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Class visible in Facebook groups for students


Underdogs, distanced artists, and a networking site for the academically settled. University students’ Facebook groups reflect social backgrounds, and highlight different educational traditions. This can be seen in a new thesis from the University of Gothenburg.

Alexandra Söderman.
Photo: Torsten Arpi

Alexandra Söderman has followed three closed Facebook groups for students over the course of one year; one group for a preschool teacher programme, one for a Bachelor’s programme in political science, and one for students on courses and study programmes in art and design. Her thesis shows how students’ self organized Facebook groups result in a cultural and social “lock-in effect” within higher education.

Alexandra Söderman metaphorically refers to the group for future preschool teachers as a ‘Mobilisation arena for academic underdog ’.

‘The preschool teacher students used the group in a way that resembles union organising. On Facebook, the students were able to collectively mobilise against the higher education institution.’

In the political science students’ group, however, everyone was included in a noticeably consensus-driven student community. Alexandra Söderman describes the group as a ‘Networking site for the academically settled.

‘The group for art and design students is increasingly similar to a “Bulletin board for academically distant”. Neither studies nor student life take centre stage here, instead Facebook has more in common with a meeting point for “individual gallerists”’, says Alexandra Söderman.

‘The student cultural roots of these study programmes thus seem to be based in the artistic rather than scientific educational tradition.’

Social and Cultural Lock-in

The student culture that is shaped in the groups can also be seen as a reflection of students’ social background and of different educational traditions. Those who attend the preschool teacher programme are often the first ones in their families to study at university, political science students often come from middle class families, and have parents with academic degrees, and those who enroll in art and design courses also tend to be middle class or upper middle class, but with more cultural than financial capital compared to . political science student.

‘The results are a stark contrast to earlier utopian ideas of the internet as a liberation project where everyone shapes their own identity independently of background,’ says Alexandra Söderman.

The study also gives rise to questions about the effect of academisation of various educational traditions under the umbrella of “higher education.” In addition, these groups are characterised by students social and cultural backgrounds in a way that goes against the values of social equalisation that was one argument for the higher education reform of 1977.

´It is therefore very possible that it will be harder to make class journeys with the help of higher education when and if Facebook turns into a social and cultural anchor, both for individual students and for different educational contexts and programmes,’ says Alexandra Söderman.

Text: Carl-Magnus Höglund

Digital Student Culture

Alexandra Söderman will publicly defend her doctoral thesis Digital Student Culture – closed Facebook groups as non-formal arenas of higher education on Friday the 22nd of April.
The thesis is based on one year of participatory observation in three closed Facebook groups for university students, as well as interviews with the group administrators, and a questionnaire for all group members.