Class Practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs

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Based on qualitative interviews with middle-class parents in America and Britain, this comparative study addresses the key issue of the stability of class relations and middle-class reproduction of advantageous opportunities. It specifically questions how parents will continue to increase their children's chances of educational success and occupational advancement. Considering the decline in the quality of state education and increased job insecurity in the labor market since the 1970s-1980s, the study concludes that the reproduction of advantage is more difficult to maintain now than in the affluent decades of the 1950s-1960s.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
'It is an absolute pleasure to read and in my view is one of the most theoretically and methodologically sophisticated books within sociology and the sociology of education to have been published in the last decade or more … Devine's book has the real feel of an insider …'. Journal of Social Policy

'This is a fantastic book that adds much to the growing collection of literature on middle-class practices, higher education and the perpetuation of class privilege. It is well written, intelligent and accessible, enabling undergraduate use as well as providing an excellent study for those in higher levels. Devine offers a powerful analysis of the everyday micro practices of class advantage, and for all of this Devine should be applauded.' Sociology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521809412
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2004
  • Pages: 298
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Fiona Devine is Professor of Sociology at Manchester University and has been a visiting fellow at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She has published extensively and is a former Chair of the editorial board of the journal Sociology.

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Read an Excerpt

Cambridge University Press
052180941X - Class Practices - How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs - by Fiona Devine

1 Introduction

My parents were born in Ireland in 1931. My mother was the eleventh of thirteen children bought up on a small farm in Southern Ireland that passed down through her mother's side when her brothers went to America. Her father had been a valet for Lord Kenmare in Killarney and then London before returning home. When my mother finished her education at the age of sixteen in the late 1940s, she took the boat train to England where she joined some of her siblings. She spent most of her working life in London as the banqueting secretary at the Charing Cross Hotel. My father was the fourth of six children brought up in Northern Ireland. While his mother raised the children in Derry, she also made a living sewing. His father was in the British Army and, after the Second World War, he stayed in London where he was an electrician's mate until he retired. My father, I think, finished school at fifteen and then did shop work before joining the Merchant Navy at eighteen.1 He left at twenty-one and moved to London in the early 1950s where he joined the Post Office and lived with his father. My parents married in 1959 and my three siblings and I were born soon after. Rather than bring children up in London, they moved to Bournemouth in 1968. My Dad spent a year doing odd jobs - a bread round, working in a factory - before he got back into the Post Office. My Mum did lots of jobs like child minding, working as a home help and so on. For most of our childhood, we had foreign students from various English language schools dotted around the seaside resort living with us - a vital source of additional income.

I started school in 1967. It was a tiny school in Putney, London that had about five classes of children between the ages of five and fifteen. I continued my education in Bournemouth at St Walburga's Catholic Primary School along with my sisters and brother. In the early 1970s, the tripartite system was still in operation in parts of Britain and I sat the 'eleven plus' examination to determine whether I would go to a grammar school or a secondary modern.2 There was no expectation that I would pass and I did not. What was very upsetting at the time, however, was the fact that I got a letter on different coloured paper to my friends about going to St Thomas Moore Secondary Modern School.3 Unbeknown to my parents, this indicated that I would not be joining my friends in the top stream doing 'O' Levels.4 It was my best friend, with sisters already at the school, who put me right on this. At eleven, I felt ashamed and a few tears were spilt in the garden shed. All my friends went into the 'G' class while I was assigned to the 'M' class where I was expected to get a few CSEs. A desire to be with them and to be able to do O Levels fuelled a strong motivation to get into the top stream. While I was not always the best-behaved child, I mostly kept on track and was 'moved up' in the third year when I was 13. My sister, Barbara, followed me to St Thomas Moore the year after. So did my brother, much to the disappointment of my parents, since John and my younger sister, Deirdre, were always the clever ones. At least, he got into the 'G' class straight away. Finally, Deirdre passed the eleven plus and went to Bournemouth Grammar School for Girls.

Although I came seventeenth out of thirty-three for three years running, I managed to obtain five O levels - six if you include my CSE Grade 1 in Art. In 1978, I went on to do A Levels in History, Politics and Sociology at Bournemouth and Poole College of Further Education. I had a student grant from the local education authority, worked at a supermarket, the Co-op, at weekends and was a chambermaid in the local hotels during the holidays. This was a happy time and I did really well in my A Levels. Making a hash of my university applications, however, I got rejected from a number of universities. Late in the day, I wrote to the admissions officer at Essex University and I was accepted on my good results. I followed my then boyfriend to do a degree course there in 1980. I had a full maintenance grant from the local education authority again. The rest is, sort of, history. My sisters and brother did different things, of course. Barbara did a one-year typing course at the same college of further education, worked as a typist for an insurance company for a number of years and then retrained as a nurse. John also went to college although he flunked his A Levels and started work in a factory at 18. He enjoyed promotion into warehouse distribution but also experienced redundancy. Somewhere along the line, he became an operations manager for a recruitment agency in London. Like me, Deirdre went to university where she studied French and subsequently trained to be a secondary school teacher. She eventually found her niche in primary school teaching. She is a great teacher.

In many respects, this story is a classic tale of upward social mobility. The children of a postman and a housewife, we went on to become, respectively, a university professor, a nurse, an operations manager and a schoolteacher. Despite our working-class origins, we experienced mobility, to a greater or lesser degree, into middle-class jobs. This story has not been written to celebrate my personal success or that of my siblings. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, I have lots of friends and colleagues who could tell very similar family histories. I also know from my academic studies that our story is far from unique. The last major study of social mobility in Britain, conducted by John Goldthorpe and his colleagues at Oxford in the early 1970s, found that there has been considerable upward social mobility in Britain since the 1940s.5 Prior to that, earlier research by David Glass and his associates at the London School of Economics found that while there was movement, short-range mobility was the norm, as it was difficult to move from manual to non-manual employment.6 The later research highlighted considerable upward social mobility and, most importantly, a significant amount of long-range movement of people from working-class origins to middle-class destinations. Britain, therefore, had undergone major social change from the mid-twentieth century. Changes in the occupational structure - the growth of routine white-collar work followed by an increase in high-level professional and managerial jobs - had had a profound effect on the shape of the class structure and movement between classes.7

While highlighting these momentous changes, however, Goldthorpe also noted considerable stability in class relations. Children of middle-class origins were still much more likely to arrive at middle-class destinations than those kids who started from the working class. Relative rates of mobility - where the relative chances of people coming from different classes ending up in the middle classes are compared - had not changed from the 1940s. How were these somewhat curious findings about change and continuity explained? He argued that the evolution of the occupational structure and specifically the growth of the middle class meant there was more 'room at the top'.8 There was space, in other words, for those of middle-class and working-class origins. That more people of working-class backgrounds could be found in middle-class jobs did not mean that fewer people of middle-class origins occupied middle-class occupations. Consequently, changes in the shape of the class structure and patterns of mobility between different classes had not made Britain a more open or meritocratic society. Where people started out very much influenced where they arrived. Class inequalities, therefore, still marred the landscape of Britain. This was true despite the development of the welfare state, and specifically the introduction of a universal education system free for all, after 1944. Attempts at equalitarian reform, such as government legislation to establish formal equality of educational opportunity in the post-war period, have failed to establish a more open society.9

Similar conclusions were reached from comparative research on patterns and trends in social mobility across European nations and the USA, Australia and Japan undertaken by Erikson and Goldthorpe. They considered, for example, whether America, as a 'new nation', is exceptional in terms of unusually high levels of mobility or openness given, among other things, the substantial growth of educational provision over the twentieth century. They found high levels of absolute (upward and downward) mobility resulting from an occupational structure that had a high proportion of non-manual jobs to manual jobs. America is at the 'post-industrial' end of the European range. Even so, they emphasised that America does not have exceptionally high levels of absolute mobility in comparison to other European countries such as Britain. In relation to relative mobility rates, a greater level of openness was found in 'elite' professional, technical and kindred occupations. Again, however, they stressed that such fluidity arises from the fact that there are more such occupations in America than in European nations.10 America, they concluded, is characterised by more mobility and is more fluid than European countries. That said, it is not an exceptionally open society when compared to other European nations like Britain. Erikson and Goldthorpe concluded that patterns and trends in social mobility in the United States are not exceptional and that America, as a 'new nation', is not that distinctive from the old European world in these respects. As in Britain, the expansion of educational opportunities has not led to a more open society.

Theoretical underpinnings to my research

When I think of my own personal experiences, and how my life is so different to that of my Mum and my Dad, what is most striking is how things have changed for the better. While my parents faced considerable constraints when they were growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, myself and my siblings enjoyed many opportunities in the 1960s and 1970s. The sociological findings on continuity, therefore, have not been easy to grasp or, at least, not initially. I have taught successive generations of students, with similar family histories, who have encountered the same problem. Yet, the idea that there is 'more room at the top' and that change and continuity coexist seems highly plausible. Both myself, and my students, therefore, have come to understand these continuities. Maybe because it does not chime with my own experience, however, my intellectual curiosity has focused on the stability of class relations in the context of change.11 What has intrigued me is 'how is this so?' What are the processes by which class inequalities are reproduced across generations? How do members of the middle class retain their privileges and power across different nations like Britain and America? Are they, in other words, successful in reproducing advantage across time and space? Importantly, how has the middle class proved so effective in resisting legislative attempts, especially through educational provision, at creating a more open society? Does their effectiveness make such efforts worthless? Should more or less be done? With these questions in mind, I now want to discuss the theoretical underpinnings that shaped the research described in this book.

So far, discussion has focused on an empirical description of the major patterns and trends in social mobility in Britain and America derived from a sophisticated statistical analysis of data from large surveys. Buried in Goldthorpe's early work on social mobility in Britain, in my view, is a very important theoretical explanation for the stability of class relations across time and space.12 He argues that continuities in relative rates of mobility should be understood with reference to the desirability, advantages and barriers associated with different class positions. The relative desirability of different class positions refers to people's preferences and aspirations for certain positions. In relation to the relative advantages of different class positions, he distinguishes between three types. First, there are economic resources including wealth, income and other forms of capital such as business enterprises and professional practices. Second, there are cultural resources in the sense that Bourdieu uses the concept of 'cultural capital' to refer to the importance attached to life-long education (either of an academic or vocational kind) within the family. The issues of occupational inheritance and traditions of self-employment within families are also important here. Third, there are social resources in the sense of involvement in social networks that can serve as channels of information and influence in, for example, finding a job, as Granovetter described. Finally, the relative barriers of different classes derive from the lack of resources outlined above.

Against this background, those at the higher echelons of the class structure (the middle class) enjoy these advantages - and the power than comes with them - while those in the lower echelons (the working class) do not. Most importantly, members of the middle class are keen to hold on to their advantages and they have the power - via the resources they command - to do so. Economic resources are the most important resource because they are exclusive goods (not owned by others) that can be easily transmitted from one generation to another in comparison to cultural and social resources that are inclusive goods (which can be owned by others) that are less easily transmitted. Thus, those in positions of privilege and power 'will typically seek to exploit the resources that they can command in order to preserve their superiority'. It is no surprise, therefore, that the class structure has proved so resistant to change, for it has strong 'self-maintaining properties'.13 Further, it is no wonder that government attempts to create an open society have proved less successful than hoped for. This theory was not developed explicitly or extensively worked out in Goldthorpe's early work. Be that as it may, I thought the explanation of how children of middle-class origins are more likely to arrive at middle-class destinations than children of working-class background was very persuasive. I became excited by the idea of doing empirical research on how middle-class parents mobilise their economic, cultural and social resources to ensure their children attain middle-class positions. It would help me grasp the stability of class relations.

These theoretical ideas were elaborated a little further in the concluding discussion to Erikson and Goldthorpe's comparative research. Again, it was argued that class stability is the outcome of advantaged individuals and groups protecting their privilege and power. They also stressed that children's mobility chances are strongly conditioned by inequalities in the economic, cultural and social resources of families that exist before they enter the labour market. That is to say, the mobilisation of the different resources, including the conversion of economic resources into cultural capital in the acquisition of educational credentials, is key. Further still, it was argued that resistance to a reduction in inequalities operates 'chiefly at the micro level of adaptive individual and family strategies especially in the context of changes that might threaten privileges and powers'. The power of individual actions, therefore, is crucial in resisting state policies to reduce inequalities.14 Thus, it was argued, empirical research on these theoretical ideas should 'move down from the level of macro-sociological relationships to study more immediately the social processes that are involved in class mobility or immobility': namely, how middle-class individuals draw on and apply family resources across generations in the reproduction of advantage. Within this remit, a place for case study research that could unravel 'the actual narrative structure of individuals' mobility trajectories' was acknowledged. Again, I was greatly taken by the elaboration of this micro-sociological theory and especially the methodological implications flowing from it.

As a qualitative researcher in the field of class analysis, I became increasingly interested in the idea of doing in-depth research on how parents mobilise their resources in the education of their children. After all, educational qualifications are the main requirements for entry into most middle-class occupations. Interestingly, the theory of middle-class reproduction was subsequently expanded by Goldthorpe with specific reference to explaining class differentials in educational attainment: namely, why middle-class children are still far more likely to pursue higher education and attain higher levels of credentials than are working-class children.15 In a critique of Bourdieu's 'culturalist' explanation of class reproduction, he drew on Boudon's use of rational action theory (RAT) and, more specifically, the effects of various choices at different branching points in the education system, to explain persisting class differentials in attainment. Choices are determined by evaluations of the costs and benefits of different courses of action. Class - as in differential resources, opportunities and constraints - influences these costs and benefits and, by implication, the evaluations, decisions and strategies of people in different class positions. Thus, disadvantaged families require greater assurance of benefits for more costly courses of action to be pursued in comparison to advantaged families. This is why class differentials have stayed the same despite an expansion of educational opportunities. These opportunities may have grown but there are still constraints on working-class children going to university that middle-class kids do not have to confront.

While I remained enthusiastic about doing research on education and the middle class, I was disappointed with the development of this theory for various reasons, as I have argued elsewhere. First, although I share some misgivings about Bourdieu's theory of social reproduction, I thought it a shame that Goldthorpe now dismissed the role of cultural resources in the processes of class mobility and immobility. Indeed, it seemed that the mobilisation of social resources had also dropped from view, as had the possibility of exploring the interconnections between the different types of resources. Second, social class was discussed only in terms of economic resources and income derived from employment at that. I was always taught that social class was more than income.16 I also wondered whether income levels alone could explain class differentials in education since it is important to consider the demands on that income (the number of children to be educated, for example) and choices about how it is spent (holidays might be preferred over education, after all). Third, I was not overly keen on the use of RAT to examine family (rather than individual) practices. While I have always believed in the importance of human agency, that people exercise choices and make decisions, I have never liked the economistic and often brutal sounding nature of cost-benefit analysis. Social life - especially family life - has always seemed much richer than that to me.17 In sum, it was my view that much has been lost in the explicit development of a theory of middle-class reproduction.

Keeping up with theoretical developments

My dissatisfaction did not stop me embarking on empirical research and, indeed, theory construction has continued unabated. In his most recent collection of essays, for example, Goldthorpe elaborates on his theory of social mobility (as it is now called) where he pays close attention to mobility strategies and the 'causal narratives' that underpin them. The eco- nomic resources associated with different classes shape mobility strat- egies, including goals and aspirations. While members of all social classes may wish to maintain their position and avoid downward mobility, the priority attached to upward mobility via, say, higher education, might vary. In the context of class competition in which the advantaged middle class and disadvantaged working class are engaged, Goldthorpe distinguishes between strategies 'from below' and strategies 'from above'.18 Strategies from below involve difficult choices with limited resources. There is a conflict between modest mobility into skilled manual employment, for example, which requires vocational qualifications, and the more ambitious aspiration of upward mobility into non-manual employment via higher education. It is rational for those in working-class positions to opt for the more modest route. This choice is reinforced by economic constraints as the opportunity costs of remaining outside the labour market still apply and continuing in education requires some parental economic support. These constraints influence the time frame by which choices are evaluated, pushing towards an early rather than late pay off. This is why members of less-advantaged classes have not pursued opportunities for higher education. Cultural and social resources are also directed towards the more modest goal of class stability.

Turning to mobility strategies 'from above', Goldthorpe suggests that the choices facing advantaged families are relatively straightforward. The obvious goal is to maintain their advantaged position via higher education. Thus, middle-class parents encourage and support their children in the pursuit of higher levels of educational attainment. That explains why they have been so ready to take up the opportunities presented by educational expansion. This choice is not constrained by inadequate economic resources, for middle-class parents enjoy high level and stable incomes which are at their highest as their children pursue higher education, thereby encouraging long-term investment. The costs are few to their standard of living and, indeed, they can pursue various options including buying homes in high-status areas with good quality state schools, paying for private tuition and buying a private education altogether. The resources and choices give 'children from more advantaged backgrounds a clear competitive edge in, supposedly, "meritocratic competition"'. This is why children from advantaged families are pushed to their academic limits and, where failure occurs, further investments are made. Ascriptive processes come into play here as social networks and social skills are mobilised. Goldthorpe concluded, 'In sum, while those pursu- ing strategies from below may show some reluctance to participate in meritocratic competition, those following strategies from above do so far more readily, even aggressively and on terms that are clearly weighted in their favour.'19

Overall, therefore, class structural constraints determine the rational adaptive mobility strategies of people in different classes that explain the relative stability of class across time and space. This is how the constraints of the mobility regime are reinforced and perpetuated. Without doubt, Goldthorpe's theory of social mobility is an elegant and sophisticated explanation of stable rates of mobility across time and space. Arguably, it is an example, par excellence, of 'middle-range' theory construction. It is, I think, highly convincing. As an abstract theory, of course, the analytic explanation is outlined in a very general rather than specific way so that it is not located in real time or space. It is context free in this respect. It needs to be subjected to empirical research that is located in specific temporal and social contexts. It is easy to imagine how empirical research would throw up problems with such a neat theory. Indeed, it is not hard to think about problems with the theory at an initial discursive level.20 It certainly fits the statistics in a post hoc way but whether it is a plausible account of class mobility strategies in itself is another matter. To me, the characterisation of the working class and the middle class sounds like the classes of the first half of the twentieth century rather than those of the second half and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Arguably, the theory is too tight (a criticism Goldthorpe levelled against Bourdieu of course!) in seeking to explain continuity and does not give due acknowledgement to changes regarding the expansion of educational opportunities while also explaining continuity.21

These last points can be demonstrated with reference to the concept of 'strategies from below'. It is a wonder that anyone from the working class - including my sister and me - ever pursued higher education. To be sure, my parents were very keen for all of us to do well at school and go on as far as we could. Of critical importance, however, was the fact that I was able to go to a college of further education and then on to university, as was my sister, because we received state maintenance grants that were available in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s.22 Thus, I am not convinced that members of the working class would see their first priority as to maintain their class position and seek upward mobility only as a secondary option. Securing a disadvantaged position is not the same as securing an advantaged position after all. That members of the working class shy away from higher education because the risk of failure threatens the maintenance of their class position sounds unconvincing too. It is hard to imagine the risk is high when children of disadvantaged families have had to demonstrate ability to a greater extent than their advantaged counterparts in any case. It is easier to imagine someone dropping out of college or getting poor grades finding themselves in low-level clerical work than low-level manual work (especially as this is fast disappearing in any case).23 The discussion of the advantages of vocational training for employment in the trades applies much more to young men than young women. The description of 'strategies from below' does not explain how some members of the working class exploited the increased educational opportunities that became available in the second half of the twentieth century.

Similar kinds of remarks can be made about the characterisation of mobility 'strategies from above'. I am not so sure that things are now as easy and as straightforward for the middle class in the supposedly merito- cractic competition for good qualifications and good jobs as Goldthorpe suggests. My middle-class siblings and friends with children tell me other- wise, especially when their children struggle academically. Again, the portrayal of the advantaged middle class sounds like the middle class of the first half of the twentieth century and not the expanded, hetero- geneous middle class to be found in Britain and America today. To be sure, those in the top professional and managerial positions - in medicine, law, accountancy, high-level management - probably have a relatively easy time of it as they did in the past. Whether those in middle and lower-level non-manual occupations such as teaching, social work, middle management, various administrative positions and so on are able to generate and sustain their positions over generations is open to question.24 Moreover, one can imagine that many new members of the middle class - of working-class origin, of which there are many - would be unable to draw on resources, held over generations, compared with established middle-class families. When this heterogeneity is borne in mind, it seems more likely that the description of 'strategies from above' applies to its upper echelons and not all of the middle class. Families new to the middle class do not, I suspect, have a clear edge in the meritocratic competition. They feel anxious about helping their children do well in school.

These thoughts have sprung to mind as I have begun to draw on how my family and friends are now helping their children through school so that they get good jobs. Again, from my academic studies, I sense that middle-class reproduction is not easy or straightforward in America where there is much 'fear of falling': namely, concerns about downward mobility across generations.25 It is not hard to imagine, therefore, that American sociologists would find the theory of middle-class reproduction problematic. After all, since the end of the post-war boom, income inequalities have grown in the UK and the USA. Tax cuts in both countries have led to a retrenchment in social welfare provision including educational opportunities. Members of the working class have experienced unemployment while members of the middle class have confronted job insecurity. It would not be wildly speculative to wonder if mobility into the middle class and stability within the middle class are both now much harder to attain than they were.26 It is in this riskier economic and political climate that the meritocratic competition for educational credentials to secure entry into high-level jobs has become more important - and the source of much anxiety - for middle- and working-class families in Britain and America. Such anxieties are not merely private troubles. They are public issues that raise difficult questions about public policy - as to what governments can and cannot do - to create open and meritocratic societies. This is why the study of social mobility is so significant.27

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction; 2. Material help with education and employment; 3. Financial choices and sacrifices for children; 4. Expectations and hopes for educational success; 5. Fulfilling potential and securing happiness; 6. Contacts, luck and career success; 7. Friends and networks in school and beyond; 8. Conclusion; Appendix A. The interviewees; Appendix B. Doing comparative research; Notes; Bibliography.

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