The Social Networks and Resources of African American Eighth Graders: Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988

By Smith-Maddox, Renee | Adolescence, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

The Social Networks and Resources of African American Eighth Graders: Evidence from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988


Smith-Maddox, Renee, Adolescence


For decades, social scientists have used aspirations, which are "an individual's view of his or her own chances for getting ahead and are an internalization of objective probabilities" (MacLeod, 1987, p. 13), as part of the equation that predicts the status attainment of adolescents. Research dealing with aspirations has typically focused on high school students and how this subjective disposition is determined by socioeconomic background, ability, and significant others (Super, 1957; Ginsberg, Ginsberg, Axelrad, & Herma, 1951; Blau & Duncan, 1967; Sewell, Haller, & Portes, 1969). Although status attainment models have offered explanations of how ascribed status, learned skills, and motives affect educational and career aspirations, they have been criticized on at least three grounds: sampling, measurement, and estimation procedures (Campbell, 1983; Jencks, Crouse, & Mueser, 1983). For example, in the quest for clues about the social and economic prospects of adolescents, African Americans have been studied using research designs that were based on social psychological models derived from predominantly white, middle-class, male samples. This has provided a limited view of the structural factors and social relations that may shape the career trajectories of young people of color. The present study was undertaken to investigate how the mobility aspirations of African American adolescents are shaped.

AN INTEGRATED CONCEPTUAL MODEL: LINKING SOCIAL REPRODUCTION AND NETWORK THEORIES

Some social reproduction theorists have argued that schools mirror the social structure and organizational patterns of society (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Bourdieu, 1977). They have proposed that schools maintain the existing social order by transmitting knowledge, values, norms, and social skills that translate into either high-skilled or low-skilled jobs. Students learn the explicit and tacit knowledge that helps them cultivate social relationships and access information that can shape their future. Grant and Sleeter (1988) point out that schools provide "an institutional ideology, socializing agents, and an experiential context within which students define and shape the way they think about their personal dreams" (p. 19).

The widespread use of tracking is one educational practice that helps replicate the social order. This gatekeeping process distributes institutional benefits in numerous informal and formal ways (Oakes, 1985; Lee & Bryk, 1988). Students are sorted according to ability, past academic achievement, and behavior to form more homogeneous classrooms. The result is that poor African American and Latino children are overrepresented in the lower tracks, reproducing the social order and maintaining the status quo. Low-income students are placed in lower-track classes, where they receive an education that prepares them for low-status jobs, while high-income students are placed in higher-track classes that prepare them for high-status jobs. Thus, the relationship between track placement, valued knowledge, culture, and social class raises serious questions about the process of ability grouping.

Bourdieu has argued that different forms of capital, including political, economic, social, and cultural, are necessary for maintaining class, status, and privilege across generations (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992). Cultural capital is the cultural background, knowledge base, skills, and attitudes that families transmit to their children, such as taste in art and music, religion, way of talking, and manners (Bourdieu, 1977; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977). Often, cultural traits are linked to social class.

Cultural capital is important in the family-school relationship (Lareau, 1987; Wells & Serna, 1995). By stressing the value of education, helping children negotiate the schooling process, and having high expectations, middle- and upper-class families use their resources to ensure that status and privilege are maintained. …

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