Deservedness, humbleness and chance: conceptualisations of luck and academic success among Singaporean elite students

Rebecca Ye & Erik Nylander (2021)

International Studies in Sociology of Education, 30:4, p. 401-421

Abstract. In this article, we examine conceptualisations of luck evoked by a select group of elite students studying in Oxbridge, when accounting for their academic success. The emphasis on luck in their narratives is categorised into three themes. The students linked their luckiness to deservedness, used luck as a way to express humbleness, and attributed their success to factors of chance. These themes are analysed against the backdrop of strong institutional support they receive as part of attending elite schools and being scholarship recipients. By being attentive to how luck is evoked in these narratives, we show that luck does not have an essential meaning and can produce different representations of legitimacy. The paper proposes the integration between critical and pragmatic sociological perspectives in order to advance our understandings of how elite groups qualify for the positions they obtain, how they define themselves and make sense of their educational merits.

Extract: “Within post-Bourdieusian sociology, one key focus has been the study of situations where uncertainty prevails and actors cannot assign a probability to the outcome of their actions, nor take its underlying value principles for granted. This has brought about a renewed interest in the process of justification among actors facing an unknowable future (Biggart & Beamish, 2003, p. 456). Selective institutions, such as elite schools, are pertinent social settings to explore questions of luck, as they are generally characterized by scarcity in available positions and are often deemed inaccessible by the masses. Within pragmatic sociology there has been an emphasis in examining institutions as they are equipped with the semantic power to stabilise and fixate reality by confirming ‘what is the case’ and ‘what matters’ (Boltanski, 2011, p. 75).”

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