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Education and Social Class: Highlighting How the Educational System Perpetuates Social Inequality

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This chapter considers the idea that the educational system participates in the (re)production of social inequality. After outlining and discussing the sociological hypothesis that institutions play a role in the perpetuation of inequalities, we present social psychological research that highlights how educational settings engage students in a way that reproduces inequality in academic outcomes. We argue that education actively participates in the reproduction of inequality through a mainly symbolic process. This process involves soft coercion and relies on the implementation of a system of essentialist categories that shapes the construal of students’ academic reality. Specifically, academic achievement is understood to reveal students’ individual merit, thereby reaffirming the advantages and disadvantages related to family backgrounds that are at play in the classroom. We document this process by summarizing the results of observations and interviews conducted in preschools as well as experiments carried out in primary and secondary education. This research unveils some of the dynamics through which education, as an institution, creates the conditions for the construction, reproduction, and legitimation of the stratification of society.
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139© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019
J. Jetten, K. Peters (eds.), TheSocial Psychology ofInequality,
https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28856-3_9
Education andSocial Class: Highlighting
How theEducational System Perpetuates
Social Inequality
Jean-ClaudeCroizet, FrédériqueAutin, SébastienGoudeau, MedhiMarot,
andMathiasMillet
Any institution then starts to control the memory of its members; it causes them to forget
experiences incompatible with its righteous image, and it brings to their minds events which
sustain the view of nature that is complementary to itself. It provides the categories of their
thought, set the terms for self-knowledge and xes identity. All this is not enough. It must
secure the social edice by sacralizing the principles of justice. (Douglas, 1986, p.112)
Institutions, after all, do much of society’s dirty work in reproducing privilege and disad-
vantages. (DiMaggio, 2012, p.15)
Despite the facts that the slogan “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood” is displayed
on many of its school buildings, and that its educational system can be considered
as free all the way to college, France remains the only Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development (OECD) country where academic achievement is
most dependent on students’ social class (see the Programme for International
Student Assessment1). For example, children from working-class backgrounds,
though they constitute 40.5% of their age group, represent 73.5% of the youngsters
in junior high school who are directed toward the tracks designed for students with
special needs (SEGPA), and only 12.2% of students enrolled in a PhD program.
Their peers from more advantaged backgrounds, though only representing 14% of
their age group, constitute only 2% of the lower track students in junior high school
but 34.3% of students enrolled in a PhD (MEN-DEPP, 2016, 2018). The reason why
children from advantaged backgrounds outperform disadvantaged children has been
1 https://www.oecd.org/pisa/
J.-C. Croizet (*) · M. Marot
Laboratoire de Psychologie Sociale et Cognitive andCNRS, Université Clermont-Auvergne,
Clermont-Ferrand, France
e-mail: j-claude.croizet@uca.fr
F. Autin
Université de Poitiers CNRS, Poitiers, France
S. Goudeau
Université Paris-Descartes, Paris, France
M. Millet
Université de Tours CNRS, Tours, France
140
hotly debated both in and outside academia (Biddle, 2001). Generally, individualist
accounts that claim that the poor lack the ability or character necessary for academic
success are complemented by external explanations that instead locate the decit in
the environment (e.g., family). In this chapter, our goal is to focus on an often-
neglected cause of the achievement gap: the educational system.
The idea that institutions play a role in reproducing social inequality is not new,
at least in sociology (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Although it has received far less
attention in social psychology, there is a growing interest in developing an under-
standing of how cultural contexts and social structures beyond the “immediate situ-
ation” shape behavioral outcomes in educational settings (see Autin & Butera, 2016;
Croizet, Goudeau, Marot, & Millet, 2017; Darnon, Wiederkehr, Dompnier, &
Martinot, 2018; Smeding, Darnon, Souchal, Toczek-Capelle, & Butera, 2013; see
also Batruch, Autin, & Butera, chapter “The Paradoxical Role of Meritocratic
Selection in the Perpetuation of Social Inequalities at School”; Easterbrook, Hadden
& Nieuwenhuis, chapter “Identities-in-Context: How Social Class Shapes
Inequalities in Education”). Here our goal is to analyze some of the processes
through which the educational system reproduces social inequality. We will rst
introduce the idea that institutions play a decisive role in the perpetuation of inequal-
ities. We will then describe how school classrooms create the conditions for the
construction, reproduction, and legitimation of the stratication of society.
Institutions andtheReproduction ofSocial Inequality
Social psychology has studied inequality for decades. But until recently, inequality
was mainly investigated through the lens of interpersonal discrimination.
Specically, this lens has shown that certain groups are deprived of access to certain
resources (education, housing, work) because they are treated differently by indi-
viduals who act on their negative stereotypes. These discriminating perpetrators can
be conscious racists, sexists, and classists, or nonprejudiced individuals, who are
unintendedly acting on racist, sexist, or classist beliefs. According to this “standard
perspective” (Adams, Edkins, Lacka, Pickett, & Cheryan, 2008), inequality can be
conceptualized as the outcome of (un)intentional actions of biased individuals.
Within this framework, ghting prejudiced attitudes and providing individuals with
tools to control the expression of their racist tendencies have been put forward as the
solution to reduce social inequalities.
However, albeit detrimental, interpersonal discrimination and outgroup hostility
cannot account for the persistence of inequality (Adams, Biernat, Branscombe,
Crandall, & Wrightsman, 2008; Jackman, 1994). This is because long-standing
patterns of domination that dene class, race, and gender relations are less charac-
terized by discrimination and conict than by acceptance of the domination
(Jackman, 1994). According to this “systemic perspective” (Adams, Biernat, etal.,
2008; Adams, Edkins, etal., 2008), ideologies and institutions play a decisive role
J.-C. Croizet et al.
141
in the acceptance and regulation of group domination (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977;
Jackman, 1994, 2001).
Indeed, throughout history, high-status groups have consistently relied on ideo-
logical narratives to provide a justication for their position in the social order
(Weber, 1914/1978; Zelditch Jr., 2001). While the details of the narratives have
changed with time and as a function of the nature of the hierarchy, they have all
afrmed the superiority of those in power over those at the bottom of the hierarchy
(Bisseret, 1974). This superiority is attributed to the possession of superior attri-
butes, be they divine (e.g., see the monarchies before the eighteenth century), natu-
ral, or acquired (see French Republics after the eighteenth century; Bisseret, 1974).
In contemporary societies that embrace democratic ideals, it is individual merit that
explains social stratication (see also Augoustinos & Callaghan, chapter “The
Language of Inequality”; Fiske & Durante, chapter “Mutual Status Stereotypes
Maintain Inequality”). According to this meritocratic narrative, one’s social position
is mostly a reection of one’s talent and effort (Young 1958), thus legitimizing
social positions (Jost & Kay, 2010). The entrenched relationship between percep-
tions of an individual’s success and their personal values was recently illustrated by
Emmanuel Macron, the French president. During his inauguration of a private start-
up campus on July 2, 2017, he claimed that “a train station is the location where
those who have succeeded pass those who are nothing.” Placing the origin of the
social hierarchy in individual merit offers a justication that can lead dominant and
dominated groups to accept their social position as legitimate (e.g., Kuppens,
Spears, Manstead, Spruyt, & Easterbrook, 2018; Wiederkehr, Bonnot, Krauth-
Gruber, & Darnon, 2015).
If these ideological narratives make sense of the social order and supply the tools
for its acceptance, it is institutions that regulate the domination by easing the ow
of exploitation from the dominated groups to the dominant groups (Jackman, 1994).
Institutions are enduring social arrangements embedded with pattern of ideologies,
norms, and roles that regulate relations among individuals (Dornbusch, Glasgow, &
Lin, 1996). They authorize certain relations and guide actors’ perceptions and
actions into forms that are compatible with these relations (Douglas, 1986). These
arrangements are not neutral; they embed the domination and exploitation of certain
groups by others. Indeed, institutions are biased “to carry out the ongoing task of
expropriating resources from the subordinates” (Jackman, 1994, p.65). There are
many examples of this institutionalization of domination in history (Noiriel, 2018;
Zinn, 1980). One is the institution of marriage (Jackman, 1994)—in France, for
example, until 1965, married women were not allowed to have a job without the
consent of their husband. Another example is labor legislation that denes the rights
of workers in their relation with their employers (Noiriel, 2018).
More generally, the very denition of what is legal in a given society reveals how
institutions are impregnated with the reality of domination and exploitive relations
that structure society, from the denition of constitutional rights (who is a citizen,
who is allowed to vote, who is allowed to protest) to criminal law (Alexander, 2010;
Reiman & Leigthon, 2012) or the way taxes are set and enforced (Piketty, 2014;
Social Reproduction in Education
142
Spire, 2012). Institutions therefore play a central role in the long-lasting relation of
domination because they “stabilize and routinize the supply of benets from one
group to another” (Jackman, 1994). The design of institutions means that domination
and exploitation require neither intentional actions from dominants nor consent
from subordinates; they just happen.
Institutions produce inequality by imposing systems of classication that not
only channel how individuals think, act, and dene themselves, but also determine
their fate (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Jackman, 1994;
Tilly, 1999). Categorical inequality (Tilly, 1999) is one of the theories that describe
this process. According to Tilly (1999), institutions manufacture institutional cate-
gories (“welfare recipient,” “inmate,” “gifted,” “entrepreneur”) that are used to fun-
nel individuals into institutional tracks that profoundly shape their access to
positions in a stratied society (e.g., in France being oriented towards a vocational
school rather than a general high school). Thus, institutions act as “sorting machines”
(Domina, Penner, & Penner, 2017). Importantly, this sorting process is not blind; it
produces disparate outcomes as a function of class, gender, and race. As we will
discuss next, the effectiveness of these categorization and sorting processes in the
reproduction of inequality is particularly well illustrated in educational systems
(Domina etal., 2017).
Education: AnEgalitarian Institution or aHierarchies
Manufacturer?
Due to its unavoidability and prevalence, education holds a particularly potent posi-
tion in society. Up until the age of adulthood, individuals will have spent most of
their life in schools. According to functionalists (Davis & Moore, 1945), education
fullls two distinct goals: education and selection (see Autin & Butera, 2016;
Batruch et al. chapter “The Paradoxical Role of Meritocratic Selection in the
Perpetuation of Social Inequalities at School”; Darnon etal., 2018; Jury, Smeding,
& Darnon, 2015). Schools are charged with developing a “properly trained and
socialized citizenry” (Dornbusch etal., 1996, p.403) with a focus on teaching the
cognitive and technical skills to perform societal occupations. Aside from this “edu-
cational” function, the stratication of society means that educational institutions
are also granted a “selection” function, whereby they are responsible for ensuring
that the most meritorious people access the highest status positions (Carson, 2007;
Davis & Moore, 1945).
Selection is achieved by implementing a process of “equal opportunities.
Specically, students are grouped by age, face the same teacher, receive the same
educational material, take the same examinations, and, in the best schools, are even
treated the same. These settings aim at ensuring “fair competition” and guaranteeing
that differences in achievement can only reveal individual merit. As such, they con-
stitute the optimal institutional arrangement for dispositional attribution (Kelley,
1967). Education is thus not only a sorting machine but also the ofcial merit revealer.
J.-C. Croizet et al.
143
Merit is gauged through a system of internal categories and practices (e.g.,
“grades,” “awards,” “high achievers,” “low achievers,” “advanced placement”) that
are saturated with psychological essentialism, the belief that the nature or essence
of the individuals is the cause of their behavior (Medin & Ortony, 1989; Rothbart &
Taylor, 1992). Regardless of whether this essence is biological (genes or natural
ability; Keller, 2005) or social (an unstimulating family environment; Rangel &
Keller, 2011), essentialism impregnates institutional categories and tracks (e.g.,
“gifted,” “advanced,” “straight-As,” “learning disability,” “dropout,” “vocational”).
The use of such labels conveys the idea that the categories rely on inherent, deep,
and stable qualities (e.g., Cimpian & Erickson, 2012; Heyman, 2008). These essen-
tialist categories are further institutionally reinforced by its reward systems: gold
stars, report cards, percentile rankings, and award ceremonies. Because of the per-
vasiveness of this institutional category assignment, it is not surprising that even
when very young (e.g., when starting preschool), children become particularly con-
cerned about whether they are smart, slow, or motivated; in other words, whether
they are meritorious (Millet & Croizet, 2016).
Education: TheEgalitarian Institution That Stages anUnfair
Competition
Though educational institutions rely on a system of internal categories that is sup-
posedly unrelated to external categories, like class, gender, race, and educational
outcomes are strongly related to one’s social background (see the Programme for
International Student Assessment2). As a result, far from being a level playing eld,
education promotes and values certain norms that are closer to the regular cultural
practices of dominant groups, which ultimately give them an advantage in the “mer-
itocratic contest.” These norms value certain forms of language (Carter, 2003;
Labov, 1970, Lahire, 2000), interest in certain forms of arts and literature, particular
knowledge and skills (Lareau & Weininger, 2003), attendance of the “right” muse-
ums (Bourdieu, 1979), specic academic attitudes (Blackledge, 2001), or bodily
posture (Bourdieu, 1979; Millet & Thin, 2003), and the expression of independence
agency (Stephens, Markus, & Phillips, 2014).
These implicit norms are already noticeable in the preschool years. In French
preschools, children are not graded but they participate in multiple daily activities
aimed at group socialization and at developing reading and writing skills. One rou-
tinized activity is the “what’s up?” exercise (quoi de neuf?). Children sit in a circle
in front of the teacher and share with the group something they experienced during
the weekend. Two ndings stood out from a series of observations conducted in 10
school classrooms (Millet & Croizet, 2016). Almost every child quickly understood
that the “what’s up” exercise was a competition for gratication and was eager to
2 https://www.oecd.org/pisa/
Social Reproduction in Education
144
participate. Children also rapidly gured out that not all of the experiences shared
with the group had the same value. In other words, students experienced rsthand
being sorted into new categories distinguishing between those who had something
“interesting” to share and the others.
Teacher: --« You’re talking about the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse, High Speed Train) [...]?
Who has been on the TGV? »
Several students raise their hand and explain that they have traveled with the TGV.The
teacher asks where they went on the TGV.It is noteworthy that having been on the TGV is
clearly valued and what the TGV is, is never explained.
Abdoullah—who is sitting separately from the others and is wiggling on his chair—
turns around and says “what about me?”
Teacher: “Yes, you, I can’t let you speak because you are not in the circle with us.
Abdoullah enters the circle and stays in the middle.
Teacher: “Sit down Abdoullah if you want to share something. You know what you have
to do if you want to tell us something” [to raise his hand].
When Alexia is talking, the teacher says, “Alexia, a little while ago, when you were
talking, everyone was listening to you, now it would be good if you would do the same.”
Then turning toward Abdoullah, the teacher tells him: “Yes Abdoullah, what do you want to
share?”
Abdoullah explains in a way that is hard to understand that his mother bought him some
toothpaste.
Teacher.— « Your mom bought you pasta, is that it? (in a mocking tone) Oh?! »
The exchange that follows helps to clarify that Abdoullah means “toothpaste.” The
teacher makes him repeat that it is toothpaste while winking to the interviewer.
A little later [...] the teacher explains to the interviewer that she often invites students to
talk about their weekend, because there is always something happening and things to share
and adds, while laughing ironically: “if only for: “Mom bought some toothpaste.” »
(Observation of a preschool classroom, 3-year-old children and interview with the
teacher, Millet & Croizet, 2016, pp. 169–170, translated from French.)
Because implicit academic norms more closely resemble the cultural practices
adopted by more advantaged families (Kusserow, 2004; Lareau, 2003), the educa-
tional system is inherently biased in favor of students from privileged back-
grounds. The match versus mismatch of academic implicit norms and family
cultural practices (Stephens, Fryberg, Markus, Johnson, & Covarrubias, 2012) has
therefore two important consequences. First, middle-class students, who are
familiar with these norms, are more at ease in academic settings. Indeed, they
enter school possessing cultural capital that confers a head start in the classroom
such as the use of particular linguistic posture, the way to express personal opin-
ions, the display of constrained bodily posture, and being knowledgeable of the
right museums (modern art vs. sports hall of fames; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977;
Lamont & Lareau, 1988).
Second, because education is both conceived to be a level playing eld and
impregnated with psychological essentialism, higher cultural capital does more than
just boost performance. Indeed, it also provides important avenues for symbolic
gratication: Being categorized as “smart,” “intelligent,” and “interesting.” In con-
trast, for working-class students—who are less familiar with these cultural prac-
tices— these structures pose a barrier to academic performance. And when they
struggle to meet expectations, as the following excerpt suggests, their failure to t
in is quickly interpreted as a sign they are not that smart nor motivated.
J.-C. Croizet et al.
145
Teacher: “This year, actually, we had many good experiences...what I call good experi-
ences, are ... kids euh (...) that are really invested in learning, that are curious, actually, that
want to learn by themselves, they are autonomous in their work (...) they understand why
they are in school, who have the desire…, really, they have a real motivation, they have a
real work dynamic and who in addition, often..., are easier to deal with, well, so to speak,
... remarkable students, more attentive to the others. Actually, I’m thinking about a kid,
Maxence [father engineer, mother receptionist], who had a very high language prociency
and understanding, and good graphic skills, a good understanding of numbers and was very
ready for kindergarten. And well... he was a kid that got a lot of help at home anyway, with
a supporting family. [His parents] are from a rather high social background with visits to
museums, visits to the library... He was always reading books. He asked many questions...
had a good relation with the others. So, yes, he somehow had everything. [...] Those are kids
that are very active in the classroom and who orally interact with the adult and the other
children. [...] And there are children for whom it works and for the others, it’s more difcult.
But those whom I call “bright,” it’s them who get it quickly, who work autonomously, who
see what is expected (silence)... who put into use...what they have learned, who establish
links between things. Well, there are...it’s rather... interesting to see that they re-use the
things that they have experienced.
Interviewer: “Can you give me a concrete example?”
Teacher: “For example, with the comprehension of books it is striking... you have those
who can tell, by themselves, without...without being asked: “This story is funny, it makes
me think about that story” (silence), because of the same character, same narrative struc-
ture, because of the same backgrounds, well [...]. So those are the children, who..., yes, who
are quick, who are, who are... intelligent [...]”
(Interview with a preschool teacher, Millet & Croizet, 2016, pp.93–94, translated from
French.)
Importantly this excerpt shows that the educational system produces a meritocratic
understanding of the classroom reality that imposes itself onto the individual actors.
As pointed out by Douglas, “institutions systematically (...) channel our perceptions
into forms compatible with the relations they authorize” (1986, p. 92). In other
words, the way actors (here: teachers) think, perceive, or judge is afforded by the
institutional settings, which, prior to their own thinking, denes the range of what is
possible and what is not. In the above example, the teacher thinks, perceives, and
judges students’ behavior through the lens of meritocratic essentialism. Therefore,
appropriate behaviors with regard to the academic norms can only reect intrinsic
qualities or limitation of the students.
Education: Staging theConditions forSymbolic Violence
As illustrated by the following observation, the imposition of this meritocratic
essentialism in the classroom also affects students:
Barak [5-year-old, single mother, unemployed]: “Simpleton, is that a bad word?”
Interviewer: “A little bit...but why do you say that? Did you call someone that? Did
someone call you that?”
Barak: “Yes, myself, I say it to myself when I fail at something.
(Interview in preschool classroom, Millet & Croizet, 2016, p. 184, translated from
French.)
Social Reproduction in Education
146
This example shows that students learn to “see” the institutional reality through the
mental categories that it affords and that this imposition is powerful enough to shape
their own self-views. By presenting itself as a meritocratic contest, the educational
system therefore conceals a powerful form of symbolic domination. This symbolic
domination transforms (dis)advantages related to social class into individual merit
differences. It constitutes an example of symbolic violence (Bourdieu & Passeron,
1977), that is, an invisible coercive force that operates through the categorizations
manufactured and imposed by institutions. This process leads dominated group
members to accept the legitimacy of the principles of those that dominate them. As
illustrated in the example of Barak, this process is violent because in the end it
manufactures the consent of the dominated group to its domination (Bourdieu,
1979; Weber, 1914/1978). But, importantly, these submissions are not perceived as
such because they rely on the ingrained beliefs produced and imposed by the
institution.
Even though the concept of symbolic violence has predominantly been used in
sociology, there is recent evidence from social psychological research that provides
evidence documenting how it operates in the classroom (see Croizet etal., 2017).
The fact that education institutionalizes an essentialist classication of individuals
and organizes a merit contest produces at least four psychological outcomes: (a)
children will be concerned about their intellectual merit and spontaneously engage
in social comparisons; (b) any variation in achievement will be categorized as
revealing differences in individual merit (Kelley, 1967); (c) due to their lower famil-
iarity with academic norms (lower cultural capital; see Bourdieu, 1979), students
from working-class backgrounds will experience upward social comparison as
indicative of their intellectual inadequacy (i.e., symbolic violence); and, nally, (d)
this experience will disrupt their performance and therefore contribute to the social
class achievement gap (Croizet & Millet, 2012; Rogers & Feller, 2016).
A series of experimental studies provides initial evidence for this analysis
(Goudeau & Croizet, 2017). Eleven-year-old students, in their school classroom,
took a difcult reading test involving a series of questions. Two experimental condi-
tions were created. In the visibility condition, the differences in performance were
suggested by instructing students to raise their hand if they believed they knew the
answer before the allotted time. In the no-visibility condition, students were not
asked to raise their hands and were thus not provided with a clue to sort themselves
into meritocratic categories. Not surprisingly, because of their higher familiarity
with the linguistics norms (i.e., written language) that prevail in school (Lahire,
2000), upper-middle-class students outperformed those from working-class back-
grounds. As predicted, however, when the superior performance of their peers was
suggested through hand raising, students from working-class backgrounds per-
formed even more poorly (see Fig.1a).
Following this nding, we set out to test the hypothesis that working-class students
failed because their lower familiarity with academic standards leads them to believe
that if they lag behind, it is a sign of lower ability. In another experiment, we manipu-
lated the level of familiarity with academic standards as a proxy for social class. We
designed a task that involved learning a new writing code (e.g., “+”=“M”; “)”=“D”).
J.-C. Croizet et al.
147
Two levels of familiarity with this new language were induced by allowing 10-year-old
children to either practice the coding a lot or only a little. Students then took a coding
test. Again, half of participants were instructed to raise their hands if they believed they
had found the right answer while the other half did not receive this instruction. Results
showed that the experimentally disadvantaged students (i.e., those who only had lim-
ited opportunity to practice the coding scheme) performed worse when the higher
performance of the experimentally advantaged students (i.e., those who were well
trained) was suggested through hand raising (see Fig.1b). This nding showed that an
arbitrary and hidden advantage, here a higher familiarity with a performance task, was
enough to fuel the achievement gap in an educational context. Interestingly, this pat-
tern was not moderated by students’ gender, academic level, or even social back-
ground, suggesting that being a regular high achiever or from the upper-middle class
offered no protection to the symbolic violence generated by the situation.
Next, we wanted to further substantiate the claim that it was the essentialist inter-
pretation of the differences in performance (i.e., the institutional categorization
afforded in the institutional context) that caused symbolic violence. Because educa-
tional settings conceal the privileges and disadvantages that family backgrounds
bring, we predicted that students who are less familiar with the academic standards
are likely to attribute their struggle to achieve relative to others as a sign of intel-
lectual inferiority. A last study showed that simply making students aware of this
disadvantage, by revealing before taking the test that some of them received more
and better preparation for the test, was enough to protect students from seeing in the
better achievement of their peers a threatening social comparison (Fig.1c).
Fig. 1 (a) Reading-comprehension score (number of correct answers) as a function of social class
(working class vs. upper-middle class), presented separately for classrooms in which differences
in performance were visible and were not visible during the test (not visible: hand down vs. visible:
hand raising). Scores ranged from 0 to 20. (b) Number of correctly coded letters as a function of
familiarity with the task (low vs. high), separately by visibility of differences in achievement (not
visible: hand down vs. visible: hand raising). Scores ranged from 0 to 150. (c) Number of correctly
decoded symbols as a function of level of familiarity with the task, separately for students who
were aware of the disadvantage in levels of familiarity with the task and those who were not.
Differences in performance were visible in all conditions (i.e., hands were raised). Scores ranged
from 0 to 120. Error bars represent +1 SEM.Adapted from Goudeau and Croizet (2017)
Social Reproduction in Education
148
In sum, by focusing on the differences in familiarity with academic norms, three
studies showed how this form of (dis)advantage affected performance in academic
settings. Other research has shown that familiarity with academic standards more
generally can confer an invisible advantage for upper-middle-class students. For
example, universities are organized around independence norms that dene the
“right” way to behave as a student in college: Students are expected to make choices,
to possess and express personal opinions, to be autonomous, to develop their own
projects, and to follow their own path (Lahire, Millet, & Pardell, 1996; Stephens
et al., 2012). These standards t to a large extent with the cultural practices of
upper-middle-class families that nurture expressing one’s personal choice, taste,
and self-expression and individualism (Kusserow, 2004; Lareau, 2003). At the same
time, these standards do not match the more interdependent models of self that are
fostered in working-class contexts. For example, working-class students may be
reluctant to participate in class just because it portrays them as attempting to show
off in front of the others. By showcasing differences in students’ performance as
purely reecting academic attitudes or ability, the educational system hides the
advantages and disadvantages that are at play and sets symbolic violence into
motion.
The power of this essentialist framing of reality is such that students do not even
need to be exposed to peers from privileged backgrounds to experience symbolic
violence. As stated by Douglas in the epigraph of this chapter, institutional catego-
ries become students’ own categories of thoughts. Autin and Croizet (2012) found
that merely experiencing difculty in school, which by denition is inherent to any
act of learning, is enough to trigger self-doubts, perceptions of incompetence, and
disruption of cognitive performance. They showed that substituting the essentialist
categories with an alternative that portrays experiencing their struggle to learn as a
necessary step in learning was sufcient to free children from symbolic violence
and resulted in a boost in performance on very difcult cognitive tests (i.e., improved
verbal and spatial working memory spans and uid intelligence; Autin & Croizet,
2019). Ultimately, however, the persuasion carried out by the institution through its
meaning-making process becomes so pervasive that, as coined by Douglas (1986),
it xes “self-knowledge” and “identities.”. Through the recurring experience of
symbolic violence and the personal disqualication that accompanies it, students
from working-class backgrounds are led to internalize a sense of inferiority while
those from more privileged backgrounds experience enhanced self-efcacy
(Wiederkehr, Darnon, Chazal, Guimond, & Martinot, 2015). In other words, upper-
middle class and working-class students develop a stable sense of their own efcacy
that is congruent with the position that is ascribed to them in the hierarchy.
The educational system thus regulates the relations between actors (teachers and
students) and provides the cognitive categories to make sense of the reality it stages.
Through this construal process, students are assigned to an academic hierarchy that
denes who they are and what they are entitled to. Throughout this institutional
process, social inequality is silently reproduced without intention and in the absence
of conict between dominant and dominated groups.
J.-C. Croizet et al.
149
Conclusion
Social inequalities have reached in democratic societies a level rarely observed in
the past. In this chapter, our goal was to highlight how the educational system,
which signicantly contributes to the reduction of social inequality by promoting
some social mobility along the social ladder, nevertheless simultaneously plays a
decisive role in the perpetuation of these inequalities. Indeed, education accom-
plishes the important task of selecting and preparing individuals for the future posi-
tions they will hold in the social structure. As an institution, it elaborates internal
categories that are used to sort students and funnel them in academic tracks. In
societies that embrace democratic and equalitarian ideals, these internal categories
are explicitly dened as unrelated to external categories such as class, race, or gen-
der. But it is also clear that the outcome of the educational sorting process is not
blind, and education plays a role in the reproduction and legitimation of the social
structure. As discussed in this chapter, the educational system fullls this role
through an institutionalized process of soft coercion that involves the imposition of
a system of essentialist categories combined with sorting procedures. This institu-
tional conguration not only sustains relations of domination but also shields insti-
tutions from criticisms of injustice. Without culprits or a proven intent to harm,
contestants carry the burden of demonstrating that these internal categories and
institutional rules are biased with regard to social class, race, and gender. This issue
has been at the core of most legal battles for social justice throughout history
(Noiriel, 2018; Zinn, 1980). If sociology has long argued that institutions do play a
role in the perpetuation of social inequalities, we believe that social psychology is
nevertheless uniquely equipped to document the very process through which it
operates, as we hope this chapter illustrates.
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