Bias – where someone’s personal, subjective feelings or thoughts affect one’s judgement.
Falsification – where scientists attempt to design experiments to disprove a hypothesis rather to prove a hypothesis correct.
Generalisability – the extent to which research findings can be applied to other (similar) cases
Hawthorne effect – where respondents alter their behaviour because they know they are being observed. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of overt laboratory and field experiments.
Hypothesis – a theory or explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation. A hypothesis will typically take the form of a testable statement about the effect which one or more independent variables will have on the dependent variable.
Hypothetico-Deductive Model – a method of gaining knowledge by proposing a hypothesis and then doing experiments to obtain observable data which can then be used to either affirm or reject and reformulate the hypothesis.
Objective knowledge – knowledge which is free of the biases, opinions and values of the researcher, it reflects what is really ‘out there’ in the social world
Realism – The view that sociology can be scientific in the way in which ‘open systems’ sciences such as meteorology are scientific, but not scientific in the way in which ‘closed systems’ sciences such as physics or chemistry can be scientific:
Social Facts – according to Emile Durkheim, these are forces which exist externally to the individual and constrain that individual, such as language.
Socially constructed – Interpretivists argue that official statistics are socially constructed – that is they are the result of the subjective decisions made by the people who collect them rather than reflecting the objective underlying reality of social life. For example Crime Statistics do not reflect the actual crime rate, only those activities which are defined as crimes by the people who notice them and who then go on to report those activities to the police.
Subjective knowledge – knowledge based purely on the opinions of the individual, reflecting their values and biases, their point of view. See also ‘objective knowledge’.
The Scientific Method – see the Hypothetico deductive model
Value Freedom – where a researcher’s personal opinions, beliefs and feelings are kept out the research process so that data collected is not influenced by the personal biases of the researcher.
Verstehen – a German word meaning to ‘understand in a deep way’ – in order to achieve ‘Verstehen’ a researcher aims to understand another person’s experience by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes.
definitions of the key concepts for the A-level sociology of education module (AQA focus)
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 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.
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.
Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.
Hirschi argued that when an individual is more attached to society they are less likely to commit crime. He theorised that there were 4 main bonds of attachment – commitment, attachment, involvement and belief. For more details please see this post: Hirschi’s Control Theory of Crime.
Broken Windows Theory
A theory of crime developed in the 1980s and associated with Right Realism. Broken Windows theory states that crime increases in areas where there are high levels of ‘social disorder’, characterised by such things as high levels of litter, graffiti and broken windows. These signs give off the impression that people in the area don’t care, and that there are low levels of informal social control, and criminals are thus drawn to such areas. As a result, social disorder and crime increases further.
Context Dependency Deviance
Whether or not an act is deviant depends on the society in which the act takes place, the historical period, and the actors present. The context dependency of deviance emphasises the fact that the same form of behaviour can be considered deviant in one society, but not deviant in another.
Crimes committed by or for corporations or businesses which act to further their interests and have a serious physical or economic impact on employees, consumers and the general public. The drive is usually the desire to increase profits.
The breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a punishment – depending on the society this might ultimately mean imprisonment or the death penalty.
The Marxist idea that the exploitative capitalist system generates crime. According to Marxists, the self-interested pursuit of profit lies at the heart of the Capitalist system. The means whereby the Capitalist class get rich is by exploiting workers through paying them as little as possible to increase their profits, and they also encourage materialism, to increase demand for the goods they produce. A final way capitalism generates crime is by creating inequality – resulting in a significant number of people at the bottom of society (the underclass) who are effectively unable to consume at a reasonable level.
Dark figure of crime
The amount of unreported, or undiscovered crime. These are the crimes which do not appear in Official Police Statistics.
Behaviour that varies from the accepted standard of normal behaviour in society. It implies that an individual is breaking social norms in a negative way.
Dog Eat Dog Society
A phrase associated with Marxist Sociologist David Gordon who said that capitalist societies are ‘dog eat dog societies’ in which each individual company and each individual is encouraged to look out for their own self-interest before the interests of others, before the interests of the community, and before the protection of the environment.
A set of cultural beliefs, values, and attitudes that underlie and justify either the status quo or movements to change it. The culture of every social system has an ideology that serves to explain and justify its own existence as a way of life. In Sociology, Marxists use the term the ‘dominant ideology’ to refer to the world-view of the ruling class, which they present to everyone else as normal – their world view passes of inequality and exploitation as normal and natural, thus justifying their existence.
The idea that institutions such as schools and the media teach a set of norms and values which work in the interests of the powerful and prevent social change. For example, Marxists say the education system performs ‘ideological functions’ for the Capitalist system and the Bourgeois: they believe that the norms of punctuality and acceptance of authority and hierarchy prepares us for our future exploitation at work, which benefits future employers more than workers.
Labelling is the process of pre-judging/ categorising an individual based on superficial characteristics or stereotypical assumptions. For example when a teacher decides a scruffy looking student is not intelligent.
A moral entrepreneur is an individual, group or formal organization that seeks to influence a group to adopt or maintain a norm. Moral entrepreneurs are those who take the lead in labelling a particular behaviour and spreading or popularizing this label throughout society.
Neutralisation of Opposition
In Marxist theory resistance to capitalism and eventual revolution should come from the working classes once they realise the injustice of the high level of exploitation they face. However, according to Marxist criminologists, the criminal justice system works to get rid of opposition by selectively locking up working class (Rather than middle class) criminals which prevents resistance and revolution. Selective law enforcement does this in three main ways:
By literally incarcerating (‘incapacitating) thousands of people who could potentially be part of a revolutionary movement.
By punishing individuals and making them responsible for their actions, defining these individuals as ‘social failures’ we ignore the failings of the system that lead to the conditions of inequality and poverty that create the conditions which lead to crime.
The imprisonment of many members of the underclass also sweeps out of sight the ‘worst jetsam of Capitalist society’ such that we cannot see it, thus we are less aware of the injustice of inequality in society.
Official Crime Statistics
Official Statistics are numerical information collected by the government and its agencies – the two main types of crime statistics collected by government agencies are Police Recorded Crime, and the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Crime statistics also encompass Prison Statistics, which include information about the numbers and characteristics of prisoners.
Police recorded Crime
All crimes reported to and recorded by the police. Police forces around the country record crime in categories that are outlined in the Home Office counting rules. These include: violence against the person, sexual offences, robber, burglary, theft, handling stolen goods, fraud and forgery, criminal damage, drug offences and ‘other offences’.
Rational Choice Theory
Believes individuals make rational (logical) decisions about whether or not to commit a crime the crime rate is affected mainly by three factors – the available opportunities to commit crime, the perceived risk of getting caught, and severity of the punishment the offender believes they will receive if they are caught. According to Rational Choice Theory, the more opportunities to commit crime, the lower the risk of getting caught and the lower the likelihood of punishment, then the higher the crime rate will be.
Lacking sufficient resources to maintain a standard of living or lifestyle which is regarded as normal or average in a given society; or lacking sufficient resources to maintain a living standard which is approved of by society. While it is possible to measure relative deprivation objectively, there is a subjective element to this concept which can make it difficult to measure – an individual can feel relatively deprived even when they are relatively well-off compared to the average, if they have an unrealistic idea about what ‘the average is’. This concept is associated with Left Realism and Jock Young’s Vertigo of Late Modernity especially.
Surveys in which a selected cross section of the population is asked what offences they have committed. A good example of a self-report study is the ‘Youth Lifestyles Survey’ – although the last one was done over a decade ago.
Selective Law Enforcement
Where the police mainly focus on policing working class (and underclass) areas and the justice system mainly focuses on prosecuting working and underclass criminals, while ignoring the crimes of the elite and the middle classes, although both of these classes are just as likely to commit crime as the working classes. A concept associated with Marxist criminologist David Gordon.
Where an individual accepts their label and the the label becomes true in practice.
Where people are connected to society through social institutions. The more connections an individual has to social institutions, the more integrated an individual is to society. For example, someone with a job, with a family, and who spends time with others in the community is more integrated than an unemployed single loner.
reaffirming the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. High levels of social regulation basically mean explicit and clear rules and norms which set out clear social expectations. In Functionalist theory an appropriate amount of social regulation is essential for preventing anomie which leads to high levels of suicide and other forms of deviant and criminal behaviour.
Where something is the product of social processes rather than just being natural. For example, most sociologists agree that crime is socially constructed because people in society decide what crime is law breaking behaviour, and laws are made-up by people and change over time, thus crime varies from society to society. Similarly, we can say that crime statistics are socially constructed because they are the result of a series of social interactions – of people witnessing and reporting crimes and then the police recording them, rather than the stats reflecting the actual real number of crimes in any society.
Society of Saints
A phrase associated with Emile Durkheim which emphasises the inevitability and social necessity of crime. Durkheim argued that even in a ‘society of saints’ populated by perfect individuals deviance would still exist. In such a society there might be no murder or robbery, but there would still be deviance. The general standards of behaviour would be so high that the slightest slip would be regarded as a serious offence. Thus the individual who simply showed bad taste, or was merely impolite, would attract strong disapproval.
A concept developed by Albert Cohen in Delinquent Boys (1956) – he used it to explain working-class male delinquency as being a collective reaction against middle class success – working class boys tried hard in school and failed to gain status, got frustrated, found each other and formed a deviant subculture – status was gained within the subculture by being deviant and going against the rules of the school.
A group which has at least some norms and values which are different to those held in mainstream society, and can thus be regarded as deviant.
A term first coined by American Sociologist Charles Murray (1989) – The underclass’ refers to the long term unemployed who are effectively welfare dependent. They have higher rates of teen pregnancies and single parent households and much higher crime rates. Some statistical analysis suggests that the underclass (approximately 1% of the population) might commit as much as 50% recorded crime in the UK.
Ask people whether they have been a victim of crime, typically in the previous 12 months. The most comprehensive victim survey in England and Wales is the ‘Crime Survey of England and Wales’.
White Collar Crime
White-collar crime refers to financially motivated nonviolent crime committed by business and government professionals. Within criminology, it was first defined by sociologist Edwin Sutherland in 1939 as “a crime committed by a person of respectability and high social status in the course of his occupation”.
Zero Tolerance Policing
Involves the police strictly enforcing every facet of law, including paying particular attention to minor activities such as littering, begging, graffiti and other forms of antisocial behaviour. It actually involves giving the police less freedom to use discretion –the police are obliged to hand out strict penalties for criminal activity.
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