Foregrounding the Sociocultural Construction of Race through Theory
Abd-El-Khalic and Akerson (2007) underscore the need for more explicit and disciplined use of theory in science education research. Drawing on work from Dressman, who has written extensively about the role of theory in educational research (Dressman & Wilder, 2005), and Boote and Beile (2005), they argue that in educational research broadly the power of theory is poorly utilized. Across a range of published studies and dissertations, educational researchers genuflect towards theory, but are not explicit and disciplined in the application of theory to educational research. Abd-El-Khalick and Akerson present this work in support of “a plea for…empirical investigations…” and “…philosophical examinations…” of the role of theory in science education research. The following suggestions are in the spirit of responding to that plea.
There are two theoretical elements researchers can provide to better foreground the sociocultural construction of race in studies of African American science education. The first of these elements is an explanatory structure for the current social condition of African Americans. The explanatory structure provided must be comprehensive, socioculturally grounded, and systemic. By comprehensive I mean that it must provide broad overarching explanations for the African American social condition. So the “achievement gap” being discussed in education, the “health gap” that concerns medical professionals, the “income gap” being addressed by economists, the environmental concern gap of interest to environmentalists, disparities in criminal sentencing, disparities in home ownership, and myriad other gaps and disparities are not isolated phenomenon. Rather they all stem from the same source and should be accounted for by one comprehensive explanatory structure.
Moreover, by socioculturally grounded I mean that the explanations provided must give priority to the historical enslavement and colonization of African people as the most salient sociocultural feature of current African American existence. Not in the mode of showing obeisance towards “some past event,” but in order to provide social and historical context to explanations for current social conditions. In this way, the explanatory structure should help us to understand how the current social condition of African people is an outgrowth of sociocultural forces such as the enslavement and colonization of African people.
Finally, by systemic I mean that the explanatory structure must point our attention to systemic explanations for the current African American social condition. Herein the local (i.e., individual people, places, or interactions) is explained in the context of the global (i.e., groups of people, types of places, or patterns of interaction). If Mr. Ostrowski's comments found their way to CNN, given modern public discourse, the central concern would likely be local, “Is Mr. Ostrowski a racist?” The tendency to seek out individual persons, places, or interactions that merit the “racist” label masks the systemic nature of sociocultural racial construction. While it may be popular to ask, “Is Mr. Ostrowski a racist?” it certainly is not pertinent. It would be pertinent to address the global, “What social, cultural and historical structures reinforce Mr. Ostrowski's image of African Americans as inferior others?” Or, “How does Mr. Ostrowski's image of African Americans as inferior others influence his teaching of African American students?” The latter questions operate from the assumption that the image of African Americans as inferior others is systemic. It is imbedded in and given resilience by social, cultural, and historical structures. More importantly this image and its consequent behavior is in part a systemic cause of African American students' educational performance.
The second theoretical element is the explicit articulation of a set of assumptions that foreground the sociocultural construction of race. In the critique of Carlone and Johnson (2007), I explicitly articulated the assumption that as a byproduct of the history of slavery and colonialism, people of African descent are often regarded as inferior others. As was evident in the critique, this assumption shaped the questions I posed. It shaped the lens through which I viewed the study participants. It shaped the type of data I expected to find. It shaped the way that I interpreted data. The danger in not explicitly articulating assumptions that foreground the sociocultural construction of race is that it allows implicit and often erroneous assumptions to guide (or misguide) our research efforts.
Foregrounding the Sociocultural Construction of Race in Research Questions
To argue (as I have) that science education research has failed to consider the sociocultural construction of race in seeking to explain racial disparity in African American science education is not to say that the foundation for such work does not exist. In fact there are many useful bodies of literature and frameworks employed broadly in other areas of education. Here, I identify central questions portended by the sociocultural construction of race that could draw upon this work and appropriate it for the study of African American science education.
First, future research could seek to identify the images that educators have of African Americans; and also explore how these images shape student–teacher interactions and students' science performance. There is a long-standing body of literature, which shows that teachers' expectations of students influence their perception of students' performance, students' actual performance, and students' perceptions of themselves (Adams, 1978; Ferguson, 2003; Prime & Miranda, 2006; Rist, 1970; Tompkins & Boor, 1980). This research has also shown that race is one of several “input factors” that influences teachers' perceptions of students (Braun, 1976). This research could be extended to studies of African American science education, by examining (a) the degree to which expectations are shaped by the image of African Americans as inferior others; and (b) the relationship between teachers' expectations of African American students and some of the many factors known to correlate with student science performance. Some factors of interest might be enrollment in advanced mathematics and science courses, performance on measures of science competency, expressed interest in science and science-related careers. One recently developed tool that has proven very effective at providing insight into peoples implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test (Ashburn-Nardo, Knowles, & Monteith, 2003; Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Monteith, 2001; Van Den Bergh, Denessen, Hornstra, Voeten, & Holland, 2010).
Questions of interest in this vein might be, do teachers' expectations of African American students' influence the number of advanced mathematics and science courses that students take (Maple & Stage, 1991; Thomas, 1984), or students' self-efficacy (Post et al., 1991), or school experiences (Griffin, 1990)? More importantly, how do these expectations manifest themselves in the science teaching and learning of African American students? What are some strategies that can be employed to mitigate the effect? Because teachers are not the only participants in the social milieu wherein practitioners are made, it seems reasonable to explore the expectations that others have of African American students. Similar inquiries can be made of school- and district-level administrators, guidance counselors, support staff and other students.
By seeking to identify the images that educators (and others) have of African Americans and by exploring the impact of these images on the science teaching and learning of African American students, the focus of research can be broadened beyond African American students and psychological, cultural, and academic reasons for their career choices. The broadened focus allows researchers to examine the role that other participants in the social milieu may play in supporting or inhibiting African American science performance. More importantly, this broadened research focus also broadens the scope of possible remedies for low African American science performance. Not only might it be necessary to transform African American aspirants, it may also be necessary to transform teachers, school- and district-level administrators, guidance counselors, support staff, and other students.
While my discussion of the sociocultural construction of race in American society focused on the image of African Americans held by non-African Americans, equally important are the responses of African Americans to the image of themselves as inferior others. These responses could be seen to form a continuum with acceptance6 of the image on one end and rejection7 of the image on the other. Hence a second function of future research could be to identify the images that African American students have of themselves; and to explore how these images influence African American science education.
Here again, there are substantial bodies of literature, which illustrate that the images that African American students have of themselves and their awareness of how they are perceived in American society are responses to the sociocultural construction of race. Moreover, the images and awareness also affect school achievement. Examples can be found in research on the effects of stereotype and prejudice (Schmader, Major, & Gramzow, 2001; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Wolfe & Spencer, 1996), and group identification (Hilton-Brown, 2002; Ogbu, 1987, 1992). This research could be extended to studies of African American underrepresentation in science, by examining the relationship between students' responses to the image of themselves as inferior others and the factors known to correlate with science career decisions (e.g., Cohen, Garcia, Purdie-Vaughns, Apfel, & Brzustoski, 2009). To what degree can African American students' disparate science test performance (Kahle, 1982; Maple & Stage, 1991) be attributed to stereotype threat as compared to other factors? To what degree is voluntary enrollment in advanced mathematics and science courses (Maple & Stage, 1991; Thomas, 1984), or participation in extracurricular science activities (Gilleylen, 1993) a function of group identification? Do such voluntary decisions represent an acceptance or rejection of the idea that such activities are too difficult or otherwise inappropriate for African Americans?
Finally, in addition to shaping the image of African Americans as inferior others, the sociocultural construction of race has also shaped American social institutions. This is a point stressed by Jones-Wilson (1990),
For Blacks in the United States the reality is that race, as it has been biologically and socially defined, has been a major determining factor in institutional arrangements, particularly with respect to the dominant power structure's formulation of what is considered to be appropriate educational policies, programs, and practices. Throughout U.S. history the dominant economic, political, and social ideologies regarding our reason for being in this country and our appropriate place in its structures have interacted to shape our educational arrangements, education being a subordinate social institution (p.119).
Again the earliest and most striking example lies in the institution of slavery, which established a caste system wherein African Americans were permanently relegated to the lowest social and economic tier (Foner, 1975). The end of legalized slavery marked the beginning of the Black Codes and later Jim Crow segregation practices, which had the same effect of relegating African Americans to the lowest tier of American social and economic life (Woodward, 1974). Taken together these historical institutions account for nearly 90% of the 450+ year history of Africans in America under the oppression of Europeans. The present day import of these institutions is that African Americans have little history as decision-makers and power brokers in American social institutions in general and science institutions in particular.
Future research should explore the impact of this disparate social arrangement. It seems reasonable that the son or daughter of a scientist has decided advantages over the son or daughter of a carpenter if both are pursuing careers in science. One has the advantage of an intimate knowledge of a scientist's personal (and perhaps even professional) life; the benefit of one or more trusted academic and career advisors; and access to one or more gatekeepers. It also seems reasonable to expect that decision-makers and power brokers in the scientific community may (like Americans in general) hold images of African Americans as inferior others. Future research should explore the degree to which admission decisions, internship appointments, mentoring relationships, and other interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists are shaped by the images of African Americans as inferior others. There is a body of research that uses the idea of racial microaggression to examine covert and subtle ways that African Americans are demeaned racially (Constantine, Smith, Redington, & Owens, 2008; Nadal, 2011). The idea of racial microaggressions might provide a useful lens for examining the interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists.
In addition to exploring the interactions between aspiring scientists and practicing scientists, future research exploring disparate social arrangements should examine disparate school structures. Scholars like Kozol (1991) have begun this task by describing the disparity between poorer inner city schools (largely attended by African Americans) and more affluent urban or suburban schools (largely attended by whites). Others have looked at the implications of school structures on course-selection procedures (Spade, Columba, & Vanfossen, 1997) and course tracking (Oakes, 1986, 1995). This work provides a strong starting point for scholars to explore in greater depth how the school structures might be influenced by race and might in turn contribute to the underrepresentation of African Americans in science and science-related careers.
While the research questions outlined here are aimed at uncovering the “Why?” of African American science performance, the ultimate aim is not to ascribe blame to those who, like Mr. Ostrowski, knowingly or unknowingly hinder African Americans' career pursuits. Such an approach would yield little gain. Rather the aim is to broaden and deepen our collective knowledge of the complexities involved in the science education of African Americans, so that we can produce a Mr. Ostrowski that is both more aware and more useful to the Malcolms of tomorrow.