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In what ways are social class, ‘race’/ethnicity, and gender problematic identity constructionsAnd how can they affect achievement in education?


An examination of the problematic identity constructions associated with social class, race / ethnicity and gender. Theories of essentialism and social constructism are used to understand these notions, and to assess the extent to which they can affect achievement in education.

1. Introduction

The following will take a theoretical approach using contrasting ideas about the nature of social reality to look at problems of race / ethnicity, social class and gender / sexual identity, and the impact each has on equality in education.

Social constructivism is the idea that there is no one objective reality shared by everyone. The meaning of physical reality is created by individuals and groups through beliefs based on their past experience and predispositions (Walsh 2010). Social constructivism has been widely influential in the social sciences and humanities, and was shaped by a number of theorists including Vygotsky (1925) whose studies of how children learn emphasizes the role of a social framework for education, and also by Berger and Luckmann (1966), who popularized the notion in English speaking countries (Van Dusek 2006). Social constructivist approaches to race, class and gender suggest that the way we perceive each is a function of history and culture, rather than a given objective fact.Our views of women and men, and the roles appropriate to each, for example, is rooted in the political climate, and relates to social power structures (Hirschmann 2003)

By contrast, essentialism is the view that the characteristics ascribed to members of different races or sexual identities are fixed and objective. It suggests that the way things are perceived reflects the essential nature of that thing. The essence is a causal mechanism for the properties things display (Mahalingam 2003). When applied to sexuality, for example, an essentialist view suggests that orientation is based upon an inner state which causes a person’s sexual feelings and actions. The view also holds that the essence is either biologically caused or acquired in the first few years of development (Clarke et al 2010).

While race, gender and class can be viewed alone, more recently an ‘intersectional’ approach has emerged, pointing out that these three constructs overlap, and can create layer upon layer of disadvantage and multiple oppression. Suggested by Crenshaw (1991), intersectionality shows that social identity is created in a more complex way than we might have thought (Berger 2006).

1.1 Race / Ethnicity

It is certainly the case that different races and ethnicities are characterised by differing physical appearances, including colour of skin and facial features. However, an essentialist view of race and ethnicity would suggest that each race also has a number of behavioural, mental and intellectual characteristics which distinguish them from other races. For example, there is an assumption that native Hawaiians are lazy, of low intelligence, promiscuous, hospitable and easy-going (Ponterollo et al 2009). Essentialism may also suggest that the characteristic traits are genetic, and that some races / ethnicities are superior to others.

Essentialism in approaches to race and ethnicity seem to be rooted in a late 19th century scientific viewpoint which assumed biological explanations for a range of human characteristics (Rubin 2005), and which naturalised traits such as racial difference. It has been suggested that essentialism still exists in educational, with the belief that each race had a distinct and fixed character, and that different racial groups should be taught with this in mind (Giroux and Shannon 1997).

There are a number of clear problems with essentialist theories of race and ethnicity. For example, attempts to put humans into racial groups seem to use arbitrary selection of traits with no clear explanation of why these traits are important. In addition, essentialist views, fail to account for the richness of human life, culture and experience. Finally, essentialist theories seem to lack significance. What use can they be put to(Corlett, 2003). Further, it has been pointed out that the genetic basis for ethnic essentialism is flawed, as races exhibit greater genetic differences within themselves than between one race and another (Hill and Cole 2001).

Essentialism is often associated with racism: the idea that “people are seen as causing negative consequences for other groups, or as possessing certain negatively evaluated characteristics because of their biology” (Hill and Cole 2001, p. 162). In education, it might lead, for example, to an assumption that children of a certain race are less intellectually able than others, and hence to a reduced attempt to engage with them; or to the assumption that black people excel at sports (Hill and Cole 2001).

In contrast, a social constructivist approach to race and ethnicity seems a more useful one for equality in education. This position allows for greater flexibility as race and ethnicity are seen as dynamic forces, subject to change and shaped by power relationships and cultural forms that dominate the institutions in which they are found (Giroux and Shannon 1997). The social constructivist sees race as a construct “a concept that signifies and symbolises socio-political conflicts and interests in reference to different types of human body” (Winant 2001, p. 317; cited Dillon 2009). Race is not a biologically determined set of fixed characteristics, but rather a complex mix of projections regarding inequality, hierarchical relationships and conflict which have been used to differentiate, regulate and shape reactions between people. The set of presuppositions about racial characteristics become objectified into social institutions and cultures. They are a consequence of social attitudes and decisions made about other people by individuals and groups (Dillon 2009).

Because racial differences are encapsulated in social institutions, and as education is an institutionally based phenomenon, racial prejudice and distinctions made between ethnicities need to be accounted for in education, and it seems important to reject an essentialist view in favour of a constructivist one, with the insight that perceived differences in learning ability, for example, are a consequence of historical political and social vested interests, and do not reflect an underlying reality.Within the UK, there has been a move towards eradicating racism within education. An unthinking mono-cultural approach which promoted British colonial history has given way to a multi-cultural one. Nowadays, an awareness of legislation and regulations regarding race are built into teacher training, for example it is stated that student teachers need to be familiar with the 1976 Race Relations Act, which outlawed discrimination between racial groups. A number of other laws and regulations since have framed education, including codes of practice issued by the Commission for Racial Equality, and more recent directives introduced by the European Court of Human Rights (Hill and Cole 2001).

Despite the existence of such legislation, there is still a question regarding whether racism is still part of the education system. If we accept the social constructivist view, while racist attitudes are open to change, they are deeply embedded in the culture. Schools and other educational bodies may be subject to ‘institutional racism’, “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin” (MacPherson et al 1999). Institutional racism is enshrined in the culture of an organisation, and individuals who make up the organisation may not even be aware of it. If an institution is predominantly white, it is likely that it has practices which exclude non-white people. The Stephen Lawrence enquiry in the UK in 1999 brought the issue to public attention, and a number of changes to the national curriculum, reporting procedures and monitioring levels were made.

1.2 Social Class

The UK is still heavily stratified in terms of class, with resulting inequalities, poverty and social exclusion. The division between rich and poor has increased over the last 20 years, with the rich becoming even better off, and the less well off even poorer.There are various views of what the class system means. Class can be characterised on the basis of occupation and education, with manual (skilled, unskilled or semi skilled) trades equated with the working class, white collar workers with the middle classes, and professionals with the upper classes (Hill and Cole 1999). Marxism has offered a long-lasting analysis of class, suggesting that it is a vehicle whereby the interests of a few are allowed to override the interests of the many.Marx saw society as a history of class struggle, and class as closely tied up with the interests of capitalism, under which the means of economic production are placed in the hands of a small number, with most people having to sell their labour to survive. Marxists also suggest that the education system was class-ridden, existing primarily to tend to the interests of the elite by a process of ‘economic reproduction’, training people to take up a place in the work force, and by ‘cultural reproduction’’, by which children are educated to believe that the upper classes tastes are the norm, and working class ones should be rejected (Hill and Cole 1999).

It has been claimed that Marxism challenges essentialism, for example by opposing the notion that the division between the working and upper classes is ‘natural’ and ‘fair’. However, many suggest that Marxism is in fact inherently essentialist rather than allowing fluidity in the class structure. For example, Marx believed in the fixed nature of the key concepts he used, ‘the individual’, ‘class’ and ‘the state’. He further assumes that people are members of a particular class for life, rather than able to move from one class to another. He also suggests that there is a unity to the concept of the ‘working class’, for example, over and above the shared conceptions of all the people who make up the class (Wolfreys 2006). Littlejohn (1978) suggests that for Marx, social class expresses an ‘essence’, with political movement reduced to expressions of interests determined elsewhere. In addition, Littlejohn suggests, Marx saw society as having a fixed, stratified structure in which economics underpinned political, legislative and cultural layers (Littlejohn 1978).

Post-modernism has suggested that the Marxist notion of class is no longer relevant, and argues that we are now in a post-capitalist era, in which the old social distinctions play no part (Hill and Cole 1999). Post-modernism is consistent with social constructivism, as it suggests that there is no reason to believe in an objective, fixed society, and that we rather need to study discourses and texts to understand what social constructs mean for the people who interpret them. For the post-modernist, personal identity has become fragmented and decentralised, and the notion of class has lost power as it has become subsumed by other measures of identity including gender and race. As identity is fragmented, so individuals can define themselves as classless, or move from class to class (Lareau and Conely 2008). In short, “social class has… ceased to be of central empirical significance to our culture” (Milner, 1999). However, this view is widely disputed, for example by Hill, who suggests that post-modernists are simply unable – or unwilling – to recognize the divisive power of class in today’s society (Hill, 2002).

The growth in the gap between rich and poor does suggest that class issues are still relevant. In terms of education and equality, it seems that class does play a role. Bordieu, for example, carried out empirical studies in French educational establishments, and showed that family background, social class and school are linked, with schools still representing the social and economic inequalities found in wider society. His suggestions have been confirmed by work in the US, suggesting that social differences are reinforced by the education system there, for example the policy of elite colleges such as Harvard to favour children of ex-students. Dillon also points out that access to education is not enough to increase social mobility, as working class students are likely to lack the abilities to make the most of their education that their middle class peers take for granted, for example skills in networking (Dillon 2009). It is also possible that more recent changes to education frameworks in the UK including raised fees for higher education and more freedom for schools to select pupils will create a climate which introduces further divisions between classes in an ‘increasingly segregated system’ (Taylor 2006).

1.3. Gender / Sexual Identity

Similarly, gender and sexual identity are notions with inherent problems. If we adhere to an essentialist view, it would be assumed that certain characteristics are attached to people of each gender, for example men are more intelligent, better with machinery, and better at sports, with women more suited to home making and issues to do with emotions. Similarly, an essentialist perspective might suggest that gay men are uniformly ‘camp’, dress flamboyantly and have a high-pitched voice, with lesbians likely to look like men and have a rough manner.

By assuming that men and women have certain characteristics which define them, stereotyping is more likely to arise. Stereotypes can be acquired through family and wider society, and often develop at a young age, although are complex in nature and the precise nature of the stereotyped characteristics can vary considerably. Stereotypes are not innate: children first learn to differentiate between men and women before later ascribing sets of characteristics to them (Schneider 2004). Stereotypes both influence, and are influenced by, the role men and women play in society. They are problematic in that they not only describe differences between men and women, but also dictate what roles they should play. This can lead to oppression and the suppression of an individual’s freedom. Stereotypes cover a wide range of areas including cognitive abilities, physical appearance, behaviour and emotion. While stereotypes about both gender and sexual orientation are less oppressive now than they have been in the past, prejudice based on such labelling is still in existence, perhaps in a more subtle way (Worrell 2001), for example concerning whether women are expected to do as well in education as men.

Stereotyping on the basis of gender or orientation can lead to oppression and inequality as it reinforces prejudices about difference, and can help maintain inequality and perpetuate injustices. Stereotypical views about men and women may be used to justify unfair treatment, for example paying women less on the assumption that work is less important to them (Andersen and Taylor, 2007). Awareness of the ways in which women are oppressed by men has increased since the advent of feminism, which uncovered the ways in which there is an unfair balance of social and economic power between men and women, and the extent to which men have a vested interest in controlling women to maintain this balance in their favour. Oppression of women, it has been argued, is carried out not just by individuals but is built into social and institutional structure so pervasively that it is not always obvious (Choudhuri 2008). Similarly, oppression and inequality can damage those of non-mainstream sexual orientations, particularly gay men and lesbians. While awareness, understanding and tolerance of gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gender people (GLBT) has increased over the last hundred years, negative treatment has not been removed. “Prejudice, discrimination and oppression on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity permeate our sociocultural context, affecting everyone in deleterious ways” (Messinger 2006, p. 44).Oppression on the basis of sexual orientation can take various forms including exploitation (not offering gay workers the same rights for spouses as given to different sex couples), powerlessness (disrespectful treatment, discrimination in the work place), systematic violence (verbal or physical abuse directed at an individual solely because he or she is gay) and cultural imperialism (the assumption that the worldview of the prevailing, ‘straight’ culture is the correct one) (Messinger 2006).

Within education, therefore, there is a clear need to work against discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, although such discrimination may well be institutionalised and hence less visible. Equality can be worked towards through a variety of methods including understanding the complexity of sexuality and gender, being aware of an challenging heterosexual assumptions and practices, understanding the role education can play in overturning prejudice, challenging homophobia, understanding how gender and orientation issues can intersect with race and class, and learning about LGBT histories (Banks and Banks 2009). Even in these seemingly more enlightened times, research evidence from the USA suggests that LGBT pupils are at higher risk of harassment within their educational instutites: many reported feeling unsafe while in school (64% compared with 10% of pupils who felt unsafe because of their gender), while many lesbian pupils reported physical and verbal harassment and victimisation (Klein 2007). Within the UK, legislation does exist to ensure equality for LGBT teachers, and a national initiative to reduce homophobic bullying was launched with incidents logged and a teaching programme suggested (Sears 2005).

2. Conclusion

If a teacher subscribed to an essentialist view of gender, race and class, he or she might believe that one or other gender, race or social group is inherently better than others at academic subjects. This might lead to situations where the academic performance of the pupil was affected negatively or positively. For example, a belief that boys are better capable of mathematics or science might lead to the teacher spending more time with the boys, praising their good work more enthusiastically or not helping girls. A belief that Afro-Carribean boys are noisy and don’t care about their education might lead to the teacher being more harsh with boys of this race, assuming that they are more likely to be disruptive in class. A similar belief might cause the teacher to assume they are unlikely to be interested in certain subjects.Similarly, the teacher might assume that working class pupils were inherently less intelligent, and might as a result spend less time with them, and not work to encourage any goals of further education. On the other hand, by taking a constructivist view, there is more scope for children to be seen as individuals, and not typecast by their class, sex and ethnic background. A constructivist might also be aware of the extent to which an educational institution is sexist, racist or classist as part of its very structure, and take more steps to counteract this.


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