Gender and Educational Achievement: Part Four

Gender and Educational Achievement: Part 5 of 5:  Part Four


Part  Four: Appendix:  Backlash Arguments, Moral Panics and the Underclass

In her study "Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women [1992] Susan Faludi argued that in the USA women were increasingly told especially in the more conservative sections of the mass media that they had now achieved economic equality with men  but that this economic progress had come at considerable cost to themselves in that career women in their mid 30s were allegedly prone to infertility; that unmarried and/or childless women were especially prone to depression and that the ultimate cause of these difficulties was FEMINISM. Faludi rejected such arguments and argued very strongly that male -female employment opportunities and earnings differences were still considerable and that if, anything, fulltime housewives were more likely than employed women to be unhealthy.

In the UK some sociologists argued that in some sections of the mass media the evidence of relative female educational improvement was presented in  away  which suggested that it had occurred because teachers[ perhaps influenced by feminism] had focussed excessively on the educational needs of female students to the detriment of males students who had consequently fallen behind . These arguments too could be interpreted as to some extent examples of "backlash" arguments against alleged excessive influence of feminism within the teaching profession and calling for educational changes which would effectively address the educational needs of boys.

Not all sociologists agree that these backlash arguments have gained much prominence in the UK and in any case they have been widely criticised on the grounds that other explanations of relative female improvement [ as listed above] are more powerful and that it is unrealistic to assume that in an education system increasingly driven by examination results and league table positions teachers would prioritise the education of girls rather than boys which would also fly in the face of natural justice.

The concept of a "moral panic" derives from the Sociology of Crime and Deviance and has been defined by Stan Cohen in his study of Mods and Rockers entitled "Folk Devils and Moral Panics". as follows:

Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests: its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic is passed over and is forgotten except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal or social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.

Some complex issues are involved in this definition but essentially the definition suggests that dominant economic and social groups and their representatives in the economic and political systems in the mass media have a vested interest in the continuation of the current economic and political system which after all safeguards their relative economic privilege and that they will therefore initiate  and perpetuate critical campaigns against "problem groups" of "folk devils" whose existence appears to pose a challenge to the status quo. The behaviour of such groups is stigmatised as anti-social and in need of correction if social order is to be maintained although from a more critical perspective it can be argued that it is the nature of the social order itself which promotes the development of "problem groups" of "folk devils."

Female relative educational improvement has been linked also with the development of a "moral panic" surrounding the alleged development of a so-called UK underclass . It is usual to distinguish between cultural and structural versions of the underclass theory. The cultural version is associated especially with the American New Right theorist Charles  Murray who argues that excessive growth of welfare state spending has created a culture of dependency among a new underclass comprising especially single mothers and uneducated , unskilled, poorly paid and often unemployed young men for whom their culture of dependency upon the welfare state has destroyed their capacity to climb out of poverty through their own efforts. The solution, for Murray, is  the restriction of welfare state benefits as a means of reactivating personal responsibility and initiative.

In structural versions of the underclass theory [such as those of William Julius Wilson] it is the structural inequalities associated with national and international capitalism rather than the cultural characteristics of the poor which explain the existence of the underclass. Capitalism is seen as an inevitable exploitative economic system generating both economic inequality and poverty and in recent years the relocation of manufacturing industry from the "advanced" capitalist economies to the "Third World" has been a major cause of the high levels of unemployment which has in turn resulted in increased economic inequality and poverty. A poor underclass exists not because its members are fatalistic, feckless and work shy but because the manufacturing jobs on which they have traditionally depended have been relocated to the "Third World" . However  unemployment and poverty can themselves contribute to further despondency among the unemployed and the poor which suggests that the development of the underclass is explicable by structural factors but that its continuation occurs partly as  a result of  induced cultural despondency.

In both types of theory it is argued that the slow rate of male educational improvement is a factor which contributes to  the growth of  the underclass as uneducated young men are increasingly unable to find work in an increasingly technologically based economy. However Charles Murray focussed originally on the USA and claimed that a major factor driving the growth of the underclass was the growth of single motherhood which according to him was encouraged by overgenerous welfare benefits so that it is not only the slow rate of male educational improvement which drives the growth of the underclass.

In any case some sociologists reject all theories of the underclass arguing instead that millions of working class people are continually moving in and out of poverty as a result of chance changes in their economic circumstances so that there is no significant barrier between the underclass and the rest of the working class and also that there are no significant differences in attitudes to work between the poor and the rest of society in that the vast majority of poor people would wish to escape poverty via employment rather than to suffer poverty via reliance on state benefits which despite Murray's opinions are LOW rather than generous.

[You should consult your textbooks for further information on MORAL PANICS and THEORIES OF THE UNDERCLASS.]

Addition August 2016

For several years there has been an increasing focus on the relative educational achievement of specifically white working class boys and I have provided some information on this aspect of the topic here in my document on "Race" , Ethnicity and Educational attainment.


Concluding Comment

In 1994 the BBC transmitted an edition of Panorama entitled "The Future is Female" describing  the early stages of increasing relative female educational achievement. On August 10th 2009 I watched BBC Two' s "The Trouble with Girls: 3 Girls and 3 Pregnancies." which investigated the lives of three 15-16 year old working class girls in Rochdale. Clearly these were not typical working class girls.: they truanted regularly; drank alcohol excessively; used soft and hard drugs and could be violent and racist. Two of the girls had pinned their hopes on an Army career  but were told in  a preliminary interview that they could not in any case be accepted on health grounds. Two of the girls had become pregnant and the third was to become pregnant in the next episode.

In April 2018 I watched "Love and Drugs on the Streets: Girls sleeping rough ". Apparently life does not always revolve around Russell  Group University  Facilitating Subjects.

Click here for Professor Gillian Richards' more recent article on the lives of working class girls in which she argues that for a variety of reasons the career aspirations of some working class girls may remain limited . NEW link added April 2018

Click here for Interview with Professor Carolyn Jackson on Lads and Ladettes and related matters NEW

More Females are nowadays on average more successful at all levels of the education system but not all females are educationally successful and not all females share similar futures. The same conclusions apply to males.


Concluding Assignment

Reread the sections of the document on the relative improvement of female students and the slower rates of improvement of male students . Then Click here, scroll down to the Education podcasts and watch podcasts 4 and 5

Then plan the following essay: Outline and explain the external factors and internal factors affecting gender differences in educational achievement. To what extent do internal and external factors overlap? 



I found the following links helpful in writing earlier versions of this document and have retained them for my own use but  GCE Advanced Level Sociology students need not necessarily consult them, I think.


Return to Part 1 Gender and Educational Achievement - Click Here

To Go Back to Sociology of Education Teaching Notes - Click Here