The social origins of educational systems 

I’m finally reading Margaret Archer’s Social Origins of Educational Systems, the one major work of hers I hadn’t read which also happens to be the longest. It’s ironic that I’m coming to this now, as someone trained to be a social theorist who is in the process of becoming an (accidental) educationalist. This book was the point at which she moved away from sociology of education into social theorising in a more general sense. However the book is often misread as a ‘substantive work’ whereas her entire intellectual project can be found here, in some cases explicitly and in other cases embryonically. To give an example, the book opens with a theoretical defence of macro-sociology and a critique of methodological individualism which will be familiar to readers of her later books. From pg 11:

The bedrock of such explanations is individual dispositions. An event is explained when this outcome has been related to motives, aims, expectations, beliefs etc., that is to some intelligible reaction of man to his circumstances, on the part of individuals involved or of typical actors. However, as we have seen, any reference to groups or institutions must be eliminated for this to count as a complete explanation. The general difficulty involved here is of identifying such attitudes without reference to these social terms.

However we can see her (much later) work on reflexivity implicit within this. It’s hard to specify dispositions without social terms because these dispositions are more often than not about the social world. Even if the precise character of this aboutness goes unspecified, it’s clearly identified as an aporia in the position through which she is critically developing her own. The problem of reflexivity is effectively delineated three decades before she began developing a solution to it. Her concern at this stage is institutional, see below extract from pg 12, but this sets up the problem of reflexivity which remains once a the stratified ontology of critical realism helps develop her account beyond methodological individualism and collectivism. The remaining issue, the inseparability of individual dispositions and social referents, clearly pre-dates this later formulation of the problem in Being Human and Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation.

Can we, for example, account for electoral success in terms of certain diffused political attitudes without presupposing statements about ‘Parties’ and ‘Voting’? Can we explain educational attainment by achievement motivation without entailing propositions about ‘examinations’, ‘standards of excellence’, and ‘ascription’?

It’s also interesting to see how straight-forwardly she identified her approach as Neo-Weberian despite that being a label that I think she would have rejected within a decade or so. From pg 4:

Weber’s analysis which gave equal emphasis to the limitations that social structures impose on interaction and to the opportunity for innovatory action presented by the instability of such structures is the prototype of this theoretical approach. The kind of macro-sociology advocated here is seen as following the mainstream of the Weberian tradition. Pedigrees, however, can always be disputed and are no substitute for justifying the adoption of a particular approach.

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