Study Finds that Privilege Affects Self-Understanding and Identity

Students and faculty gathered in the Woolley Room of Mary Lyon Hall for a lecture on Negotiating Privilege and Identity. On March 3, Associate Professor of Education at Colby College Adam Howard and his Research Assistant Kelsey Cromie shared their research on how privilege affects identity in educational contexts.

Published in 2014, ‘Negotiating Privilege and Identity in Educational Contexts’ was a collaboration between Howard and 23 of his students in his Education class. This two-year project aimed to explore the relationship between advantage/ privilege and how that affects self-understanding. The case study was conducted on eight affluent adolescents whose families fell in the top 10% of the national income bracket.

The researchers wondered how their social class and wealth affected these adolescent’s understandings and interpretations of themselves, their relationship with others and their place in the world. Even though these adolescents were diverse, they were found to share qualities classified as independent, hardworking, scripted, isolated, confident and certain.

In other words, these adolescents believed they were ‘making it on their own;’ saw their achievements as a direct result of hard work; had a clear path before them in achieving their goals; rarely interact with those from a different social class; were not afraid to take risks; and believed that everything would work out in life.

The findings of this study were in direct opposition to that of the ‘anxious affluent.’ This theory hypothesized that shifting social landscapes- due to the recent global economic crises would cause affluent students to become more anxious about their future prospects and maintaining their wealthy economic status.

This research on their self-understanding revealed that the adolescents employed ideological operations and strategies to rationalize their own advantages. They were also absolutely certain that they could about maintain their class privilege. Researchers also found that the students had an underlying feeling of worthiness and that they had worked to deserve all their advantages.

“Being a member of this research team is one of my best experiences in college because I know how to conduct research and solve difficulties along with the process,” Cromie said, “Later on when we interviewed the participants again, they surprised us by how much they have changed their way of understanding their privilege- due to the conversations we had for this research… that makes me feel great.”