Fun and Creative Ideas for Studying Sociology:

Creative ideas for learning sociology include making mind maps and using images and metaphors.

Getting creative not only makes learning more fun, it also helps you to better understand complex sociological theories and concepts and remember them more efficiently.

I have selected below some creative strategies which should help you with learning A-level sociology.

Combining Concepts…

Select two concepts, theories, sociologists, research studies, news events, and try to make the links between them!

A chart or two containing such concepts with numbers up and down the sides may help with this!


A metaphor is where you make one thing represent another in order to draw comparisons. Try to come up with metaphors for sociological perspectives, theories and even research studies.

For example, in terms of shapes Marxism can be represented by a triangle, which reflects the class structure. Functionalism is more of a square, which reflects its concern with social order and regulation.

Keep an ideas notebook or videolog

Walk around town and observe people, interactions, adverts, shops, or watch the news or any programme.

Keep a notebook of what you observe and apply sociological theories and concepts to your daily observations.

If writing is too long winded, do a photo diary or video log instead, making it visual may actually help.

Model things

If you have some lego then you might like to spend some time making models to represent different sociological theories and concepts.

This may be a little time consuming, so maybe treat this a break activity which keeps the brain ticking over!

Mind Maps!

It may be obvious from this blog that I am a huge fan of mind maps. They really are a great way of summarising complex ideas which mirror the way the brain works: one central point for each map, and then a few main points coming off the central hub and then further sub branches…

Mind map example:

NB maps can be even more effective if you make them more visual by using pictures where possible rather than just words!

Play the expert sociologist

Think of any social problem, such as a high crime rate or a failing school and either plan a research project to figure out why.

Alternatively, imagine you are a government advisor and think up social policies which may solve the problem. Or make the case for a revolution!

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A-level results are down AND the attainment gap has increased

material deprivation still affects educational achievement!

The A-level exam boards in England decided to smackdown the 2023 A-level results this year. They are now back to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

line chart showing trends in A-level results 2019 to 2023, England and Wales.

For the top A and A* grades the trend looks like this:

  • 2019: 25.2%
  • 2021: 35.9%
  • 2023: 26.5%

So a slight, but not significant increase in top A-level grades in 2023 compared to 2019.

This clearly demonstrates that the 2020 and 2021 results were fantasy results. This is unsurprising given that they were awarded by teachers. The 2022 results, based on pre-release exams, were merely a half way step back to this years. Last years results now seem as ridiculous as the 2020 and 2021 results. Clearly this was an attempt to maintain credibility in the exam system by not bringing back down the results too suddenly.

None of this is the fault of the students, it’s the fault of the people running the education system. You might even argue the government and exam boards did the best they good faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

The problem now is that this year’s cohort are the real victims of this uncertainty and flawed responses. They are now the ones with the relatively worse grades. They now face huge competition to get into scarce university places. And they are the ones that had their schooling disrupted just as much as the previous three years of students.

What a mess!

One saving grace

The one saving grace of all this is that we can probably regard this years exam results as valid JUST FOR THIS COHORT.

What I mean by this is that individuals who achieved A grades this year are probably better at exams than those who achieved C grades.

What you can’t do is compare this years results with 2020-2022. So we have a reliability problem!

  • 2019 A-levels measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ compared to previous years.
  • 2020 and 2021 measured how far teachers were prepared to take the p*** and give their students inflated grades based on their theories of what the maximum they could possibly achieve.
  • 2022 measured student’s ability to sit exams based on having pre-release knowledge of some the material they’d be assed on.
  • 2023 exam results measured students’ ability to sit exams under ‘normal conditions’ having had significant disruption to their schooling during the pandemic.

NB please note that by ‘better at exams’ that’s all I mean. A student’s ability to get an A* doesn’t necessarily mean they are more intelligent or a better potential employee than someone who gets a B grade.

The main reason for this (IMO) is that some students are better trained for exams than others. And exam training is a very narrow skill, intelligence more generally is a much broader concept.

The attainment gap has increased

The education attainment gap between private and state schools is now wider than it was before the pandemic. 47.4% of A-level entries from private schools were awarded A or A* grades compared to just 22% from state schools.

bar chart showing that schools in richer areas get better A-level results than poorer areas, England and Wales.

To my mind this suggests privately educated students have been more shielded from the disruptive effects of the pandemic over the last three years compared to state school students.

This makes sense given the material advantages these wealthy students have. Such as:

  • smaller class sizes
  • better access to online learning
  • private tuition.

Some of these resources would have been put into exam training of course, a key part of ‘hothousing’ private school children.

The attainment gap by region has also increased

If we breakdown regions in quintiles by deprivation we find that 30.3% of A-levels in the least deprived regions were awarded A and above compared to only 22.2 in the most deprived regions.

This means parental wealth and income affects educational achievement more generally. Private schools just have a more extreme advantage at the very top end. (Private schools account for around 7% of pupils, so 1/3rd of the top quintile.)

Relevance to A-level sociology

Unfortunately this shows that material deprivation still affects educational achievement.

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Sources/ Find out More

The Guardian: Equality Depends on Education

TES: A-Level Results Reveal Worsening Rich-Poor Divide

FFT Education Data Lab: 2023 A-level Results

Globalisation, Nations and National Identity

two responses to globalisation are more hybrid identities but also a retreat to more restrictive national identities.

Andrew Pilkington (2002) argues that nationalisms are socially constructed. Nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, despite the fact that many nationalist movements claim their origins go back thousands of years.

For most of human history, humans organised themselves in small social groups, and the idea of identifying with millions of strangers would have seemed alien.

It was only in the 18th century that the idea of nations and national identities started to emerge, encouraged by economic changes brought about through the industrial revolution. Strengthening the idea of the nation was also useful for colonialism.

A concept of ‘otherness’ was also central to developing national identities. For example the British (Protestant) national identity was developed in contrast, even opposition to the French (Catholic) national identity and vice versa.

development of mass communications that the abstract idea of the nation became possible and national identities started to be constructed.

Pilkington documented how a sense of Britishness gradually filtered down from the elite to the middle classes as the population became more literate during the 18th and 19 centuries and then down to the whole population as mass communications spread the idea more broadly.

All of the pomp and ritual surrounding the British monarchy has been a crucial part of establishing British national identity over the centuries, as well as stories about heroes who fought the French, such as Nelson.

Pilkington notes that the British National Identity has historically been very white, with Black and Asian people having almost no representation (NB this may have changed recently), but that it never managed to overwhelm Scottish, English or Welsh identities.

Globalisation and National Identity

Because they are socially constructed, ideas surrounding national identities change over time, and globalisation has had a profound impact on nations and nationalisms around the world.

Globalisation brings a dual threat to nations and national identities which come under pressure from centralisation and decentralisation.

  • Centralisation creates pressures from above, with the increasing importance of regional and international institutions such as the European Union and the World Health Organisation.
  • Decentralisation creates pressures from below with the strengthening of ethnic identities within countries and the breakup of some countries, such as the collapse of the USSR.

One response to globalisation is the strengthening of ethnic identities as ethnic minorities, such as the Welsh and Scottish within Britain (for example) stress their ethnic distinctiveness in relation to the English and campaign for more independence and autonomy from the British State – as we see with the development of the Welsh and Scottish partially devolved governments.

Some people see globalisation as threatening national identities and one response is to retreat into a more restrictive and narrow definition of Englishness. Anyone who claims that White Britishness is superior would fall into this category.

Another response is increasingly hybrid-identities as some people accept that it is possible to have multiple identities at the same time – to be simultaneously European, British and Scottish, for example.

A good example of this is Gordon Brown who once claimed that he believed Britain could be the first multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-national state. We see a similar mind-set in any group willing to celebrate hybrid-ethnic identities.


This material should be useful for anyone studying the culture and identity module as part of A-level sociology.

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Defining ‘Youth’

youth is a flexible concept, a social construct.

Youth is a state of transition between childhood and adulthood, and in most formal definitions the period of youth spans from later childhood to early adulthood.

The United Nations (1) defines youth as the ‘period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence’, setting the age of youth for statistical purposes at the ages of 15-24.

Youth: a flexible concept

The U.N. recognises that the concept of ‘youth’ is a social construct, because the ages typically associated with this period of life vary considerably from society to society. In Nigeria for example youth refers to people aged 18-35, while Brazil uses the same age ranged as the OECD (3) which places the ages for youth at 15-29.

Youth and puberty

Youth is partly associated with puberty in all societies.

Puberty is a universal biological phenomenon involving rapid physical growth, increasing strength and endurance, the development of reproductive organs, hormonal changes and more body hair.

The age at which puberty happens varies from individual to individual, but typically in the early teenage years between 10-11 and 15-17 years of age for girls and 11-12 and 16-17 for boys.

Taking the definition of youth from the U.N. above we can see that the period of youth includes the very end of puberty but mainly occurs after puberty.

Youth and Adolescence

Youth is not the same as adolescence. The World Health Organisation defines adolescence as the period between adulthood and childhood ranging from 10-19 years of age.

Hence youth includes around half of this period but also extends several years beyond it.

timeline of childhood, puberty and adolescence to adulthood
‘Youth’ starts around half way into the adolescent period.

The transitions of youth

There are several transitions commonly associated with the 10-15 year period from late childhood to full adulthood including, but not limited to…

  • Moving out of full time compulsory education which ends at 16 years of age in most Western societies.
  • Further and then higher education or training. Typically this means two years of further education and then three years of higher.
  • Low paid (relatively), varied, and maybe intermittent employment and maybe further training. (Moving into one’s first full time professional job role is often seen as one of the key indicators of having moved into full adult status.)
  • Living with parents or in shared rental accommodation.
  • Entering into one’s first long (or medium) term relationship, possible co-habitation.
  • Starting out on finding oneself and one’s true identity.
  • Importance of Leisure and lifestyle: going out, partying, music, festivals, travel.
  • Higher prevalence of deviance and drug usage.

The meanings people attach to the term ‘youth’ also vary considerably, and it can have both positive connotations such as youth being a time of energy and vigour and negative connotations such as moral panics over youth gangs and knife crime.

Individual variations in youth transitions

The fact that ‘youth’ spans such a long period of time: 15-29 years if we accept the time frame of the OECD, means we should not be surprised that there is a lot of variety in when young people transition to adulthood.

Some will go straight through Further and Higher Education and end up in their final, stable careers by age 23, or younger if they opt for higher apprenticeship route, others will take much longer because of time taken out before and after graduating.

It isn’t just individual factors that affect the age of transition to adulthood, social class and gender can have an impact too. For example middle class youth are more able to buy their own houses earlier than working class youth because of parental support, and moving into your own home is one indicator of transitioning to adulthood.

Transitions to adulthood in traditional societies

In some societies the transition from childhood to adulthood is clearly marked out through ceremonies.

For example the Nandi people of Kenya circumcise boys to mark them out as transitioning to men, and for the Bemba people of Namibia a girls transition to womanhood happens when she has her first period, when she is washed ceremonially and then isolated indoors for a period before she is allowed to return to the community as a woman.

The concept of youth: conclusions

Youth is much more of a social construct than other concepts associated with the sociology of age such as childhood and adolescence because it mostly encompasses young adulthood.

Hence this is a very broad concept spanning a very broad age range and we can expect there to be huge variation in the experience of youth both across and within societies.

Besides the semi-formal definitions of the concept provided by agencies such as the United Nations the term is commonly used informally, applied to young people of various ages often younger than 15, so when we use the term sociologically it is important to keep in mind and be clear about what ages we are referring to!


(1) The United Nations (2013) Definitions of Youth.

(2) Timeline Image of puberty, adolescence. – By Mikael Häggström – Own work, Public Domain.

(3) OECD: Updated Youth Action Plan.

Gender Biases in Health

Women are underrepresented in medical research and this forms the basis of gender inequalities in health care.

Medical systems discriminate against women, leaving them misunderstood, mistreated and misdiagnosed.

There are biological sex differences in every organ and system of the body that mean there are significant sex differences in the health issues men and women face, the causes of their different health problems and the effectiveness of the treatments we might use to tackle these problems.

But these differences have been ignored in medical education, research and diagnoses on the front line meaning that countless women have suffered and died unnecessarily because of gender-data gaps all the way through the medical profession.

This is according to Caroline Criado Perez (2019) in ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in World Designed for Men’, and below I summarise her chapter on gender bias in the medical professions.

Gender bias in medical education

Medical education is focused on ‘the male norm’ such that there is a male-default bias, with women in general being seen as abnormal.

This bias against women goes back to the Ancient Greeks: Aristotle saw the female body as a mutilated male body, the female was viewed as the male turned outside in and Ovaries were female testicle, not given their own name until the seventeenth century.

Representation of the male body as the norm persists in modern medical textbooks: A 2008 analysis of over 16000 textbooks revealed that the male body was used three times more than the female body to represent ‘neutral’ body parts; and the results of clinical trials were written up as relevant to both men and women even when women had been excluded from the trials.

Gender data gaps also exist in curricula, with gender related health issues rarely taught in medical degrees, and where they are, there are only a few courses in a few universities.

Health differences between men and women

There are significant biological differences between male and female bodies

There are sex differences in lung capacity such that women who smoke the same number of cigarettes to men are between 20-70% more likely to develop lung cancer.

Women are three times more likely than men to develop Autoimmune diseases, they make up 80% of those with these diseases.

There are sex differences in our cells and our proteins, in biological markers for autism and significant differences in how males and females respond to stress.

Research on heart attacks which focus mainly on men have found that chances of survival are higher if someone has a heart attack during the day, this is reliable research which has been repeated many times. However a 2016 study found a lower chance of survival for daytime heart attacks – the difference being that this study was done on female (mice).

Research bias in health studies

Women have largely been excluded from medical research.

Since the landmark discovery of the Y chromosome in 1990 as the ‘sex determining region’, most research has focused on testes development, it is only since 2010 that we started researching the active process of ovarian determination.

In 31 landmark trials of congestive heart failure between 1987 and 2012 females made up only 25% of participants.

Women make up 55% of people who are HIV positive in the developing world and yet less than 40% of people in vaccination studies were women and less than 20% were women in studies aiming to find a cure.

Pregnant women are routinely excluded from clinical trials to the extent that we lack solid data on how to treat them for practically anything. For example during the 2002-4 SARS outbreak in China pregnant women’s health outcomes were not systematically tracked, thus we have no information on how to treat them come the next pandemic.

Women are 70% more likely to suffer depression than men but animal studies on brain disorders are five times more likely to be done on male animals.

When female viagra was found to react negatively with alcohol in 2015 the manufacturer decided to run a trial – on 23 men and two women, and they did not sex-disaggregate their findings.

A 2001 audit of FDA records found that a third of documents didn’t sex-disaggregate their data and 40% didn’t even specify the sex of the respondents.

A 2014 op-ed in the journal Scientific American complained that including both men and women in experiments was a waste of resources.

The lack of sex-specific data prevents us from giving appropriate advice to women.

For example in 2011 the World Cancer Fund complained that only 50% of studies into the impact of diet on cancer specified differences between men and women so it is difficult to give sex-specific guidance for diets for women to reduce cancer risks.

CRT-D devices are used to correct delays in electrical signals in the heart. The frequency these are set to matters, they can save lives, and for men the correct frequency is 150 milliseconds, the default setting for both men and women. However when you sex-disaggregate the data you find that a setting of 130-149 MS reduced female deaths by 76%.

Even something as basic as advice on exercise is gender biased against women: trials have found that resistance training is bad if you have high blood pressure, again the standard advice for both sexes, but more recent research has found that it might actually benefit women with high blood pressure.


Women have been dying in greater numbers than they have to be, especially because they ingest 80% of pharmaceuticals in the U.S.

The whole of the medical profession is complicit in this and things need to change to save women’s lives!

Signposting and Sources

This material shows us that there are gender biases in healthcare, based on gender biases in medical research, and it reminds us of the continued importance of Feminism today.

Source: Caroline Criado Perez (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in World Designed for Men.

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Nationalism and Modernity

Ernest Gellner argued that the nations, the nation state and nationalism had their origins in modernity, more specifically in the French and industrial revolutions of the late 18th century.

The origins of Nationalism and the feelings associated with it are thus not rooted in human nature, but in the social processes which emerged with the particular historical period of modernity.

Industrialisation led to rapid economic growth based on a complex division of labour and this required a large scale rational system to organise and direct it, hence the emergence of the nation state and its bureaucratic systems.

The modern state requires large numbers of people to interact with strangers, which in turn requires them to have some sense of connectedness to each other. Mass education based on an official language taught in schools helped to form the basis for this sense of unity on a large scale.

Map of europe late 18th century
Nations emerged with modernity and the industrial revolution in Europe.

Evaluations of Gellner

Gellner’s theory is a functionalist one, and it tends to understate the extent to which modern education systems create divisions and inequalities.

His theory doesn’t explain the persistence of nationalism: national identity extends far beyond schooling and the kind of nationalisms we see in political conflicts can’t be explained by people simply having been taught in the same language at school several years or decades earlier.

The longing some people have for national identity precedes the industrial revolution by a long way, and there have been ethnic communities which resemble nations in previous periods: such as Jewish communities which stretch back 2000 years. The Palestinian minority in Israel also claim their origins in a longer historical time frame and that they have been displaced by the creation of the modern Israeli state in 1948.

Formal nation state identities in Europe are not recognised by some ethnic minority groups in many countries. A good example of this is the Basque language and identity which spans the border of France and Spain. Basques claim a unique identity of their own, neither French nor Spanish.

Nationalism is still an important part of identity

Malesevic (2019) reminds us that nationalism still has very broad appeal and argues that it is a ‘grounded ideology’ that has mass appeal and has been part of the political projects of peoples across the political spectrum: from liberals to socialists throughout modernity.

When globalisation theory started to become popular in the 1990s some predicted that the nation state and nationalism would decline in importance.

For example, Giddens thought that the Nation State was too big to deal with local problems and too small to deal with global problems. He also thought we would see an increasing importance for a global, cosmopolitan identity.

However as examples such as Brexit, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the pro-American rhetoric of Donald Trump and Jo Biden show us, ideas of nationalism and national identity have remained a persistent part of modern society!


This material is relevant to the Culture and Identity aspect of the A-level sociology specification.

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Siniša Malešević (2019) Grounded Nationalisms: A Sociological Analysis

Unequal parental choice

marketisation policies mean unequal parental choice as middle class parents have more cultural capital

Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1) examined the effects that marketisation policies which introduced competition and parental choice were having on the education system and on the opportunities for different social groups.

They found that middle class parents had more effective choice of schools because of their higher levels of cultural, social and material capital.

Researching parental choice

They studied 15 schools in neighbouring LEAs in England between 1994 and 1991 using a range of research methods including visiting the schools, attending meetings, interviewing teachers and parents and examining documents.

Central to the research study was a series of interviews with 150 parents whose children were in the final year of primary school, and so were in the process of choosing secondary schools. Some areas had mainly middle class populations, some mainly working class and some had significant ethnic minority populations, so the researchers were able to compare parental choice across these groups.

Marketisation: the effects on schools

The overall effect was a shift in the value framework of schools from comprehensive to market values.

The publication of league tables meant that schools were more keen to attract those more able students who could boost their position in the league tables. There was more of a focus on what prospective students could do for the school rather than what the school could do for the students.

Some schools had introduced setting and streaming so as to more effectively focus resources on those students who were judged likely to succeed and some schools had started to view students like commodities.

Schools were also putting more resources into marketing to promote a positive image of the school: producing glossy brochures to attract parents and staff were expected to spend more time on marketing activities, mainly opening days and evenings.

Neighbouring schools had stopped co-operating with each other and there was a new attitude of suspicion and hostility in some cases.

Schools lower down the league tables were more obsessed with trying to attract pupils, while the more successful schools were able to be more complacent and selective with the students they chose.

Budgetary concerns such as cutting costs were becoming more important than educational and social issues.

Marketisation and unequal parental choice

Gewirtz et al argued that not all parents had equal choice of schools. The amount of choice was limited by the availability of schools in the local area and the capacity of parents to make informed choices.

They identified three types of parents based on their ability to choose:

  • Privileged or skilled choosers
  • Semi-skilled choosers
  • Disconnected choosers

Skilled choosers

Skilled choosers were strongly motivated to put energy into choosing the ‘right’ school for their child and had the ability to make an informed choice.

Skilled choosers are mainly middle class and some had inside knowledge of the school system, such as those who were teachers themselves and tended to choose the most successful schools for their children.

They had both the knowledge to evaluate schools and the money to be able to move to into the catchment area of a particular school they wanted their child to go to.

Semi-skilled choosers

Semi-skilled choosers have a strong motivation to choose by limited capacity to engage with the market. They are less likely to be middle class than skilled-choosers.

They have just a strong a desire to get their children into the best schools but lack the cultural skills and social contacts to be able to make their choices stick.

For example semi-skilled choosers feel less at home at parents evening, less comfortable asking difficult questions and and are less likely to appeal if they don’t get their first choice of school.

As a result this group are more likely to settle for their child just going to a local school rather than a better school that they originally wanted.

Disconnected choosers

Disconnected choosers are just as concerned with their children’s education and welfare but don’t get involved with the school-choice market because they don’t believe it will benefit their children as they think there is little difference between schools.

They tend to consider a smaller number of school options, typically only the two nearest schools to where they live, and their child typically ends up going to one of these local schools which is unlikely to be the best academically.

Disconnected choosers are more concerned with their child’s happiness than them going to a school with a good academic record, and so sending them to a local school where their friends are also going makes sense.

Disconnected choosers are typically working class and the most likely group to send their children to undersubscribed, underperforming schools.

definitions of skilled, semi-skilled and disconnected choosers

Cultural and material capital and differential choice

Marketisation policies have made education less equal. Middle class parents are in a better position than working class parents to send their children to a school of their choice.

Because middle class parents have more cultural and social capital they are more able to play the system effectively:

  • they can make a better impression with the head teacher at open day.
  • they are more likely to make private appointments to discuss school choice.
  • they are more likely to appeal if they are not successful in their application.
  • In some cases they are more likely to actually know staff at the school.
  • They have more time and money to research and visit schools.

They also have more money which can help with:

  • moving into the catchment areas of the best schools.
  • Extra tuition to get their children into grammar schools.
  • Paying for transport or driving their children to schools which may be several miles away.

In contrast working class parents were more likely to want their children to go to local schools because then they didn’t have to make long and dangerous journeys (which maybe expensive) and they had access to their local community which was a support network.

In Bourdieu’s terms both middle class and working class parents made school choices based on their habitus, or their different lived experiences. And this meant the middle classes having free choice over a wide area, and the working classes simply choosing to stay local, which effectively meant no real choice at all!


This material is relevant to the sociology of education topic, it is especially relevant to demonstrating how social and cultural capital give the middle classes an advantage in education.


(1) Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1994) Parents, privilege and the education market‐place

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Speech patterns and educational achievement

restricted and elaborated speech codes explain social class differences in achievement.

Speech and language are important aspects of communication and a child’s ability to learn is related to their ability to communicate effectively with adults and other children.

A child with more developed speech and language skills can learn faster than those with less developed skills, and thus will have better educational achievement.

Moreover a child’s ability at language (in English Language key stage tests, for example) is in fact a measure of their level of educational achievement, so in one respect, a child’s ability to communicate (at least in formal tests) is the same as their level of educational attainment!

This post summarises and evaluates Basil Bernstein’s work on speech patterns.

Speech patterns

Basil Bernstein (1) developed the theory that there are two different types of speech patterns, or speech codes: the restricted code and the elaborated code, the later having a wider vocabulary and more complex grammatical structures than the former.

He theorised that the working classes were largely limited to speaking in the restricted code, while the middle classes used both the elaborate and restricted codes, and that the limited use of the restricted code by working class children explained their relative underachievement in education compared to middle class children.

A comparison of the restricted and elaborated speech code

The restricted speech code

Bernstein stated that restricted speech codes are characterised by ‘short, grammatically simple, often unfinished sentences’.

This code has limited use of adjectives or adverbs and meanings are often conveyed by gesture and voice intonation.

The restricted code tends to operate in terms of particularistic meanings – it is usually linked to a specific context and utterances only make sense to people in that immediate context.

It is a sort of short hand between close friends or partners that have a shared understanding of a social situation such that there is no need to spell out meanings in any great detail.

The elaborated speech code

Elaborated speech code has a wider vocabulary and uses more complex grammatical structures than the restricted code.

It provides more in-depth explanations of meanings than the restricted speech code does and thus operates in terms of universalistic meanings: listeners do not need to be embedded in a specific context to fully understand what is being communicated.

To illustrate the difference between the two speech codes consider a cartoon strip of four pictures:

  1. Some boys playing football
  2. The ball breaking a window
  3. A woman looking out of the window and a man shaking his fist
  4. The boys running away.

A middle class child speaking the elaborated code would be able to describe the pictures in such a way that you wouldn’t need the pictures to fully understand the story, everything would be explained in detail. The explanation here would be free of the context, universal!

A working class child speaking the restricted code would refer to the pictures so that you would need to see the pictures to understand the story. The explanation here would remain dependent on the context.

Speech patterns and educational attainment

Formal education is conducted in the elaborated speech code, so working class kids are automatically at a disadvantage compared to middle class kids.

The elaborated code is necessary to make generalizations and to be able to understand higher order concepts.

Bernstein found that middle class children were much more able to classify things such as food into higher order categories such as vegetables, or meats, for example. Working class kids were more likely to classify them according to personal experiences such as ‘things mum cooks for me’.

Evaluations of Bernstein

His concept of social class is too vague. Sometimes he refers to the working class, others he talks about the lower working class. He also puts all non-manual workers into ‘middle class’ thus ignoring variation between the middle classes.

Bernstein also provides only limited examples of the two types of speech code. He does not make a convincing case that either of them actually exist in reality!

Labov (1973) criticized Bernstein for alluding to the elaborated code being superior, whereas in reality working class and middle class speech are just different, it is only the cultural dominance of the elaborated code in education that makes it seem superior.


The language of African Americans and White Americans can be very different, but it is historically Anglo-American English which is taught as standard English in schools.

Thus African American pupils in the USA have had a particularly negative experience of language in school, often experiencing school as a linguistically and culturally alienating environment.

Rather than their children feeling alienated, some activists adopted ‘Ebonics’ (the language of African Americans) as a medium of instruction, celebrating their linguistic heritage and pointing out differences with the ‘standard’ Anglo-American English.

Ebonics has highlighted the following:

  • it has indicated the extent to which language plays a role in educational success or failure.
  • It raised questions about the appropriateness of standard English in assessments.
  • It highlighted cultural tensions between several minority pupils in schools and the school curriculum.

This topic is relevant to the sociology of education, especially the issue of social class differences in educational achievement.


(1) Bernstein (1971) Class, Codes and Control, Volume 1.

Barlett and Burton (2021): Introduction to Education Studies, fifth edition

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Feminist Perspectives on Socialisation

Oakley argued parents socialised passive children into traditional gender roles, but her work is criticised by the newer concept of gendering.

Ann Oakley developed sex-role theory to argue that there are distinct gender roles that come from culture rather than biological differences between men and women.

These roles are learned through childhood and continue on into adulthood and tend to maintain male dominance and female subservience.

Socialisation and Gender Roles

Socialisation shapes the behaviour of boys and girls from a young age, with boys and girls learning that there are certain activities gendered: some ways of acting are appropriate for boys and others for girls. Oakley (1974) argued here are four main processes involved.

  1. Manipulation
  2. Canalisation
  3. Verbal appellations
  4. Activities


Parents start to manipulate their children into gendered identities from the very first days of their lives. For example, girls tend to be ‘cooed to’ and held more tenderly than boys who are more likely to be ‘bounced on the knee’ (albeit gently when they are very young) and hence treated a little more roughly.

Mothers will also pay more attention to a girls appearance, especially bonding through doing her daughter’s hair, and girls will be dressed at least occasionally in more ‘feminine’ dresses while boys will be dressed in more ‘masculine’ clothes.


Gender differences are reinforced through canalisation which involves the direction of boys and girls towards gendered objects, which is most evidence in the different toys available for boys and girls, which tend to reflect stereotypical future male and female roles in society.

Boys will be directed towards toys which encourage manual labour such as Bob the Builder toy tool sets, toy cars and trains which emphasise speed and excitement and even overtly violent toys which encourage aggressive behaviour such as guns.

Girls are more likely to be directed towards more passive toys such as arts and crafts, flower arranging, and those encouraging the house-wife and motherhood role like toy domestic appliances, dolls and prams.

Gendered Activities

Boys are more likely to be encouraged to engage in adventurous or risky activities, such as camping, climbing, going to adventure playgrounds, and physical sports such as football and rugby.

Boys are also expected to be naughty more than girls, with some parents even think it is more acceptable for boys than for girls to spend time playing football (for example) rather than doing their homework.

Girls are expected to play more of a role doing domestic chores and maybe even caring for younger siblings, and are generally expected to be more passive and less adventurous than girls.

One manifestation of these differences might be that boys are allowed to travel further on their scooters or bikes when out with their parents compared to girls.

Verbal appellations

Boys are less likely to be told off for being ‘deviant’ than girls while girls are more likely to be cautioned against such behaviours and praised for being good and obedient.

Girls are more likely than boys to be called ‘pretty’ and ‘beautiful’ which may explain why girls are more likely to worry about their appearance in later life compared to boys.

Boys are more likely to called tough or strong: ‘oh my, what a strong boy you are, look how fast you can run’ and so on.

Criticisms of Oakley

Oakley’s work has been very influential within Feminist sociology but she has been criticised for overstating the passive nature of gender socialisation and sex-role theory entirely fails to explain the increasing diversity of gender identities.

Sex-role theory does not explain power differences between men and women. It does not explain WHY it is men who are socialised into dominant positions and women in subordinate positions.

Oakley’s theory is based on the notion that there are clearly differentiated roles for men and women in society, whereas postmodern feminism suggests there is more of a diversity of roles.

It is a very passive theory of socialisation. It assumes that girls and boys simply soak up gender norms from their parents, whereas in reality boys and girls play a more active role in their own socialisation, and there are plenty of children who actively resist being socialised into traditional gender norms.


Gendering refers to an active process of individuals ‘doing gender’ and thus actively creating gender differences. It recognises that individuals play an active role in their own socialisation rather than it being a passive process in which their identities are simply determined by their social environment.

Individuals are influenced by their social environment but they actively engage and interact with it, and some choose to accept dominant gender norms and thus reproduce more traditional gender roles, but others choose to resist and challenge such norms creating a greater diversity of gender identities and changing the social environment.

Three levels of gendering

Harriet Bradley (2007) developed a theory of how gendering works, suggesting that that it operates at three different levels:

  1. The micro level involves individual decisions by men and women
  2. The meso level involves social institutions which rules about the expected behaviour of men and women: such as gendered school uniforms in school and sex-segregation in sports and prisons, for example.
  3. The macro or societal level. The micro and meso level come together to form structural differences in gender norms and roles which are very robust and operate across the whole of society.

Gendering at the these three levels operates to limit the behaviour of most ordinary men and women in day to day life. One example Bradley gives is that men cannot usually choose to wear dresses.

There is always the capacity for individuals to break away from gender norms (gendering is an active process after all), but we tend to see this most in people with power who are removed from the ordinary duties of daily life. Pop stars, for example, are among those most likely to break with traditional gender norms, because they have more freedom to experiment with diverse identities than ordinary people who have to hold down a regular job and look after their children.


This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity option which forms part of the first year A-level Sociology course (AQA specification)

Sources/ fiND OUT MORE

Anne Oakley (1974) The Sociology of Housework

Harriet Bradley (2007) Gender.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Postmodernism and Popular Culture

Postmodern theories of popular culture emphasise a breakdown of the boundaries between culture, society, art and popular culture, substance over style and a decline of metanarratives

Postmodern theories of popular culture have become increasingly dominant in recent decades. According to Dominic Strinati this is because capitalism is now focused on consumerism, and postmodern theories are being popularised by a new ‘creative’ middle class seeking power, and people are listening to them because of the erosion of collective identities.

In this post I summarise Strinati’s analysis of the main features of postmodern analyses of popular culture, his theory of why postmodern theories are so popular (summarised above) and his evaluations of postmodernism, which are mainly critical.

Five main features of a postmodern analysis of popular culture

There are five main features of a postmodern analysis of popular culture:

  1. The distinction between culture and society disappears
  2. Style is emphasised over substance
  3. A breakdown in the distinction between art and popular culture
  4. confusion over time and space
  5. A belief in the decline of metanarratives

The distinction between culture and society disappears

Postmodern culture is a media saturated culture. Rather than describing our social reality the media become so dominant and all-encompassing that they create our reality

Computers are the main hardware behind this. Virtual realities become more important than face to face in-person interactions and the economy is more focused on the buying and selling of digital products rather than physical products.

Style over substance

Particular products become popular because they have a label which evokes an attractive lifestyle.

Societies develop a ‘designer ideology’ – surface qualities become more important than anything deeper.

Playfulness and jokes become more important than substance content and meaning. Qualities such as realism, authenticity, integrity, intellectual clarity and seriousness are undermined.

A breakdown of the distinction between art and popular culture

In Postmodernism, art is anything which can be turned into a meme.

As a result elements of what used to be thought of as high culture become incorporated into popular, postmodern culture, and the status of individual pieces of art are undermined.

There is no longer anything special about ‘art’ – in Postmodern culture art is subsumed into everyday life, it becomes part of it.

An example of this is Andy Warhole’s ’30 are better than one’ in which he produced a print of 30 copies of the Mona Lisa…

Andy Warhole: 30 Are Better than One.

Confusion over Time and Space

Following the ideas of David Harvey, instantaneous communications and rapid travel mean that people’s sense of time and space become confused.

Instantaneous global news reporting mean that people get information about events taking away thousands of miles away as soon as they happen, and this means people’s sense of space gets confused – in the course of one news show, multiple events which are distant all seems close to oneanother!

Postmodern culture also relates confuses people’s sense of time. Theme parks recreate the past and try to create the future, incorporating copies of historical architecture with futuristic installations. Many city scapes are also bewildering mixtures of historical buildings and cutting edge works of postmodern skyscrapers.

Postmodern films and T.V. shows are also more likely to jump around in time, not moving straightforwardly from beginning to end, and thus our sense of linear time is disrupted.

The recent Netflix series, Kaleidoscope, is a good example of this

Postmodern culture involves the decline of metanarratives

Following Lyotard, postmodern culture also means people have a declining faith in the validity of ‘big stories’ such as political ideologies or religions, or anything else which makes a claim to the universal truth.

Postmodern culture rejects the idea that there is any sense of progress in history, and this is shown in the use of the collage which mixes elements drawn from many different genres, cultures and historical periods.

The implicit idea of the collage is that one can mix and match anything together and that no one aspect of the collage is any more valid than or superior to any other aspect.

Reasons for the Emergence of Postmodernism

There are three main reasons for the emergence of postmodern theories:

  1. Capitalism taking a consumerist turn, away from heavy production
  2. The rise of new middle ‘creative’ classes
  3. The erosion of collective identities.

Capitalism turns to consumerism

In the early phases of capitalism, capital invested in industry which focussed on the production of basic material goods to meet people’s basic human needs.

In advanced industrial societies the majority of people can meet their basic needs with a relatively small proportion of their income, and populations have more money and time for leisure.

Thus capitalism turns its attention to investing in mechanisms that can persuade people to buy goods and services they don’t actually need but they consume simply for pleasure and enjoyment in their leisure time.

Hence why the media becomes central in postmodern culture, it is the primary avenue through which capitalists advertise unnecessary yet desirable leisure products to consumers.

The New ‘Creative’ Middle Classes

In postmodern culture a new middle class emerges consisting of people with jobs in design, marketing, advertising and a whole host of creative industries.

People in these jobs are concerned with persuading people about the importance of taste, and once people are persuaded, these ‘creatives’ become experts who are relied upon, with people usually accessing their expertise through the media.

Strinati also sees jobs such as teachers and therapists as being more important because these people are concerned (at least to some extent) with guiding people into particular lifestyles, and thus encourage people to take their lifestyle seriously.

Ultimately once people adopt a lifestyle that they believe is suited to them, as advised on and legitimated by experts, they are more likely to consume goods and services to enhance that lifestyle.

Postmodern culture is accelerated by this new middle classes’ quest for power.

The erosion of collective identities

In postmodern society the bases of traditional collective identities such as social class, community and the nation-state have been eroded.

People’s identities become more individualised, with popular culture and media being the only frame of reference some people have to construct their identities.

An Evaluation of Postmodern Theories of Culture:

As well as describing postmodern theories of culture, Strinati also evaluates them.

Postmodern theorists greatly exaggerate the extent to which media realities have taken over from grounded reality. There is little evidence that people can’t distinguish that characters in soap operas are real, for example. Also, many people still look to work and family as important sources of identity, and a lot of people switch off their media devices from time to time as well!

Postmodern theory exaggerates the ability of the media to shape what people consume. Those who do purchase products are discerning and often choose not too (preferring to save for a house, for example), and also at least the bottom 15% of society are too poor to take part in a high-consumption lifestyle.

Postmodern is itself a metanarrative. The popularity of postmodernism undermines the claim that metanarratives are in decline!

Strinati accepts David Harvey’s view that people’s perceptions of time and space have been altered in postmodern culture, but notes that not all people have the same capacity to share in time-space compression. Most people in the world cannot afford to travel on airplanes!

Strinati accepts that there has been something of a breakdown in the distinction between art and culture in postmodernity, but this mainly applies to the design and creative industries (the ‘new occupations’). Most people can distinguish between art and popular culture.

There is still hierarchy in postmodernism, postmodernist put their playful collage culture at the top, at least they try to!

Postmodernism has had a limited impact on popular culture , mainly in the spheres of architecture and advertising, but elsewhere very little impact.

For example in film, most films still have distinct, modernist style narratives, or strong, linear story lines with familiar themes and characters. There is really very little new about them compared to films from the 1950s!

Postmodern theories of culture: Conclusions

Strinati concludes that postmodernists claims that we now have a distinct postmodern popular culture in which all boundaries and hierarchies have disappeared is greatly exaggerated.

Ultimately, postmodern theories of culture are too limited to help us develop a sociology of popular culture.

Signposting and Relevance to A-level Sociology

This material has primarily been written for students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of A-level Sociology.

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Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

Andy Warhole: 30 Are Better than one (fair use)

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