Definitions and examples of the most important key concepts for the A level sociology 7192 (1) exam, including the definition of labelling, the correspondence principal, meritocracy, privatization, and lots more.
All of the concepts below are most relevant to the education module within A-level sociology (AQA focus) but many have wider application.
Initially I include only the ‘most important’ sociology words. More to follow later, as with all tings in life, this is work in progress.
Where schools focus a disproportionate amount of their resources on making sure ‘middling’ students get 5 A*-Cs, rather than helping to boost more able students or getting less able students passes below the 5- A*C threshold.
Where individuals gain their social position in society through their own efforts, rather than that position being based on their ascribed characteristics such as their ‘race’ or their class background.
Where an individual’s position in society is pre-determined by their birth or social characteristics. An example of this is the royal inheritance in the United Kingdom: only a son of Queen Lizzie II can become King when she dies.
Grouping students by ability. Students are put into the same group across all subjects (unlike setting, which is where students might be placed in different ability groups in different subject.
Where choices of subjects become gradually more limited as children progress through school.
Educational policies which provide additional money or resources for students facing cultural or material deprivation. The idea is that the extra money/resources helps overcome disadvantage and boost results.
One type of school for all students. Non-selective schools where all students have an equal opportunity within the same school.
The establishment of comprehensive schools in the 1960s which replaced the selective tripartite system.
The fundamental ideas about how we should act in society which, according to Functionalists are taught to children in schools as part of secondary socialisation in industrial societies.
Core values might include such things as a belief in meritocracy, trust in government and authorities, punctuality and politeness. They are the kind of values which are necessary to keep society functioning at a national level according to Functionalist theory.
The function of and even the existence of ‘core values’ is questioned by Marxists and Postmodernists.
The Marxist idea that the norms and values pupils learn in school prepare them for their future exploitation at work.
For example, schools teach pupils to be ‘motivated by external rewards’ – they learn to put up with boring lessons in order to achieve higher grades, thus focussing on the end result of learning rather than the ‘joy of learning’ itself’. This corresponds (relates) to putting up with the dull routine of working life in a factory day to day, while focussing on the pay packet at the end of the month.
Related concepts: ideological state apparatus, Marxism, socialisation, hidden curriculum.
Counter school culture
A group within a school which has norms and values in direct opposition to the mainstream culture of the school. E.G. a group of students who see value in messing around and ‘having a laugh’ or disrupting lessons rather than working hard and studying. Status will be rewarded within the counter school culture on the basis of how deviant they are, how far they go against school rules.
The skills, knowledge and attitudes associated with the dominant culture, possessed by the middle classes, which give middle class parents and children an advantage in life.
Cultural capital is a Marxist concept used to explain why middle-class pupils achieve more than working class pupils do. As part of the dominant culture, middle class pupils have an automatic advantage over working class pupils because they share the culture of the school. Their language is like that of teachers (also middle-class) and their values correspond more closely to those of the school. This ‘cultural capital’ enables middle class families to pass on their superior position to their children and in so doing, reproduce class inequalities.
Related concepts: skilled and disconnected choosers, habitus, social capital.
Where some groups, such as the lower social classes have inferior norms, values, skills and knowledge which hold them back in life.
Cultural deprivation can have a negative effect on the education of working class children: poor language skills can mean the students struggle to understand what they are taught, and the fact that working class parents do not value education means that their children are less likely to stay on at school post-16.
Related concepts: material deprivation, immediate and deferred gratification, restricted and elaborated speech codes.
Cycle of Deprivation
Where one aspect of material disadvantage has a knock on effect and leads to other types of disadvantage, such that poverty is reinforced and carries on, often across generations. For example, being poor, means a poor diet , means more sickness, means more time of work, means more poverty.
Where one delays immediate reward and instead works hard now in order to receive a greater reward in the future.
Self-fulfilling prophecy theory is often criticised as being deterministic, because it assumes that a particular input (labelling) always has the same affect (the subject accepts their label), without taking into account the fact that individuals respond in different ways based on their different subjective views of the situation in which the labelling takes place.
Working class parents who simply send their children to local schools rather than researching different schools and then making their choice. The opposite of ‘skilled choosers’
Division of Labour
Where production is broken down into a number of small, specialized tasks to improve efficiency. For example, instead of one person constructing a whole car, each individual specializes in adding different bits.
Education Action Zones
A New Labour Education policy which promoted links between clusters of schools (typically around 20) in deprived areas and local businesses and parents, with the intention of getting business to provide extra funds to those schools. This policy was introduced in the late 1990s, but after running for five years it had largely failed to generate any additional funds and so was axed.
Where schools sort students into three groups: those who will pass without help, those could pass with help, and those who probably won’t pass even if they do get help. Schools then focus most of their resources on helping the middle of these groups, while leaving the former alone and effectively ‘writing off’ the later.
Elaborated Speech Code
Language consisting of a wide vocabulary, complex sentences and which is context-free, so able to express abstract ideas. Used by the middle class and the opposite of restricted speech code.
Equality of opportunity (within education)
Where everyone has an equal chance to get into the best schools and universities and achieve good qualifications, and everyone competes for the best results on a level playing field, without being discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, disability or social class.
Ethnocentric means seeing or judging things in a biased way. An ethnocentric curriculum is one which treats middle class European white culture as superior – having Christian assemblies or teaching history from a European rather than an Indian or African perspective are examples of this.
The culture of a school – including its expected norms of behaviour, core values and especially the aspirations for its students.
Where pupils are either suspended for a set period or permanently expelled from school, typically for breaking school rules.
Exogenous Privatisation (of education)
Where schools, or school services, are taken over by private businesses such as academy chains, rather than being run directly by the state.
A related concept here is ‘endogenous privatisation’, where schools are made compete like businesses while still being run by the state. This was the idea behind marketization.
Related concepts: neoliberalism, the new right, marketization.
A school with formal ties to a particular faith. Many have different admissions (selection) criteria to regular state schools and select a proportion of their students on the basis of their faith.
According to Bernstein this is an attitude held by working class children and parents. It is the belief that they will inevitably end up in working class jobs, and so prevents them from aspiring to do any better.
Schools set up and run by groups of parents, charities or businesses and run directly by them. They are funded directly by the government and not by Local Education Authorities.
The activities that boys and girls see as typically the territory of their gender. E.g. playing football for boys and playing with dolls for girls.
The increasing interconnectedness of people and societies across the world.
A selective school catering to students who pass their 11+. Offers an academic education catered to high achieving students. Part of the ethos of grammar schools is that students should aspire to go to university.
The Hidden Curriculum refers to the norms and values not taught directly as part of the official curriculum, but passed on informally in schools.
Whereas the official curriculum is made up of subjects, subject content, formal lessons etc. the hidden curriculum is composed of teacher attitudes and expectations, and the general ethos of school which includes such things as attitudes to punctuality, attendance, dress codes and future career aspirations.
Related concepts: Feminists argue that the hidden curriculum works against girls. Marxists believe it works against working-class pupils.
The idea of the perfect pupil which teachers have in their heads. Such pupils are smart, have good manners, obey school rules and work hard. According to Howard Becker they are typically middle class.
Ideological state apparatus
This is main function of education in a capitalist society according to Marxists. Education works to transmit an ideological justification of capitalism, presenting the unequal capitalist system as normal and inevitable.
Schools do this directly by ‘agenda setting’ – not teaching subjects which criticise capitalism such as sociology (at least until much later on in life), and they do it indirectly by mirroring the inequality found in wider society (teacher-pupil relations, banding and streaming), thus getting students used to the idea that inequality is normal.
Related concepts: passive subservience, Marxism, socialisation, hidden curriculum, power, inequality.
Wanting instant reward, right now. The opposite of deferred gratification
Independent (Private) Schools
Schools which are not state-funded and are paid for by parents. They do not have to follow the national curriculum, but most choose to do so.
Discrimination which is built into the everyday workings of institutions such as schools.
‘Labelling’ is where someone judges a person based on the superficial ‘surface’ characteristics such as their apparent social class, sex, and ethnicity.
In the case of education, the main ‘labeller’ is the teacher, the main ‘labelled’ the pupil. Howard Becker has shown that teachers have an ‘ideal type’ of a pupil. The ‘ideal’ pupil is courteous, hard working and academically able. Middle-class pupils are far more likely to fit this model than are working class students, and thus middle class students get a positive label working class students a negative label.
Related concepts: Interactionism, self-fulfilling prophecy, ideal pupil.
*American misspelling: ‘labeling’
Published documents which show the GCSE and A level results of all schools in England and Wales. Schools are effectively ranked against each other and thus are easy to compare.
Legitimation of class inequality
A Marxist term – where schools justify inequality through teaching the myth of meritocracy. Schools teach working class pupils that it is their fault if they fail their exams and end up in working class jobs, rather than the fault of the unequal and unfair system which is biased towards the middle class.
Making schools compete for pupils, like businesses compete for clients or consumers.
This was the basic principle behind the 1988 education act: the government introduced open enrollment (parental choice), formula funding and league tables to introduce endogenous privatisation.
Related concepts: New Right, neoliberalism, privatisation, league tables, 1988 education act.
Where someone cannot afford or lacks access to basic, material resources such as food and heating.
Material deprivation can have a negative effect on educational achievement because students may not have access to computers and the Internet at home and poor diet and housing conditions may lead to health problems which can result in time off school.
Related concepts: social class, cultural deprivation, differential educational achievement.
The idea that what an individual achieves is based on a combination of their ability and effort.
In education this is where the qualifications one achieves is based on a combination of their intelligence and the amount of effort they put in during their time in school.
Marxists argue that meritocracy is a myth because in reality an individual’s educational achievement is more a reflection of their class background, a result of their material and cultural capital, rather than their ability or effort. However, the working classes believe the myth of meritocracy and thus blame their own failure on themselves rather than the unequal opportunities in the system.
Related concepts: achieved status, ascribed status, Marxism, Functionalism, equality of opportunity.
Motivation by external rewards
Being motivated by the end result, not the act itself. In education this means being motivated by exam results rather than the ‘joy of learning’.
Any education that raises awareness of the different cultures, traditions and religions in a society, typically aimed at promoting acceptance of (or at least tolerance of diversity).
Myth of meritocracy
Part of Marxist Theory – the idea that schools are not meritocratic but teach students that they are so as to legitimate inequality (see the legitimation of class inequality).
Set subjects (and the content within those subjects) laid down by the government that all state funded schools must teach.
The government body which inspects schools and publishes reports, grading schools from ‘outstanding’ to ‘in need of improvement’. Has the power the put schools into special measures and change the management and staffing of failing schools.
Literally ‘the rule of the parents’. It is where parents have a choice over which school to send their children to.
Parity of Esteem
Where schools teach different subjects and have a different ethos but have equal status.
The specific standards by which parents judge their children.
Accepting authority and doing what you are told without questioning it.
Norms and values which make patriarchy seem natural. E.g. the idea that women should be the primary child carers because they give birth to children.
A system of male domination, or one in which men have advantage over women.
Moving further apart. In education, marketisation is said to have caused this: the best schools improved and the worst schools got worse.
The changes associated with the move to a postmodern society, including globalization, more consumerism, more individual choice and diversity.
Where schools, or school services, are taken over by private businesses such as academy chains, rather than being run directly by the state.
Where schools are made to compete like businesses while still being run by the state. This was the idea behind marketization.
Reproduction of inequality
Where inequality is carried on from one generation to the next.
Restricted Speech Code
Language consisting of limited vocabulary, simple sentences, and which is context specific. According to Bernstein, this is what the working class speak. It is the opposite of the elaborated speech code.
Where pupils are sifted and sorted into appropriate jobs based on their abilities, reflected in the qualifications they achieve.
Society requires the most able to be in the most important and demanding jobs. Education makes sure this happens- only the most able and hardest working can rise to top and get the three A grades in science required to go on to do a medical degree and become a doctor for example.
Related Concepts: achieved status, Functionalism, division of labour, meritocracy.
This is where someone acts according to their label and the label becomes true in reality.
In education a pupil who is repeatedly told that they are unlikely to achieve may consequently give up their efforts which in turn will reduce the likelihood of gaining a qualification. The teachers’ label has thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Related concepts: interactionism, labelling, deterministic.
Where individuals work together in pursuit of a shared goal.
Social Solidarity is most commonly used in politics where the public might show ‘solidarity’ with striking rail workers who’s goals is achieving the social justice of getting appropriate wages for their labour.
But the concept can also be applied to education – social solidarity is achieved through working together in team sports, or shared creative events such as artistic productions or even whole class educational projects.
Working together is one of the main ways we achieve a sense of belonging to wider society in Functionalist theory and education is probably the first time children will get to feel this sense of connection to the wider society beyond their family.
Subculture and Counter School Culture
A subculture consists of a group of people who share norms and values which are different to mainstream values.
An important type of subculture is the counter-school culture – identified by Paul Willis (1977). A counter school culture has norms and values which are in direct opposition to the mainstream culture of the school. Thus the lads who made up the counter-school culture valued messing around and ‘having a laugh’ and got status for doing so, and did not value working hard to achieve good grades.
Related concepts: pro-school subculture; myth of meritocracy, white working class underachievement; the young entrepreneurs (Mac An Ghaill), active-passive, Marxism.
Work related education or training.
Vocationalism refers to any training or education which is specifically targeted to a particular type of job or sector.
It is usually contrasted to academic education which is more subject based and purely academic (subjects such as history, english literature or sociology are ‘academic’) and involve primarily reading, thinking, debating and writing essays.
Vocational education by contrast will be more focussed on teaching the specific technical skills and knowledge that individuals will require for work in a specific field of employment such as construction, the media or hairdressing.
Examples of Vocational Education include many BTEC qualifications and Apprenticeships.
Some courses may be a mixture of both Vocational and Academic.
Signposting and Related Posts
This post was written to help A-level sociology students revise for the education aspect of their SCLY1 7192/1 exam.
For further posts on revising for that exam paper, you might like this post which is specifically about techniques for answering the AQA A-Level Sociology Paper 1.
For more general advice on revising for sociology exams, please see links from my ‘exams essays and short answer questions‘ page.
For more in-depth posts on education topics please see my sociology of education page.
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