Education and Mobility

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One of the main reasons education is valued so highly in modern societies is the role it plays in relation to social mobility and reproduction. This role has long been debated between those who emphasize its contribution to social mobility and those who focus on its contribution to social reproduction. In order to understand this debate, it is useful to review the key concepts and theoretical perspectives before considering the empirical evidence and then offering a resolution.

Social stratification refers to institutionalized inequality, that is, to hierarchically structured social positions (strata) and to the inequality in social rewards received by people who belong to different strata. Social stratification is based mainly on class or status, although other forms of stratification exist (for elaboration, see Grusky and Takata 1992; Haller 1992). Class is the term preferred by theorists who view the social order as consisting of distinctive economic groupings struggling to maximize their interests vis-à-vis each other, while status is preferred by theorists who perceive a continuing distribution of socioeconomic variation without clear-cut divisions and conflict.

Social mobility is the movement from one class or status to another. The emphasis here, as with most studies of social mobility, is on intergenerational mobility, which refers to the change in class or status from parents to their adult children. An example of intergenerational mobility is when the daughter or the son of peasants becomes a doctor. In contrast, when the child of peasants ends up being a peasant, it is an example of social reproduction.

The class or status positions that individuals occupy in society are usually attributed to both ascriptive and achievement processes. These are generally viewed as opposite or contradictory processes involving either ascribed characteristics based on biological factors and family of origin or achieved characteristics based on individual traits and behaviors. Stratification systems that emphasize ascriptive characteristics for class or status placement are defined as "closed" and lead to status inheritance or class reproduction. Those stratification systems that emphasize achieved characteristics are defined as "open" and are expected to lead to social mobility.

The opposing positions are formalized in the functionalist and conflict theories of social stratification. With respect to the role of education in producing social mobility, functionalists argue that different social roles require different skills and abilities and that, if society is to function effectively, they must be filled by individuals possessing the appropriate skills and abilities (Davis and Moore 1945). The positions most valued by society are usually the most critical for societal functioning and the most demanding of individual skills and ability. In order to encourage individuals to invest the time and effort for training and to attract the best-qualified individuals, these positions have to be accompanied by higher social and economic rewards. Education is widely viewed as both developing and reflecting individual skills and abilities, and it is therefore used as a means of social selection. Thus, education enhances social mobility by providing for social selection based on achieved rather than ascribed characteristics of individuals.

Conflict theorists start with the premise that society consists of different groups with conflicting interest, and they argue that stratification exists because groups that acquired power, wealth, and prestige want to maintain and enhance their position at the expense of less privileged groups. In respect to education, most conflict theorists agree that schools help to reproduce and legitimize the stratification system by portraying attainment as an achieved individual characteristic, while in fact they select and process individuals on the basis of ascriptive characteristics (Bowles and Gintis 1976; Bourdieu 1977; Willis 1977).

Empirical research on the role of education in the process of social mobility or reproduction has produced conflicting evidence. The argument of mobility through education as suggested by functional theories depends on the validity of two general conditions: (1) Educational attainment must be used as a criterion of eventual class or status position, and (2) the level of educational attainment of individuals must not be influenced by the level of their family's class or status. Boudon (1976) calls these two conditions necessary for social mobility "meritocracy" and "equality of educational opportunity" respectively. It is important to note that social mobility exists only if both conditions are met and that each of them alone is a necessary but insufficient condition for social mobility.

These conditions necessitate a distinction, as far as the role of education is concerned, that is very rarely made between class and status. The role of education differs considerably in class and status mobility. Education plays a very weak role in class mobility or reproduction (Katsillis and Armer 1992). More specifically, the meritocracy condition is not satisfied, since education is almost never used as a criterion for class. Following Marx, most class theorists see two major classes, capitalists and workers, although the perception of the exact number of classes and their composition varies (see Poulantzas 1974; Wright 1978, 1985; for a discussion of the different views, see Grusky and Takata 1992). Education would play an important role in class reproduction only if it were a major criterion for becoming a capitalist or a worker and the vehicle through which the class of the parents is transferred to their children. But it is neither. In fact, if education were a principle determinant of class, one would expect most Ph.D.'s to be capitalists and a significant number of children from bourgeois families to become workers because of educational difficulties (Katsillis and Armer 1992).

A detailed discussion of the process through which class is reproduced is beyond the scope of this article. It suffices to say here that other institutions, such as the legal system and, more specifically, the inheritance and property transfer laws, are much more reliable and effective for the transfer of class from parents to their children. Whether these children have a high school or higher diploma may be important for other reasons, but it is clearly not essential for the reproduction of their class (Katsillis and Armer 1992).

In addition, educational attainment does not seem to be influenced by family class. Indeed, there is no reliable and consistent empirical evidence that supports such a relationship. When class is measured as determined by the relation of production and not as a status position, it has no effect on educational attainment, especially if the status position is held constant (see Katsillis and Armer 1992; Katsillis and Rubinson 1990; Katsillis and Spinthourakis 1997). At first glance, this would indicate that the equality of educational opportunity hypothesis is satisfied in relation to class. However, taking into account the absence of meritocracy in class determination, the lack of influence of class is more an indication of the weak role education plays in class reproduction or mobility than of its equalizing potential.

In contrast to class, education plays an important role in status allocation. Many studies have empirically tested the meritocracy hypothesis, and almost all have found a significant relationship between educational and later socioeconomic attainments (Blau and Duncan 1967; Duncan et al. 1972; Jencks et al. 1972; Sewell et al. 1969). Indeed, most studies in the United States have found educational attainment to be among the most important determinants of occupational and status attainment, although the findings regarding its relationship to income are not as conclusive (Jencks et al. 1972). In short, the meritocracy condition is well supported by empirical evidence.

However, other studies of social mobility have found that employing meritocracy in the allocation of occupational and social status does result in substantial increases in social mobility (Boudon 1974; Collins 1979). Boudon, using data from Western industrialized countries, and Collins, analyzing data from the United States, found that the tremendous expansion of education in the nineteenth and twentieth century left the opportunities for social mobility essentially unchanged. It did expand the educational attainment of many social groups, but, as the educational attainment of individuals from lower socioeconomic strata increased, individuals from higher strata acquired even more education, thus shifting the overall educational attainment of the population upward but keeping intact the stratification of educational attainment (Boudon 1974; Collins 1979). Given that meritocracy in the allocation of social positions exists, these findings suggest the lack of equality of educational opportunity.

In relation to the latter, the functionalist position is that schools do provide equality of opportunity. For empirical support, they point to the numerous empirical studies suggesting that the process of educational attainment is an achievement process. The best-known model of educational and status attainment in the United States, known as the Wisconsin model, describes the process as one whereby individual and background characteristics are translated into differential status attainment only after they have been transformed into individual performance and psychological variables (Sewell et al. 1969; 1970). Although this model has been criticized for excluding social constraints and related structural variables (see Kerckhoff 1976), its explanatory power remains strong, and it has withstood a number of replications (Alexander, Eckland, and Griffin 1978; Jencks et al. 1983). Indeed, most of the research on the social selection process that followed the Wisconsin model has shown that schools select, process, and reward students based on individual traits and achievements, such as aspirations and ability, and that educational attainment in turn is the major determinant of occupational status attainment.

Conflict theorists and researchers, by contrast, have not been very successful in describing and explaining a social selection process that leads to social reproduction. The explanations and the evidence as to why individuals from higher social strata acquire consistently better education have not been able to dispute or account for the fact that the educational selection process is ostensibly an "achievement" process. In general, the argument from a conflict perspective is that structural limitations imposed on the schooling of some groups restrict their educational success, thus helping to reproduce the educational and social hierarchies.

Some structural limitations on both the quality and quantity of educational opportunity of children from low socioeconomic strata do indeed exist. Differential quality and quantity of schooling may have been especially influential in the past, but it still exists today. Some of the best schools at all educational levels in the United States are private, with high tuition, and obviously not all social groups have equal access to or success in these institutions. Also, fewer institutions, especially at the postprimary levels, are available in rural or low-income areas. Nonetheless, the impact of variation in quality and quantity of schooling has been reduced over the years, and evidence does not indicate it as a major determinant of educational attainment. For example, the wellpublicized report Equality of Educational Opportunity (Coleman et al. 1966) found that differences between public schools had no significant effect on student performance. In general, even though some relevant quality differences between schools may still exist today, this structural variable is a relatively weak factor in explaining differential educational attainment.

Other structural variables, such as curriculum tracking (Alexander, Cook, and McDill 1978) and differential treatment by teachers and counselors (Karabel 1972; Rist 1970), also have been found to exert significant influence on educational attainment. In addition, researchers have found that cultural differences linked to differential social origin are also responsible for the unequal educational attainment of students from different social groups (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977; DiMaggio 1982). Overall, however, structural limitations and cultural deficiencies account for only a small amount of attainment differences as compared to the individual achievement variables.

Summarizing the findings on equality of educational opportunity and meritocracy presents a paradoxical picture of social stratification and leaves the issue of social mobility through education largely unresolved: Status attainment research has shown that educational and status attainment is a meritocratic process based on individual achievement variables, but it has not explained the relatively low social mobility rates. Critical research, on the other hand, has shown reproduction of social status, but it has not been able to unseat the equality of opportunity thesis resting on the association of individual achievement with educational status attainment.

This apparent paradox may be due in part to the fact that research on educational and social stratification in the last few decades has been dominated by the ascription–achievement controversy without necessarily examining the relationship between this controversy and the broader mobility–reproduction debate. The underlying assumption of this focus seems to have been that achievement leads to mobility and ascription leads to reproduction. But however important achievement and ascription may be, they do not address the same issues as mobility and reproduction. A way out of this impasse may be to challenge the assumed correspondence between what we traditionally consider individual achievements on the one hand and social mobility on the other. There is no reason to assume that an empirical finding of schooling as an achievement process is necessarily incompatible with a theoretical argument of schooling as a process of reproduction. As long as individual qualities and achievements are determined by the social origin of the student, educational systems can promote not only social reproduction and individual achievement but also social reproduction through achievement (Katsillis and Rubinson 1990).

One of the most consistent findings of the research on educational and status attainment is that the socioeconomic status of the family influences the whole educational process, including many, if not all, individual student achievements and abilities that lead to socioeconomic status attainment. Thus, once the assumption that achievement implies social status or class mobility is abandoned, there is no contradiction between the findings of status attainment research that indicate an achievement-oriented educational selection system and the findings of critical research that schools reproduce social status or class inequalities.

This, of course, poses some interesting questions, especially in relation to the meaning and the role of equality of educational opportunity as we understand it today: Does a process that transforms family status inequality into differential individual achievements or qualities and, subsequently, into unequal educational attainment constitute equality of educational opportunity? If it does not, what constitutes equality of educational opportunity, and how is it attained? We may have to rethink the whole process of equality of opportunity before we are able to provide satisfactory answers to the question of education and social mobility.

(see also: Equality of Opportunity; Social Mobility; Social Stratification; Sociology of Education; Status Attainment)


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Education and Mobility

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