Science capital and funds of knowledge
: new perspectives on science communication and genetics

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This research explores the ways that people engage with genetics; to understand how people can mobilise resources - their own knowledge, skills and interests - when making sense of genetic information. This PhD adopts a novel approach, combining Bourdieu’s theory of capitals with the concept of funds of knowledge. To my knowledge, science communication and genetics have not been studied by combining these two frameworks. In this research, I adopt a mixed methods approach utilising qualitative and quantitative methods to analyse data gathered from a survey (n=1407) and family interviews (n=37). 
I locate this research in two broad fields. The first is science communication. I adopt a broad use of this term to include a range of research that may have different definitions, for example the public understanding of science or public engagement with science and technology. For my purposes, I use the term ‘science communication’ to refer to multifaceted events, activities and research where the focus is on the intersection between experts and non-experts. The second research tradition I locate this project in is genetic counselling. In some respects, genetic counselling could be considered a subsection of science communication because it is defined as the process of helping patients understand and adapt to the implications of genetic information (Resta, Biesecker et al. 2006). It is an activity where experts and non-experts make sense of scientific information. 
In Chapter One I outline the ways in which rapid advances in genetics is impacting, and will continue to impact, the lives of patients, consumers and citizens. In particular I note how new developments in genetics are now relevant to more publics than ever before and this inevitably means that non-experts will be faced with situations where they need to make meaning of the science for themselves. In Chapter Two I review research that has explored attitudes and understanding of genetics. In a range of contexts, I demonstrate the pervasive nature of deficit theorising that still exists. In Chapter Three I outline in detail my philosophical stance, arguing that deficit theorising represents not an incorrect approach, but a limited one. This is because deficit models do not capture i) the arbitrary values of science as a form of culture or ii) the ways people make sense of genetics outside of a scientific framework. In order for a more complete understanding, I argue, it is important that publics are not as viewed as homogenous and passive but, in Irwin’s words as “having a rich pattern of knowledges and understanding” (Irwin 1995 p.33). In Chapter Four I present science communication research related to genetics that views publics in this way, what I have termed an ‘asset’ perspective. 
Having outlined the need for ‘asset’ based research I then move on in Chapter Five to discuss the analytical framework I use in this research for theorising what these assets could be. First, I utilise Bourdieu’s theory of capitals, in particular drawing on the recently developed theory of science capital (Archer et al., 2014). This provides a framework for understanding participants’ access to science related capitals, including science related cultural capital (e.g. watching science TV shows, attending science festivals), science related social capital (e.g. a close relation working in science) or science related symbolic capital (e.g. a science qualification). Complementing this perspective, I also explore participants’ ‘funds of knowledge’. The funds of knowledge framework has primarily been used in educational settings. The appeal of funds of knowledge as a concept is that it orientates researchers to finding assets (what people are good at) rather than identifying deficits (e.g. of knowledge or attitude). As Gonzalez, Moll and Amanti (2016) explain: 
The concept of "funds of knowledge" is based on a simple premise: people are competent and have knowledge, and their life experiences have given them that knowledge (González, Moll & Amanti 2016) 
Having outlined my theoretical perspectives I then, in Chapter Six, put forward my rationale for adopting a mixed methods approach before describing the process of data collection and analysis in Chapter Seven. In Chapter Eight I outline my quantitative analysis. I primarily use latent class analysis to explore the survey data. This provides an exploratory analysis of the patterns of cultural participation that exist among my participants. Based on this analysis I identify three latent classes that provide framework for exploring how resources (funds of knowledge and forms of capital) are distributed amongst the participants in this study. The survey data points to some intriguing relationships between cultural participation and the way participants may be able to engage with genetic information. Results from the latent class analysis indicate that there are underlying groups in the data who have higher access to cultural capital and in particular to science related cultural capital. 
In Chapter Nine and Ten I describe the qualitative analysis of the family interviews conducted with participants who have completed the survey (17 family interviews n=37). I use thematic analysis, also utilising aspects of narrative analysis, to explore how participants are able to (or not able to) mobilise their capitals and funds of knowledge when talking about genetics. In Chapter Nine I explore participants’ use of popular culture and in Chapter Ten I describe the types of narrative I have identified in the data. I argue that both of these represent valuable resources, both as forms of capital and funds of knowledge, that participants are able to draw on to understand and articulate their opinions about genetics. 
In Chapter Eleven I discuss the status of pop culture and narratives, exploring how we can think of these as either forms of capital or funds of knowledge. I then conclude in Chapter Twelve with a discussion of the implications of this research. I explore the relevance of these findings for research into both genetic counselling practice and science communication. I note parallels in the debates regarding deficit/dialogue models of science communication and teaching/counselling models of genetic counselling. I put forward the notion that both of these fields could be enriched by exploring ideas from hybridity theory, specifically how funds of knowledge can be used to create a ‘third space’. Here expert and non-expert knowledges are not compared to each other, with their respective truth and value measured. Instead, in a ‘third space’, new understandings are generated as expert and non-expert knowledge are brought together.
Date of Award1 Apr 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorLouise Archer (Supervisor), Jennifer Dewitt (Supervisor) & Becky Francis (Supervisor)

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