P52 – Critical Associations and Continuity Anchors: The role of social relationships in how students make sense of the first year of University.

Room A – TUESDAY 13:00-14:00

One hour paper

Dr Diane Nutt and Emmi Hodgson

Teesside University, Middlesbrough, United Kingdom

Diane is chair of the European First Year Experience Conference Organising Committee, and the EFYE Network. She is based at Teesside University, UK. Emmi is a third year undergraduate student at Teesside, who worked as a student researcher on this project.


Family, friends and other associates play an important part in student transitions into and through University. This presentation discusses a recent qualitative research project examining the role of social relationships in key transitions at two Universities. Research findings, and implications for staff working with first years, will be discussed.


In this presentation we will explore findings from a qualitative research project, which took place at two Universities in the UK. The focus of the research was to explore the role of social relationships in first generation students’ sense of belonging at University. Research in the UK has highlighted the importance of ‘belonging’ to student retention and success (Thomas, 2012). The focus of this sense of belonging is primarily within the academic sphere, but making sense of the many factors which influence belonging is challenging. Recent work by Foster (2013) at Nottingham Trent has identified the role of family and friends in helping students stay at University, and their research has suggested that students’ accounts of the influences on their decisions are complex and they may underplay the role of social relationships.

Second year students from the two universities were interviewed about their first year experiences using a network mapping approach (Wallman, 1983; Nutt, 1999) and the notion of ‘critical associations’ (Davies and Heaphy, 2011). The network map method encourages discussion around all social relationships in an individual’s life, and provides the opportunity to unpack both the positive and negative aspects of social interaction. Interview questions focused on actual situations within the first year experience and explored the roles of family, friends and others in dealing with these situations. The ‘critical associations’ concept relates to identifying key relationships which have particular influences on an individual’s choices and actions. In interviewing first generation students, we were also interested in exploring the acquisition of cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1979, Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, Skeggs, 1997, Thomas, 2012) in attending University.

This presentation will discuss some of the findings from the research, and in particular one aspect of those findings relating to how the research respondents talked about their sense of self and the liminality of University life. Their accounts of the transition they are/were going through seemed to emphasise their University experience as a ‘time out’ from before (childhood, college and school, living with their parents/families) and after (work, settling down, getting on with life). Their social relationships were important players in how they managed the transition and their sense of self in this ‘in-between’ time (Palmers, et al. 2009 call this ‘a betwixt space’). People in their lives acted as critical associations in the transitions they experienced, and as ‘continuity anchors’ grounding them in their roots. But this was more complex than a simple tension between family and old friends versus new friends at University.

In this paper, we will discuss how these relationship processes influence the transition into and through the first year, and the potential implications for staff in Universities who work with first year students.

We would like to acknowledge Sarah Lawther at Nottingham Trent University for her help with this project.


Bourdieu, P. (1979) Distinctions: a social critique of the judgement of taste, London: Routledge Kegan Paul

Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Davies, K. and Heaphy, B. (2011) Interactions that Matter: researching critical associations, Methodological Innovations Online, 6 (3), 5-16

Foster, E (2013) Student Transitions: a Rights of Passage Approach, workshop presented in the Enhancing Student Transitions Series, Teesside University, June 2013

Nutt, D. L. (1999) Women without Children: their family and friendship networks, PhD thesis, Lancaster University

Palmer, M, O’Kane, P. and Owens, M. (2009) Betwixt Spaces: student accounts of turning point experiences in the first year transition, Studies in Higher Education, 34, 1, pp. 37-54

Skeggs, B. (1997) Classifying Practices: representations, capitals and recognitions. In Mahoney, P. and Zmroczek, C. (editors) Class Matters: ‘working class’ women’s perspective on social class, London: Taylor and Francis

Thomas, L. (2012) Building Student Engagement and Belonging in Higher Education at a Time of Change: final report from the ‘What Works? Student Retention and Success Programme’, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation

Wallman, (1983) Eight London Households, London: Tavistock

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