Challenging lifelong learning policy discourse: Where is structure in agency in narrative-based research?

Simon Warren, Sue Webb

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


Can adult educational research on learning and identity counter the individualising of neoliberal government policy that seeks to constrain educational ‘choices’ to those that contribute to government economic agendas? This article notes the recent move within post-compulsory education research towards an engagement with Bourdieu because of perceived limitations in the research and analysis of learner identities. In particular, Bourdieu is drawn upon as a conceptual resource in order adequately to account for the influence of social structure as well as agency. We contextualise our exploration of this conceptual move by outlining the way hegemonic policy discourses work to economise the field of UK education and training, specifically the cultivation of particular dispositions towards learning—the ‘responsible learner’. We focus on a strand of work that has engaged with Bourdieu's conceptual framework in order to provide a social-structural account of learner experiences. We do this through a brief exploration of the development of the concepts of ‘learning career’ and ‘learning culture’. We ask to what extent the concepts of learning ‘career’ and ‘culture’ have worked, and argue that analysis of social structure deployed through these concepts, particularly the immanence of structure in the practices of adult learners, is less well developed. The article concludes with an outline of some new research questions to understand how adults engage with formal learning, specifically whether or not they are responsible learners and reflexive agents and what are the forms and meanings of these notions of responsibility and reflexivity. In setting out this research agenda we hope to contribute to furthering counter-hegemonic research on adults' learning in a context of social and economic structural change, and to avoid being ‘captured by the discourse’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-21
Number of pages17
JournalStudies in the Education of Adults
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • adult learners
  • agency
  • Bourdieu
  • policy discourse
  • reflexivity
  • structure

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