Re-thinking science capital: the role of 'capital and 'identity in mediating students engagement with mathematically demanding programmes at university

Laura Black, Paul Hernandez-Martinez

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A wide body of literature has highlighted how high achievement in mathematics in secondary school does not necessarily motivate students to both choose and succeed on mathematically demanding programmes at post-compulsory level. The recent Enterprising Science project (Archer et al. (2015, J. Res. Sci. Teach., 52, 922–948)) and before that, the ASPIRES project (Archer et al. (2013, London: Kings College)), have both highlighted that access to science capital is perhaps more important than prior achievement in shaping students’ aspirations and their future trajectories in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In this article, we critically analyse the notion of science capital and its role in mediating students’ choice of and experience of studying mathematically demanding degree programmes at university. Drawing on data from the TransMaths project, we present two cases—Stacey and Elton—who are both enrolled on the same ‘Mathematics for Physics’ course at university. We show that although both discuss access to science capital in narrating their choice of degree, they do so in different ways and this invariably interplays with different forms of identification with ‘Mathematics for Physics’. We conclude that there is a need to re-conceptualize science capital so that the dialectic relationship between its exchange and use value is theorized more fully. Whilst some students may access science capital as a means to accumulate capital (e.g. qualifications) for its own sake (exchange value), others appear to recognize the ‘use value’ of science learning and knowledge and this produces different forms of engagement with science (and mathematics). We therefore argue that authoring oneself in the name of a STEM identity is crucial in mediating how one perceives science capital. Finally, we argue that mathematics should be a central part of this framework since it significantly contributes to the exchange value of science as a form of capital (especially Physics), but it also offers use value in scientific labour (e.g. in modelling scientific problems).
Original languageEnglish
Article numberhrw016
Pages (from-to)131-143
Number of pages13
JournalTeaching Mathematics and its Applications
Early online date10 Jul 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Science capital
  • identity
  • stem
  • Bourdieu


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