Vocational Students’ Agency in Identity Formation as Industrial Workers

Sammanfattning: The overall aim of this thesis is to contribute knowledge about vocational identity formation among students within the industrial programme in Swedish upper secondary education, with a particular focus on their workplace-based learning. To break down the aim, three research questions have been formulated and each is addressed in one or two specific articles. These questions are: (1) What learning strategies do vocational students use to become part of a work community, and how do these strategies relate to the formation of a vocational identity at the workplace? (2) How do vocational students experience their identity formation in relation to a vocation within the industrial sector? (3) How do vocational students handle the division between theoretical and practical knowledge as they learn to become skilled industrial workers? The thesis builds on 53 semi-structured qualitative interviews with Swedish upper secondary vocational students enrolled on the industrial programme. The interviews revolve around the students’ vocational identity formation, with a focus on their workplace-based learning. The students are between 18 and 20 years old and the majority are boys. The findings are analysed through the theoretical lens of situated learning, where identity formation is viewed as a social learning process that takes place through participation in communities of practice. In addition, the concepts of habitus, gender and social categorisation are used as analytical tools to provide a deeper understanding of issues concerning status, power and exclusion in relation to vocational identity formation. The findings reveal that the students’ vocational identity formation is closely connected to the social aspects of participating in workplace communities. Knowledge about the jargon and social norms of the workplace seem to be of more importance for vocational identity formation than knowledge about the concrete working tasks. The study follows the students’ vocational identity formation throughout their vocational learning trajectories, which reveal that vocational identities are formed in heterogenic ways. The students may adopt a committed, flexible or ambivalent approach towards industrial work. Aspects concerning agency and status seem to be crucial for the vocational identification process. The forming of a vocational identity also implies positioning oneself in the hierarchy and division between theoretical and practical knowledge, as well as between masculinity and femininity. The students appear as knowledgeable actors who are aware of the generally low status of industrial work, while simultaneously expressing a great deal of pride in relation to their intended vocations. In the discussion, a model of the students’ vocational identity formation is proposed to capture the interplay between collective and structural dimensions (e.g. social background, class and status hierarchies at school) and students’ agency and strategies in becoming industrial workers. From the findings of this thesis, three main conclusions are drawn: (1) The students form vocational identities through using vocational agency in actively developing strategies for becoming accepted in the workplace community; (2) Workplace-based learning is central for the students’ vocational identity formation, in spite of the relatively short time that the students spend there, compared to the time spent at school; (3) The students’ vocational image awareness, expressed through awareness of, and reactions to, other people’s images of their vocation, constitutes an important part of their vocational identity formation. 

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