Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Part 1- IQ Theories

Russell Haggar

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Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement

Part List

Introduction - Click Here
Part 1: Explaining Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: IQ Theories
Part 2:  Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Deprivation - Click Here
Part 3: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Difference - Click Here
Part 4: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement:  Material Economic  Differences - Click Here
Part 5: Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement. Some More Recent - Click Here

Part1:

IQ [Intelligence Quotient] Theories

Click here for a recent contribution to this debate.  Click here For another relevant contribution

Click here for Genetics and Education: The Moral MazeNEW April 2014

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different {3 Part Radio 4 Series]NEW April-May 2014

The Life Scientific: Robert Plomin on The Genetics of Intelligence

Click here and herefor related BBC items

Click herefor a Guardian article on Grammar Schools,IQ and Genetics. Note among other things reference to the complexity of the statistical methods involved in this debate.NEW March 2018

Click herefor an article from The Conversation on Genetics and Educational Achievement. New link added September 2018

Click herefor a recent Daily Telegraph item on research emphasising the importance of environmental influences on intelligence.

 

Sociological and Non-Sociological Explanation

I am sure that you will remember from your Introduction to Sociology  that it is always important to distinguish between non-sociological explanations which focus on the natural, biological and psychological determinants of human behavior and sociological explanations which focus on the social and environmental determinants of human behavior. It is important to remember also that sociologists do recognise that non-sociological explanations do in many cases make important contributions to the understanding of human behaviour but  that they may sometimes wish to question the assumptions underlying non-sociological explanations and to demonstrate that sociological explanation can also  provide part of an overall explanation of most aspects of human behavior. Some of these points may be clarified with reference to sociological attitudes to IQ theories which clearly rely to a considerable extent on the non-sociological explanation of social class differences in educational achievement.

The Principles of IQ Theory

Supporters of IQ theory such as psychologists Arthur Jensen and Hans Eysenck make four important claims which together form the basis of IQ theory.

  1. Intelligence can be defined precisely and measured accurately via IQ [Intelligence Quotient] tests. IQ tests are usually differentiated according to the age of those taking the test  and standardised so as to ensure that a person of “average” ability would score 100 on the tests .[I recently saw a TV clip concerning a young boy who had achieved the exceptionally high score of  170 on such a test. It was, according to his mother, “a blessing and a curse”!]
  2. There are statistical data which indicate that there is a good correlation between intelligence as measured by IQ tests and social class membership such that working class individuals, on average, can be shown to be of lower intelligence than upper and middle class individuals.
  3. There are further data which indicate that there is a good correlation between intelligence as measured by IQ tests and subsequent educational achievement as measured by examination results.
  4. There are also data derived from studies of identical twins reared together and from other studies where the identical twins are reared apart which suggest, according to supporters of IQ theory, that genetic inheritance explains between 40% and 80% of the differences in intelligence between individuals.

In summary, therefore, IQ theorists claim that working class students are, on average, unsuccessful educationally relative to upper and middle class students because they are less intelligent and that they are less intelligent mainly because of their inheritance of “less intelligent genes.”

[It should be noted also that IQ theorists have sometimes used similar arguments to claim that  differences in ethnic educational achievements can be explained mainly in terms of ethnic differences in inherited intelligence and that such claims have ignited massive controversy in which these IQ theorists have been accused of ,at best, poor science and, at worst racism. These issues will be considered in some detail in subsequent documents.]

Sociological Criticisms of IQ Theory

Sociologists recognize that, given the current state of scientific knowledge, it is impossible to determine the relative importance of heredity and the social environment as factors affecting individual intelligence but they are often prepared to argue that IQ theories are flawed in several respects with the result that they overstate the importance of inherited intelligence as a factor explaining social class differences in educational achievement.

Among the criticisms made of IQ theories by sociologists are the following.

  1. It is difficult to define what “Intelligence” actually is although the well known supporters of IQ theory Eysenck and Jensen have defined it as “abstract reasoning ability.”
  2. It is open to question whether so called Intelligence  Quotient tests [ IQ tests] can accurately  measure Intelligence .The fact that one can quickly improve one’s test scores with a little practice suggests that these tests are unlikely to measure our fundamental intelligence or our potential to develop our intelligence in the future.
  3. These tests may be culturally biased in various ways as where they demand knowledge more likely to be available to upper and  middle class, [and white],  respondents
  4. Related to the above point such tests may therefore be may be testing knowledge rather than intelligence although supporters of testing deny that this is the case.
  5. Test results may vary according to the conditions surrounding the test. In class stratified societies and heavily streamed schools the self-confidence of working class students may have been seriously undermined so that they under-perform in IQ tests much as they have often [although not always] done in the education system more generally.
  6. More straightforwardly, the tests results may fail to accurately measure intelligence  because some respondents may be nervous, unwell or may not take the test seriously
  7. Jensen and Eysenck based their claims that IQ is mainly genetically inherited on their studies of identical twins reared apart .They found that there were small differences in IQ among identical twins although the children were reared in different environments which suggested that the role of environmental factors in influencing IQ was small. Critics soon claimed that these supposedly different environments were actually quite similar and so this undermined the Jensen-Eysenck results. For example in one case the identical twins supposedly living in different environments actually lived with their biological mother in one case and with their mother’s sister in the other.
  8. The complexity of the relative influences of heredity and environment on measured !Q is illustrated in the following recent report of a statement from the Chief medical Officer for Scotland ,Dr Mac Armstrong which suggests  that young children’s apparently inherited intelligence is related to the actual behaviour of their mothers during pregnancy and that their subsequent intellectual physical and mental health is related to factors such as “insufficient breast feeding and lack of intellectual stimulation during the early years.”

 

They note also that even if we accept, for the sake of argument that intelligence can be defined precisely and measured accurately via IQ tests, it can be shown that even among children of equal measured intelligence, upper and middle class children are more likely than working class children to achieve educational success. Thus, for example, in his study entitled “The Home and the School”[1964], JWB Douglas demonstrated that middle class children of “average” intelligence were far more likely than working class children of “average” intelligence to pass the 11+ examination which clearly suggests that performance in the 11+ examination was affected by social, environmental factors.On the basis of these arguments sociologists have concluded that IQ tests cannot provide an accurate measure of intelligence and that it is impossible to determine the relative importance of genetic and environmental factors as determinants of intelligence.

Such criticisms have encouraged sociologists to question conclusions of genetically based IQ theories and to develop their own theories which emphasise the importance of the social factors which might help to explain social class differences in educational achievement. It is to these theories which we now turn.

 For Part 2:  Sociological Explanations of Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement: Cultural Deprivation - Click Here