The Society for Research into Higher Education

Holly Henderson

Possible selves: One concept, many conversations

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By Holly Henderson

One of my favourite things to do is to hear passionate people in dialogue about their research. At the second joint network SRHE event on possible selves earlier this month, it was impossible not to be excited by the quality of this dialogue. The event’s joint hosting by the Post-Compulsory Education and Access and Widening Participation networks set the tone for collaboration across boundaries; speakers included early career researchers and established professors, from the UK and abroad, and from sociological and psychological disciplinary perspectives[1]. Perhaps it is unusual to have a series of events on a single concept, like the possible selves concept[2]. But to see these events as singular in focus would be to misunderstand the complexities of educational research. In fact, thinking about this particular concept has enabled us to bring out the concept’s relationship to discussions of methodological approaches, data analysis, diverse research contexts within the field of Higher Education Research, and different disciplinary perspectives.

The possible selves concept seems, at first glance, disarmingly simple. It accords with an instinctive understanding of the future and its influence on the present, particularly in educational contexts. The concept suggests that we have multiple imagined future selves, which influence and structure our behaviour in the present. In educational terms, the most straightforward way of seeing this is to think about the ways that courses of study, chosen in the present, are seen to lead towards a future goal, whether that is course completion, further study or a career. Look further into the literature, and you find large-scale psychological studies on connections between hoped-for possible selves, feared possible selves, and present academic motivations[3]. You also find sociological approaches that explore the relationship between social dis/advantage and differentiated capacities to imagine, fear, and act to change, the future[4].

If alarm bells are ringing for you as you read this, it is because the possible selves concept, as well as being instinctive to the way we think about education, also represents many current discomforts with neoliberal educational thinking. Taken at face value, it risks reinforcing the focus on the individual and their capacities for resilience or failure. It suggests that those who show less ambition or preparation for their future within or beyond education do so because they imagine that future less thoroughly, convincingly or positively. It risks endorsing a language of individual aspiration or deficit in discussions of access to, and success within, institutions of Higher Education.

Given these concerns, why continue to use the possible selves concept? This question has come up at both of the Possible Selves events, and it is an important question to address. My answer is that the possible selves concept is always already there. If we are involved in educational research, and particularly research that explores inequalities of access, completion and progression from Higher Education, then we are working within a framework already defined by the possible selves concept. Within this framework, students are encouraged to imagine their graduate future while making their choice of undergraduate institution. Often, schemes designed to widen access to elite institutions seek to replicate the experience of university for school students. The unspoken logic of these schemes is that a school student will be more likely to apply to an elite institution if they have first been able to imagine themselves there. These are two small examples that show the everyday presence of imagined futures in Higher Education contexts.

Given the prevalence of the concept in wider understandings of education, it seems vital that the concept receives critical attention. By exploring the concept critically, methodologically, empirically, reflexively, and theoretically, as we have in these seminars, we have shown that some futures are more available, more immediate, more possible, to some students than to others. Collectively, the researchers brought together by this series have questioned the limitations of previous and current uses of the possible selves concept. They have demonstrated the elasticity of a concept that can be stretched from individualising applications to structural analyses. It has been inspiring to think and question alongside these researchers, and to share our common goals and our important differences, and to engage in dialogue that is focused, open, and always challenging.

SRHE member Holly Henderson is an ESRC-funded doctoral researcher at the School of Education, University of Birmingham. Her PhD project is exploring student experiences of College-Based Higher Education (HE) in England, conceptualising college-based HE students as on the boundaries of provision in terms of the local and the national, the academic and the vocational. She is particularly interested in theorising subjectivities in relation to space, time and narrative, and the methodological challenges related to these theorisations. Her previous research focused on the construction of teacher professional identities with relation to sexualities and gender.


[1] Speakers were: Professor Sue Clegg, Leeds Beckett University, UK; Rachel Handforth, Sheffield Hallam University, UK; and Dr. Martin G. Erikson, University of Boras, Sweden.
[2] Markus, H. and P. Nurius (1986). ‘Possible Selves’. American Psychologist 41(9): 954-969.
[3] See, for example, Oyserman, D., et al. (2002). ‘A possible selves intervention to enhance school involvement’. Journal of Adolescence 25(3): 313-326.
[4] See, for example, Stevenson, J. and S. Clegg (2011). ‘Possible selves: Students orientating themselves towards the future through extracurricular activity’. British Educational Research Journal 37(2): 231-246

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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