[image (c) Eric Bézine]

Vincent Dupriez recently delivered a presentation at Glasgow University entitled ‘Social Inequalities of Post-secondary Educational Aspirations: influence of social background, school composition and institutional context’ [the published paper with the same title can be found here]. This is the abstract of the paper: 

The first goal of this article is to assess, for each country belonging to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the influence of pupils’ sociocultural background on educational aspirations. The second goal is to explore whether, after controlling for educational achievement, the residual influence of sociocultural background is still significant. In addition, the authors estimate whether the sociocultural and academic characteristics of school composition have an additional impact on educational aspirations in this group of countries. Finally, they show that the structural characteristics of school systems moderate the influence of individual characteristics and school composition on educational aspirations.

Afterwards (okay after a couple of drinks), there was a brief discussion about the meaning of aspiration and how it differed from expectation – a term that was sometimes used interchangeably in the presentation (from what I remember) and also at certain points in the published paper. While this isn’t necessarily a criticism of Vincent’s paper, which made a convincing argument regarding the influence of school composition on aspirations, it seems to me that some education research tends to confuse the two concepts of aspiration and expectation, which can be problematic given that they mean quite different things, especially when it comes to the statement ‘intent to pursue’, a statement that looms large over the OECD study from which the data was taken.

The difference: to aspire means to dream about a possible future life, while to expect comes ready-made with a sense of entitlement. When a person expects to do well at school or go to university, it means that they believe it is likely to happen. The terms belong to different verb clusters – to aspire is associated with desire, dreaming, craving, hoping, wishing, yearning. To expect, on the other hand, means to assume, to anticipate, to predict, and to consider likely. The verbs ‘expect’ and ‘aspire’ are also embedded in different emotional contexts – when you expect to go to university, it tends to suggest that you feel worthy enough of such a position and location in life; that you will belong in the higher education environment. Such a state of emotional being cannot be said to attach itself so easily to those who aspire to a life of higher learning.

The question is, does such definitional complexity have a potential bearing on the outcomes of research such as that cited above? Does it matter if we leave vague the meaning of such terms as ‘expectation’? How important is the emotional context in studies of educational inequality?