Sociology of Education: 13 Key Concepts

Definitions and examples of 13 of the most important key terms for the A level sociology 7192 (1) exam, including the correspondence principal, meritocracy, privatisation, and lots more. These are 12 of the most fundamental concepts for the exam, which you should be able to use across many difference essays. For a more exhaustive list of concept definitions, please see my other ‘sociology of education concepts’ post (forthcoming).

Correspondence principle

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.

Cultural capital

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.

Cultural deprivation

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.

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.

Hidden Curriculum

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.

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.

Labelling

‘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.

Marketisation

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.

Material deprivation

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.

Meritocracy

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.

Role allocation

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.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

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.

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 Ghail), active-passive, Marxism.  

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One Response to Sociology of Education: 13 Key Concepts

  1. I enjoyed this post because I am currently writing an autoethnography about my experience in graduate school. Many of these concepts shine through in one way or the other!

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