To what extent do sociologists agree that different levels of educational attainment are affected by genetics?

A sociologist would not agree that a student’s genetic make up has an affect on their educational achievement. They would state that there is also no scientific evidence what so ever to explain or suggest that a person’s chromosomes determine their successes within the education system.

Instead, they would suggest that the patterns in differences of educational attainment are down to social factors. A sociologist would explain the differences in terms of human social life, groups and societies. Sociologists aim to investigate and understand the social world and human behaviour within it. They are particularly interested in the way society influences us and shapes our lives.

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In the past it was assumed that some strata of society were superior to others because they inherited intelligence or artist abilities along with their physical appearance from their parents. This belief in “genetic endowment” has been challenged over the past one hundred years and the “nature vs. nurture” debate continues. Many definitions have been given to explain the nature of intelligence. A simple one is “the ability to perceive and solve problems” – the nature of the problems will however depend on the society in which they exist.

A lot of research has been aimed at establishing whether, and to what extent, intelligence is inherited. Conclusions have ranged from that of Watson (1931) who stated “There is no such thing as an inheritance of capacity, talent, temperament, mental constitution and characteristics”, and that of Floud, Halsey and Martin (1956), who argued “it is well known that intelligence is largely an acquired characteristic”, to that of Jensen (1969) and Eysenck (1973), who have maintained that genetic factors are much more important than environmental influences in producing differences in intelligence. Most research since has concluded that intelligence is in some measure inherited but that environmental factors can be conclusive in its development or otherwise.

In Britain the major argument with regard to environment and heredity revolves around the impact in differences in academic achievement between the social classes. Although differences in measured intelligence have been taken into account, the impact of the environment upon a child’s educational chances seems of much greater significance.

For example, the environment will include the kind of stimulus a child receives in terms of speech, books, encouragement and example. It will include varies in facilities such as housing, computers, privacy and private tuition; it will include values of the home, area, and local peer group. Also, it will even include nutrition, for there is some evidence to suggest that severe malnutrition within the first few years can affect the development of the brain. Therefore, the differences between the environmental factors which affect the working class and middle class mean that they will seem to have a different level of intelligence.

The term ‘social class’ is one which involves describing a person’s position in society. An individual’s class is often determined by looking at either their occupation or their parent’s occupation. Stats tend to show that the higher a student’s social class background is, the greater the chance of that student gaining educational success. But why is this,

Members of the lower classes place less value on the importance of education. This is due to the different way in which they have been socialised to believe in different norms and values. They place less emphasise on formal education as a means of personal achievement. Members of the lower classes also place less value on the importance of achieving occupational status; therefore during education they are less likely to strive to achieve top grades. Students from lower social classes tend to take into account a wider range of issues when deciding to enter higher education, in comparison to their counterparts from the higher social classes. They tend to place more importance on the expected beneficial outcomes of higher education than do students from higher social class groups.

In comparison to the middle class, the working class tend to believe that there is less opportunity for personal achievement. This belief may be due to the lower value the working class place on the importance of education and higher educational status. Some sociologists also say that this may be due to the lack of opportunity which is enhanced more so, by the working class’ own poor belief in themselves.

This may lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the idea that the working class do not achieve educational success, as they do not believe that they will be able to achieve it, therefore not trying to strive for better attainment. This can also be a value that is taught to them by socialising institutions. For example, if a person’s family are of working class and their immediate family did not do well in education, and believe that it is an institution that only benefit’s the ruling classes then they are likely to pass on these values and therefore cause the child to feel the same. They therefore will also not succeed within the education system as they would think that whatever they do will not be good enough, meaning they will not strive for achievements. This is enhanced more so by streaming and setting.

By using the streaming system a less able student may feel that there is no point in trying to succeed as there are too many other students who are more capable than themselves. This therefore causes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Also it has been argued that it is common for the lower groups of the streaming process tend to be from the working class. Whereas the students of the higher streams tended to be from the middle class. This could be due to more wealth meaning better educational assistance, e.g. tutoring, books and equipment, etc. leading to better educational attainment.

However, it could also be due to labelling theory. The school culture tends to be middle class, e.g. type of speech etc. although schools vary in their educational objectives. They therefore, tend to enforce middle class values. Teachers are middle class and unavoidably make judgements about pupils. These judgements often affect the child’s chances of educational achievement. The idea of the theory is that a teacher labels a student, according to their class by their, speech and family background. If a student is labelled in such ay to be in the working class, then the teacher may not have belief in them achieving educational success and therefore not offer them as much encouragement or push them to do better. This therefore causes these students to not seek for higher opportunities and not reach their full potential.

Social research by Douglas also stressed the importance of parental attitudes determining educational success.

Some researchers have suggested that middle class parents socialise their children into one set of norms and values and parents from the working class socialise their children into a different set.

It has also been suggested that the values taught to the middle class contribute to the development of ambition, disciplined study and individual striving for success. These are values which are highly thought of by teachers within schools. Due to the middle class backgrounds of teachers, working class values are less likely to lead to such success as there is an emphasise put on present gratification.

Sociologists say therefore that because a person is a part of a different social class, meaning their difference is only man made. Their chromosomes or genetics does not efficiently explain the difference in the working class’ and middle class’ educational achievement.

Just as parents’ expectations, attitudes and also teachers’ expectations and attitudes, can be crucial in affecting the educational achievement of those from the differing class groups, so too, can these expectations and attitudes influence differential achievement between girls and boys and between people form different ethnic backgrounds.

The expectations of girls being passive by teachers mean that they get labelled. They also tend to accept this label and think it natural for boys to ask questions and challenge teachers.

Sociologists would say that because female students in the past did not perform as well as their male counterparts in the education system, but are now achieving better than boys, genetics is an inadequate explanation of the differences in educational success. Instead this would suggest that the feminist movement has led to the changing of attitudes towards women’s roles in society and in turn their aspirations and expectations for career opportunities (79% of women said they wanted to develop a career).

They would also suggest that the increase in female achievement is down to the introduction of the national curriculum, changing job opportunities and legal change in policies, i.e. promoting equal opportunities between the genders.

Statistics show that for both female and male GCSE students the percentage achieving 5 or more GCSEs have increased, however, the statistics also show that more of the female students are still achieving better than the males.

Some sociologists have studied and attempted to explain male underachievement. Harris’s research about adolescent attitudes (mainly the working class) has shown that boys are thought to be suffering from increasing low self-esteem and poor motivation. The study also showed that males seem to be less willing to struggle and to overcome difficulties of understanding their studies. They are more easily distracted and find coursework harder to complete. Their female counterparts are more willing to spend a longer time on their homework and revising for their subjects. They are more focused on their futures and see qualifications as more important.

As is gender and influential factor on the educational achievement of a student, their ethnicity is also. Statistics have shown that to some extent a child’s attainment is related to their ethnicity. Students from some ethnic backgrounds tend to underachieve more than other, e.g. children from English, Welsh, Scottish and African-Caribbean families fared the worst (ILEA study). Whereas students from Indian, African and Pakistani backgrounds showed the best. In all ethnic groups the females out performed the males.

Some sociologists say that these ethnic differences can be explained by the differing socio-economic status that is generally held from ethnic group to ethnic group. For example, underachieving Bangladeshi children tend to be form the working class. It is therefore hard to differentiate between the affect of class and ethnicity. It is hard to discuss the differences of parental expectations between the ethnic groups as it can also be interpreted as the different expectations of social classes.

However, cultural differences have been used to explain the differences in educational attainment. This view suggests that the cultures of some ethnic minority groups are different from the “mainstream” culture of schools. This therefore may affect their achievement as the school is a place where the white norms and values dominate.

Many members of ethnic minority groups may also speak English as a second language. This therefore puts them at a disadvantage within school. This may lead to students feeling less capable and confident when it comes to oral and written work, affecting their achievement levels and possible causing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the same way, teachers label males and the middle class to be less capable, they also tend to label ethnic minorities. These stereotypes mean that there are again differences in the way ethnic groups are taught and treated, affecting how they perform within the education system.

In conclusion, a sociologist would disagree that differences in genetics affect educational attainment of individuals. They would not argue that biological factors cause the differences in achievement, but would suggest that the patterns of underachievement etc. are due to the way society influences human behaviour. Sociologists have spent much time investigating the influence of social class, ethnicity and gender differences. It is hard to differentiate between the affect of one factor and the affect of another. Therefore, sociologists agree that educational attainment is effected in many different ways and that no one factor can out-influence another. They also agree that the “nature vs. nurture” argument is not fully resolved as society will ever be changing and scientific research and abilities will ever be improving.

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