Social Classes and Individual Pathways: Theoretical Issues and Empirical Research on Higher Education Students
Costa, Antonio Firmino da
CIES ISCTE Lisboa, Portugal
Sociology has been devoting increasing attention to the analysis of individua's social pathways or life courses in contemporary society. How is this kind of sociological research related to class analysis? This paper debates some theoretical and methodological issues on the subject. We examine the well-known hypothesis - underlined by several sociological approaches - that in the present social context individuals have more autonomy in relation to social constraints than before and are able to define their life courses and lifestyles more reflexively. We particularly cast a critical eye on the position of those who use this hypothesis to consider class analysis to be obsolete. We claim, on the contrary, that class analysis is fundamental in the study of social trajectories and life courses. We also endeavour to show that, provided they are properly articulated with other scales of analysis, sociological analysis at the individual scale can make specific contributions to deepening class analysis. They can help, namely, to advance knowledge on the active relationships that individuals establish (in variable ways) with the structural inequalities of their social contexts. The theoretical discussion has the empirical support of a recent multi-level sociological research on the social background and academic pathways of higher education students, which included comparative, quantitative studies at the European level and qualitative biographical studies in Portugal.