Social Constructionism Applied to Working Class Educational Attainment

November 26, 2012 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I will be looking into the origins, definitions and theory of Social Constructionism; I will apply this to the explanation of inequalities faced by working class children in education, to argue that this came about through the structuring of education by the elite and the differentiation of cultural values of middle class and working class communities.

Social Constructionism attempts to show us how our conception of reality for the world around us is determined through networks of socialisation and the general acceptance of meanings.

Gergen (2009, 1-13) expresses this as a ”mutual agreement” of understandings. Thus, an individual or community develops a unique understanding of the society they live in through socially constructed meanings for their world; these meanings are exclusive for different social groups for e.g. the moon may be seen as a deity to some religious organisations however to scientists it is formation of elements.

Berger and Luckman (1991, 149-157) argue that our understandings are brought to us through primary and secondary sources of socialisation; we initially learn meanings of the material/non-material world through our primary networks of socialisation (family members), whereas our secondary network of socialisation (other institutions such as education and our social groups) allows us to develop a greater understanding of them in order to live at ease in our social environment.

Apple (2004, 59 – 62) argues that it is a wide and complicated issue; in the US education system, working class children are strained into accepting the values of meritocracy, blind faith, loyalty to the teaching staff and the neo-liberal society. This occurs through a “saturation” of culture in order to maintain the reproduction of the workforce and inequalities, thus allows for the perpetuation of cultural hegemony between the lower and higher social classes Apple (2004, 2-6). This suggests some form of control over the working class and other vulnerable children in education. Savage and Scherger (2010, 408) argues that bourgeoisie parents are able to transmit their “cultural and financial capital” through their children during schooling as opposed to their working class counterparts who are rarely able to do so, this “cultural capital” includes “parental socialisation” which can leave working class children unprepared and unequipped to deal with education due to low-parental contribution towards education, Dunne and Gazeley’s (2008, 457-459) research on teachers into class and educational attainment shows that not only “cultural” but also material deprivation leads to lower educational attainment, that working class children were associated with a greater number of educational barriers . Willis (1977, 62-76) suggests that the working class communities produce a counterculture to school which involves; deviance in classrooms, lack of obedience to teachers and “Differentiation” from the middle class students, this ultimately leads to failure to attain the upper class educational standards that are set, middle class parents are also more supportive in the notion of educational attendance and activity whereas the working class culture tends to aid a more anti-school approach. This suggests that the working class’s cultural approach to education has lead to the underachievement in education. Although Willis suggests it is this counterculture which affects the ability to do well in education, he also notes that teachers are responsible in some part through indirect oppression. This is created by the teacher not being able to understand the cultural meanings of education for the working class and therefore the initial punishment for deviance amplifies the divergence from the social norms of school (Willis 1977, 77-78). Therefore this evidence from Neo-Marxist sociologists counteracts the idea that working class children are perhaps genetically inferior but rather that their educational fate is determined by “cultural and material deprivation” and “cultural hegemony”, prolongs by the capitalist system, which creates the division between classes.

To conclude, we have discussed the impact of cultural attitudes towards education by the working class and asserted that this has a negative impact on educational attainment when compared to middle classes, Willis’s (1977) highlighting of proletariat parental attitudes towards education have been observed by modern day Marxists (such as Savage and Scherger 2010) and therefore this research is still, in part, relevant to modern day schooling. Differences in cultural capital ultimately leave the working class in a worse off position as well as lacking the ability to connect and get involved with the school. The West’s need for the reproduction of the workforce has led to a masking of the real needs of the working class, through a “cultural hegemony” as outlined by Apple (2004). All these factors help to maintain the inequality in education between the working and upper classes.

Reference List

1). Apple, W. 2004. Ideology and Curriculum. 3rdEdition: Routledge Falmer

2). Berger, P. and T. Luckman. 1991. The Social Construction of Reality. New Ed Edition: Penguin

3). Dunne, M. and L. Gazeley. 2008. Teachers, Social Class and Underachievement; British Journal of Sociology and Education 29 (5): 451 -463. Available at:

4). Gergen, K.J. 2009. An Invitation to Social Construction. 2ndEdition: Sage

6). Savage, S. And M. Scherger 2010. Cultural Transmission, educational attainment and social mobility, The Sociological Review, 58 (3): 406-428. Available at:

7). Willis, P. 1977.

Learning to Labour: how working class kids get working class jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House 1977


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This post was written by Elijah Pryor

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