Achievement ideology

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Achievement Ideology is the belief that one reaches a socially perceived definition of success through hard work and education. In this view, factors such as gender, race/ethnicity, economic background, social networks, or neighborhoods/geography are secondary to hard work and education or are altogether irrelevant in the pursuit of success.

Contemporary analysis of achievement ideology[edit]

In 2002, Sandra L. Barnes,[1] offered that people who believe in the American achievement ideology most likely blame underachievement on attitudinal or moral differences among individuals. For those who disagree with the achievement ideology, this difference in attitude is most likely the result of an oppositional response to negative institutional and structural forces. In her study, Barnes found that those who most benefit from achievement ideology (white males in higher class neighborhoods, for example) are most likely to espouse the achievement ideology. For example, African Americans are more likely than whites to believe that race is an ascribed trait that helps some achieve success more easily than others, and those with higher incomes are more likely to claim that having a strong social network is an unimportant factor for success. All respondent groups, however, believe that education and hard work are most important for success, proving that achievement ideology is alive and well. Ultimately, Barnes argues that success is best reached when one has an achievement-oriented attitude coupled with the actual ability to accomplish one’s goals. While most people might have the proper attitude, structural factors can keep them from achieving.

Donna Y. Ford [2] sought to discover the differences in ideologies between male and female and gifted and nongifted African American students. Ford describes four theories on achievement ideology…

Need Achievement theory[edit]

Social scientists who advocate this theory believe that one’s achievement is a product of the motivation to succeed times the motivation to avoid failure. This means that individuals weigh their expectancy of success with the value they place on that success, or, how well an individual thinks s/he can do and how much doing well actually matters.

Test Anxiety theory[edit]

As with need achievement theory, social scientists who support test anxiety theory look to how a student evaluates her/his ability to succeed. Students who are preoccupied with the outcome of their performance, who fear failure or humiliation if they do not perform well, might not perform well because this anxiety stifles their performance.

Social Learning theory[edit]

In this theory, students are socialized from an early age and hold different expectations or values based on their own experience or social situation. According to this theory, students who are raised in an atmosphere of underachievement, who often see previous generations and family members not succeed, will most likely internalize these values and perceive their own success as unlikely.

Attribution theory[edit]

This theory explains a lack of motivation in students as a result of the students’ belief in achievement ideology. When a student attributes her/his own failure to a lack of ability, they consequently are less likely to expect to do well. If a student fully believes in the achievement ideology, failure can only be a result of lack of ability or lack of effort.

Ford claims that, while these four theories may explain underachievement in some students, they only focus on students’ lack of motivation to achieve and do not consider a student’s failure despite her/his desire to achieve. She describes this as the “paradox of underachievement,” a discrepancy between a student’s ideology and their actual achievement (i.e., when students do not do well in school despite their support of the achievement ideology). In her study, the majority of both gifted and nongifted African American students claimed that school is “very important.” The majority of male and female African American students alike responded that school was important or very important. If this is true that most students are, in fact, motivated and view school as important for success, a student’s failure must be explained by some other variable—most likely ascribed variables like race/ethnicity, gender, and so on.

Effects of achievement ideology in the workplace[edit]

Belief in the American achievement ideology causes employers to look to an individual’s educational success as the key factor in hiring potential employees because achievement ideology perpetuates the notion that those who have succeeded educationally are the most hard working. In Education and Jobs, Ivar Berg writes, “The increase in educational requirements for middle-level jobs…may thus be taking place at some cost to a society that has historically prided itself on its mobility opportunities.”[3] This process causes America’s education system to act more like a “licensing agency”[4] rather than promoting education for education’s sake. This, in turn, causes many employees to be overqualified for their jobs.

When jobs gradually require higher and higher educational attainment as a prerequisite, the effort put into achieving these prerequisites (or, the effort put into school) does not equal the needed effort or skill at one’s job. Thus, workers’ endorsement of achievement ideology decreases each year that s/he remains in a particular job for which s/he is overqualified.[5] In other words, employees begin to see the effort they put forth in school as unnecessary.

Reasons for endorsing or rejecting achievement ideology[edit]

Jay MacLeod studied two groups of boys who live in a low-income neighborhood for his book, Ain’t No Makin' It.[6] The “Hallway Hangers,” a group a mostly white boys, did not endorse the American achievement ideology. MacLeod found that this was a result of several factors. The Hallway Hangers' parents wanted the best for their children and for them to do well but feared encouraging high aspirations because they did not want to set them up for failure and disappointment.[7]

Therefore, not only do students from low income backgrounds see underachievement as they grow up, but parents might also be affected by an environment of underachievement and exacerbate this for their children. The Hallway Hangers and their parents go against the achievement ideology because they do not see success in the future through hard work despite the environment of underachievement. Also, to accept the achievement ideology would be to say that their parents who have not “succeeded” are lazy or unintelligent.[8]

The “Brothers” are a group of African-American boys who live in the same housing project as the Hallway Hangers. They, however, do endorse the American achievement ideology. The Brothers see the racial situation in America as vastly improved since the situation of previous generations.[9] This causes them to believe that each generation has worked harder and harder, and, if they do the same, they will be able to do well in school and succeed in the workforce. The Brothers have also lived in the housing project for far less time than the Hallway Hangers whose families have lived there for up to three generations.[10] Many also moved to the housing project from far worse situations such as impoverished countries and even lower income neighborhoods. This causes the Brothers to think that they are upwardly mobile.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barnes, Sandra L. “Achievement or Ascription Ideology?: An Analysis of Attitudes about Future Success for Residents in Poor Urban Neighborhoods.” Sociological Focus. 35.2 (2002): 207-225.
  2. ^ Ford, Donna Y. and J. John Harris, III. “The American Achievement Ideology and Achievement Differentials among Preadolescent Gifted and Nongifted African American Males and Females.” Journal of Negro Education. 61.1 (1992): 45-64.
  3. ^ Berg, Ivar. Education and Jobs. New York: Praeger, 1970. 59.
  4. ^ Berg, Ivar. Education and Jobs. New York: Praeger, 1970. 60.
  5. ^ Vaisey, Stephen. “Education and Its Discontents: Overqualification in America, 1972-2002.” Social Forces. 85.2 (2006): 835-864.
  6. ^ MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin' It. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 2004.
  7. ^ MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin' It. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 2004. 114.
  8. ^ McLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin' It. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 2004. 128-129
  9. ^ MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin' It. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 2004. 129.
  10. ^ MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin' It. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., 2004. 130.