University of Limerick
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Classed identities in adolescence

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posted on 2022-10-14, 08:23 authored by Sarah JaySarah Jay
The central argument of this thesis is that social class remains a persistent system of inequality in education, health, life chances and opportunities. Therefore class matters. But why is it that so little attention has been paid to class in the psychological literature? Three papers are presented here which draw together theoretical advances in psychological understandings of group processes and sociological understandings of the complexity of class. As western labour markets become increasingly credentialised the overarching aim is to reveal the hidden nature of privilege and disadvantage in the education context. The first theoretical paper considers what it is that social psychology, a discipline so self-evidently interested in social context can offer to understanding class given its salience as a social category of consequence. Drawing on social identity approach the analysis considers the characteristics of class that make it difficult to conceptualise, measure and challenge. Paying particular attention to the political dimensions of class, contemporary theoretical developments and methodologies within psychology are used to highlight how class is rendered implicit rather than explicit in everyday life. The second empirical paper suggests banal meritocratic and individualist ideologies construct class group boundaries as permeable, status relations as stable, and inequality as legitimate. This may prevent explicit identification with class. This is problematic for the social identity approach which emphasises the importance of self-categorisation and identification. People tend to distance themselves from explicit collective class categories and contemporary class cultures have become individualised and implicit. Two related studies are presented exploring adolescents self-categorisations and identification with class groups. The first cross-sectional qualitative study of (N=32) adolescents demonstrates that despite the lack of explicit identification and a language to talk about class, adolescents define themselves and others, as distinct classed groups. The second quantitative study (N=190) found adolescents had difficulty naming their social class and the strength of this identification was significantly weaker than gender or national identification but was not absent. In the third empirical paper we seek to understand cultural and group level factors that contribute to the social class educational achievement gap and under-representation of working classed students in higher education settings. The first qualitative study of (N=32) adolescents reports on 5 focus group interviews completed in middle class and designated disadvantaged schools. Young people in disadvantaged schools evidence awareness of barriers to higher education and an interdependent model of personal agency. In contrast middle class participants see agency in educational settings as individualised and ultimately independent. Building on this study a second quantitative study of (N=199) adolescents all attending disadvantaged schools shows community identification and an interdependent model of agency are however associated with young people’s positive feelings about school. It is argued that social identities do not, necessarily, require explicit knowledge of belonging in order to be important processes to study. We demonstrate class issues are localised by, often, parochial self and other definitions. This obscures the structural factors which perpetuate inequality and render advantage and disadvantage invisible. Finally, discussion centers on the value of a group level approach that orients to the cultural fit and compatibility of educational settings for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.



  • Doctoral

First supervisor

Muldoon, Orla T.





Department or School

  • Psychology

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