Working Hard or Hardly Working: Sources of Legitimation for High School Students' Academic Engagement

By Bianchi, Alison J.; Munroe, Paul T. | Sociological Focus, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Working Hard or Hardly Working: Sources of Legitimation for High School Students' Academic Engagement


Bianchi, Alison J., Munroe, Paul T., Sociological Focus


Academic engagement is a precursor to student achievement, and thus exploring its potential antecedents informs studies of adolescent development. We employ a theory from structural social psychology, the theory of the legitimacy of authority, to craft measures of possible sources of legitimation-authorization, endorsement, and propriety-for student engagement. We examine the effects of these measures on three aspects of academic engagement: disciplinary conformity, effort during class, and out-of-school homework, which represent compliance to norms for appropriate school-related behaviors. With a subsample from the 10th grade first-year follow-up survey of NELS:88 (N = 3,868), we complete maximum likelihood factor analyses and weighted regressions with lagged dependent variables. We find that sources of legitimation positively predict levels of academic engagement and compete favorably with perceptions of parental aspirations for future educational achievement as predictors. We argue that sources of legitimation should also be incorporated into tests of theories regarding reproduction of social inequalities.

Structural social psychologists offer many abstract theories concerning social interaction that are well tested in laboratory settings (Lawler, Ridgeway, and Markovsky 1993). This study applies such a theory to a new domain. We utilize the theory of legitimate authority (hereafter TLA) (Thomas and Zelditch 1986; Walker, Rogers, and Zelditch 1989; Walker and Zelditch 1993; Zelditch and Walker 1984) to predict discrepancies in the academic engagement of high school students (cf. Newman, Wehlage, and Lamborn 1992). In so doing, we accomplish two important goals: (1) we apply a theory tested predominantly in experimental environs using survey methodology, and (2) by using a theory, we relate a well-developed research program that is narrowly focused on one institutional domain (education) to an unlimited range of social phenomena that meet the scope conditions of the theory (Walker and Cohen 1985).

We apply this theory to the problem of differential academic engagement not only because student engagement requires a degree of compliance to a social system, the very phenomenon explained by TLA, but also because of the importance of student engagement as a precursor to student learning and achievement (Finn 1989; Finn and Rock 1997; Finn and Voelkl 1993; Lee and Smith 1995; Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, and Darling 1992). Student engagement, briefly defined as the level of involvement in and commitment to all aspects of the process of learning academic knowledge, is an important part of the "toolkit of skills" (Swidler 1986) needed for scholastic achievement. If a student acquires the attitudes and work habits that demonstrate higher levels of engagement, then the probability of this student's academic success increases (Averch, Carroll, Donaldson, Kiesling, and Pincus 1972; Farkas 1996, 2003; Keith 1982; Steinberg 1996), as does the probability of her later career success (Rosenbaum 2001).

Researchers have investigated the social psychological antecedents of academic engagement by using a theory consisting of a causal chain of four constructs (Connell, Spencer, and Aber 1994; Skinner, Welborn, and Connell 1990). These researchers theorize that the first construct, aspects of the school context, is related to students' self-concepts (the stable set of meanings that students have about who they are; Rosenberg 1981). Students' self-concepts then affect the emotional and behavioral aspects of engagement, which is the third construct. Student engagement then affects academic success or failure. We reconceptualize this model of sequential constructs by employing TLA. TLA explains how reflected appraisals of others and one's own attitudes about the social context can collectively generate behavior and attitudes (Berger, Ridgeway, Fisek, and Norman 1998). We believe that this theory offers a better way to describe the social psychological circumstances that precede academic engagement. …

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