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Durham University

School of Education

Research Projects

Exploring and evaluating the use of configurational methods in large n contexts: transitions in the English and German educational systems

A research project of the School of Education.

Background

This project had interrelated substantive and methodological foci. The substantive aim was to investigate the link between social background and educational experience, using a variety of methods and comparing England and Germany. This link is well established, and there are various theories to explain it, including rational choice theory, i.e. the notion that people undertake an analysis of perceived costs and benefits of courses of action, and habitus theory, which regards educational pathways and outcomes as shaped by behaviours and dispositions reflecting familial class origin. Methodologically, since the balance of rational and habitual behaviour may vary in complex ways by social origin, I used an analytic method orientated to such causal complexity, Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), to analyse large datasets in combination with in-depth interviews. I studied various outcomes, including GCSE results, A-level subject choice, the differences between comprehensive and selective Local Education Authorities in England and Wales, which type of school someone attends at age 17 in Germany, moving up and down in the German secondary school system, and entry to Higher Education in Germany. Analysing large datasets with QCA, I found evidence of complex interactions of social background factors with other factors such as ability in producing social inequalities in education. In process-tracing interviews conducted with 15 to 18 year olds in both countries, I found evidence of behaviour in line both with rational action theory and with habitus theory, but also of how differing habituses across social classes shape the boundaries within which rational decisions are taken.

Funding

The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Exploring And Evaluating (£221882.24 from ESRC)

Aims

This project had interrelated substantive and methodological foci. The substantive aim was to investigate the link between social background and educational experience, using a variety of methods and comparingEnglandandGermany. This link is well established, and there are various theories to explain it, including rational choice theory, i.e. the notion that people undertake an analysis of perceived costs and benefits of courses of action, and habitus theory, which regards educational pathways and outcomes as shaped by behaviours and dispositions reflecting familial class origin. Methodologically, since the balance of rational and habitual behaviour may vary in complex ways by social origin, I used an analytic method orientated to such causal complexity, Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), to analyse large datasets in combination with in-depth interviews. I studied various outcomes, including GCSE results, A-level subject choice, the differences between comprehensive and selective Local Education Authorities in England and Wales, which type of school someone attends at age 17 in Germany, moving up and down in the German secondary school system, and entry to Higher Education in Germany. Analysing large datasets with QCA, I found evidence of complex interactions of social background factors with other factors such as ability in producing social inequalities in education. In process-tracing interviews conducted with 15 to 18 year olds in both countries, I found evidence of behaviour in line both with rational action theory and with habitus theory, but also of how differing habituses across social classes shape the boundaries within which rational decisions are taken.

Methods

This project contributed both to methodological innovation and to the substantive field of sociology of education. The methodological focus was to explore the application of Ragin’s Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to large n datasets, combined with in-depth interviews. While Ragin himself has applied his method in analysing large n data, this is not yet a widespread practice, and one impact of this project was therefore to demonstrate to interested academics the usefulness of QCA in this context and to address some associated methodological problems. Another impact of the project was to demonstrate how large n analysis and in-depth case studies can be combined fruitfully in a way which goes beyond more conventional mixed methods research. Substantively, the project’s impact was to offer new insights into the educational decision-making and trajectories of young people towards the end of compulsory schooling in two countries, England and Germany. QCA analyses configurations of sufficient and necessary conditions for some outcome. I was able to demonstrate the viability of using QCA to establish the configurations of necessary and/or sufficient conditions for such outcomes as gaining the Abitur (the German equivalent to ‘A’ level) and, by combining this with interviews with cases selected typologically via QCA, I was able to explore the mechanisms generating the set theoretic regularities described via QCA.

Findings

This fellowship was held from June 2009 to September 2011. The final report was graded as “Very Good” (one “Outstanding” and two “Very Good” grades) by ESRC reviewers.

Publications: see project website (http://www.esrc.ac.uk/my-esrc/Grants/RES-063-27-0240/read )

Staff

From the School of Education

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