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Department of Social Anthropology


Every year, the Department awards a prize of £200 to the most outstanding IIB dissertation. The prize is named in memory of Dr Sue Benson (1948-2005), an anthropologist who lectured, supervised and directed studies in Cambridge for 26 years and who was an inspiration, both personally and intellectually for generations of students.

We are pleased to announce the winner for this year’s Sue Benson prize for the best Undergraduate dissertation. Jezz Brown (Jesus College) is the winner this year for his dissertation, ‘Becoming Middle Class: Social Mobility and Liminality at the University of Cambridge’.


Speaking about his dissertation, "My dissertation examines the experiences of 'working class students' on their journeys through the University of Cambridge as they manage new encounters and experience challenges to their identities and concepts of self.

Central to the dissertations focus is writing against classificatory systems of class and instead focusing on how people relate to concepts of class and understand themselves as classed individuals. I argue that class becomes an important aspect of identity for my interlocutors once they have arrived at Cambridge. It is in recognizing their difference that they come to understand themselves in classed terms: it is then that they have a ‘class awakening’.

Introducing the concept of liminality, I demonstrate how this classed identity becomes contested as individuals have new experiences and with altered social and cultural capital find themselves stuck between working- and middle-class identities. I show how a sense of placelessness arises where the individual feels ‘out of place’ both in their community back home and at Cambridge. Differently to classical literature on liminality, I argue that the 'liminar' experiences a state of hyper-visibility whereby their classed being is constantly observed and stigmatised as 'other' thus requiring different forms of presentation, performance and identity management.

This work contributes to the literature on liminality and identity reconstruction showing how liminality can significantly disrupt one’s internal sense of self. I show how several contradictory expectations contained within social mobility narratives make difficult the maintenance of a coherent narrative self. With my unique analysis and concept of the self, I show there is an element of selfhood that can be distinguished from the social and performed selves, secondly, as we know from Foucault and Butler that this is not a perfect, bounded self that is independent from socialisation and discursive formation. Finally, the self is a site that requires active curation and is not an essential thing that can be simply discovered. Drawing on these threads, I show that the liminal process shows how one’s structural position can affect the ability of an individual to self-form demonstrating that subjectivity is, at least to some extent, classed.

This dissertation would not have been possible without the inspiration and guidance of my supervisor, Natalie Morningstar, nor without the willingness of numerous wonderful students to discuss their experiences with me. I hope this dissertation can contribute in some small way to the work being done to make Cambridge more accessible."