospective national cohort study. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 11, 111–125.

Scior, K., Bradley, C. E., Potts, H. W. W., Woolf, K. and Williams, A. C. (2014). What predicts performance during clinical psychology training?. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 53: 194–212.

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