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Education and Social Theory

Trevor Pateman

Abstract: A survey of determinist, demystifying and voluntarist explanations of inequality of educational outcomes and the kinds of policy which have been proposed to address such educational inequality.

If one takes the term "socialization" to refer to the sum of practices by which new individuals are made into members of existing societies, then "education" is that subset of practices which have as their intended outcome particular kinds of more or less reflected upon shaping. More narrowly still, "education" is used as a synonym for schooling, specific institutional provision for the transmission of knowledge and skills, the development of competences and beliefs.

There is a pervasive background assumption in twentieth century social thought that socialization is the right way to characterize what transpires between new - that is, newborn - individuals and their societies, and that individuals are plastic to an indefinite number of kinds of shaping. Against this background, sociologists appear to have the straightforward descriptive task of characterising how different societies socialize individuals, and what they socialize them into. But if there are failures of socialization, as there are, it becomes hard(er) to sustain the idea of plasticity (cf. Hollis, 1977; Wrong 1977). For example, if individuals do differ innately in intelligence this will limit the possible success of any schooling system that provides equality of treatment in the expectation that this will produce equality of achievement.

Political commitments to achieving equality of opportunity, treatment and / or outcomes have inspired (and funded) innumerable research programmes and projects in twentieth century sociology. For example, in the context of a commitment to the view that schooling ought to enable social mobility by identifying talent and / or effort independently of social origins thus making talent and effort available (as `merit') as identifiable discriminators for occupational selection there have been a large number of studies of why origins and destinations remain obstinately linked, despite at least formal meritocratic commitments. Three kinds of resultant explanation may be distinguished, which can be labelled determinist, demystifying and voluntarist. The explanations are not mutually exclusive, though often presented as such.

Determinist Explanations.

There are two kinds of determinists.

First, those who argue that individuals differ innately in intelligence and / or that groups (usually blacks and females, as against whites and males) differ on average in biologically determined intelligence and this explains outcome differences. The literature on this kind of determinism is both vast and vastly overrated, since very few if any policy conclusions are clearly derivable from it, whatever the truth of the matter is. For example, suppose some children just are cleverer than others. What follows about their education and the education of those who are less clever? Absolutely nothing, since the most obvious question to then ask is this: Should those who are cleverer get more / better education (to benefit the rest indirectly) or less (since they don't need it)? And nothing in the mere fact of difference helps settle this question. Most educational systems tacitly acknowledge difference and spend more both on those who they reckon cleverer and on those who are reckoned handicapped and identified as having special educational needs.

The second kind of determinist argues from society, rather than biology, showing how children come to school advantaged or burdened by their social (class, educational, status) background. Consequently, relative success and failure in school is determined by the assets or burdens children bring with them, and schooling itself cannot compensate for society the school is a causally less powerful agent than home or community (see Halsey et al., 1980).

The actual mechanisms of social determination are many and various. If at home there are no books, nowhere to study, no computer to produce elegant coursework, mum and dad are always arguing, the baby doesn't sleep, and your mates are always knocking on the door for a game of football well, what chance a good exam result in history?

Demystifying explanations.

Schools are themselves social institutions, staffed by teachers whose precise social class or status has been the subject of considerable debate (see Ozga and Lawn, 1981). The reality of schools may, and in fact does, diverge from their rhetoric. So, for example, a formal commitment to equality of opportunity does not guarantee that a teacher treats girls and boys in such ways that both have equal chances of succeeding in that teacher's classroom. Indeed, the evidence is, overwhelmingly, that teachers male and female discriminate in their treatment of boys and girls in educationally significant ways (Stanworth, 1983). In addition, schools are shaped as institutions by the formal requirements of national and local governments, and informally shaped by the pressures exerted by parents, governors and local commerce or industry. The conjunction of formal requirements and informal pressures actually conspires to ensure that the recognition and reward of individual merit is only one of several conflicting goals which schools pursue. Schools also have a `hidden curriculum' (Snyder, 1971) which recognizes and rewards conformity to its norms of good behaviour and acceptable self presentation (see Ball, 1990). These norms are not neutral as between groups, but instead systematically discriminate by class and gender. So, to take a less than obvious example, at secondary school level the norm of neat handwriting used to favour girls, though the `reward' was actually acceptability for work which had low rewards, and moderate status, specifically clerical and secretarial employment. In that context - altered by the advent of the office organised around Information Technology - no girl in her right mind should have allowed herself to have neat handwriting.

In general, says the demystifying sociologist, schools are not `neutral' social locations, helpless in the face of `external' social determinations. Their own institutionally embedded practices shape outcomes differentiated by class, gender, ethnicity and other irrelevant discriminators

Voluntarist explanations.

Both the determinist and the demystifier are, in effect, assuming not only the plasticity but also the passivity of the school pupil. But it may be that children are themselves active in shaping their own destinies, and from an early age. They have their own perceptions of their origins and aspirations towards social distinction: they want to be doctors, nurses and pop stars. They do or do not want to do the job their Dad does. In this context, teachers may or may not represent a status or set of values with which pupils can identify or to which they can aspire. And this is important because it can shape an orientation to the whole business of learning. In an influential study, Paul Willis (1977) argued that part of the explanation for the fact that working class kids get working-class jobs is simply that they want such jobs; they positively reject the more `white collar' culture of the school, which is not that of their families of origin. The way teachers behave and live (a subject of some fascination to most pupils) does not strike them as something to be copied or sought after.

Whatever mix of explanations is the right one, working class kids get working class jobs and girls end up doing women's work. Social and sexual mobility is always much less than anyone committed to equality of opportunity can be satisfied with. Detailed sociological work on the reproduction of a stratified labour force is offered within the British tradition by Halsey et al. (1980) and from an American Marxist perspective in Bowles and Gintis (1976).

Some have sought to ensure that schooling becomes a more powerful influence than origin. They have then proposed lengthening the period of compulsory schooling - a policy actually pursued in all countries throughout the twentieth century. Or they have tried to ensure that each school takes in some pupils at every level of ability - as in the comprehensive school system of the United Kingdom .And they have downgraded the culture of `useless' knowledge (Latin and Greek, for example), the main motive for the acquisition of which is, or would be, the desire to mark social distinction (see Bourdieu, 1979). In reality, the study of Latin and Greek has all but disappeared in many countries.

Against the background of such actually-implemented - but not always successful - policies, some have become critical of the institution of schooling itself. From the New Left, Ivan Illich argued in the very influential Deschooling Society (1971) that schools privilege certification over actual competence, unreasonably restrict the domain of what counts as worth learning, and prescribe restrictive and unhelpful modes of learning. When I originally wrote that last sentence (in 1991) it occurred to me that the next day my daughter would put on a new collar and tie without which she would not be allowed to learn anything. She was about to spend her first day at an ordinary English secondary comprehensive school.

The New Right has adapted to its own purposes some of the themes of the New Left critique of schooling, expressed as the idea of producer capture. Teachers (the 'producers') have set their own agendas for schools when it should be parents (the 'consumers') who set agendas for teachers. The New Right then argues for breaking up schooling monopolies and for enfranchizing the consumer.

Both New Left and New Right thinking is at odds with those central, social democratic and liberal democratic conceptions such as John Dewey's (1966) which see schooling as a leading institution in the creation of a just, democratic and unified society. And within the Marxist tradition, Antonio Gramsci expresses positive approval of the kind of traditional schooling system of which he was an individual beneficiary (Entwistle, 1979). Gramsci's case should also serve to make us aware that while sociologists have generally occupied themselves with explaining why children fail at school, there is also another interesting research question which asks why certain children, who ought by all sociological accounts to fail, actually succeed in the most unlikely circumstances. There are very few schooling systems which cannot boast their poor boys made good. A biographical approach to the study of their success may highlight factors overlooked in macrosociological approaches to the study of education. (For rather different uses of a biographical approach, see Hoggart, 1957, and Lacey, 1970.)


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Originally written 1991 and published in W Outhwaite and T Bottomore, eds. The Blackwell Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Social Thought. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1993), pages 188 - 190. Reprinted in the second edition of the Dictionary, edited by William Outhwaite (Oxford: Basil Blackwell 2002). Lightly revised 2002 for this website version; the original material reproduced by permission of William Outhwaite and the copyright holder, Basil Blackwell. Standard restrictions on any further re-publication apply.