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Sociology of Education

Drawing on one sociological perspective presented in the course content, discuss critically its usefulness in developing your understanding of your role as a teacher and the Irish primary education system.

‘Equality of condition is about equalizing what might be called people’s ‘real options’, which involves the equal enabling and empowerment of individuals.’ (Lynch & Baker, 2005, p.2.) My decision to embark on this journey in primary education, slightly later in life, was triggered by various personal and professional experiences in education and third level teaching, many of which have been thrown into new light by my recent study of sociology. The above citation highlights what is, for me, the cornerstone of education, namely ‘empowerment’. In learning to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of condition, it was made clear to me the reasons for which the attainment of equality often flounders in Western states, and the imperative nature of every primary school teacher’s commitment to striving for equity within the classroom environment.

‘What equality means to me’: Equality through the eyes of my eight year old son. Image Credit: Sebastian Devlin-Fox.

The meritocratic elements inherent to an equality of opportunity perspective (Baum, 2011) are accompanied by an assumption that an individual is completely to blame for his/her own failures, and a denial that society and its institutions are responsible for the reproduction of inequality (Musolf, 2017). When one considers the increasingly diverse nature of Irish society, and the multiple backgrounds from which individuals strive to survive and succeed, it seems self-evident that a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach no longer suffices, and that the ‘real options’ available to all social sectors must be considered. Empowerment is only possible when the point of departure takes into account the individual and his/her specific situation. For this reason, it seems evident that the evolution from equality of opportunity to equality of condition is imperative. My glimpse into the sociological domains that explore these ideas has afforded me renewed understanding of the obligations I will bear, as teacher, to question and engage with the structures that determine the nature of both the school as institution, and the classroom as site of individual and collective learning.  

The above reference to equality of opportunity ˗ and pursuant reproduction of inequality ˗ may be contextualised against the theories of Pierre Bourdieu on social and cultural reproduction. Bourdieu, a conflict theorist like Marx, focused on the competing interests and tensions within society, and attested that the power of certain classes is maintained by social institutions and their promotion of the dominant ideology. Within this school of thought, the main causes of inequality are the structures of society. (Farrelly, 2020). Central to Bourdieu’s theory is the concept of cultural capital, which ‘consists of familiarity with the dominant culture in a society, and especially the ability to understand and use ‘educated’ language.’ (Sullivan, 2002. P.145). My background as lecturer in French studies, presented me with countless situations in which classroom progress was determined by levels of linguistic comprehension. I have also been lucky enough to volunteer regularly in a local Educate Together primary school where I have witnessed first-hand the significance of language barriers and the divides and inequalities that arise with divergence in linguistic capabilities. For these reasons, Bernstein’s language theories have also resonated strongly with me, as has the work carried out in the wake of their publication. His work on restricted and elaborated codes (1971) highlights the role of the teacher in ensuring that any disjuncture between communicative styles within the classroom does not impede either academic or social progress. For Bernstein, the term ‘code’ refers to a: ‘regulative principle which underlies various message systems, especially curriculum and pedagogy.’ (Atkinson, cited in Sadvonik, 1991, p.51) In studying both Bourdieu and Bernstein, I was struck by the degree to which their concepts provided insight into my classroom experience. Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ with its embodiment and internalisation of signs, indices and sanctions (Husu, 2013), bears a linguistic dimension that calls to mind Bernstein’s code theory. Central to both sets of theory is the linguistic and cultural division between agents of communication. This division demonstrates social hierarchies and questions the nature of symbolic and social control. (Harker and May, 1993).

Elevated by words: The gap between elaborate and restricted codes may indirectly place some children at a higher advantage than others with regards to literacy and general academic progress. Image Credit: http://www.unsplash.com.

One of my aims on this journey to primary teaching is to try and bridge the habitus divide, and to enable the optimal reconciliation of codes when a child brings his unique identity to the classroom environment. In my experience, the challenge faced by some young adults in their transition to third level is due to discord between academic register and individual challenges in general comprehension. Confidence is also lacking to address what is not understood, a lack that is conditioned by society and the education system’s presumption of both elaborated code and cultural capital. (Sullivan, 2002) Should such confidence be instilled at primary level, regardless of code or habitus, it seems to me that children would be better empowered to navigate new or less familiar registers in educational, social and cultural fields.

Professor Parlo Singh describes the legacy of Basil Bernstein in her work on educational inequality. Video Credit: You Tube (TASA).

A certain degree of responsibility for these issues lies with individual primary teachers in their use of classroom vocabulary and the holistic nature of the student-teacher interaction. However, certain stumbling blocks persist within the Irish education system, and these require a collective, national effort to be overcome. Since the Pisa Report of 2009 and its exposure of a significant decline in Irish literacy levels (Cosgrove, 2015), Ireland has implemented various measures to address literacy issues amongst our youth. These range from DES literacy strategies to DEIS action plans and support structures. However, as effectively demonstrated by Gerry Mac Ruairc, unnecessary inequalities surrounding standardised testing practices at primary level continue to curtail the opportunities of Irish children. In choosing to test children in the dominant or ‘elaborated’ code, MacRuairc suggests that the testing process ‘negate[s] a whole way of being, a complete and and well-established way of making sense of the world by failing to validate the language variety used by certain groups to construct meaning.’ (MacRuairc, 2009).

Although exposure to new vocabulary and educational challenges are formative for our children, I share MacRuairc’s view. Amongst the five dimensions of equality elaborated by Baker and Lynch we find respect and recognition. To respect and recognise the individual child’s voice and needs, one must respect and recognise the language and register in which these are articulated. These sociological imperatives are those upon which I aim to scaffold my own teacher identity.

References:

Baker, J., Cantillon S., Lynch K. and Walsh, J. (2009) Equality: From Theory to Action. 2nd edn. Palgrave Macmillan.

Baum, B. (2011) ‘Governing “Democratic” Equality: Mill, Tawney, and Liberal Democratic Governmentality’, Political Research Quarterly, 65(4), pp.714-731.

Cosgrove, J. (2015) ‘Changes of Achievement in Pisa From 2000 to 2009 in Ireland: Beyond the Test Scores’, The Irish Journal of Education, 40, pp.29-44.

Farrelly, M. (2020) ‘Introduction to Sociology and Sociological Theories’, Sociology of Education for Professional Masters in Education. [Online] Available at: https://myhelms.com/learn/course/view.php?id=1744&section=2 (Accessed: 24 November 2020).

Harker, R. and May, S. (1993) ‘Code and Habitus: comparing the accounts of Bernstein and Bourdieu’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 14(2), pp.169-78.

Husu, H.M. (2013) ‘Bourdieu and Social Movements: Considering Identity Movements in Terms of Field, Capitaland Habitus’, Social Movement Studies, 12(3), pp.264-279. doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2012.704174  

MacRuairc, G. (2009) ‘Language, socio-economic class and educational underachievement’, in Drudy, S. (ed.) Education in Ireland: Challenge and Change, (chap. 8). [Online] Available at: https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=nlebk&AN=1009147&site=ehost-live. (Accessed: 24 November 2020).  

Musolf, G.R. (2017) ‘Oppression and Resistance: a structure-and-agency perspective’, Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 40: Oppression and Resistance: Structure, Agency, Transformation. pp.1-18. Bingley: U.K. : Emerald Publishing Limited.

Sadovnik, A.R. (1991) ‘Basil Bernstein’s Theory of Pedagogic Practice: a structuralist approach’, Sociology of Education, 64(1), pp.48-63.

Sullivan, A. (2002) ‘Bourdieu and Education: How useful is Bourdieu’s theory for researchers?’, The Netherlands Journal of Social Sciences, 38(2), pp.144-157.

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