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01-02-2017 | Original Article | Uitgave 1/2017 Open Access

Perspectives on Medical Education 1/2017

Understanding the relation between medical students’ collective and individual trajectories: an application of habitus

Perspectives on Medical Education > Uitgave 1/2017
Dorene F. Balmer, Michael J. Devlin, Boyd F. Richards



While medical educators typically attend to group trends, groups are made up of unique individuals. An exploration of Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, defined as a system of dispositions, may help medical educators think relationally about the collective trajectory of the group and the individual trajectory of each student.


We built on our 4‑year, longitudinal study which reported how field, capital, and habitus worked together to explain how medical students, as a group, navigated transitions in undergraduate medical education. In this secondary analysis, we reviewed serial collections of narratives about students’ peak learning experiences in medical school (19 students, 5 narratives per student), concentrating on first-person representations of self. We then explored the relation between collective and individual trajectories in three illustrative cases.


The social space of undergraduate medical education harmonized students’ experience and helped explain the collective trajectory, as evidenced by students’ consistent reports of taking initiative and staying open-minded. But individuals were not totally harmonized. They had unique dispositions that influenced their ability to access valued resources and shaped their behaviour. For example, Emily consistently spoke of being driven by her own goals; Zach focused on meeting expectations of authorities; Hilary routinely oriented toward abstract medical knowledge.


Habitus provides a useful conceptual lens for thinking relationally about collective and individual trajectories of medical students. Our work may inform faculty as they seek to situate individualized learning within standardized curricula, and is a step toward researching transitions in medical training from a holistic perspective that includes, but is not limited to, individual trajectories.
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