Student estrangement in higher education: identity formation and the struggle against stigma

Cristina Costa, Yvette Taylor, Claire Goodfellow, Sidonie Ecochard

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While investigation on family estrangement is growing within the academic circles (Agllias 2015, 2016; Blake 2017; Authors), research regarding the interconnection between experiences of estrangement and higher education is still very limited. Existing literature is largely in the form of policy briefings and recommendations, in particular in relation to funding from UK bodies such as the Student Loans Company (SLC) and the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) (StandAlone 2015). Moreover, most research on estranged students has been carried out by Stand Alone, a charity whose core goal is to support estranged adults generally. As such, a deeper and wider understanding of estranged students’ experiences is important in also foregrounding their voices and perspectives.

Here, we report on a qualitative study on the experiences of higher education students who are estranged from their family, investigating how estranged students develop a sense of identity in the context of their academic lives. The paper borrows from Goffman’s work on stigma and identity management and Bourdieu’s work on capitals to cast a critical perspective on research participants’ accounts. The combination of Goffman’s and Bourdieu’s work makes an important theoretical contribution here as it allows for the conceptualisation of estranged students’ access to or lack of resources (capitals) in relation to what Goffman calls a ‘spoiled identity’. The scarcity of knowledge in this area impels us to hybridise different concepts as a form of achieving a greater depth of understanding (author 1, forthcoming) of the phenomenon at hand. The stigmatisation of estrangement is intrinsically connected to the logic of capitals that prevails in academia and which allows for forms of distinction and differentiation among peers. This introduction is followed by a review of literature on estrangement and its connection to higher education, followed by an outline of the methodology underpinning the study and finally, a discussion of findings as informed by combining Goffman’s concept of stigma and Bourdieu’s understandings of capitals.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages25
JournalBritish Journal of Sociology of Education
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 22 Apr 2020


  • estrangement
  • education
  • students
  • widening participation
  • Bourdieu
  • Goffman
  • stigma


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