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Becoming Interesting: Narrative Capital Development at Elite Colleges

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Abstract

Research on cultural capital in higher education has primarily focused on institutional knowledge and taste as stratified cultural resources. Through analysis of an interview study of 70 undergraduates and a year-long ethnographic study of 20 undergraduate extracurricular activities at an elite college, I explore a further form of cultural capital that I call narrative capital. Narrative capital consists of the library of a person’s experiences capable of being turned into interesting stories, and their skill at constructing and deploying these stories to signal social status. Narrative capital developed in college can be used to signal status in a variety of contexts both in and beyond college, such as within extracurricular status hierarchies and in evaluative settings such as job interviews. Access to the kinds of experiences that make for valuable stories, such as stories of leadership, international travel, and campus adventures, is not equally available to all students. Those from more privileged backgrounds have greater access to cultural experiences that can be narrativized usefully, compared to their less privileged peers. Such narrative inequalities suggest a further role elite colleges play in the reproduction of social class.

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Acknowledgements

This paper benefited greatly from suggestions from Andrew Abbott, Daniel Chambliss, William Davis, Kristen Schilt, four very helpful reviewers, and the editor. Many thanks to each of them.

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Correspondence to Christopher George Takacs.

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Takacs, C.G. Becoming Interesting: Narrative Capital Development at Elite Colleges. Qual Sociol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-020-09447-y

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Keywords

  • Narrative
  • Cultural capital
  • Higher education
  • Undergraduate students
  • Privilege
  • Inequality
  • Education
  • Travel
  • Study abroad