23 SES 04 C, Politics of Knowledge
Inspired by the work of critical scholars such as Erik Olin Wright, this paper explores a broad field of contemporary sociological research on social class inequalities in education. It does so in pursuit of the following question: what solutions do researchers advocate for addressing present-day social class inequalities in and through education, and, more specifically, how well represented among these solutions are alternative visions of educational structures and processes as well as the political economy framing them?
In Envisioning Real Utopias, Wright (2010) advocates for emancipatory social science that ‘seeks to generate scientific knowledge relevant to the collective project of challenging various forms of human oppression’ (2010, 10). He assigns three tasks to such an endeavour: diagnosis and critique of the world as it exists, envisioning viable alternatives, and understanding ‘the obstacles, possibilities, and dilemmas of transformation’ (2010, 10). At the centre of his critical project is a critique of capitalism, an aspiration towards ‘an alternative social world’ grounded in democratic egalitarian ideals and ideas on how to achieve it. Guided by this transformative impulse, this paper offers a panoramic view of contemporary sociological research on social class inequalities in education with a particular focus on its reformist/transformative discourses. Do proposals for addressing social class inequalities engage with broader political struggles and advocate for emancipatory systemic alternatives or are they framed as improvements to and within the existing system?
The general focus of the reviewed articles is the extent of association between social class and educational trajectories, including social class disparities in types and prestige of institutions attended and levels of education attained (e.g. Hallsten 2011, Schindler and Lorz 2012, Noelke and Horn 2014). More specifically, the reviewed literature addresses how social class shapes educational experiences (e.g. McCrory Calarco 2011, Ingram 2011, Reay, Crozier and Clayton 2009), achievements (e.g. Houtte and Van Avermaet 2012, Sullivan and Ketende 2013), and outcomes (e.g. Stocke 2007). Although the majority of these studies are cross-sectional, focussing on the effects of social class on different aspects of education and how these can be explained, there are also examples of longitudinal studies which focus on the role of education in terms of broader social mobility and social reproduction patterns (e.g. Torche 2011, Breen and Jonsson 2007). In the paper, proposals for tackling social class inequalities in education are categorized according to the level they are aimed at: individual, institutional, community-wide and in relation to the broader political and economic framework. As an illustration, whereas for certain authors the emphasis in tackling social class inequalities in education is on an apolitical, individual level (e.g. increasing opportunities for disadvantaged youth to engage in cultural activities), for others the unjust effects of social class within education cannot be tackled without emancipatory curricula and pedagogy as well as rethinking neoliberal capitalism as such (e.g. Reay (2007: 1055) refers to the ‘problems of capitalist multicultural society’).
The paper is based on a review of academic articles on social class inequalities in education published in leading sociology journals from 2006 to 2016. The articles, taken as illustrative of how high quality research frames this field of inquiry, were identified in the following manner. In the first step, all sociology journals were selected from a list of the top 100 most highly ranked publications in sociology and political sciences, using the term ‘sociology’ in the title as the criterion. The ranking was based on the journals’ Impact Factor as listed on the Scimago Journal Rank. The choice of sociology journals was then narrowed down by excluding all those with an exclusive theoretical or methodological focus, as well as journals with a specific sub-disciplinary focus. Six journals remained: the Annual Review of Sociology, American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Sociology, European Sociological Review, and British Journal of Sociology. In the following step, all articles which mentioned the word ‘class’ in their title, abstract, or key words, and which were published between 2006 and 2016 were selected. This resulted with a list of 326 articles. Out of these 326 articles 63 addressed social inequalities in education (making social class inequalities in education the most frequently studied area of research when it comes to social class analysis in the reviewed literature; other areas included parenting, friendship, cultural consumption, social mobility, voting preferences and work) and these form the empirical basis of the paper. The articles were reviewed with regard to their theoretical orientation(s), class debates engaged in (e.g. is class still a viable concept; intersectionality), methodology, country of focus, key findings and proposed solutions. Critical discourse analysis was conducted in order to explore how the language of proposed solutions reflects and/or questions the status quo. Although the selection of journals leaves out a rich field of research on social class inequalities in education, the review does provide a sense of the main issues in this field made visible by leading, internationally recognised sociology journals.
The paper offers a panoramic view of contemporary research on social class inequalities in education with a particular focus on its politics: whether and how research on social inequalities in education engages with radical critique and what effort it makes to envisage viable emancipatory alternatives. More broadly, the analysis presented in the paper invites reflection on the extent to which critical sociology of education is (under)represented in prominent sociology journals and how some of the material reported in the reviewed articles could be part of a more radical agenda benefitting progressive social movements. At basis, then, the paper provides a touchstone for critical reflection on the actual and possible aims of sociology of education in the political economic climate of neoliberal capitalism.
Breen, R., Jonsson, J.O. (2007). Explaining Change in Social Fluidity: Educational Equalization and Educational Expansion in Twentieth-Century Sweden. American Journal of Sociology, 112(6), 1775-1810. Hallsten, M. (2011). The Structure of Educational Decision Making and Consequences for Inequality: A Swedish Test Case. American Journal of Sociology, 116(3), 806-854. Houtte, M., Van Avermaet, P. (2012). Why Does the Ethnic and Socio-economic Composition of Schools Influence Math Achievement? The Role of Sense of Futility and Futility Culture. European Sociological Review, 28(3), 366-378. Ingram, N. (2011). Within School and Beyond the Gate: The Complexities of Being Educationally Successful and Working Class. Sociology, 45(2), 287-302. McCrory Calarco, J. (2011). “I Need Help!”, Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School. American Sociological Review, 76(6), 862-882. Noelke, C., Horn, D. (2014). Social Transformation and the Transition from Vocational Education to Work in Hungary: A Differences-in-differences Approach. European Sociological Review, 30(4), 431-443. Reay. D., Crozier, G., Clayton, J. (2009). ‘Strangers in Paradise’? Working-class Students in Elite Universities. Sociology, 43(6), 1103-1121. Reay, D. (2007). ‘A Darker Shade of Pale?’ Whiteness, the Middle Classes and Multi-Ethnic Inner City Schooling. Sociology, 41(6), 1041-1060. Schindler, S., Lorz, M. (2012). Mechanisms of Social Inequality Development: Primary and Secondary Effects in the Transition to Tertiary Education Between 1976 and 2005. European Sociological Review, 2+8(5), 647-660. Stocke, V. (2007). Explaining Educational Decision and Effects of Families’ Social Class Position: An Empirical Test of the Breen-Goldthorpe Model of Educational Attainment. European Sociological Review, 23(4), 505-519. Sullivan, A., Ketende, S. (2013). Social Class and Inequalities in Early Cognitive Scores. Sociology, 47(6), 1187-1206. Torche, F. (2011). Is a College Degree Still the Great Equalizer? Intergenerational Mobility across Levels of Schooling in the United States. American Journal of Sociology, 117(3), 763-807. Wright, E.O. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.
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