Posts Tagged ‘cultural capital’

Using Analogies: How Inequalities Create Inequality

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

This Lesson Outline is designed (yes, really) as a kind of skeleton structure you can flesh-out with ideas and information as and how you see fit. In other words, while it provides a basic structure for a lesson it doesn’t necessarily tell you what to teach, which means it’s not something you can just take off-the-shelf and use “as is”. Having said that, it does make for something that’s adaptable to a range of different lessons.

Most, admittedly, centred around notions of poverty and social inequality, but, hey, you can’t have everything.


I’ve previously drawn attention to the usefulness of analogies in sociology teaching (Using Analogies in Sociology, Teaching Perspectives: Society is Like, Different types of Society), most-latterly in relation to how we can think about social mobility, moving away from a conventional “ladder analogy” towards one – climbing a mountain – that I think better reflects both the daily reality of social mobility and how it can be conceptualised for students in terms of both:

  • social action: the idea that mobility can have an individual dimension, one that reflects, for example, both the ability to rise above different types and degrees of disadvantage through a single-minded determination to succeed (upward mobility) or the inability to exploit the advantages of a privileged family and background (downward mobility).
  • This dimension, while important to keep in mind because it reflects the idea of individuals struggling to come-to-terms with – and sometimes overcoming – the problems created by societal forces largely beyond their individual ability to control, leads into the concept of:

  • social structures: the idea there are social forces surrounding the individual that place barriers in the path of their mobility, or indeed open-up gateways to such mobility. These forces – economic, political and cultural – can be brought to life for students through the mountain-climbing analogy.
  • This dimension is important because concepts like social mobility, poverty and social inequality are frequently conceptualised in our culture in terms of “individuals” standing-apart in glorious isolation from the economic, political and cultural backgrounds against which their lives are framed. These concepts, in other words, are frequently individualised – lack of mobility or poverty, for example, is framed in terms of individual failings – and the role of social structures systematically downplayed.

    We can see this most clearly in relation to the “ladder analogy” of social mobility, where “the ladder” is simply conceived as a neutral mechanism for climbing up-or-down the social scale – and since it neither hinders nor facilitates mobility, the ability to climb up or down is reduced to something like individual determination or motivation.

    If we replace this with a more realistic “mountain analogy” the reverse is true: movement up-or-down the social scale is hindered, blocked or facilitated by a wide range of structural factors – and this is where we can develop the analogy slightly to take-in concepts of poverty and social inequality.

    And to understand how this occurs we can use the analogy to construct a couple of thought experiments that can be carried-out either face-to-face in a classroom or, particularly useful in these Covid times, online.

    Setting the Scene…

    Education: 4. Role and Function: 2. Marxism and Neo-Marxism

    Sunday, May 10th, 2020


    For traditional Marxism the main role and function of education is cultural reproduction – a concept based on a different interpretation of secondary socialisation to that favoured by their Functionalist (Structural) counterparts. Althusser (1971), for example, argues the reproduction of capitalism involves each new generation being taught the knowledge and skills required in the workplace, as well as children being orientated to “the values of capitalist reproduction”. These might involve ideas like emphasising individual effort and achievement, encouraging inter and intra-group competition (competition between groups – such as men and women – and within groups, such as age categories like young and old) and encouraging ideas about the private accumulation of wealth. In turn, ideas about co-operation, the socialisation of wealth and so forth are marginalised – or rarely, if ever, discussed – within the classroom.

    For traditional Marxists, therefore, schools don’t just select, differentiate and allocate children in the interests of “society as a whole” on some form of meritocratic basis. Rather, their role is to ensure the children of powerful economic elites achieve the levels of education required to follow in their parents’ (exploitative) footsteps. The role of education for Althusser was to educate most people “just enough” to be useful employees and a small number “more than enough” to take up high-powered elite working roles.

    There’s more. Quite a bit more…

    Education: 3. The Purpose of Schools

    Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

    The final part of the “Structure and Organisation of Education” trilogy (Part 1: Structure and Organisation and Part 2: Schools, Marketisation and Parentocracy are, as is the way of trilogies, also available) ends with a !Bang! (if by “bang” you mean “a slightly loud noise”) by looking at various forms of school organisation (from the formal curriulum to the informal curriculum, from streaming to cultural reproduction, from Here to Eternity etc.)

    Although the obvious answer to any question about the purpose of schools is “education”, the meaning of education is neither self-evident nor unproblematic: the former because “education” can encompass a wide range of formal and informal types of learning – from explicit teaching about ox-bow lakes in geography to implicit teaching about gendered relationships in the classroom – and the latter because what counts as “education” is always socially constructed and socially-contested. It always reflects, Weber (1922) suggests, what any society considers “Worthy of being known”.

    What constitutes education in any society, therefore – from how it is structured and organised to which ideas are actually taught in a classroom (or, increasingly, online) – is always the outcome of a power struggle between different interested parties: from business and media corporations through political parties to individual parents and teachers. It is, therefore, against this background of conflict and consensus that we need to outline and evaluate the purpose of schools.

    One way to start to do this is through Merton’s (1957) distinction between manifest and latent functions:

  • Manifest functions relate to the things schools are expected to do; in this instance teaching children the knowledge and skills required by adult society. This idea is explored in terms of the nature and organisation of the formal curriculum.
  • Latent functions refer to things not officially recognised as being part of the school’s purpose and may also be the unintended consequences of the way schools are formally organised – an idea explored in terms of the hidden curriculum.
  • (more…)

    Education, Achievement and Class

    Monday, December 16th, 2019
    Click to download PowerPoint file

    Another trawl through what I like to think is a carefully selected and curated trove of educational treasure – although some may see it more as a random collection of stuff I’ve picked-up from time to time “because it might be useful” and largely forgotten about – produces this rather large (and then some) PowerPoint Presentation focused on social class and differential educational achievement.

    Although I’m not sure where I found it (which, the more-astute reader will probably note, suggests the idea of “careful curation” should be taken with a bucket of salt) and there’s no indication of who produced it, the Presentation was created around 2010 and runs to 50 slides on all things social class and education (with a strong emphasis, for reasons that will become clear, on theories and theorists).

    As you can probably imagine, the Presentation of this size could do with a menu system and if you’ve got the time or inclination that’s easy enough to do (again, this probably tells you I have neither). Alternatively, with a quick slice’n’dice you could chop this down to a lot of smaller Presentations that just focus on the things you want to present / teach.

    Although I haven’t changed the text, as such, I have made a few slight presentational changes (such as altering the slide format to 16:9 and tidying-up the text structure) and removed some slides. The author used 3 or 4 slides at the start of the Presentation to introduce a selection of statistics about social class and educational achievement as a way of setting-the-scene for the theoretical explanations covered in the Presentation (on slide 3, the author says “Now that we’ve looked at what’s happening to kids’ results in terms of their social class background, we need to focus on why these patterns persistently occur.”).

    These statistics were drawn from the turn of the century and, as such, were seriously outdated. If you use the Presentation, therefore, it’s probably useful to pre-prep your students with a selection of statistical data about contemporary class achievement in education.

    Content Overview

    Types of Cultural Capital

    Saturday, December 14th, 2019
    Food and types of cultural capital
    Food Spaces: The relationship between economic and cultural capital

    If you need a short, relatively simple, student-friendly outline / overview of cultural capital this should fit the bill.

    Written by Nikki Cole, the article is useful because it breaks the concept down into three easy-to-understand component types:

  • Embodied involves thinking about the cultural capital individuals acquire simply though living – their socialisation, education, experiences and the like. This form of capital is, of course, embedded within the individual (hence the use of the embodied descriptor).
  • Objectified forms of cultural capital are those embodied in the objects we own and use – from the house in which in live, to the objects we own and even the things, like food, we consume.
  • Institutionalised forms involve things like educational achievements and qualifications. These can be seen as symbolic forms of cultural capital whose value, to both individuals and institutions, is that they are validated through some form of institutional measurement and certification.
  • Update

    Cultural Capital PowerPoint.
Click to download
    Click on image to download PowerPoint file

    I’ve now added a simple 3-slide PowerPoint Presentation that gives you the opportunity to display the three types of cultural capital outlined in the article for whole-class teaching.

    The Presentation allows you to display a short piece of illustrative text for each type in turn (or more-or-less simultaneously if you prefer. The choice is yours) at the click of a button.

    You can, of course, add your own text to the Presentation if you don’t like what’s there…

    The Rules of the Game

    Friday, August 9th, 2019

    How “predicted grades” and the “personal statement” contribute to the relative failure of high-performing disadvantaged kids in the “game” of university entrance.

    The Rules of the Game - click to download this pdf document.

    While a-level sociology students do a lot of work on education and differential achievement, the narrative in relation to social class tends to focus on “middle class success”, “working class failure” and the various reasons, material and cultural, for this general situation.

    While this is a useful and valuable focus, it does mean students can lose sight of a further dimension to educational inequality, one that is less visible and less researched but which has significant consequences: how even relatively successful working-class kids still tend to lose-out to their middle and upper class peers in the transition from school to higher education and, eventually, from H.E. to the workplace.

    In “The Rules of the Game“, a recent (2017) Report for the Sutton Trust, Gill Wyness looked at two dimensions of inequality experienced by high-performing students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds:

    Predicted grades

    While there has, over the past few years, been a great deal of debate about whether University places should be awarded once A-level results are known (the Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) system), in England and Wales the “predicted grades” system (school students apply to University before their A-level grades are known and Universities, in turn, make conditional / unconditional offers partly on the basis of the grades “predicted” by their teachers) is still a crucial part of University application.

    Read on macduff…

    Visualising Social Mobility: A Mountain to Climb?

    Thursday, September 27th, 2018

    Broadly-speaking, the underlying idea here is to both make the study of social mobility slightly less dull and to replace a somewhat hackneyed, not-to-say, highly misleading visualisation of mobility (“a ladder”) with something a little more dynamic and visually thought-provoking (“climbing a mountain”).

    Although this post could be more accurately described as a “Lesson Suggestion” rather than a “Lesson Plan”, I’ve included some ideas for how you might be able to turn it into the latter.

    One of the most common ways to visualise social mobility – movement up or down a class structure – is to think in terms of “a ladder”. It’s an analogy that’s not just embedded in the Sociology classroom but arguably in everyday political discourse too.

    And while it’s relatively easy to understand, evocative and in some ways self-explanatory, it’s also deeply flawed, even as a simple visual guide to understanding the mechanics of social mobility, for a number of reasons:

    • It’s overly-individualistic in the sense of representing mobility as the product of individual effort, grit and determination. While these qualities may (or may not) be important, they present a one-dimensional view, focused solely on the individual that ignores both wider social factors involved in mobility (family, education…) and any sense of a problematic class structure that actively militates against mobility for some social groups.

    • The ladder is presented as a neutral tool, one that simply facilitates social mobility.

    • The ladder exists independently of those who use it. It is equally available to all and the most able will utilise it most successfully to climb to the higher levels of the class structure.

    • The class structure itself is akin to something like a pyramid, smooth and increasingly elevated.

    • It encourages students to focus on upward mobility – the ability to climb, rung-by-rung, to “the top”.

    There are, of course, many more reasons for rejecting the ladder analogy as a way of visualising and teaching social mobility, but you probably get the idea.


    The Hidden Rules of (Social) Class

    Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

    Although the concept of social class is deeply-embedded in A-level Sociology Specifications, a lot of time and effort nominally devoted to this concept is actually taken-up by talking about the economic dimension of class. Although clearly important, the continued emphasis on economic class means students come to see the concept largely in these terms: class as an objectively-measurable category synonymous with wealth, income and work.

    While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, the economic emphasis (some are rich, some are poor and some are sort-of in-the-middle) often diverts attention away from the more-subjective cultural dimensions to class that, I would argue, humanises the concept and, by so doing, makes it much more intrinsically interesting for a-level students to study.

    This cultural dimension gives, I think, a deeper and arguably more-involving sense of how people actually live their class lives and by conceptualising class in this way – as a social as well as an economic identity – it allows students to explore the concept in an arguably more-involving way: one that reintroduces the notion of subjective class experiences in a way that complements the idea of objective class positions and consequences.

    In addition, a focus on the “social dimensions” of class also makes the introduction of concepts like cultural and social capital more meaningful to students and locates them in a conceptual framework distinct from, while closely correlated with, the notion of (objective) economic class positions.

    Refocusing how students see and understand the more-subjective elements of social class also allows teachers to explore how and why these subjective dimensions impact on objective class experiences (related to areas like family life, educational achievement and the like). It should also give greater meaning to concepts like class identity, which all-to-often are simply reduced to a reading-off of class differences based around notions of economic class.

    One way to do this is to get students to think about different dimensions of social class in terms of how it is governed by what Payne (A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 2001) calls “hidden rules of behaviour”: rules that, for example, condition how people in one class see their position in relation to other classes and, by extension, rules that structure and constrain individual class perceptions and behaviours.


    Beat The Bourgeoisie: A Simulation

    Tuesday, March 6th, 2018

    Long-time readers of this blog may recall that around 18 months ago I posted a series of sociology simulations, under the general title “7 Sims in 7 Days”, one of which, Cards, Cakes and Class, focused on giving students a physical taste of social inequality. However, while I like the basic ideas underpinning the sim, it suffers from two major problems:

    1. It takes a lot of time, effort and space to set-up and run.

    2. It mainly focuses on economic inequality to the detriment of other dimensions of class inequality – specifically, cultural and social capital. While the former is, of course, an important dimension of inequality, students need to understand, discuss and, in this instance, experience other dimensions of inequality.

    If you liked the basic idea behind “Cakes and Class” (and who doesn’t like to see their students suffer in the name of Education?) but were prevented from running the sim because you couldn’t commit to everything involved in setting it up, you might be interested in this variation by Dawn Norris (Beat The Bourgeoisie: A Social Class Inequality and Mobility Simulation Game). While it covers much the same area as Cakes and Class it does so in a way that’s:

    1. Easier to set-up and run: you just need two groups of students and some questions.

    2. Quicker to carry-out: Norris suggests the simulation itself should run for around 30 minutes, (with as much time as you like after for a discussion of content and outcomes).


    How does Cultural Capital Work in Chinese Society?

    Thursday, November 23rd, 2017

    This research, created and carried-out by one of Richard Driscoll’s students at the Shenzhen College of International Education in China applies the concept of cultural capital to an understanding of the relationship between class, status and education in contemporary China.

    As such, it’s a useful teaching resource for both the way it applies the concept of cultural capital to an understanding of Chinese parents’ “hopes and fears” for their off-spring’s education and for its sympathetic use of in-depth semi-structured (“focused”) interviews to elicit a fascinating insight into the thoughts and behaviours of two sets of Chinese parents from two different areas and social classes in China.

    Although the research shouldn’t necessarily be taken as representative of all Chinese parents across all social classes – this is, after all, simply a piece of research conducted by a then a-level student (she now studies at the LSE in London) – it is nevertheless a very-rewarding read, both for its careful construction and the insights it gives into the thoughts and behaviours of two very different families living in contemporary China.

    Richard is Head of Humanities and can be contacted on Twitter.

    Visual Sociology: Picturing Inequality

    Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

    Equality of Opportunity?

    As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of using graphic material (pictures and illustrations rather than examples of extreme physical violence) to both illustrate sociological ideas and encourage students to think a little more deeply about such ideas and how they can be applied to increase their depth of sociological knowledge and understanding. I’ve tried to use this technique to good effect in:

    • blog posts – visualising strain theory is a particular favourite
    • teaching – one of my favourite “visual lessons” was to use optical illusions to introduce and illustrate the idea of different sociological approaches – how could people look at the same thing (“society”) yet see it so differently?
    • my work as a video producer.

    In this respect my argument is that the right picture can be a simple and evocative way of getting students to both understand and think about the ramifications of certain ideas across a range of sociological areas:

    • Education and differential achievement.
    • Deviance and rates of arrest / imprisonment.
    • Social inequality and various forms of discrimination.
    • Theory and concepts like economic, cultural and social capital.

    The picture above, for example, can be used to get students to think beyond relatively simple and straightforward ideas about class, gender or ethic discrimination (it’s morally wrong…) in order to explore more complex sociological ideas about the concept of equality of opportunity: what, for example, does it really mean and can it be used by powerful groups to actually embed greater inequality into social structures?


    Food Spaces: The Relationship between Economic and Cultural Capital

    Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

    The notion of different types of “capital” (economic, cultural, social, spatial…) has become increasingly significant for students of a-level sociology – particularly through the work of writers such as Bourdieu – and while the concepts themselves may be relatively easily understood the relationship between them is not always so clear.

    A deceptively-easy to illustrate the relationship between economic and cultural capital, however, is through an interesting chart I chanced upon while rooting through Pinterest (as you do. Apparently).

    It’s broadly taken from Bourdieu’s “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” (1979) and updated by Molly Watson into an informative teaching device that could be used in a number of different ways – from a bare-bones version which students have to fill with their own “food suggestions” to a simple discussion-piece around the idea of different types of capital and what they signify.

    Although this chart’s based on food, it’s not difficult to envisage teachers / students creating alternatives based on a range of different ideas, such as one on the UK education system, for example.

    An interesting speculation here might be whether or not it’s possible to incorporate social capital into such a chart?

    5 | Families and Households: Part 2

    Friday, September 8th, 2017

    This part of the family chapter examines the role of family in society through two different and opposing structural approaches: Functionalism / Neo-Functionalism and Marxism / Neo-Marxism.

    The content covered, in no particular order of significance, includes:

    • Family functions and orientations
    • The link between individuals and society
    • Family dysfunctions (the “Dark side of family life”)
    • The ideological, economic and political roles of the family
    • Cultural, social and symbolic capital

    As with previous chapters, the same slight caveats apply and they should not spoil your enjoyment of what must, by any yardstick, be counted as one of the most dynamic, interesting and exciting parts of the Sociology Specification.

    Seven Sims in Seven Days – Day 2: Cultural Deprivation

    Wednesday, September 28th, 2016


    Cultural deprivation, as an explanation for differences in educational achievement (particularly those of class and ethnicity), is something of a Vampire Theory in the sense that no matter how many times sociologists have tried to kill it off it refuses to die. It is, for example, an explanation that continues to have currency among UK political parties, particularly in terms of ideas about the “differential aspirations” of middle and working class children.


    Class, Consumption and Taste Cultures

    Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

    My attention was caught the other day by a sleight little piece in a London newspaper (“12 signs you’re middle class”) that got me thinking about a neglected – but I’d argue increasingly relevant and interesting – dimension to social class: the role of taste cultures in defining different class identities.

    While the article is an interesting “discussion piece” for students to get them thinking about class, consumption, culture and taste, the background to this might be to think about the development of taste cultures over the past 50 years.


    Social Inequality: applying cultural and economic capital

    Friday, March 27th, 2015

    airbagYou may be familiar with Robert Putnam’s ideas about social capital (“Bowling Alone”), where he argues that a key feature of late modern societies is the breakdown of large-scale, organised, social networks (such as political parties, trade unions and the like).

    His latest work – Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, 2015 – features an intriguing and interesting idea that can be slotted into exam answers whenever you need to reference and explain social inequalities.

    Putnam uses the concept of “social air bags” to argue affluent groups are able to protect their children from the consequences of their behaviour in ways that are rarely open to poorer social groups; just as an air bag may protect you from the consequences of a car crash, “social air bags” can protect you from the consequences of various social collisions – from finding yourself in trouble with the law to making sure you don’t fall behind at school.

    In a nutshell, the concept relates to the various ways some social groups are better-placed to use their higher levels of cultural and economic capital to protect their children from the potentially negative consequences of their life choices.

    Meritocracy Part 2: Putting it a little less Bluntly?

    Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

    Bringing sociological things kicking and screaming into the 21st century, social and cultural capital are couple of useful concepts that could be applied to the Blunt-Bryant contretemps:

    • How might membership of particular social networks (social capital) confer advantages to particular social groups?

    • And how do various forms of cultural capital (such as the types of school both Blunt and Bryant attended) confer similar advantages?