This video with Professor David Nutt on the bizarre way in which drugs are (miss) classified and (miss) regulated in the UK seems to be coming from an Interactionist point of view:
In the video Professor Nutt discusses how authorities inappropriately label/ categories certain drugs as harmful when really they are not and then harsher than appropriate penalties follow as a result.
Firstly he reminds us that categorisation (labelling) by authorities is fundamental to the way we understand and manage drugs – for a start there are two types – drugs for medical use (legal) and then illegal drugs.
Illegal drugs are controlled and categorised by the ‘misuse of drugs act’, which Nutt describes as being made up by a group of people based on what they thought.
The act classifies drugs into categories A, B or C. Less harmful drugs are in category C while more harmful drugs are in category A.
Class A includes drugs such as heroine and ecstasy
Class B includes cannabis
Class C includes Steroids, for example,
Over the last 20 years politicians have got more involved in categorising drugs based on their desire to be seen as being tough on drugs and thus tough on crime, and Professor Nut believes certain drugs have been mis-categoriesed.
For example, the medical evidence suggests that Ectasy is not a particularly risky drug, but government officials have put it in category A, along with the highly addictive and really harmful heroine and cocaine.
As a result, people caught with Ecstasy receive harsher penalties than they should based on the relative harm the drug does, just because of the whim of government.
In fact they often face harsher penalties just based on the categorisation – because Judges tend to be more lenient handing out punishments to Heroine users precisely because the later is more addictive while Ectasy is not.
So we have a situation where people are being punished for using recreational drugs with little harmful consequence associated with the drug itself.
A more systematic classification system
Nutt has worked with medical experts to produce a new classification system for drugs based on nine categories of harm, outlining several different harms which drugs do, both to the individual and society.
There is only data for some of these measurements, but for the data that exists Alcohol comes out on top.
Alcohol is the most common reason for deaths in men under 50, for example.
If you look at the individual only, Crack Cocaine and Crystal Meth come out on top, but because alcohol is so widely used once we factor in social harms it comes out as the most harmful
Why isn’t Alcohol regulated by the misuse of drugs act?
The fact that alcohol is not harmed is a huge anomaly – and the reasons it is not controlled is political and economic – the drinks industry makes a fortune and so does the government through taxes.
Now they’ve had a day to do some basic analysis of the Scottish exam results the newspapers have had a chance to put their spin on the story – and the narrative runs something like this:
First narrative – ‘Scottish pupils have had their teacher predicted grades lowered by the qualifications authority’.
Second narrative: – Poor Scottish pupils have had their teacher predicted grades lowered more than rich pupils.
Links to both the above are at the end of this article
This makes for a great story, but I think they might be misleading. As far as I can see, this year’s National Five Scottish students have done better than they would, on average, had they sat the exams.
If you compare the previous years’ results with the teacher predicted grades you get to see how exaggerated those predictions were…..
A comparison of previous year’s results with teacher predicted grades and the actual downward-adjusted grades
All of the data above is from the articles linked below – NB the blue column for the least and most deprived clusters is only 2019 data, A-C pass rate, and the exam results I’m looking are the National 5s, equivalent to the English GCSE.
What’s really going on?
Teachers in Scotland grossly inflated the predicted grades of their pupils, by 10% compared to previous years on average.
They exaggerated the results of the poorest students more than for rich students (bloody left-wing teachers that is!)
The exam authorities modified the results downards, but the results received are still much better than the previous years, showing an improvement.
The poorest students have improved dramatically.
It’s highly unlikely that this bunch of students is hyper-successful compared to previous years, so thus unlikely we would have seen an increase in 10% points in the pass rate.
I think the real thing to keep in mind here is what really goes on in exams – pupils sit them, they are marked, and then stats magic is done on them so we end up with a similar amount of passes and grades distribution to the previous years – so it’s hard-wired into exams that little is going to change year on year.
That’s what we’re seeing here – the exam board adjusting to fit the results in with business as usual, but they’ve had to compromise with those optimistic teachers trying to game the system, and as a result, excuse the pun, this year’s Scottish students have done very well, especiallly the poor.
The students who should be angry are last year’s – they’ve lost out relative to this years, next year’s probably too, and those poor mugs actually had to sit their exams, and didn’t get four months off school!
This probably won’t be the way it’s spun in the media – it’s easy enough to find a few students a parents with individual axes to grind, against the overall trend of the 2020 cohort doing very nicely, thank you teachers!
This classic ethnographic study suggests that teacher stereotypes and labelling have a negative impact on Asian and Black Caribbean students in primary schools
This classic ethnographic study of four inner city primary schools suggests that the teacher labeling of ethnic minorities leads to them having a more negative experience of school than white children.
The study took place In 1988-1989, and was published in 192. The main research methods included classroom observations and interviews with both school staff (teachers, managers and support staff) and the parents of some students.
The study involved researching almost 1000 students, 57 staff and 38 parents.
Wright’s main conclusion was that although the majority of staff seemed genuinely committed to the ideals of treating students from different ethnic background equally, in practice there was discrimination within the classroom.
Wright found that Asian students were often excluded from classroom discussions because teachers thought they had a poor grasp of the English language. When teachers did involve Asian students they often used simplistic language.
Asian girls seemed invisible to teachers and they received less attention from teachers than other students. Teachers often showed insensitivity towards their cultural norms such as disapproving when Asian girls wanted to maintain privacy in PE when getting changed.
She cites one example when a teacher was handing out permission letters for a school trip saying to the Asian girls: ‘I suppose we’l have problems with you girls. Is it worth me giving you a letter, because your parents don’t allow you be be away from home overnight’?
Wright concluded that such stereotypical comments from teachers resulted in other students becoming hostile to Asian students and the Asian students becoming isolated.
It also led to the Asian students becoming more ambivalent towards school. For example, when the school introduced a celebration of Asian culture into the curriculum while Asian students did express some pride in having their culture recognized, they also felt concerned that this might lead to more teasing and harassment from white children.
Teachers did, however, expect Asian students to be academically successful.
Black Caribbeans in Primary Schools
Teachers expected Black Caribbean students to be poorly behaved, and they expected that they would have to be punished as a result. Teachers were also insensitive to the fact that many students would have been victims of racism.
Wright cites the example in one class of a student called Marcus who was frequently criticized for shouting out the right answers to questions, while white students were not.
Black Caribbean students received a disproportionate amount of teachers negative attention. Compared to white students whose behaviour was the same they were more likely to be:
sent out of the class
sent to the head teacher
have privileges removed.
Trivializing Ethnic Minority Cultures
Teachers often mispronounced words or names related to minority ethnic groups, causing white students to laugh and embarrassment to ethnic minority children. According to Wright this situation made ‘minority ethnic values and culture appear exotic, novel, unimportant, esoteric or difficult’.
Racism from White Students
Minority ethnic students also experienced racism from other students which made their life even more difficult. White children often refused to play with Asian children and frequently subjected them to name calling and threatening behavior. Both Asian and Black Caribbean children had to suffer intimidation, rejection and occasional physical assault.
Wright does point out that all of the above disadvantaging of ethnic minority students is unintentional. Schools and teachers do appear genuinely committed to the values of equality and celebrating multiculturalism, they’re just very bad at putting these into practice and their actions have the opposite effect!
Wright believes that some Black children are disadvantaged as a result of their negative experiences in primary school, and this holds them back at later stages of their school career.
Evaluation of the study
The study doesn’t explain why Black Caribbean are held back by negative experiences in primary school when this doesn’t seem to affect the later achievement of Asian children as badly.
The study has been critizied for portrayign ethnic minority students as the passive victims of racism. In contrast, studies by Mirza and Mac An Ghail see students as responding much more actively (and in much more diverse ways) to racism in schools.
Maybe obviously, the date! This is from the late 1980s!
Adapted from Harlambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.
Based on available research evidence I would conclude that schools are not institutionally racist
One sociological explanation for differences in educational achievement by ethnicity is that schools are institutionally racist.
This means that the school system as a whole is racist, or that schools are organised in such a way that children from ethnic minority backgrounds are systematically disadvantaged in education compared to white children.
If schools are institutionally racist then we should find evidence of racism at all levels of school organisation – both in the way that head teachers run schools and the way in which teachers interact with pupils. We might also expect to find evidence of racism in government policies (or lack of them) and regulation.(OFSTED).
What might institutional racism in schools look like?
There are numerous places we might look to investigate whether schools are racist, for example:
The curriculum might be ethnocentric – the way some subjects are taught or the way the school year and holidays are organised may make children from some ethnic backgrounds not feel included.
We could look at school exclusion policies to see if the rules on behaviour and exclusion are biased against the cultural practices of students from particular ethnic backgrounds.
We might look at how effectively schools deal with issues of racism in school – do the victims get effective redress, or is racism just ignored?
We could look at teacher stereotypes and labelling, to see if teachers en-mass have different expectations of different ethnic groups and/ or treat pupils differently based on their ethnicity.
We can look at banding and streaming, to see if students from minority ethnic backgrounds are over-represented in the lower sets.
Below I summarise some recent research evidence which may suggest that schools are institutionally racist…
A disproportionate number of GRT and Black Caribbean students are excluded from schools
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) children are 5 times more likely to be excluded from school than white children, while Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean students are three times more likely than white children.
I’ve included the temporary exclusion rates below as you can see the difference (you can’t really see the difference with permanent exclusions because the percentages are too small to really show up).
Whether or not these particular ethnic minority students are being excluded because of institutional racism is open to interpretation, and is something that needs to be investigated further. There is certainly qualitative research evidence (see below) that both groups feel discriminated against in the school system.
Schools punish Black Caribbean Pupils for Hair Styles and ‘Kissing Teeth’
Campaign Group ‘No More Exclusions’ argue that schools with strict exclusion policies are unfairly punishing Black Caribbean pupils for having different cultural norms to pupils from other ethnic backgrounds.
They cite evidence of Caribbean girls having been temporarily excluded for having braids in their hair, while other students have been sanctioned for ‘kissing teeth’, a practice mostly associated with Black students.
Such exclusions are mainly being given out by Academies with strict ‘zero tolerance rules on student behaviour, but according to David Gilborn there is a problem of discrimination when black Caribbean students are being disproportionately sanctioned as a result.
In defense of this policy, Katharine Birbalsingh, head of Michaela Community School in London, which enforces very strict rules on behaviour, argues that we should expect the same standards of behaviour from all students, and that Black students know that ‘kissing teeth’ is rude, and so should be punished for it.
Source: The Independent (no date provided, just lots of adverts, but it must be from late 2019 as it links back to a previous article from October 2019. )
Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children feel excluded from mainstream education
Professor Kalwant Bhopal has conducted research with GRT children and found that they don’t feel represented in the school curriculum: parents believed that their histories were not adequately represented, and were uncomfortable with sex education being done in school, as this was something usually done within the family in their culture. In short, it sounds as if they are experiencing the mainstream school curriculum as being ethnocentric.
Parents and pupils also claimed that they had experienced racism from both children and teachers within schools, however, when they reported incidents of racism this tended not to be taken seriously as they were white.
Source: Find out more details at this blog post here.
Racist Incidents In Schools Are Mainly Dealt with by Fixed Period Exclusions
According to a recent Guardian article (September 2019), Hate Crimes in schools rose 120% between the years 2015 and 2018. There were 1987 hate crimes recorded by the police in 2018, of which 70% were recorded as being racist. This means that approximately 1500 racist incidents occurred in schools which were deemed serious enough to warrant police involvement.
Schools handed out 4500 fixed term exclusions for racist abuse in 2017/18, but only 13 permanent exclusions.
If the under-reporting rate is similar for children as it is for adults and if most of these racist crimes aren’t ‘very serious’ then it seems that schools are doing a pretty good job at dealing with Racism, even if they are not always involving the police. This certainly seems to be backed up by the case study below…
Case Study 1: How One School Dealt with its problem of racism:
Some pupils do experience racist abuse from other pupils. One example is the case study of eight year old Nai’m, a boy who moved to from Bermuda to Britain with his mother in 2017, who was a victim of at least five racist incidents in a year. (article link from January 2020)/
His mother was contacted by the school when one student, apparently his friend, called him a ‘black midget’. Another pupil told Niam’h that his parents had told him he wasn’t allowed to talk to black or brown people. Niam’h plays football for his local professional club and says a lot of racist name calling occurs on the football field.
Besides Niam’h being a victim staff at the school where this incident happened (The Lawrence Community Trust Primary School) had also overheard racist comments from other students – such as ‘go back to your own country’ being directed at ethnic minority students and discussion about skin colour between students.
The school seems to have taken measures to address this problem with some of the racist attitudes being verbalized by some students by taking the following actions:
they seem to have excluded at least one student
they encouraged Niam’h to give a special assembly on Bermuda
They called in Anthony Walker Charity to deliver a presentation to students on Racism
Conclusion: Are schools ‘institutionally racist’?
The above is only a small selection of evidence, but based on what I’ve found I’ve got to conclude that they are not.
A moral panic is an exaggerated outburst of public concern over the morality or behaviour of a group in society.
Moral Panic Theory is strongly related to labelling theory, in fact moral panic theory is really labelling theory applied to the media – instead of the agent of social control doing the labelling, it is the media.
Two related key terms include folk devils and deviancy amplification
A folk devil is the subject of a moral panic – the group who the media is focussing on, the group who is being targeted for exaggerated reporting.
Deviancy Amplification is one of the alleged consequences of a moral panic – it is where a group becomes more deviant as a result of media exaggeration of their deviance. It is very similar to the Self Fulfilling Prophecy.
As with just about anything in life, all of this is much easier to understand with an example:
Stan Cohen’s (1972) study of the Mods and Rockers
Stan Cohen’s (1972) first developed the concept of the ‘moral panic’ in his study of the relationship between the media and the Mods and Rockers in the 1960s.
The Mods and Rockers were two working class youth subcultures, the mods famously riding scooters and dressing in smart clothes such as suits, and the rockers riding larger motorbikes and dressing in leathers.
These were also two of the first youth subcultures in consumer society, and initially they existed peacefully side by side – they were really just about style and music and the members of each were primarily concerned with having a good time.
However, during one bank holiday weekend in Clacton in 1964, where both mods and rockers visited to party, there were some minor acts of Vandalism and some violence between the two groups, this then led to the media turning up at the next big Bank Holiday weekend in Brighton (also 1964) ‘ready’ to report on any disturbances.
Once again at Brighton there was also some minor vandalism and violence between the mods and rockers, but this time the media were present and produced (according to Cohen) some extremely exaggerated reports about the extent of the violence between the two groups.
This had the effect of generating concern among the general public and the police then responded to this increased public fear and perceived threat to social order by policing future mods and rockers events more heavily and being more likely to arrest youths from either subculture for deviant behaviour (whether violent or not).
A further consequence of the exaggerated media reporting was that the mods and rockers came to see themselves as opposed to each other, something which hadn’t been the case before the media exaggeration.
Some further examples of moral panics
There have been several examples of issues which might be regarded as Moral Panics:
Inner city mugging by black youths, as outlined by Stuart Hall in Policing the Crisis
Punks and Skinheads
NB all of the above examples are only ‘possible’ examples of moral panics, see criticisms below.
Criticisms of moral panic theory
Cohen’s formulation of moral panic theory assumes that the audience are passive, but audiences today are much more active and able to critically evaluate media content, which means moral panics are less likely.
Thornton (1995) found that the media failed to generate a moral panic over rave culture, mainly because youth culture had become mainstream by that point, as had the taking of drugs such as ecstasy.
There are various reasons my ‘panics’ may not occur even if the media exaggerate the deviance of some groups – the media also exaggerate the police’s ability to deal with deviance and exaggerated reporting of deviance is so common these days that people are just desensitized to its effects.
Finally, some concerns which some may call moral panics may be legitimate – such as concerns over child abuse or rising knife crime today.
In January two ‘drill’ musicians from the Brixton group 410 were effectively jailed for playing a particular song: ‘Attempted 1.0’. Two artists from the group, Skengdo and AM, both received 9-month suspended sentences for performing this song.
Here it is with lyrics:
It’s still up as of 20th Feb…. I don’t how much longer it will remain up, but while it does it’ll give you a pretty good idea of what the authorities may have deemed to offensive: the strap-line for a start… ‘attempted… should’ve been a murder’ and then all the various references to guns and people getting knifed.
The problem is, by performing this song 410 weren’t technically engaged in an illegal act. The laws preventing inciting of violence only apply to specific acts, and this is not the case with this song.
The two artists were actually found guilty of breaking a criminal behaviour order (CB0) that had forbidden them from mentioning death, injury or rival drill crews in their songs. The nine-month suspended sentence is for breaking the CBO not inciting violence, which they weren’t technically doing by performing their song.
The authorities have criminalised this non-criminal act for these particular artists.
Relevance to A-level sociology
This is a good example of a ‘right realist’ policy in action – In fairness to the authorities, there has been a recent increase in knife crime, and this is all part of the response to that. I imagine most of the public would agree with this harsh treatment.
And it’s fair to say that some Drill songs which have been put up on YouTube do have specific references to gang’s ‘score cards’ and specific knife and gun and attacks. So there is a real basis for all of this it’s not just hyperreal.
However, it also relates to the labelling theory of crime – here we have a legal act (performing a song) which is turned into an illegal act for this specific band by the actions of the authorities. Maybe this is an unnecessary moral panic about this form of artistic expression?
What ‘blaming Drill’ for the increase in knife crime fails to take account of is all of other underlying factors which result in inner city violence – such as funding cuts, relative deprivation, poverty, and structural inequalities which stretch back to the 1980s.
This is also a new development in the censorship of particular cultural forms: using ASBOs to effectively restrict certain forms of freedom of speech. What’s next I wonder:
– Banning violent video games? – Preventing campaigners discuss poverty and inequality? – or climate change?
It’s highly unlikely that Criminal Behaviour Orders are going to be used to stop people spreading Fake News or Politicians lying to us.
This has clearly been a popular change in the law for some: In Berkeley, queues of people snaked around the block from 6 a.m. (odd time to be buying weed?) to late into the evening as one the first dispensaries to open struggled to cope with demand, suggesting that there are eventually going to be many licensed venues selling legal weed.
However, there are those that are opposed to the legalization of marijuana movement, the most powerful being the entire Trump administration, who are looking for ways to derail those 6 states which have legalized the drug.
Comments/m relevance to A level Sociology
This whole issue is a great example of how ‘crime is socially constructed‘ – you can quite literally hope over from California into the state of Arizona while smoking a joint and tada: you’re a criminal!
From a Functionalist point of view, it might be worth thinking about whether this is happening as a sort of ‘safety valve’ mechanism – there’s so much strain in America, and so many people already using drugs to cope with it, we may as well legalize it because it’s easier for the system to cope with it, and focus more on the ‘real criminals’.
According to the latest Department for Education data, the number of pupils receiving extra time in exams in England and Wales has increased by 35.8% since 2013/14.
However, at the same time there has been a 20.4% decrease in pupils identified as having Special Education Needs.
This represents a real terms 4 year increase of 51.2% of pupils receiving extra time, relative to those pupils identified as SEN (which should give us an indication of the underlying ‘pool’ of pupils who are potentially eligible for extra time.
This Telegraph article points to the fact that a disproportionate amount of the increase in pupils receiving extra time is driven by kids (or rather parents) in Independent schools…they are twice as likely to receive extra time as kids in state funded schools.
This alone has to push you towards a combination of cultural capital theory and labelling theory in explaining what’s going on here – it’s extremely unlikely that kids in Independent schools have objectively (i.e. really) suddenly become more in need of extra time, relative to kids in state schools – and as the article alludes to, it’s probably down to middle class parents getting their kids assessed for extra time (and maybe those kids gaming the system?)
NB – the number of kids in state schools receiving extra time in exams has also increased, but not as fast as those in independent schools. (Might be interesting to subject this to regional analysis to see if it’s linked to income?)
VERY INTERESTINGLY, if you dig into the Access Arrangements data below, this aspect of the data doesn’t exist from the DFES (I assume it did once, otherwise said article wouldn’t have been written)
As to the increasing number of kids receiving extra time AT THE SAME TIME AS A DECREASE IN KIDS WITH SEN – this might reflect a polarisation – i.e. objectively there are fewer kids with ‘more serious’ SEN that require such exam concessions, but overall there are fewer kids with any SEN…
HOWEVER, once you dig even deeper into the stats below, what do you find…
Statemented kids are on the increase within state funded schools (where you get Pupil Premium for taking on statemented kids), while non statemented SEN kids are on the decrease (which you don’t get funding for, but you have to spend school resources on to keep OFSTED happy)
Compared to Independent schools – Statemented kids are on the decrease, while non-statemented kids are on the increase – and how do we explain the difference – these schools don’t get extra money for taking on statemented SEN kids like state schools, while they can get their kids extra time by doing their own ‘in-house’ SEN assessment.
NB – this is only one possible interpretation, and I’m prepared to stand corrected if anyone wants to pull me up on my less than perfect understanding of SEN funding and access arrangement policy!
Will Britain Ever Have a Black Prime Minister? aired on the BBC IN 2017, which looked at the relative average life chances of a Black British child progressing through life… NB Thank you kindly to whoever uploaded this to You Tube (it won’t be there forever, the BBC have unjustly removed this from iPlayer already)
In the summary below I focus on some of the educational disadvantages black children face highlighted by the programme…
Teachers mark black children’s test scores more harshly than other ethnic groups
For in-school test scores, the scores for black British students are consistently lower throughout schooling, until we get to the actual GCSE Results, when the scores of Black British students increase dramatically, with Black African students actually overtaking white British students.
The suggested explanation for this is that in school tests are marked by teachers who know their students and thus know their ethnicity, and that they have an unconscious bias against black students, and thus mark their test scores at a lower level, while GCSEs are marked independently – the markers do not know the students who sat them, and thus do not know their ethnicity: when the tests are marked in a neutral, unbiased way, the scores of black and white pupils are much closer together.
This is backed up by research conducted by Professor Simon Burgess which compared the results of test scores marked by teachers who knew the students sitting the tests (and hence their ethnicity) with the results of tests marked independently, where the markers did not know the ethnicity of the students who sat the tests: the results for some ethnic groups were lower when the teachers knew the ethnicity of the candidates, suggesting that there is an unconscious bias against certain ethnic groups.
This seems to be pretty damning evidence that teachers hold an unconscious bias against black students
Black students are less likely to get three As at A level than white students
Here we are told that….
Only 4% of black children get 3 As or more at A level, compared to…
10% of white pupils
28% of independent school pupils, who are disproportionately white.
In fact, the programme points out that you are more likely to be excluded from school if you are black than achieve 3 As at A-level
This seems to be less an example of evidence against black students, rather than evidence of the class-bias in A level results.
The Chances of being admitted to Oxford University are lower for black students compared to white students
The programme visits Oxford University, because every single Prime Minister (who has been to university) since 1937 has attended this bastion of privilege.
We are told that black applicants are less likely to be accepted into Oxford University than White students, even when they have the same 3 As as white students.
In an interview with Cameron Alexander, the then president of the African students union, he comes out and says that Oxford University is ‘institutionally racist’ and that structural factors explain the under-representation of black students – he points out the dominant culture of Oxford University is on of elite, white privilege, one in which staff identify more with independently schooled children, who have benefitted from the advantages of huge amounts of material and cultural capital; while they fail to identify with the hardships a black child from an inner city area may have faced – the result is that privileged white student has a higher change of being accepted into Oxford than a black student, even when they have the same grades as a the privileged white student.
As with the example of test scores above, at first glance this evidence seems damning, however, Oxford University has previously explained this by saying that black students have a higher rejection rate because they apply for harder courses on average than white students.
So what are the chances of a black person ever becoming Prime Minister…?
In short, a black person has a 17 million to 1 chance of becoming Prime Minister, compared to a 1 in 1.4 million chance for a white person…
Or in short… a black person is 12 times less likely to become Prime Minister in the U.K. compared to a white person…
Unfortunately this programme has already disappeared from iPlayer, despite the fact that anyone in Britain with a T.V. has already paid for it, which is just bang out of order.
Labelling theory holds that if a teacher labels a pupil a certain way, they will accept that label and it will become true.
The labels which teachers give to pupils can influence the construction and development of students’ identities, or self-concepts: how they see and define themselves and how they interact with others. This in turn can affect their attitudes towards school, their behaviour, and ultimately their level of achievement in education.
Labelling refers to the process of defining a person or group in a simplified way – narrowing down the complexity of the whole person and fitting them into broad categories. At the simplest level labelling involves that first judgement you make about someone, often based on first-impressions – are they ‘worth making the effort to get to know more’, are you ‘indifferent to them’, or are they to ‘be avoided’.
According to labelling theory, teachers actively judge their pupils over a period of time, making judgments based on their behaviour in class, attitude to learning, previous school reports and interactions with them and their parents, and they eventually classifying their students according to whether they are ‘high’ or ‘low’ ability, ‘hard working’ or ‘lazy’, ‘naughty’ or ‘well-behaved’, ‘in need of support’ or ‘capable of just getting on with it’ (to give just a few possible categories, there are others!). (*See criticism one below).
According to a number of small-scale, interpretivist research studies of teacher labelling, the labels teachers give to students are sometimes based not on their behaviour but on a number of preconceived ideas teachers have about students based on their ethnic, gender or social class background, and thus labelling can be said to be grounded in stereotypes.
A closely related concept to labelling theory is the that of the self-fulfilling prophecy – where an individual accepts their label and the label becomes true in practice – for example, a student labelled as deviant actually becomes deviant as a response to being so-labelled.
Labelling theory is one of the main parts of social action, or interactionist theory, which seeks to understand human action by looking at micro-level processes, looking at social life through a microscope, from the ground-up.
Classic studies on teacher labelling in education
Most of the work of labelling theory applied to education was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Three classic works, summarised below include:
David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
David Hargreaves: Speculation, Elaboration, Stabilization
David Hargreaves et al (1975) in their classic book ‘Deviance in Classrooms’ analysed the ways in which students came to by typed, or labelled. Their study was based on interviews with secondary teachers and classroom observation in two secondary schools, focusing on how teachers ‘got to know their students’ entering the first year of the school.
Teachers have only a very limited idea about ‘who their students are’ as individuals when they first enter the school, based mainly on the area where they came from, and they thus have to build up an image of their students as the school year progresses. Hargreaves et al distinguished three stages of of typing or classification:
In the first stage, that of speculation, the teachers make guesses about the types of student they are dealing with. The researchers noted that there were seven main criteria teachers used to type students:
how far they conformed to discipline
their ability and enthusiasm for work
how likeable they were
their relationship with other children
whether they were deviant.
Hargreaves et al stress that in the speculation stage, teachers are tentative in their typing, and are willing to amend their views, nevertheless, they do form a working hypothesis, or a theory about with sort of child each student is.
In the elaboration phase, each hypothesis is tested and either confirmed or contradicted, and through this process the typing of each student is refined.
When the third stage, stabilisation, is reached, the teacher feels that ‘he knows’ the students and finds little difficulty in making sense of their actions, which will be interpreted in light of the general type of student the teacher thinks they are. Some students will be regarded as deviant and it will be difficult for any of their future actions to be regarded in a positive light.
Labelling and Social Class
A lot of the early, classic studies on labelling focused on how teachers label according to indicators of social class background, not the actual ability of the student.
Rist found that new students coming into the Kindergarten were grouped onto three tables – one for the ‘more able’, and the other two for the ‘less able’, and that students had been split into their respective tables by day eight of their early-school career. He also found that teachers made their judgments not necessarily on any evidence of ability, but on appearance (whether they were neat and tidy) and whether they were known to have come from an educated, middle class family (or not).
Labelling Theory and the Self Fulfilling Prophecy
Self Fulling Prophecy Theory argues that predictions made by teachers about the future success or failure of a student will tend to come true because that prediction has been made. Thus if a student is labelled a success, they will succeed, if they are labelled a failure, the will fail.
The reasons for this are as follows (you might call these the positive effects of labelling):
teachers will push students they think are brighter harder, and not expect as much from students they have labelled as less-able.
Building on the above point, a positive label is more likely to result in a good student being put into a higher band, and vice versa for a student pre-judged to be less able.
Positively labelled students are more likely to develop positive attitude towards studying, those negatively labelled an anti-school attitude.
The above may be reinforced by peer-group identification.
It follows that in labelling theory, the students attainment level is, at least to some degree, a result of the interaction between the teacher and the pupil, rather than just being about their ability.
A classic study which supports the self fulfilling prophecy theory was Rosenthal and Jacobson’s (1968) study of an elementary school in California. They selected a random sample of 20% of the student population and informed teachers that these students could be expected to achieve rapid intellectual development.
They tested all students at the beginning of the experiment for IQ, and again after one year, and found that the RANDOMLY SELECTED ‘spurter’ group had, on average, gained more IQ than the other 80%, who the teachers believed to be ‘average’. They also found that the report cards for the 20% group showed that the teachers believed this group had made greater advances in reading.
Rosenthal and Jacobson speculated that the teachers had passed on their higher expectations to students which had produced a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Criticisms of the labelling theory of education
Negative labelling can sometimes have the opposite effect – Margaret Fuller’s (1984) research on black girls in a London comprehensive school found that the black girls she researched were labelled as low-achievers, but their response to this negative labelling was to knuckle down and study hard to prove their teachers and the school wrong.
Given the above findings it should be no surprise that the Rosenthal and Jacobson research has been proved unreliable – other similar experimental studies reveal no significant effects.
Labelling theory attributes too much importance to ‘teacher agency’ (the autonomous power of teachers to influence and affect pupils) – structural sociologists might point out that schools themselves encourage teachers to label students – in some cases entry tests, over which teachers have no control, pre-label students into ability groups anyway, and the school will require the teacher to demonstrate that they are providing ‘extra support’ for the ‘low ability’ students as judged by the entry tes.
One has to question whether teachers today actually label along social class lines. Surely teachers are among the most sensitively trained professionals in the world, and in the current ‘aspirational culture’ of education, it’s difficult to see how teachers would either label in such a way, or get away with it if they did.
More Recent Research on Labelling Theory
Waterhouse (2004), in case studies of four primary and secondary schools, suggests that teacher labelling of pupils as either normal/ average or deviant types, as a result of impressions formed over time, has implications for the way teachers interact with pupils.
Once these labels are applied and become the dominant categories for pupils, they can become what Waterhouse called a ‘pivotal identity’ for students – a core identity providing a pivot which teachers use to interpret and reinterpret classroom events and student behaviour.
For example, a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘normal’ is likely to have an episode of deviant behaviour interpreted as unusual, or as a ‘temporary phase’ – something which will shortly end, thus requiring no significant action to be taken; whereas as a student who has the pivotal identity of ‘deviant’ will have periods of ‘good behaviour’ treated as unusual, something which is not expected to last, and thus not worthy of recognition.
David Hargreaves (1975) Deviance in Classrooms
R.C. Rist (1970) Student Social Class and Teachers’ Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Ghetto Education
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) Pygmalion in the Classroom (the ‘famous’ self-fulfilling prophecy experiment!)
Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives.
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