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Abstract

This article aims at deepening our understanding, through an ethnographical approach, of the processes at play in orientation choices within the field of vocational education; 21 working-class students nearing the end of compulsory schooling in Frenchspeaking Switzerland were interviewed and their interactions with education professionals during guidance classes observed. Using data-source triangulation, the article shows that choices are often strongly shaped, within the highly selective and rigidly tracked Swiss educational system, by the systematic discourse of teachers during daily classroom interactions that instil a sense of limits in students over the course of the school year, thus consolidating the reproduction of social inequalities. Students’ choices also stem from pragmatically rational decisions, in which opportunity structures of the labour market, institutional influences, habitus, peer-group and the values of (fractions) of social classes each play a differentiated part in every individual situation. Finally, our ethnographic approach enables us to add complexity to recent studies based upon Bourdieu as well as upon Hodkinson and Sparkes’ theoretical models that tend to underestimate the structural influence of teachers’ discourse in shaping youngsters’ horizons for action.

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