Social background as an explanatory approach for educational differences of migrants

A comparative analysis

Seminar Paper, 2017

12 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1 Introduction

2 Theoretical framework

3 Operationalization

4 Case selection

5 Analysis

6 Conclusion

7 Prospects


1 Introduction

Migration has always existed, will probably continue to exist and happens frequently. Migration can be caused by numerous factors, some of which can be more or less compelling. It affects numerous spheres of political, economic and social nature. Several studies concerning the consequences and possibilities for sending and receiving countries have been conducted. Yet, research has tended to neglect to pay attention to what happens to migrants once they have settled in the country of destination and further what happens to their children. It is a scientific consensus that successful integration and educational access are connected. Migrants, however, are experiencing major disadvantages in terms of education. In industrialized countries, good educational attainment is a foundation for good career prospects. Creating equal opportunities for migrants and reducing existing inequalities as far as possible are therefore prerequisites for successful integration. In order to achieve such goals, the causes for unequal educational opportunities must be ascertained first. The research question reads as follows: how does second generation migrants’ social background influence their educational opportunities?

In order to answer the posed research question, the influence of socioeconomic factors on educational inequalities must first be embedded into context regarding different explanations for unequal educational opportunities. Following this, the theoretical link between the influence of social origin and educational opportunities shall be created with reference to Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus. The following section pays attention to the operationalization of social background. Indicators for the social background are being discussed and derived from the theory of primary and secondary effects of social background. Finally, a comparative analysis of the influence of social background on educational inequalities shall be conducted by reference to two studies.

2 Theoretical framework

In order to identify and explain the reasons for educational inequality in more detail, numerous factors of influence can and must be taken into account. This very research paper will primarily focus on the impact of social, especially socioeconomic, background. According to Rainer Geißler and Sonja Weber-Menges, there are two explanatory approaches concerning educational inequality. The authors distinguish between a status-related and a migration-related explanatory approach. The distinction is useful, as almost every possible explanatory factor for educational disparities is connected to either social status or migration. The status-related explanatory approach, which is the theoretical guide to this research paper, identifies the social status, respectively the low social status of migrant families, as the root cause of educational disadvantages. The migration-related explanatory approach assumes that educational disparities result from cultural or linguistic differences (Geißler & Weber-Menges 2008: 17-19).

The status-related approach can be specified by further adding a theoretical framework, more precisely, Boudon’s theory of primary and secondary effects of social background (Boudon 1974: 29-31). Primary effects describe the family’s influences on children’s scholastic achievement. The distribution of resources of educational relevance among families, of course, is uneven. Resources of educational relevance include particularly economic and cultural capital, such as language. Migrant families usually hold less resources of educational relevance (Kristen & Dollmann 2010: 18). Secondary effects describe the impact of social backgrounds on decisions concerning investment in training. Parents, respectively families, decide on different educational paths for their children. They follow a rational calculus at this taking cost-benefit ratios regarding different educational paths into account. Especially financial resources within families influence the decision-making.

With regard to primary effects, one can say that children with lower social background find themselves in an environment of rather weak learning conditions. In terms of secondary effects, parents with lower social statuses are more likely to decide on rather low educational careers for their children due to (the lack of) financial resources. According to Boudon, social origin, respectively socioeconomic background, can be identified as the independent variable influencing educational opportunities. Before analyzing the influence of social background, an action-theoretical framework is needed in order to connect the independent and dependent variable, the educational opportunities. The action-theoretical framework is supposed to give a detailed account of how exactly primary and secondary effects affect an individual so that its educational opportunities are influenced. In order to make the needed theoretical connection, I will refer to the concept of habitus by Pierre Bourdieu.

The concept of habitus is a sociological theory of action. The theoretical approach is therefore designed to give information on how humans act. Bourdieu describes the habitus as a system of permanent and transferable dispositions, which serves as a basis for practices and ideas (Bourdieu 1987: 98). In general, the habitus gives information on how humans develop certain thought and behavioral patterns shaped by their experiences. In order to answer the research question, it is critical to learn how exactly the inequalities of opportunities emerge according to the habitual approach. Bourdieu’s sociological idea of a social space enables just that.

Inequalities between individuals are conditioned by their positions within a theoretical social space. Social space denotes a space of differences between individuals. The distinction and placing within this social space is based on the distribution of economic and cultural capital. However, inequalities are not adequately explained when only referred to as differently distributed capital available. The capital available moreover needs to be expressed in terms of values, attitudes, and needs. The habitus, as an explanatory approach concerning individual behavioral and thought patterns, describes how class and position in a social space can determine lifestyle, as in the distribution of economic or cultural capital. According to the concept of habitus, behavioral and thinking patterns of an individual develop throughout experiences determined by the position within a social space (cf. Krais & Gebauer 2002: 36-37).

Similarities within groups of individuals, concerning material resources and the consequential lifestyle, are referred to as class habitus, meaning that individuals share central elements to their habitus within their social class (cf. Krais & Gebauer 2002: 37). Different orientations, attitudes and modes of action result from belonging to a certain class and behavioral and thinking patterns attached to it (cf. Krais & Gebauer 2002: 43). Thus, an individual’s possibilities of obtaining certain goods are changing due to its class position, which triggers inequality of opportunities. The same principle serves as an explanatory basis for the emergence of educational inequality. Different educational opportunities between different migrant groups can be explained by different positions within the social space and the different class habitus attached to it. Social factors, such as educational level and income, determine the position within a social space and the development of the habitus.

Social background, considering the habitus and the position within a social space, thus also determines the educational opportunities of individuals. The uneven distribution of several factors, such as possessions and education, determine possibilities and limits, thus creating different opportunities. From that follows, that children from higher social classes do have better chances reaching a high educational level than children from lower social classes do, which is conditioned by the capital available to the families and the habitus shaped by social background. The capital available to a family determines how their child can be advanced in terms of an educational career. The habitus again determines the child’s attitude towards school and education. A child from a low social class is more likely to not take the risk of reaching a high educational level due to social insecurity (Krais & Gebauer 2002: 42 f.)

Both, economic and educational capital available to the family, have an impact on a child’s opportunities. A family with a high educational background is capable of supporting their child better in terms of schoolwork than a family with a low educational background. Differences between migrants from different countries concerning the social background and, above all the socioeconomic situation, can be explained by different circumstances of immigration. Circumstances of immigration especially mean the type of migrant: guest worker, skilled worker, etc. If an individual migrates to Germany as a guest worker, one can expect it to have comparatively little qualifications, whereby these qualifications influence the socioeconomic situation of the respective family, which in turn affects the educational opportunities of the children. This relation can be illustrated as a causal chain:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In the course of this research paper, the theoretical link between social background and educational opportunities described previously is to be investigated. Deduced from the theory of social background in combination with the concept of habitus, it follows that individuals have better or worse chances obtaining educational qualifications dependent on their social background. The hypothesis reads as follows:

The social background of a migrant affects its educational opportunities.

Independent variable: social background.

Dependent variable: educational opportunities.

In what follows, the extent to which differences in education between migrants of different origins can actually be explained by different social backgrounds shall be examined. The focus lays on the impact of the socioeconomic dimension of social background, as I will elaborate in the section below.

3 Operationalization

The independent variable, the socioeconomic background, and the dependent variable, the educational opportunities of second-generation migrants, shall be specified and operationalized in the following section. Various possible indicators are being discussed and taken into account. Possible problems and obstacles regarding measurement are ascertained.

Socioeconomic, or social, the background is an abstract concept, which has a strong impact on educational opportunities according to the theory of habitus. The more advantageous the socioeconomic background of a migrant, the better are his educational opportunities. Income, (highest) level of education and profession are three typical indicators of social background.

Problems using these indicators result mainly from adapting them to the specific case of migrants. One usually can assume that the higher the educational qualification, the more educational capital is likely to be available to a family, which is why parents' educational attainment gives good information and conclusions on the theoretical dimension of educational capital. However, regarding people with a migratory background, there is uncertainty regarding the comparability of educational qualifications obtained abroad and educational qualifications obtained in Germany, since school systems can vary extremely across countries. Further, the distribution of different educational degrees within the respective countries of origin should also be taken into account. An individual without a secondary school degree in Germany, for instance, is far below the population’s average educational attainment, whereas migrants from developing countries without any further education qualify for the average educational level in their countries of origin (Heath et al. 2008: 220). Income is a good indicator for secondary effects of social background concerning migrants since the amount of educational investment usually corresponds with a family’s income. Difficulties in measuring income can occur considering some people do not feel comfortable giving information on sensitive issues and eventually refuse to reveal their exact income. It is, therefore, useful to create income classes. There are several rules to be followed when measuring the occupational status of the parents. First of all, unlike income, it is questionable to what degree a gradation of occupational statuses is useful. There is no occupation objectively ‘better’ than another, which is why occupations can only be distinguished, not compared.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Social background as an explanatory approach for educational differences of migrants
A comparative analysis
University of Bamberg
Seminar zu "Labor migration: Perspectives from political sociology, economics and political science"
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
social background, migrants, educational differences
Quote paper
Linda Kelmendi (Author), 2017, Social background as an explanatory approach for educational differences of migrants, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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