Identifying with science?

By Heather King and Caroline Osborne - November 2013


Wong, B. (2012). Identifying with science: A case study of two 13-year-old “high achieving working class” British Asian girls. International Journal of Science Education, 34(1), 43–65.

Research Brief

A significant proportion of children remain interested in science during their first year or two of secondary school, but this interest soon falls off. If we are to challenge this decline, we need a richer understanding of how young people develop identities as individuals interested in science.

This paper presents a case study of two, currently high-achieving 13-year-old British Asian schoolgirls: One appears keen to pursue science qualifications, whilst the other seems more likely to reject such a path. The analysis focuses on the social capital and cultural capital available to the two girls and how their perceptions are affected by family and community values. For informal science educators, this paper offers a useful lens for identifying the many factors that contribute to young people’s engagement—or lack of engagement—with science.

The Study

Despite coming from similar social and economic backgrounds, the two girls in this case study have developed substantially different relationships with science. Samantha is not particularly interested in science but nevertheless opts for an advanced course of study. By contrast, Fay likes science and is good at it but has no interest in pursuing the subject.

Samantha chooses to pursue the most advanced science qualification at age 16 in order to attain what she considers to be a desirable intellectual identity. She is unhindered by the fact that peers might perceive her as a “geek” or “nerd.” In fact, she fiercely defends and upholds her nerd identity in opposition to the images projected by the more popular girls. Wong cites prior findings by Varma (2007) to suggest that the reason for Samantha’s lack of concern about being labeled a geek may be that, for minority women in particular, the perceived social prestige and good pay resulting from particular academic or career choices outweigh any negative stigma.

Samantha appreciates the long-term academic value of science as necessary for future career aspirations, even though her aspirations are not science-related. Her ambitions are reinforced by her knowledge that her brother has completed the course. His example demonstrates that success is possible and therefore that taking the advanced course is safe. Samantha also believes that her family values this kind of achievement.

Fay, by contrast, has an interest in science, and her current achievements reflect the value her parents attach to education. However, Fay talks about pursuing a career in show business. She does not have any particular influences in her life promoting science. Rather, she is part of a social network that considers a science identity to be undesirable and inaccessible. Fay and her immediate peer group engage in stereotypically feminine behaviour; they compulsively apply make-up and are highly concerned about physical appearance and the opposite sex. Fay and her friends seem to see their identities as incompatible with interest in or pursuit of science. Fay admits that she is unlikely to study science beyond the mandatory qualification.

Theoretical Basis

Wong’s analysis draws upon Bourdieu’s (1986) concept of habitus as a way of understanding the ways in which individuals internalise their social world using the social and cultural capital available to them.

Social capital refers to the resources that one can draw upon from his or her social networks, including family and teachers. Cultural capital is the knowledge that is valued in a particular society. Effectively, cultural capital is determined by the dominant group in a society, such as the white middle class in the UK that tends to regard education as valuable and encourages young people to aspire to science careers. Samantha has a reasonable amount of social capital on which to draw in her pursuit of science learning: her brother, who has completed this course, and a family who places a high value on science knowledge.

Wong also refers to the work of Butler (1999), in which identity is regarded as performativity. Individuals perform in certain ways (in the cases here, this would be Fay’s constant application of make-up or Samantha’s acceptance of the label of ‘geek’) to express their particular identities. For example, Fay expresses her identity by constantly applying make-up, while Samantha expresses hers by embracing the label of geek. Identity is thus understood as an ongoing project of construction. Individuals continuously negotiate their identities as they are affected by the availability of social and cultural capital.

Implications for Practice

The two case studies presented in this paper highlight the ways in which young people form science or “non-science” identities in reaction to influences in their social environment. For some, the choice to study science is “normalised” by peers, family, and teachers, but, for others, the reverse is true.

Informal science educators can provide additional and alternative influences for young people., and They can also facilitate access to role models and experiences that may help to ‘normalise’ engagement with science. Such experiences may also serve to contradict the notion that an overtly feminine identity is incompatible with science.

In addition, informal science programs can develop opportunities for adolescents to try out science engagement in ways that last longer than classroom experiences, where the focus is necessarily on obtaining good grades. For example, science apprenticeships or long-term science-in-society projects can give young people opportunities to form science identities. If we understand that identity formation takes place over time, the potential effect of informal science educators as “drip-feeders” of positive ideas about science and science careers becomes even more apparent.


Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241–258). New York, NY: Greenwood.

Butler, J. (1999) Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (10th anniversary ed.). London, UK: Routledge.

Varma, R. (2007). Women in computing: The role of geek culture. Science as Culture, 16(4), 359–376.