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Linking male underachievement with stereotypical laddish behaviour

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 4050 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Much of the current research on underachieving boys in education is focused on suggesting solutions in terms of teaching methods. It is possible to criticise this approach as one can argue that in order to effectively formulate strategies aimed at helping boys who underachieve, you need to actually understand why they are underachieving. Some research suggests that the phenomenon of ‘new laddism’ is just the old fashioned problem of boys behaving badly (Chaudhary, 1998). The solutions therefore do not actually focus on the cause of bad behaviour – just focus on dealing with the behaviour itself.

Media representations of ‘underachieving boys’ are also problematic. They all too often ignore important questions and issues, such as which boys are ‘underachieving’? Delemont (1999) points out the problems with the crude portrayals that suggest boys underachievement and laddishness are synonymous; they are not. Not all ‘laddish’ boys are underachievers and not all underachievers are ‘laddish’.

Objective 3 of this research was addressed in detail in the previous section – the literature review. Objective 1 and 2 of this research will be implemented through the collection and analysis of empirical data. This study is interested in an in-depth analysis of the year 10 and 11 boys at the researcher’s school, and specifically the reasons why they adopt laddish attitudes. Objective 1 will be focused on through analysis of the school staff as well, in particular looking at the process that causes certain types of behaviour to be labelled as laddish.

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Cohen and Manion’s (1996) description of a case study – the researcher observing the characteristics of an individual unit – sums up this piece of research neatly. Howard Becker (1970) describes one aim of case studies as the attempt ‘to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the group under study’. This researcher be attempting to gain a comprehensive understanding of boys who underachieve at Tewkesbury School. Case studies can also be used to produce typologies, or a set of categories defining types of a social phenomenon. Douglas (1967) suggested that case studies could be used to discover the different types of suicide by uncovering the different social meanings of suicide. There is a possibility that this research can produce some typologies about the different types of behaviour that causes male underachievement.

The potential issue with this research strategy is that it is not possible to generalise on the basis of my findings. It is impossible to determine how far the findings of this research can be applied to underachieving boys in other schools. As Bryman (1988) suggests, one way around this would be to repeat the research in other schools looking at the same phenomenon. The issue though with attempting to repeat the research is that it is difficult to make direct comparisons of the results of studies carried out either by different people, or by the same people at different times.

Historical research as a strategy is not appropriate to this topic as it is generally associated with the study of non-contemporary phenomena – this research is clearly not interested in anything non-contemporary. Experimental research is also not appropriate to this topic as it’s very nature is at odds with what this research is attempting to do – experimental research will try to objective by taking phenomena out of it’s natural context, this research needs to understand what is happening in a school environment. Action research was considered due to the in-depth nature of the analysis it engages in – but this research is not focused on one specific problem that can be tackled this way, the researcher is interested in exploring a range of issues linked to laddish behaviour and underachievement.

This research will produce qualitative data in the main. Denzin and Lincoln (1994) describe qualitative research as studying things in their natural settings, and attempting to make sense of phenomena in terms of the meanings people give to them. Some quantitative data will also be produced as well, which Myers (1997) states is often produced through survey techniques within a social setting and as such works well when used alongside qualitative methods.

Orlikowski et al. (1991) say that there are three categories into which qualitative research strategies fall into, depending upon the researcher’s view of the world; critical, positivist and interpretivist. Whilst this researcher does believe that in terms of a critical perspective of the world, people are influenced by social and cultural circumstances, he does not believe that the main of his research should be to free people from the restraining forces that impact upon their lives. His role is simply to understand better the key aspects of laddish behaviour and underachievement. This research will also not be adopting a positivist methodology, as the researcher does not believe that human beings can be studied in the same way that the natural sciences use to study particles, gases and rocks. The French writer Auguste Compte was the first person to use the phrase ‘positivist philosophy’ (Compte, 1986). He believed that scientific knowledge about society could be accumulated and used to improve human existence so that society could be run rationally without religion or superstition getting in the way of progress. Compte believed that the scientific study of society should be confined to collecting information about phenomena that can be objectively observed and classified. He argued that researchers should not be concerned with the internal meanings, motives, feelings and emotions of individuals – these states only exist in the persons’ consciousness so cannot be observed, and cannot be measured in any objective way.

The fundamental part of positivism is its use of statistical data. Positivists believed that it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable social facts and then produce statistics. You can then look for correlations between different social facts. If there is a correlation between two or more types of social phenomena, then a positivist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. This can be criticised though, for example if you look working class boys underachieving in school, the correlation between those two factors is not necessarily causal. It may simply be an indirect correlation.

Positivism is based upon an understanding of science that sees science as using a mainly inductive methodology. This begins by collecting the data. The data is then analysed and out of this analysis theories are developed. Once the theory has been developed it can then be tested against other sets of data to see if it is confirmed or not. If it is repeatedly confirmed then positivists like Compte assume they have discovered a law of human behaviour.

Other researchers though have not accepted the inductive method. Indeed, many use an alternative, a deductive approach. This alternative methodology is supported by Karl Popper in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959). The deductive approach reverses the process of induction. It starts with a theory and tests it against the evidence, rather than developing a theory as a result of examining the data. Popper argues that scientists should start with a ‘hypothesis’; a statement that is to be tested. This statement should be very precise and should state exactly what will happen in particular circumstances. On the basis of this hypothesis it should be possible to deduce predictions about the future. Popper differs from positivists in that he denies it is ever possible to produce laws that will necessarily be found to be true for all time. He argues that however many times a theory is apparently proved correct, there is always the possibility that at some future date the theory will be proved wrong, or ‘falsified’. He suggests that scientists have a duty to be objective, and to test their theories as rigorously as possible. Therefore, once they have formulated hypotheses, and made predictions, it is necessary to try constantly to find evidence that disproves or falsifies their theories.

Some though argue that in practice scientists operate in very different ways from those advocated by Popper or positivists. Thomas Kuhn (1962) has developed an analysis of science which sees it as being far from the objective pursuit of knowledge. He argues that science is characterised by a commitment to a scientific paradigm. A paradigm consists of a set of beliefs shared by a group of scientists about what the natural world is composed of, what counts as true and valid knowledge, and what sort of questions should be asked and what sort of procedures should be followed to answer those questions. Kuhn does not believe that the same methods and procedures are found throughout scientific history; rather, they are specific to particular sciences at particular times. Scientists may ignore evidence that does not fit ‘their’ paradigm.

To Kuhn, a scientific subject is one in which there is an agreed paradigm. There is no guarantee that this accepted paradigm is correct: it may well be replaced by a new paradigm in the future. If Kuhn’s view of science is accepted, then it is doubtful social research can be considered as scientific. There is no one accepted paradigm in social research – the different perspectives all see the social world in different ways: they ask different questions and get different answers. Kuhn’s work has been criticised though as you can argue that it has little relevance to social science and based upon inadequate evidence. Anderson, Hughes and Sharrock (1986) believe that he has underestimated the degree to which there is conflict and disagreement in natural science. Most of the time alternative paradigms are debated. A careful examination of the history of science shows that ‘the periods of revolution grow in size while those of settled normality contract’.

The approach that this researcher will be adopting as identified by Orlikowski et al. (1991) is interpretivism. This most closely matches this researcher’s approach to research, and as a teacher of sociology it has been refined over the past ten years of either studying or teaching the subject. The interpretivist approach suggests that qualititative data collection techniques should be used. Social action can only be understood by interpreting the meanings and motives on which it is based. Many interpretivists argue that there is little chance of discovering these meanings and motives from quantitative data. Only from qualitative data – with its greater richness and depth – can the sociologist hope to interpret the meanings that lie behind social action.

Interpretivists reject the use of natural science methodology for the study of social action. The natural sciences deal with matter. Since matter has no consciousness, its behaviour can be explained simply as a reaction to external stimuli. People though, have consciousness – they see, interpret and experience the world around them in terms of meanings. Max Weber talks about how understanding the motives behind people’s behaviour could be achieved through verstehen – imagining yourself to be in the position of the person whose behaviour you were seeking to explain.

Phenomenology represents the most radical departure from positivism. Phenomenologists go even further than interpretivists in that they reject the possibility of producing causal explanations of human behaviour. They do not believe that it is possible objectively to measure and classify the world. To phenomenologists, human beings make sense of the world by imposing meanings and classifications upon it. These meanings and classifications make up social reality. They believe that researchers should limit themselves to understanding the meanings and classifications which people use to give order to and make sense of the world. Studies which utilise this method concentrate almost entirely on the subjective aspects of social life which are internal to the individual’s consciousness.


Convenience sampling was used to select the participants in the research project. It was convenient because the researcher works at the school involved in the study. There is nothing random about the students and staff who have been chosen and the researcher is making no claim of representativeness and generalisability to anywhere other than his school. That is not the focus of the research – instead it is focused on simply gaining an in-depth understanding of the key issues involved in laddish behaviour and underachievement. This method of sampling was also used due to the fact that it is by far the easiest way to access participants.

This research will use two main methods of collecting data: interviews and secondary data analysis. The main data collection technique will be semi-structured interviews. Interviews are as Yin (2003) states, able to provide insights into complex situations. And as Goldthorpe et.al (1968) found, interviewees could be prompted if they cannot decide how to answer a question. The interviews will be semi-structured because this will allow the students and staff to express their views, explain their individual circumstances and expand on any answers. The researcher though will be able to guide them towards the specific area of interest because there will always be some pre-planned questions. The key is, as Marshall and Rossman (1989) put it – the participant’s view on the phenomena of interest should unfold as they truly view it, not as the researcher views it.

The use of more than one method allows the researcher to engage in methodological pluralism. This is the idea that we should tolerate of a variety of methods in sociological research, because methods should be seen as part of the research process as a whole. (Bryman, 1998). The key advantage to the researcher is that it allows him to combine both positivist and interpretivist research methods, which allows him to benefit from triangulation, which is where the strengths of one method balance out against the weaknesses of another, and allow me to cross-examine the results. Methodological pluralism has become more and more popular in recent years amongst sociologists, although the idea itself has not escaped criticism: However, consensus over methodological pluralism is incomplete, and does not even mean that subscribing sociologists have actively sought to promote pluralism. As Bell, observed: … individual sociologists – no matter how tolerant, catholic and eclectic – are very unlikely actually to be methodological pluralists … . It is the structure of sociology that became pluralist not sociologists themselves. (Bell and Roberts, 1984). Indeed, Payne et al (2004) conducted research aimed itself at measuring the extent to which methodological pluralism is used in sociological research. They concluded: “Only about one in 20 of published papers in the mainstream journals uses quantitative analysis, ranging from simple cross-tabulations to multivariate techniques. This is not grounds for an argument that there should be less qualitative research, but rather that there should be more quantitative research.

The site for the research will be Tewkesbury School. The research project is not intended to be an exhaustive study of laddish behaviour and underachieving boys in the local area – it is specific to the researcher’s school and the needs and priorities of that school moving forward. The research will be focused on male students in year 10 and year 11. They have been selected for two main reasons – those are the two year groups for which we have the most accurate data on who is ‘underachieving’, and improving the performance of these boys is the main priority for the school moving forward. The data on underachievement is generated by subject teachers who are judging the progress of students against their FFT (D) (Fisher Family Trust) targets. These type D targets are based upon the progress made by schools in the top 25% percentile of value-added schools nationally. Also, as Epstein et al (1998) points out – it is at this age group that laddish behaviour begins to impact most heavily on educational performance. The staff that will be interviewed will be from a range of subject areas – including English, Maths and Science. The research will analyse the different levels of underachievement and seek to identify reasons why these boys may be underachieving more in certain subject areas.

Interviewing different staff allows for cross-comparison’s of responses – which will allow key themes to emerge. Indeed, as Holstein et al (1995) suggest, the interviewing process itself often creates new knowledge rather than just revealing data that was previously present in the interviewees’ heads. The following staff will be interviewed:

1 – Head of Maths Faculty.

2 – Head of Science Faculty.

3 – Head of English Faculty.

4 – Head of Humanities Faculty.

5 – Head of Arts Faculty.

6 – Head of Technology Faculty.

All these staff have an in-depth knowledge of performance in their faculties, and have specific experience of the underachievement by students. The interviews will be recorded, where possible, for two reasons – to ensure that the analysis of data is based upon an accurate record, and to allow the interviewer to concentrate on the actual interview. Secondary data in the form of school exam performance and monitoring reports will also be collected to form part of the analysis. This will allow the research to understand the scope of current performance levels.

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To help focus the interviews in terms of reflecting the main objectives of this research they will be structured in according to key themes, for example patterns of behaviour that are labelled as laddish, understanding of current underperformance issues, awareness of the issues involved in boys choosing to behave in a laddish manner. In terms of analysing the interviews, as Bogdan and Biklen (1982) put it; the researcher should aim to work with the data, analyse and break it down into manageable units, search for patterns and decide what is important. This summarises neatly the modern interpretive approach to qualitative data analysis and the approach that this researcher will use.


There are many potential problems in any research problem, and especially when researching a topic like this project is aiming to. The key one is generalisability – this research cannot be generalised to any other educational setting, as it is purely relevant to the setting that the researcher is currently employed in. This does raise a question mark over the validity of the findings, but as most interpretivists argue, including Ackroyd and Hughes (1981), the researcher is not limited to what he or she can immediately perceive or experience, but is able to cover as many dimensions and as many people as resources permit. The depth of data gathered by this research should enable the researcher to find the truth, or at least the best representation of it available, hence ensuring a good degree of validity.

The reliability of unstructured interviews can also be questioned as they are artificial situations, as Bryman (1988) notes, do they really capture the daily life, conditions, opinions, values, attitudes, and knowledge base of those we study as expressed in their natural habitat? Perhaps even more problematic is the issue of the researcher maintaining objectivity when interviewing colleagues in an environment in which he works. Labov’s (1973) work also points out the way that school children can respond differently when interviewed in different contexts. They often respond in a certain way when interviewed in a formal setting that is very different from how they respond in an informal setting.

Any research project which has interviews as the main source of data is hampered by interviewees who exhibit bias or poor memory recall, (Winlow 2001). This researcher has attempted to deal with this by gathering data from a range of sources, i.e. the various heads of faculty, and a range of students. This allows the researcher not to be dependent on one or two respondents for key data. But one must approach this research with the knowledge that people are not robots, especially school students, and that errors are bound to creep in, in terms of bias and honest mistakes of recollection. The issue of ecological validity pointed out by Hammersley and Gomm (2004) which is that interviews are unnatural social situations and the context affects the behaviour of interviewees so much that the resulting data cannot be seen as valid, does need to be allowed for, but overall it is expected that any bias or misinformation will be minimised.

The researcher himself needs to alter his mindset slightly when conducting the interviews – he has to view them not as colleagues but as research subjects, and this role change needs to be communicated to staff. Linked with this role change is the need for the researcher to gain the trust of his colleagues, as they may well be nervous about expressing their views openly, and so to encourage open and honest discussion, anonymity for academic staff will be guaranteed where required. (Biggam 2008).

The use of quantitative statistics to measure and understand the extent of underachievement also has it’s issues. Atkinson (1978) believes that they are simply the product of the meanings and taken-for-granted assumptions of those who construct them. This is particularly the case when analysing teacher’s perceptions of who is underachieving, so the researcher must be wary of this. As Byrne (2006) states, they are useful to most social scientists – they are made out of something, not nothing, and that provided we pay careful attention to the ways in which they are made, and in particular the processes of operationalisation they can be of very considerable value to us.

Finally, in terms of ethics there are a range of potential issues to take into account. The researcher will be abiding by the code of ethics as set out by the British Sociological Association and the BERA. Participants will all give voluntary informed consent, which involves the need for them to substantially understand what the research involves. This ensures that no deception of any participants is involved. This does of raise the methodological issue of ecological validity, but it is not possible for the research to remove this issue. All participants have the right of withdrawal at any point, and this right is explained to each participant at the outset of any research. This research does involved the participation of children, so appropriate consent has been gained first from the school headteacher, as gatekeeper, from the parents/guardians of any children involved, and of course from the children themselves. Brookman (1999) talks about the issue of confidentiality and it’s impact upon the research, but as discussed earlier, all participants were offered full anonymity as a condition of their participation.

Essentially, as Israel and Hay (2006) point out, the ultimate purpose of having research ethics is to avoid harm and do good. They comment that contemporary researchers are normally expected to minimise risks of harm or discomfort to participants. This research will strive to ensure that this is the case.


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