While many of the references are to the British education system, to the best of my knowledge the theoretical elements apply to most western societies.
Some sociologists choose to interpret educational attainment through subcultural theories, and apply these approaches to educational phenomena. Due to the various types of subcultural theory that have been developed, different analyses have been made of educational subcultures.
In David Hargreaves’ 1967 study, “Social Relations In A Secondary School”, he suggests that the effect of labelling is the formation of delinquent subcultures. He drew on Albert Cohen’s theory of status frustration, which takes place when people are unable to gain prestige within their society or culture. This was because they had been placed in non-prestigious Secondary Modern schools and lower streams. Even then, deviance amplification was increased further, when certain pupils were picked out from these lower streams as troublemakers and disruptive students. This means that students faced with such labels will identify strongly with one another, forming closely knit subcultures, in which the things they are capable of (truanting, fighting, smoking etc) are seen as high status activities. In the way, young people can gain prestige in a situation where they would normally have none. Hargreaves also pointed to conformist subcultures, in which successful students banded together to affirm their status at the top of the social or academic pyramid. Paul Willis (1971) argued that low ability students form a “counter-school subcultural grouping”. Such groups presented a direct opposition to the goals and means of the school system (in this sense his theory links to that of Cloward and Ohlin’s), and create the reverse of the mainstream norms and values. This fosters feelings of superiority amongst the group, and contempt for the mainstream culture. This is linked to an image of masculinity which is central to their identity. Colin Lacey (1970) found a similar phenomenon, although unexpectedly in a grammar school. Pupils who had been positively labelled when passing the Eleven Plus still formed subcultures when placed in lower streams, seemingly proving that differentiation is an entirely relative factor in subcultural theory.
However, there are criticisms of this theory. While Willis points out that “the lads” are not well adjusted to succeed in school, one could argue that the workforce is still in need of semiskilled and unskilled labour, and that schools provide this by teaching young people mechanisms for coping with the boredom of monotonous factory life. Woods also claims that the matter is much more complicated than these theories allow for. He stated that subcultures consisted of more than direct conformity or direct opposition to mainstream educational culture. Using Robert K. Merton’s strain theory as a basis, he devised eight different categories in which students could be placed, depending on their attitudes towards the norms and values of the consensus. These were ingratiation, compliance, opportunism, ritualism, retreatism, colonisation, intransigence and rebellion. Each of these archetypes link up with the various configurations of “ends and means” found in Merton’s theory.
Walter Miller states that some subcultures do not conform to, reject or rebel against the values of the mainstream, but rather simply exist independent of them. Peter Wilmot argues that people from working class backgrounds do not necessarily live “boring, dead end lives”. Deviance is way for working class people to introduce excitement to their lives. He also contends that the deviance of the working class is merely more visible than that of the middle class, because due to deviance amplification, they are more closely observed by the (largely middle class) media, and therefore more deviance is uncovered. David Downes found that status frustration did not really exist amongst the working class in the way that Cohen and others suggested. Indeed, many members of the working class took pride in the low status, and therefore it strengthened the identity of the subculture.
Feminist sociologists criticise this “malestream” sociology for putting too great an emphasis upon the delinquency and rebellion of boys and the expense of examining female educational subcultures. Sue Lees concurs with Hargreaves that both pro-school and anti-school subcultures exist, she contends that for females, further subdivisions exist. Some pro-school females find an intrinsic value and enjoyment in academic study, whereas others take a more pragmatic view of education as a means to an end later in life. On the other hand, they might ignore the attainment aspects of education, and instead focus upon it as a positive place to socialise.