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 Table of Contents  
Year : 2015  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 36-42

Rethinking the place of socioeconomic status identity in students' academic achievement

1 Department of Psychology, Christ University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India

Date of Web Publication30-Nov-2015

Correspondence Address:
Chetan Sinha
Department of Psychology, Christ University, Bangaluru, Karnataka
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/2395-2555.170724

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The present review attempts to understand the role of social class disparities in academic achievement domain. The issue of socioeconomic status (SES) and academic achievement gap has been observed from different perspectives. In explaining the phenomena of the academic achievement gap, literature from the observers' viewpoint, indicated toward SES and the individual level factors such as home resource and ability. This undermined actor' perspectives and experiences influenced by macro-level facets eventually shape the subjective belief system of the individual. Thus, the present review concludes that, (a) SES as social structure and individual as agency are not separate, but mutually constituted aspects of society and (b) this aspects of society forming one's identity which operates situationally in a domain of ability and achievement, framed in the comparative context of dominant identity binaries.

Keywords: Academic achievement gap, identity processes, social class, socioeconomic status

How to cite this article:
Sinha C, Mishra AK. Rethinking the place of socioeconomic status identity in students' academic achievement. Eur J Psychol Educ Studies 2015;2:36-42

How to cite this URL:
Sinha C, Mishra AK. Rethinking the place of socioeconomic status identity in students' academic achievement. Eur J Psychol Educ Studies [serial online] 2015 [cited 2021 Apr 23];2:36-42. Available from: https://www.ejpes.org/text.asp?2015/2/2/36/170724

  Introduction Top

As social psychology acts as a crucible factor for numerous levels of explanation ranging from individual cognition to interpersonal interaction and group processes to social structure,[1] the search for the more social side of epistemology seems to be an essential and vital process in understanding the academic achievement gap. Most of the psychological and educational research in the last decades assumed behavioral and ability constraints of children as an explanation for low academic performance,[2] whereas in another theoretical perspective, contextual factors such as socioeconomic position and social class were found to be the fundamental determinants of human functioning.[3] Social class was considered to be the first and foremost about differences in objective material conditions accompanied by a growing consciousness of those differences on the historical time plane.[4] The rhetoric of highlighting objective indicators of socioeconomic status (SES), that is, income, occupation and education, as deficit causal factors behind students' low performance had put important sociocultural factors on the backstage. This prevalent notion in society about low performance of low SES children generated the reification of traditional understanding that these children have lower ability to achieve in comparison to the children of high SES group. The tendency to generalize the cognitive attributes of low SES children was mostly observed on the standardized achievement test which rarely had taken into account the social context and the construction of identity among those children. Understanding of academic achievement from the children's perspective comprising their social class was the rare event.[5],[6],[7],[8]

  Socioeconomic Status Top

Various communities and school-based studies used SES as active demographical variable and examined its effect on different aspects of human behavior. For example, four of the best known scales of measuring SES were found in sociological literature: The Chapin, Leahy, and Sewell.[9],[10],[11] Chapin [12] defined SES as “the position that an individual or a family occupies with reference to the prevailing average standards of cultural possessions, effective income, material possessions, and participation in group activity of the community.”[13] These four elements were assumed to constitute SES. Chapin [12] called the above enumeration as social status scale. It was conferred that SES refers to a set of attitudes to which the above four areas were assumed to be related. Latter items were selected, that is, cultural possessions, effective income, social participation in the community, and material possessions. Thus, SES was assumed to describe an individual's or a family's ranking on a hierarchy according to the access or control over some combination of valued commodities such as wealth, power, and social status.[14] Mostly, SES was manipulated as a combination of tripartite indicators, such as education, income, occupation, but the process through which SES becomes part of the subjective meaning of an individual self has not been given much prominence. To the larger extent, SES was decided on the basis of combining the indicators, where information regarding the contribution of single indicator on the social and behavioral outcome was missing. In addition, in most of the cases, SES was seen as it was observed by the researcher and not as was seen by the people themselves. Thus, psychological significance of one's SES experienced as subjective self has not been much emphasized.[15]

SES appears to possess more pragmatic effect in the politics of education, whereas social class has more psychological and subjective manifestation and both portray different meaning ideologically. Recently, researchers tried to understand SES in terms of perceptions of one's standing on a social ladder which may affect various behaviors [16] through different gateways such as families, schools, and workplace.[17] Thus, SES and its ontological validation have a high probability of being shaped in a cultural context and become part of one's experience and memory. Furthermore, from Croizet and Claire [18] work it may be inferred that even social class becomes the source of shared experience; and therefore, may be considered as one of the sources of social identity.[19]

  Academic Achievement and Its Correlates Top

Academic achievement as a construct established in the psychological literature mostly corresponds to performance in the classroom. The validation of academic achievement as an indicator of students standing on a meritocracy ladder is observed to create constraints in terms of inequality and future achievement gap. Does there is a need to go beyond the established notion of academic achievement and efforts to improve it by framing the human agency in that direction?[20],[21],[22] Psychologists as an observer have long been interested in knowing the causal factors behind persistent academic achievement gap and its associated factors. For example, those who subscribed to individualistic and cognitive part of epistemology highlighted the inner psychological traits affecting the classroom performance.[23],[24] Other theorists who had given importance to social structural aspect highlighted the macro-level or historically determined contextual factors.[8],[25],[26],[27],[28] Despite differences in these two theoretical perspectives to explain academic performance, they represent the viewpoint of dominant identities from the observers' perspective without giving impetus to the more inclusive and interconnecting explanations.

The perspectives which took observers stance, misrepresented low performing students in school as untalented or lazy,[29] because of lack of prior knowledge about one's social identity and its situational manifestations. These impressions supporting the actors' position from the observers' viewpoint may be correct only some of the time, but in many cases, as in the earlier examples, there is more to the story. Social forces are at play that may be hard to see or appreciate, but that nonetheless undermine people's academic achievement in important ways.[29]

The perspective under which the observer's tradition worked ended as a social and de-contextualized, affirming the discourse of psychometric community. This view supported the cognitive epistemology of human behavior as it appeared sophisticated in its outlook and result. Even the literature of social psychology and education were full of examples regarding objects that influenced social relations and students' motivation, learning, and performance, but too often we failed to appreciate these social forces.[29] It is generally assumed that students' intellectual achievement are the products of internal forces such as intelligence or competence, rather than situational ones, such as an encouraging social climate.[30],[31]

The experiences of the person because of situationally shaped social identities hardly came under the preview of mainstream psychological literature. Some psychologists challenged biases about what is considered “normative” by identifying, for example, different types of intelligence and the conditions, including socioeconomic contexts, under which abilities and skills may be developed to their highest potential.[32] However, the more prevalent approach was to focus on behavioral, cognitive, and genetic explanations as to why disadvantaged groups received lower scores on standardized tests and other traditional measures of intellectual ability.

  Rethinking Social Class and Academic Achievement Top

Educational history consists of many illustrations connecting inextricably politics and literacy. This connection of literacy learning and teaching was considered as political acts.[33] The class stereotypes has its historical roots and was mostly located in the phenomenon of orientalism where more powerful interlocutor (Westerners) tried to dominate the others cultures (Easterners) and economies both with ideological discourses and power.[34] However, the extant explanations were observed to be rooted in the social stereotypes augmenting the psychological effect more pervasively on the social class stereotyped children. The above social stereotype were more directed toward students' individual makeup and ability structure and more social cause pertaining to their low performance was ignored or classified under the category of class deficit.

The contextual factors playing an important role in shaping the micro-level psychological processes that are important in classroom performance were reported as parent-student beliefs and SES,[35] intelligence and culture,[36] school characteristics,[37] family structure,[38] peer-supported learning,[39] homework,[40] and classroom and class size,[41] etc., Among those factors of contextual nature, SES and social class have been studied in great details by the researchers of the other social science disciplines. However, the psychological/subjective meaning of the SES needs to be explored.[42]

The social class identity,[43] attitude, and the experience of discrimination are now the active areas of exploration representing its psychological structure. The study of social class has moved conceptually beyond its demographic description to subjective description of class-based social identity.[15],[44] As self-stereotyping is the perception of increased identification between the self and the in-group members and increased differences from out-group members on the relevant dimensions,[45] stereotyping on the basis of social class identity has wider social psychological implications.

Earlier, the lack of attention to and devaluing of the realities of low social class people life led even well-intentioned scholars and policy analysts to perpetuate these derogatory stereotypes in programs designed to remedy supposed deficits in character, development, and behavior by creating “middle class” opportunities for the poor.[46] When the opportunities provided do not eliminate disparities in development and well-being, public opinion tends to attribute the failure to the attitudes, behaviors, and abilities of the poor.

Deriving the hypothesis from the studies performed on minority and majority in other context,[18] in France, empirically explored the reason behind the low performance of low SES students in comparison to the students from high SES group. Many explanations earlier to this study were posited to this class differences such as economic and cultural differences in academic preparation [47],[48] or cultural differences between SES classes effecting the motivational level and interest in academic work [27],[49] or to students linguistic adaptation to school [50] or intelligence in terms of genetic component [51] or society's conception of the ability, interest, and character of those who are poor.

There was a hierarchy of expectations created by stereotypes which discriminates individual from low SES both in their treatment and allocation of resources. For example, literature observed that poor students were treated worse in the classroom than middle-class students [52],[53] and this treatment may cause students to conform teachers' negative expectations.[54],[55] Other theorists have explored the effects of socially pervasive beliefs on the internal state of targets of the stereotype.[56],[57],[58] These pervasive beliefs about existing social stereotypes marked the awareness of the stereotypes that influence the children of low SES categories to behave negatively even in the situation where any concurrent negative treatment was absent.[18] Accordingly,[18],[56],[57],[58] when a widely known negative stereotype (e.g., poor intellectual ability) exists about a group, it creates for its members a burden of suspicion that acts as a threat. These threats occur whenever individuals' interpret their behavior in terms of stereotypes associated with their group, or more explicitly, whenever group members run the risk of substantiating the stereotype.[59],[60] Associating stereotype with the class factor in the academic performance of low SES children had been highlighted in many researches. However, the processes of identity engagement with one's social class group and showing indifference toward academic achievement had been rarely articulated in the past.

Some of the studies in an Indian context tried to understand the effect of social class-based stereotype threat in an educational context and found weak interactions, suggesting the need to see social class from the subjective point of view.[61],[62] Like many identity-related measures, social class can comprise multiple and complex components. Traditionally, researchers measure social class with objective indicators of SES (for example, Kuppuswamy scale in India). Recent studies highlighted the inherent problem in measuring the class in terms of objective SES (e.g., parental education) combined to yield a single measure of social class. In addition, it has proven difficult to determine class differences between people who have relatively equal objective SES levels. Often, measures of objective SES depends on the outdated population estimates of objective SES indicators.[63] These have questioned the validity of objective measures of SES in capturing the complexity of class and to turn to new, more subjective measures of SES. It was also found that subjective measure of SES is only moderately correlated with the objective measure suggesting that the subjective measure of SES has potentiality to predict class related outcomes,[44] for example, identity process and academic performance. In the psychological literature, SES was observed vis-à-vis to other, i.e. the ranking or perceptions of one's SES depended on comparative fits.[64] Moreover, Kraus et al.[44] suggested that subjective SES accounts for the relation between objective SES and contextual explanation. Therefore, it is suggested that future researches to take into account the perception of self-standing on SES ladder, i.e. to understand how people perceive themselves to be standing on and associated to the social class.

The selection of particular definition in the form of strategy is critically determined by shared beliefs about the nature of the social structure, such as belief about its legitimacy and stability or beliefs about the permeability of group boundaries in the social class context. Present context imposed a challenge to the perspective that observed the psychological factors behind the students' achievement and not the social psychological. Thus, the question of when and how children become low achiever can be approached from both macro-level and a micro-level perspective. These are not competing, as was seen in many approaches, but complementary perspectives. The former focuses on socio-structural, political, and organizational antecedents of academic achievement. For example, an important aim of macro-level analyses is to identify the frictions and contradictions inherent in the larger society that provide the structural basis of any educational outcome. Thus, the origins of the construct academic achievement have been traced back to the contradictions of a society structured by social class.[4] However, we also need micro-level analyses to understand how socio-structural, political, and organizational factors translate into concrete experiences, motives, and actions of people, which may then feed back again on macro-level factors.

In addition, the subjective self-definition of the category which overpowers individuals' identity often depends on the situation and the socio-political context and experience in history.[65],[66] Unless the individual subjectively self-defines, i.e. self-categorizes, as part of a collective group, a discussion of either intra- or inter-group processes become irrelevant.[67] After observing the literature relating SES and academic achievement, the need to relook at these constructs becomes the necessity. As Steele [58] observed that academic achievement gap based on stereotypes associated with race, SES, and gender difference have become rampant, he considered this as a national level problem. In this context, it could be questioned whether grades in the classroom context has anything to do with students' sense of belongingness with their academically stereotyped social group in the out group context, for example, students' SES.

The difference in the perception of the events between the observer and actor group may lie in the psychological processes entailing different kinds of information, events, and motivations.[68] An explanation for low academic achievement of minority and low SES students was pointed from “observers perspective” that these students lack the motivation or cultural knowledge or skills to succeed at more difficult coursework where underperformance tends to occur or that they somehow self-destruct because of low self-expectation or low self-esteem picked up from the broader culture, or even from their own families and communities.[58]

Earlier, Jones and Nisbett [69] advanced the hypothesis that all of these differences in psychological processes ultimately lead to a single difference in the behavioral explanations that actors and observers provided. In other words, even though, they endorsed the claim that the processes guide actors' and observers' explanations differ widely, each of these process differences independently that leads to the same behavioral effect. The purported effect was quite simple, as observers, it was claimed to attribute a person's behavior to factors that lie within that person, whereas actors tend to attribute behavior to factors that lie in the external situation.

In psychological research, social class is typically treated as a categorical variable (e.g. SES) where many indicators together play very prominent role such as parental education, parental occupation, parental income, wealth and property, and caste hierarchy in terms of historical possessions of structural resources (e.g., land control) (cf. Beteille [4]). In other instances, researches on poverty explore the impact of impoverished social context depriving the individual from the above capitals valued on the social scale. Thus, these social capitals [49] played its role on the individuals' mental health and other psychological outcomes including students' academic achievement.[70] The accumulated reasons behind the SES phenomenon in the form of social class portrayed its two forms as both visinsita and lexinsita, where this possession of social capital by the powerful private has both accepted social dominance orientation and perception of discrimination and irregularities.[71] Culture had played an important role in the display of dominance which mattered in the historical possessions of many forms of capital. However, as Portes [72] pointed that “the issue is not of imposing one culture over another but rather promoting a wider, transcultural identity for all” (P. 270).

Therefore, present effort explored the relationship of SES and academic achievement by showing how identity and its processes form a link between the two and are interconnected process. The role of identity processes on the basis of social class (SES) of students' seems to be an important factor behind children's perception of academic achievement. The way notion of academic achievement was represented seems to be the result of construction and co-construction of knowledge in the cultural and social context of educational system. However, this is another matter that these responses were more reflecting the colonial stature of achievement fulfilling the meritocratic agenda of modernity. Thus, students were seen to be associated with the multidimensional aspects of formal academic achievement [73] such as getting high marks, showing anxiety for the testing conditions, increased self-efficacy when performed well, identification with school ideology, and culture when students' were forcibly situated in the threatening/evaluating condition, otherwise they showed different behavior not simultaneously compatible with the school value system. Thus, school may generate a threatening environment where students are psychologically forced to conform to the value system, thus creating the environment of psychological control and formalists' dominance. Future issue can address this fundamental problem more practically by designing pedagogy and curriculum suited to the children that need shaping their identity not in negative but in a positive direction. Furthermore, research can also explore the issue of classism and its social cognitive instances on the basis of objective indicators of SES and then the subjective basis of SES.

Thus, it can be questioned that, “Why so much inequality and divides in our society in the name of good-bad, deserving-undeserving, intelligent-not intelligent, elite-non elite? And that's too in educational and posteducational domains in formal terms. When the notions of formal and official reach the inner conscience of ourselves, why we surrender to the knowledge which is dominantly represented as legitimate?” The present article believes that education is not to create divides but integration and social change in the form of correction to notions that has overridden the structure of society. Moreover, this belief is not new both in activism and critical reviews of the work carried out in scientific literature. The present review attempted to highlight the recent advancement in literature of social class and academic achievement and try to identify the role of class based identity in the students' academic achievement. However this review critically evaluates the context under which the mainstream research advanced from particular perspectives. The present work insists that the notions of ability based understanding of academic achievement and deficit based understanding of social class are one perspective dominant in the research of social psychology. Therefore, the need is to understand this from transdisciplinary perspective, keeping in mind the subjectivities attached to the social class categorization, its connection to the academic achievement and the sociopolitical context under which the whole gamut of education operates.

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