Monday, April 1, 2013

"Culture of povery" and achievement ideology

"The problem is not that lower-class children are inferior in some way; the problem is that by the definitions and standards of the school, they consistently are evaluated as deficient" (MacLeod, 2008, p. 101)

Jay MacLeod  (2008) so brilliantly lands on this conclusion more than 30 years ago in his epic ethnography "Ain't no makin' it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood." MacLeod followed two groups of boys for a year, the "Hallway Hangers" (White teenage boys) and the "Brothers" (Black teenage boys).  He was then able to catch up with this same group of men 8 years later, then 20 years later, offering a rare longitudinal qualitative study in the realm of education and sociology. 

MacLeod offers a counter-narrative to the overly simplistic rationale of a "culture of poverty" by analyzing the underlying logic of the two groups of boys. From their perspective, it seems that there are only two options for the youth in this impoverished East Coast neighborhood: resist the achievement ideology put forth by the educational institution and fail quickly, or accept the achievement ideology and fail slowly.   

For the Hallway Hangers, "the possibility of upward social mobility is not worth the price of obedience, conformity, and investment of substantial amounts of time, energy, and work in school" (MacLeod, p. 106).  A loss of agency and self-esteem are at stake for these boys, as well.  The Brothers, on the other hand, seem to have internalized their own oppression, what MacLeod calls "anticipatory socialization." Regardless, with one exception, at 20 years later neither the men who had "tried hard" nor the men who had "given up" had managed to escape their social class.

Simply put achievement ideology that says if you work hard, you will succeed.  There are many stories of social mobility, but people generally achieve relatively modest gains or losses in the grand scheme of the whole social order.  The true "rags to riches" story rarely happens. MacLeod's narrative contributes further to the idea that divisions between racial groups only serve to solidify the position of all the lower class at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. 

MacLeod's work does not downplay the devastating effects of poverty on families, individuals and entire communities.  If anything, he gives a compelling and realistic picture of poverty. However, the picture he paints is far from simplistic; the interaction between structures and human agency is complex and profound. 

 Overall, he argues against the idea that young people in poverty fail to achieve because of their inherited "culture," and instead contends that the structures and ideology upholding a rigid class-system in this country are the very same forces that inhibit social mobility. 

This work also forces me to remember that social construction of "race" through laws and institutions was always about the preservation of the upper class.  While "race" has become the most salient aspect of our identity, class is surely only a few steps behind.  Regardless of a person's racial identity, we are more or less bound to the class into which we were born, although "race" certainly impacts the "more or less."  

It seems that the larger community of educators was not truly listening to the theoretical framework and powerful stories put forth by MacLeod because we are still having conversations surrounding the "culture of poverty" and its impact on educational achievement.  The role of the educational system should not be underestimated in how it promotes social reproduction by privileging one set of cultural values and linguistic codes, while disadvantaging others. 

"Whereas force and coercion often have ensured the cohesion of societies and the maintenance of oppressive relationships, ideology is more important in fulfilling this function in contemporary America" (MacLeod, 2009, p. 113). 

So it seems there are layers upon layers that reify the hierarchy that keeps the rich getting richer and the poor, poorer. 


MacLeod, J. (2008). Ain’t no makin’ It: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (3rd ed.). Westview Press.

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