The Social Construction of Vocationalism

Ryan H. Pfleger, University of Colorado at Boulder


A focus on economic outcomes of public schooling, or vocationalism, increasingly, has dominated education policy discourse in the United States. Growing evidence suggests, however, that human capital development does not live up to promises to ameliorate poverty and economic inequality, that economic thinking about education reproduces ideologies of individualism and meritocracy that militate against structural changes that are needed to significantly alleviate poverty and inequality, and that the emphasis on vocationalism pushes aside other important goals that schooling could and should promote. To further an understanding of vocationalism and how its problems might be addressed, this study answers, in three parts, the foundational question: How is vocationalism constructed socially? First, a synthesis of the long-theorized concepts of “ideology” and “habitus” is advanced to provide a vantage point from which to study vocationalism. Second, an analysis of historical and sociological literature demonstrates how research about vocationalism obscures causes of vocationalism and does not point to viable reform. Third, an analysis of the structure and content of language in newspaper op-eds and editorials helps to identify how vocationalist ideology and habitus are built. This study finds that op-ed and editorial discourse is likely to (re)construct a social configuration that orients education detrimentally toward economic outcomes.