pupil subcultures

Pupil subcultures are groups of students who share some values, norms and behaviour, which give them a sense of identify, and provide them with status through peer-group affirmation.

Pupil subcultures take a variety of forms, ranging from pro-school to anti-school subcultures, with a variety of other responses in-between.

Pupil subcultures are often based on social class, gender and ethnicity, and much research on this topic has focused on the educational significance of working-class subcultures, male subcultures and ethnic minority subcultures especially.

There is significant theoretical debate concerning the formation of pupil subcultures (i.e. the question of where they come from). Some commentators (mainly from the AQA) seem to think that pupil subcultures are a ‘response’ to in-school processes such as teacher labelling, however, some sociologists, such as Tony Sewell, argue that it’s more complex than this because the kind of students who join anti-school subcultures get their anti-school attitude from outside of school, so the subculture cannot simply be a response to processes within school.

Differentiation and Polarization

Lacey’s (1970) study of a middle class grammar school found that there were two related processes at work in schools – differentiation and polarization. Most schools generally placed a high value on things such as hard work, good behaviour and exam success, and teacher judge students and rank and categorise them into different groups – streams or sets – according to such criteria. This is what Lacey called differentiation.

One of the consequences of differentiation through streaming, setting and labelling is polarization. This refers to the way students become divided into two opposing groups, or ‘poles’: those in the top streams who achieve highly, who more or less conform, and therefore achieve high status in the terms of the values and aims of the school, and those in the bottoms sets who are labelled as failures and therefor deprived of status.

Varies studies, such as that by Hargreaves (1967, 1976), Ball (1981) and Abraham (1989), have found that teachers’ perception of students’ academic ability and the process of differentiation and polarization influenced how students behaved, and led to the formation of pro- and anti-school subcultures.

The Pro-School Subculture

Pro-school subcultures are those which accept the values and ethos of the school and willingly conform to its rules. They tend to be those students in higher sets who aspire to high academic achievement and are prepared to work hard, and work ‘with the teachers’ to achieve these goals.

Pro-school subcultures are typically comprised of children from middle class backgrounds, although not in all cases: Mac An Ghaill’s (1994) found examples of two different types of pro-school subculture in his participant observation study:

The academic achievers who were mostly from skilled manual working-class backgrounds and sought to achieve academic success by focusing on traditional academic subjects such as English, maths and the sciences.

The New Enterprisers – who were typically from working class backgrounds and rejected the traditional academic curriculum, which they saw as a waste of time, but were motivated to study subjects such as business and computing and were able to achieve upward mobility by exploiting school-industry links to their advantage.

The anti-school subculture

The anti-school subculture, (sometimes called the counter school culture), consist of groups of students who rebel against the school for various reasons, and develop and alternative set of delinquent values, attitudes and behaviours in opposition to the academic aims, ethos and rules of a school.

In the anti-school subculture, truancy, playing up to teachers, messing about, breaking the rules, avoiding doing school work and generally disrupting the smooth running of the school day become a way of getting back at the system and gaining status among peers.

Counter-school cultures are cultures of resistance, or anti-learning cultures, and participation in can be a means of gaining status among one’s peers – the more deviant an act, the more status you gain.

The classic study of the counter-school culture is Paul Willis’ 1977 study ‘Learning to Labour’ in which he observed 12 working class lads who saw school and academic learning as pointless to their future lives as factory workers. They therefor resented school, and spent their time messing around and resisting any attempt to learn anything. Status was earned within the group by disrupting lessons and doing as little work as possible.

The ‘lads’ in Willis’ study were very much a traditional, working-class macho subculture, and they defined the typically middle class students who obeyed the school rules as ‘earoles’ because they were always listening to the teacher, they also saw these students as a bit cissy, in contrast to their identification with ‘proper’ masculine working class manual-labour.

Between Pro and Anti-School Subcultures: A Range of Responses

Peter Woods (1979) suggested that dividing pupil subcultures into simply two poles: pro- and anti-school was too simplistic. Woods also suggested that students don’t easily split into subcultures, instead he suggested that there is a wide variety of responses to school, and pupils can switch between different adaptations as they progress through their school careers:

Peter Woods: Eight ways of adapting to school:

  • Ingratiation – Pupils who are eager to please teachers and have very favourable attitudes towards school. Conformist pro-school.
  • Compliance – Pupils who accept school rules and discipline, and see school as a useful way to gain qualifications, but who don’t have a wholly positive or negative attitude towards school. This is typical of first year students.
  • Opportunism – Pupils who fluctuate between seeking approval of teachers and form their peer groups.
  • Ritualism – Pupils who go through the motions of attending school but withiout great engagement or enthusiasm.
  • Retreatism – Pupils who are indifferent to school values and exam success- messing about in class and daydreaming are common, but such students do not want to challenge the authority of the school.
  • Colonization – Pupils who try to get away with as much as possible. Such students may express hostility to the school but will still try to avoid getting into trouble. More common in the later years of schooling.
  • Intransigence – troublemakers who are indifferent to school and who aren’t that bothered about conformity.
  • Rebellion – the goals of schools are rejected and pupils devote their efforts to achieving deviant goals.


Brown: Sociology for AS

Chapman et al: Sociology AQA Year 1 and AS Student Book

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