Marks, G. (2014) Education, Social Background and Cognitive Ability. Abingdon: Routledge

ISBN 978-0-415-84246-4

292 pages (242 without references and index)

Cost £74.50

From the outset, Gary Marks, the author of Education, Social Background and Cognitive Ability makes clear his intention in writing this book; to challenge commonly held views on the relationship between socioeconomic inequality, cognitive ability and educational and economic outcomes. The author draws on a very wide range of existing research and evidence from many countries, including the US, Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia and some non – Western countries to support his central argument that the direct effect of socioeconomic background on educational outcomes and occupation is reduced when taking into account cognitive ability.  As the book, which is arranged in chapters, progresses the reader is presented with a wealth of statistical evidence used to substantiate the author’s assertions. He has demonstrated considerable skill in interpreting the data and provides an outline to the statistics referred to in order to support ‘non-expert’ readers’ understanding.

The opening chapters include the discussion and critique of a number of theoretical perspectives but most significantly Modernisation theory and Reproduction theory.  This is followed by the author’s reflections on sociological theory and the key debates, contentions and hypotheses that are central to the book. An interesting and useful evaluation of the concept of intelligence and how it is measured is provided in chapter three, along with other key definitions such as occupation, social class and socioeconomic background. The following three chapters explore the influence of cognitive ability through analysis of a significant number of studies. The resulting conclusions suggest that traditional views discrediting the concept of cognitive ability are not valid and correlations between educational outcomes are found to be substantially stronger than those with socioeconomic background. Chapters seven, eight and nine are dedicated to the evaluation of socioeconomic inequalities in education. Explanations for socioeconomic differences in education are explored and there is a significant discussion of cultural capital theory leading to some potentially rather contentious conclusions that might surprise readers from the field of education. Evidence is presented that supports the view that socioeconomic background is only moderately associated with educational outcomes. In the conclusion the author returns to Modernisation and Reproduction theory and reviews to what extent the findings in the book support these perspectives.

Throughout the book the author clearly identifies the aspects of his work that have provoked debate. This adds to the power of his arguments and further encourages readers to carefully consider their own views in the light of the detailed evidence presented.

The book is recommended to students and professionals in economics, education, psychology and sociology and there is significant content to appeal to these disciplines. However, the author admits to using complex measures and some sophisticated use of statistics which could be difficult for some readers to access (a guide to this is provided to support understanding). For students, particularly those studying for higher degrees, this book is an invaluable source of data extracted from numerous empirical studies and will support the study of a number of educational themes.  By negotiating their way through the data presented in the book readers will be rewarded with ample opportunities to broaden their understanding and challenge their thinking in this important aspect of social inequality.

Clare Bright
Senior Lecturer in Education and Professional Studies, Newman University.