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Working Class Subculture and Educational Disadvantage


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Document Last Edited: 18/10/2016 

.Essay: How have sociologists analysed the effects of working class subculture on educational achievement?

Essay Plan

  • Introduction

  • Class Cultural Characteristics and Cultural Deprivation

    • Hyman, Sugarman, Douglas,Bernstein.

  • Class Cultural Characteristics and Cultural Difference

    • Willis, Bourdieu.

    • Leon Feinstein  [See Inequality in the Early Cognitive Development of British Children in the 1970 Cohort: Economica Feb 2003]

  • Class Differences in Material Circumstances

  • The Quasi-Marketisation of State Education

  • Interactionism and Labelling Theory

    • Hargreaves, Keddie, Ball, O'Donnell and Sharpe.

  • Conclusion



            Four types of theory have been advanced to explain the relative educational failure of working class students: IQ theories which suggests that differences in IQ ( possibly mainly inherited) are significant; theories emphasising the importance of social class differences in cultural characteristics; theories emphasising the importance of social class differences in material circumstances; and interactionist theories focussing on labelling, setting/streaming and self-fulfilling prophecies. Most sociologists are critical of IQ theory and it has been shown in any case that even among  children of similar measured IQ, working class students are less likely than middle and upper class children to be educationally successful which demonstrates the independent significance of social factors as determinants of educational success and failure.

            When we consider the importance of social class differences in cultural characteristics it is vital to distinguish between theories based upon cultural deprivation and theories based upon cultural difference. Writers such as Hyman, Sugarman , Douglas and Willis have argued that working class students are disadvantaged by their own culture while Bernstein has emphasised the importance of class differences in language which may have put working class students at a disadvantage because of their use of a restricted rather than an elaborated code.

Hyman argued essentially that by comparison with the middle class, working class people tend to lack ambition because they feel that upward social mobility will take them away from their working class roots; they tend to be fatalistic; they are said to have a strong present time orientation and to be unwilling to defer gratification: they are seen as unwilling  to make present sacrifices in order to make future gains. Sugarman supported these ideas adding that working class attitudes derived from their experience of working class manual labour with few promotion prospects and hence no reason to plan for the long term. Douglas added to this line of argument his “evidence” that middle class parents tended to take more interest in their children’s education as measured by their willingness to attend parents’ evenings which, however,  was  a far from ideal measure of parental interest since working class parents might be more physically tired after work , more likely to have had negative experiences of school and, in the early 1960s less likely to have their own transport than  middle class parents.

 Essentially the implication of these theories was that relative working class educational underachievement could be explained by the cultural deprivation of the working class. Bernstein in turn argued that relative working class disadvantage  could be explained in terms of class differences in linguistic codes: middle class and working class people were said to operate with a  so-called elaborated code and a so-called restricted code respectively and Bernstein argued that middle class usage of  the elaborated code would confer educational advantage although he did also emphasise that these class differences in language usage did not in any way imply that one code was superior to another. You might also like to include for yourselves further information on the theories of Basil Bernstein and on criticisms of them by William Labov. Click here for useful information.

The studies of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas soon attracted criticism but by the late 1970s Willis was still emphasising that working class culture was a key factor in explaining lack of educational success. “The Lads” in his study (12 working class, non-examination pupils in a Midlands Secondary Modern school) actively hoped to find physically demanding manual employment because of their patriarchal beliefs that this was the kind of work which, rather than skilled professional non-manual work , would confirm their manliness.  In this respect Willis was arguing that these working class boys were culturally different rather than culturally deprived. With this view of life, school could offer them little and they responded accordingly by taking an absolutely minimal interest in school, an attitude more or less supported by their parents. However, Willis also recognised that many school students were much more conventional and in some respects if he was seeking to analyse overall working class attitudes to education, it might have been better to concentrate upon the conventional majority rather than upon the rebellious few. 

The following links provide very useful current data on current parental attitudes to education and suggest , for example that working class parents are now more likely to attend parents' evenings and help with homework than they were in the past although attendance at parents' evenings , for a variety of reasons, has always been a far from ideal measure of parental attitudes to education. Be that as it may the summary link especially will enable students to update their information on this aspect of the issue.

Click here for report of Social Mobility Commission on The Childhood Origins of Social Mobility and here for BBC coverage of the report New June 2016

From the  1970s onwards Pierre Bourdieu also rejected the concept of cultural deprivation and focussed instead upon working class cultural difference  as an explanation of relative working class educational underachievement. Using the concept of Cultural Capital he argued that although the cultures of the upper, middle and working classes may well be different, they are nevertheless equally valuable but that the upper class has the power to establish its culture as the dominant culture in society and to ensure that educational ability is assessed mainly in terms of the possession or non- possession of this dominant culture. The possession of the dominant culture is described in Bourdieu's theory as the possession of cultural capital because it is likely to guarantee access to high paid occupations for upper and possibly middle class students whereas working class pupils are disadvantaged in school and in employment because of their lack of cultural capital . The conclusion of this theory is that working class students are not culturally deprived but that they are culturally different and at a disadvantage because educational success depends upon possession of cultural capital which they do not have. [Bourdieu emphasises also that the upper and middle classes possess economic capital {i.e. wealth} and social capital {i.e. useful social connections } which similarly improve their economic prospects and contribute to the reproduction of capitalist class structures.]

It has sometimes been suggested that the meaning of cultural capital is not entirely clear although it might involve some or all of the following elements: middle and upper class parents may provide more educational play activities and hobbies* which prepare their children more effectively for school entry; they may socialise their children in ways that enable them to interact more effectively with teachers [many of whom also come from middle class backgrounds]; they may help their children to develop what are considered to be higher level linguistic skills and appropriate cultural tastes in art, music and literature; and because of their own higher educational levels they may be more able than working class parents to help with homework.

[* This could be one important factor which helps to explain the results of Professor Feinstein's research. as outlined below]

Furthermore Bourdieu argues that upper and middle class parents also have access to economic and social capital as well as cultural capital which can be used to advance their children's educational prospects: they can afford to buy houses in the catchment areas of the most effective state schools: they can afford private education if they are dissatisfied with the state system and they can use their social contacts for example to arrange appropriate work experience placements for their children which will advance their future career prospects. Very few working class parents and even fewer poor working class parents possess these kinds of cultural, economic and social capital as is illustrated in  the recent work  Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz in which the authors make good use of   Bourdieu's concepts of cultural, economic and social capital .

          In his 2003 study Professor Leon Feinstein agrees class differences in educational achievement may be explained in terms of competing theories emphasising differences in inherited intelligence, social class differences in cultural and material circumstances and within school factors and states that his aim is not to assess the relative usefulness of these theories but to demonstrate that , for whatever combinations of reasons, the  relative educational development of working class children is restricted even in their pre-school years. This suggests that social class differences in cultural and/or material circumstances external to the schools themselves do help to explain social class differences in educational achievement.

Professor Feinstein's research demonstrates suggests that  even before children begin Nursery School the intellectual development of working class children appears to be slower than that of their middle class peers and that this is the case irrespective of the initial levels of the children's measured intelligence. His research findings indicate that childrenís educational progress between 22 and 42 months is related both to their test scores at 22 months and to their parentsí socio-economic status [SES: i.e. their social class position.] In particular his data indicate that children with high test initial scores but low parental SES are overtaken by 42 months by children with low test scores but high parental SES, thus demonstrating that parental SES has a significant impact on pupil progress. He demonstrates further that pupil educational levels at 22 and 42 months are good predictors of pupilís educational achievement at age 16.

Professor Feinstein concludes that further investigation of the effects of differing parenting techniques is necessary given the extent to which educational development varies so significantly even before children enter nursery school but also that wider investigations of patterns of social disadvantage are necessary to assess the reasons why patterns of achievement at ages 22 and 42 months are such good predictors of educational achievement in later life.

Several criticims have been made of studies of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas mentioned above  and their conclusions  should clearly not be accepted entirely at face value. 

Firstly, there are methodological criticisms of the methods on which these studies are based.   Hyman and Sugarman relied upon questionnaire data which may have been invalid; differences between working class and middle class attitudes may have been exaggerated and similarities underestimated; Douglas’ measure of parental interest  (attendance at parents’ evenings) is unacceptable for several reasons; Willis ‘research relied on a small number of not necessarily  representative working class students; Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital is complex and possibly vague. Also it may be applicable more too success in Arts subjects than in Science subjects and Mathematics.

Secondly the theories of Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas implied that because working class pupils and their families were fatalistic, unwilling to defer gratification and had a strong present time orientation they were culturally deprived. However critics argued that when working class students and their families appear to lack ambition, they may be being realistic rather than fatalistic about their educational prospects. Their experience tells them that they are unlikely to be successful; they may fear the prospect of failure more than middle class students and their parents. Also, working class ambitions may be reduced as a result of poor school reports which demoralise them whereas  middle class parents are more likely to respond to poor school reports by trying to remedy the situation, for example by purchasing books and /or private tuition. Furthermore working class parents may themselves lack the education to help their children as much as they would like. : they may not be able to turn their ambitions for their children into effective help:.

Thirdly although many sociologists have considerable sympathy for the work of Willis and Bourdieu, Willis' study is unrepresentative of contemporary working class students because it concentrates on a very small number of non-examination Secondary modern school boys in the 1970s. These pupils' subcultural characteristics are not necessarily typical of the working class as a whole and attitudes to work may have altered because the hard physical work preferred by Willis'" lads" is no longer widely available leading most but not all working class boys to adopt different attitudes to future employment although, of course serious problems remain for working class boys who cannot adapt to the changing labour market circumstances.. Critics of Bourdieu argue that the concept of cultural capital is rather vague and that it is far from obvious that the possession of some kinds of cultural capital [such as higher level linguistic skills and willingness to engage with "high culture" are necessary to success especially at First School, Middle School and early Secondary school levels although they  may possibly be very helpful especially in the study of the Humanities at Advanced Level and in  Higher Education. However other aspects of cultural capital involving preparation for school, inculcation of pro-school attitudes and help with homework  may well be useful at the lower educational levels.

It is necessary also to consider other possible explanations of working class relative educational underachievement. Working class students may be unsuccessful not because of their cultural characteristics but because of their lack of financial resources and/or because of labelling processes operating in the schools themselves. Working class students may live in substandard housing; they may have poorer diet; they may be forced to miss school to look after sick siblings; they may be forced to take part-time jobs which reduces the time available for study; their parents may be unable to afford books, computers, expensive school trips and private tuition. Whereas affluent parents may be able to afford to move house into the catchment areas of successful schools and/or to afford Private education, these expensive options are not available to many working class parents and the possible financial sacrifices associated with higher education may be especially alarming.

Click here for recent information the extent of substandard housing.

Click here and here for brief BBC items on the extent of private tuition

It has also been argued the State policies involving the quasi-marketisation of education introduced by Conservative governments [1979-97] and extended by Labour and Coalition Governments thereafter  have actually benefited middle parents and their children disproportionately since it is these middle class parents who are much more likely to be able to use their cultural, economic and social capital to secure entry  to over subscribed effective state schools  thereby indirectly reducing the educational opportunities of more disadvantaged pupils. 

These issues are described in great detail in a study by S. Gerwitz, S. Ball and R. Bowe entitled Markets, Choice and Equity in Education [1995] and you should consult your textbooks to familiarise yourselves with the details of this  very useful study which is relevant to several aspects of the Sociology of Education. [You may also click here for further information provided elsewhere on this site]. Click here for information from  a recent [2013] Sutton Trust Report suggesting that "almost a third of professional parents have  moved home for a good school."


It has been argued that theories emphasising subcultural characteristics and material circumstances both focus upon home background and that in so doing they deflect attention from processes operating in the school. It has been suggested that if working class parents do lack ambition for their children this may be explained partly by the failure of schools to offer them sufficient encouragement so that they in turn can encourage their children. In addition it is argued by interactionist theorists such as Hargreaves, Keddie and Ball that, for example, by processes of setting, banding and streaming, mainly working class students are labelled as failures. Anti school subcultures may develop in the lower sets , bands or streams as students seek to regain informal status among their peers having been denied official academic status by the schools while the more experienced teachers may be allocated to higher streams and teachers in general may prepare more carefully for higher stream classes. Consequently self- fulfilling prophecies arise whereby the very definition of working class students as failures helps to ensure that they do indeed fail.

These theories are widely respected but have also been criticised. It has been argued by previous Conservative Governments, [1979-1997], previous Labour Governments[ 1997-2010] and the current Coalition Government that setting is actually more effective than mixed ability teaching as an organisational strategy and that it benefits both rapid and slow learners if they can be taught in groups setted according to ability. Interactionist studies are small-scale and not necessarily representative and we cannot necessarily assume that students will passively accept the negative labels which teachers may apply to them. Alternatively in some cases the labels may be accurate and students may be labelled as disruptive because they are disruptive . Also the best known interactionist studies are now rather dated and although many sociologists might claim that little has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, M O'Donnell and S. Sharpe in "Uncertain Masculinities" (2000) tentatively suggest that changing attitudes within the education profession mean that teachers are less likely to label pupils negatively and that they are likely to face disciplinary measures if they do. However there are still many supporters of the interactionist approach who deny the validity of these criticisms of interactionism and argue that little has changed since the classic interactionist studies were conducted. You may also click here for further information on interactionist theories.

In summary, therefore, the theories of Hyman, Sugarman, Douglas , Bernstein, Willis ,Bourdieu  and Feinstein do suggest that in various ways working class subculture may help to explain the relative educational under-achievement of working class students. However we should not automatically accept that working class students are the victims of cultural deprivation as is implied by Hyman, Sugarman and Douglas because relative working class educational underachievement may be explained also by cultural difference as in the work of Willis and Bourdieu.  Professor Feinstein,  provides evidence that many working class children are beginning to fall behind in the educational race even before they start school and that performance in tests in the early years are very good predictors of educational achievement at ages 16-18. However it is clear also that working class educational underachievement can also be partly explained by financial constraints, by the increasing quasi-marketisation involved in state education policy and by processes of streaming, setting, labelling and self-fulfilling prophecy operative in the schools as in the work of Hargreaves, Keddie and Ball.. Working class parents and their children may hope for educational success  but fail to achieve it through no fault of their own.

Please note that in this  I have not considered specific problems associated with the relative underachievement of white working class students. Some information on this aspect of the topic can be found among the following links and here and here in my document on Ethnicity and educational attainment.

I hope that students have found the above essay useful. I have also been adding links to the essay during the past 3-4 years but as of June 2016 this list of links has become increasingly long and unmanageable.  I have decided to retain the list  but suggest that AS and Advanced level Sociology students might care to look only at some of the first 8 links. Other links have been retained mainly for my own personal use.

  1. Click here for detailed report of Social Mobility Commission on The Childhood Origins of Social Mobility and here for very useful BBC coverage of the report New June 2016

  2. Click here for links to several Joseph Rowntree Foundation articles [2010-12 on social class, aspiration and educational achievement NEW December 2015

  3. Click here for summary of research by Prof Louise Archer et al [ King's College London]: Poverty of Aspiration is largely a myth New Link added October 2015

  4. Click here for article from The Conversation on the growth of private tuition New Link added October 2015

  5. Click here for Underperformance in Education of White Working Class Children by Garth Stahl. This is a detailed, informative and fairly concise article that students should find especially useful. New link added December 2013

  6. Also Click here for a thought provoking article by Garth Stahl on the nature of white working class aspiration and click here for an article by Prof. Tony Sewell and click here for further comments from Garth Stahl.. The differing emphases of these articles may generate useful discussion. You may  Click here for a recent report on access of white working class students to HE

  7.  Click here for Daily Telegraph coverage of research on middle class mothers and how they try to secure educational advantage for their children. New link added October 2015

  8. Also click here for recent BBC coverage of information from the National Literacy Trust that poor children are especially unlikely to own their own books and here. for BBC coverage of recent University of Manchester research suggesting that recent changes in education policy have done little to reduce social class inequalities in educational achievement.


Additional links mainly for own personal use!

Addendum: April 2012