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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Sociology Department Staff

Publication details for Professor Vikki Boliver

Boliver, V. (2016). Critically evaluating the Effectively Maintained Inequality hypothesis. British Journal of Education, Society & Behavioural Science 15(2): 1-9.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

This paper uses data for England to test the effectively maintained inequality (EMI) hypothesis that
individuals from ‘high’ and ‘low’ socioeconomic backgrounds have qualitatively different modal
educational destinations at a given educational level. In so doing, the paper highlights how a focus
on modal educational destinations seriously detracts from the usefulness of the EMI hypothesis as a
basis for identifying qualitative educational inequalities. First, tests of the EMI hypothesis are shown
to be of questionable reliability because they involve calculating the predicted probabilities of
different educational destinations based on ultimately arbitrary operationalisations of ‘high’ and ‘low’
socioeconomic background, with more polarised formulations being more likely to find in favour of
EMI. Second, tests of the EMI hypothesis are shown to be of questionable validity in that it is
possible to find in favour of EMI even when the degree of qualitative inequality is negligible and to
find against EMI even when the degree of qualitative inequality is substantial. These limitations have
been recognised by the originator of the EMI hypothesis but dismissed as unimportant. However,
this paper argues that these limitations are so serious that analysts seeking to identify qualitative
inequalities in education should discard the focus on modal educational destinations advocated by
the EMI hypothesis.