ESRA 2017 Programme

Tuesday 18th July      Wednesday 19th July      Thursday 20th July      Friday 21th July     

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Wednesday 19th July, 11:00 - 12:30 Room: F2 105

Analyzing Social Mechanisms in Life-Course Research 1

Chair Dr Tilo Beckers (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf )
Coordinator 1Dr Dominik Becker (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)
Coordinator 2Dr Nicole Hiekel (University of Cologne)

Session Details

This session links mechanism-based explanations to longitudinal survey research and builds on a recently initiated debate aiming at improving theoretically grounded and empirically sound explanations in life-course research. We aim to bring together pioneer work in the field of life course research that comprises empirical applications using advanced statistical methods to unravel why various life course patterns and outcomes exist by studying how they came about. A key principle of the life course approach is the linkage between contextual characteristics and situations on the one hand (situational mechanisms), and the linkage between situations and action or attitude formation on the other hand (action formation mechanisms). Life course researchers have developed powerful statistical techniques to examine panel data, yet mechanism-based explanations underlying the life course process of interest are rare.

The last decade has seen a growing interest in the concept of social mechanisms (Demeulenaere 2011; Tranow/Beckers/Becker 2016*). The debate focuses on the question of which principles define a satisfactory way of doing social sciences. Most advocates of the social mechanism approach agree that social phenomena should be explained by opening up the black box of explanation and making explicit the causal “cogs and wheels” (Elster 1989) by which these social phenomena are brought into existence.

Life course research provokes questions about social processes and mechanisms, i.e. the identification of patterns and trajectories of stability and change but also of catalysts, drivers and the “wheelworks” (Shanahan/Elder 1997; Keijer/Nagel/Liefbroer 2016). Within the life course approach, analyses and explanations may engage in the identification of i) social mechanisms related to the opportunity structure such as institutional arrangements (e.g., provision of family- or job-related subsidies), ii) belief-driven mechanisms (e.g. rational imitation or self-fulfilling prophecies), and iii) desire-driven mechanisms (e.g educational or job-related preference formation; dissonance reduction).

We invite the submission of abstracts on (emergent) research projects with statistically advanced empirical applications that specify and link social mechanisms to life course patterns and outcomes. Submitted abstracts should include a research question, theoretical and tested social mechanism(s), research design, data and technique of analysis of social mechanisms and (preliminary) results.

* English language Special Issue & Introduction in Analyse und Kritik 38(1): 1-30 (

Paper Details

1. Kinship Effects on Residential Mobility and Ancestry Segregation in Sweden
Dr Benjamin Jarvis (Linköping University)
Dr Guilherme Chihaya (Umeå University)

This paper examines the links between residential segregation and the spatial distribution of kin in Stockholm, Sweden. Residential segregation between native Swedes and new immigrants is established when immigrants first settle in Sweden. This creates disparities in the spatial distribution of kin for immigrant children compared to native Swedes. Kinship ties may contribute to the reproduction of segregation across generations if children move to maintain proximity to family when making residential choices in adulthood. The paper investigates this segregating mechanism using detailed, longitudinal, geocoded residential history data from Swedish population registers, 1990 to 2012. The analysis focuses on native Swedes and the children of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia, the most segregated groups in Stockholm. Discrete choice models are used to estimate the effects of kin on residential mobility for a cohorts of native Swedes and Sweden-raised children of immigrants, born between 1970 and 1990. The estimates are used to run counterfactual simulations of residential mobility and segregation. Proximity to kin effects accounts for between 40% and 70% of the variation in segregation across simulations for children of immigrants, but relatively little for those of Swedish ancestry. Instead, young Swedish adults’ propensities to move to neighborhoods with higher Swedish representation account for much of their segregation
from non-Western immigrants. This research shows how social contexts and family relationships shape the residential experiences of young adults. These residential contexts may be pivotal in subsequent life course events, including finding a mate and starting a family. The residential experiences of immigrant and native young adults are crucial moments in trajectories that may lead to integration for the group or may contribute to sustained and enduring segregation between groups.

2. Still an open question? Assessing the causal relationship between students’ aspirations and school success.
Mr Thomas Zimmermann (University of Kassel)

In educational sociology the causal relationship between students’ educational aspirations and achievement in school is well accepted (Gorard et al., 2012) and many empirical research studies provide evidence for this proposition (Dumais, 2002; Lee & Bowen, 2006; Seginer & Vermulst, 2002; Wildhagen, 2009). These studies have frequently relied on cross-sectional data. As a consequence, it has been difficult to assess the causal relationship between students’ aspirations and achievement. Gorard et al. 2012 argue that “no study has been found that shows altering aspirations leads to differences in outcomes” (p. 42). Considering the empirical evidence, it is still an open question whether students’ aspirations affect their school achievement.

This contribution draws on the Wisconsin Model of Status Attainment (WSC) (Sewell et al., 1969, 1970). In the context of this theory, aspirations can be defined as a “cognitive orientational aspect of goal-directed behavior” (Haller, 1968, p. 484). As social mechanism the WSC assumes that families’ social background influences students’ achievement in school by affecting their aspirations and behaviors. According to this assumption, students with high educational aspirations are more likely to obtain good school results than those with less advantageous attitudes and behaviors. The presentation aims to test the hypothesis that students’ educational aspirations have a causal effect on students’ achievement in school.

The data source consists of three waves of the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS), starting cohort, Grade 5, doi:10.5157/NEPS:SC3:5.0.0 (Blossfeld et al., 2011). The data are collected annually from students and their parents. Students attending special schools and those who changed an educational track between 2010 and 2012 are excluded. In total data from 2959 students and their parents are available for analysis. The dependent variables are students’ marks in math and German. The main independent variable is students’ educational aspiration for an certificate from the gymnasium. Missing values are multiple imputed (Rubin, 1987). Students’ marks in German and math are regressed on students’ educational aspirations and other explanatory variables by utilizing fixed effects regression.

In the case of students’ marks in math as dependent variable the results show that for the time-varying regressor of interest, students’ aspirations, the estimator has a rather small effect size 0.0383 (s.e. 0.0363). For students’ marks in German the effect size is even smaller -0.00612 (s.e. 0.0296). One reason for these results in comparison with other research studies and own cross-sectional ols regressions is presumably the limited consideration of (unobserved) time constant characteristics of the individuals such as their personality, ability, etc. As a consequence, the effects of students’ aspirations on students’ achievement are overestimated. Presumably the within effects reflect most likely the actual effects of students’ educational aspirations on students’ achievement in school.

The results are preliminary and subject of an ongoing investigation. Further sensitivity checks are planned as well as investigations into the dynamic nature of the relationship between students’ educational aspirations and their achievement in school. For this purpose, dynamic panel models will be considered.

3. Tracking and Educational Careers: Is Strict Sorting by Ability Really Responsible for the Increase of Social and Ethnic Inequalities in Educational Success (Only)? A Comparison of the Educational Systems of German Country States with Dates from the “National Educational Panel Study” (NEPS).
Professor Hartmut Esser (University of Mannheim/Mannheim Centre for European Social research)

It is still taken for granted that ability tracking increases the impact of social origin on attainment and achievement in secondary education without gains in achievement in the overall level. The contribution addresses the question of whether these common conviction is really correct. Various deviations and inconsistencies obtained from analyses that use other approaches and data bases form the starting point. On the basis of a general theoretical model, the Model of Ability Tracking (“MoAbiT”), we specify the mechanisms and preconditions for identifying the effects of ability tracking over the course of educational careers from the end of elementary school, the process of sorting in different tracks of educational pathways until class 7 in lower secondary school. These include considering cognitive abilities and its development in family, preschool and elementary school, achievements in elementary school, teachers´ evaluations of achievements (in marks and recommendations) prior to ability tracking at the end of elementary school, educational decisions of parents, the factual transition to certain school types in secondary schools (attainment) and finally the achievements in secondary school. Main concern is to test some specific implications of the theoretical model for effects of (strict) differentiation by abilities of the children as system-effects. The model predicts a more meritocratic sorting without increasing social inequalities for attainment, followed by an increase of homogeneities of schools and schools classes with respect to children´s abilities and an increased effect of cognitive composition of schools and school classes achievements in secondary school, again without any increase of social inequalities in achievement. Insofar the MoAitT contradicts the the standard results from common analyses of effects of educational systems and tracking by the well known international comparative studies like Pisa. The main reason for the differences in predictions may be that in these studies not all theoretically relevant conditions are available (like cognitive abilities and other conditions of sorting, transition and tracking-effects). Especially effects of social origin possibly have been systematically overestimated and those of cognitive abilities (of individuals and of traits of schools and school classes) couldn´t be detected at all. Because of these (and other) shortcomings of the international studies the implications of the MoAbiT have to be tested with other data bases. The contribution therefore uses the (rather large) variation in institutional regulations of the tracking systems of the 16 German country states and analyzes the data of the first three waves of the “National Educational Panel Study” (NEPS), which contains all necessary information. The 16 states are sorted by an index of “strictness” of sorting, which combines the dimensions “traditional/modern” and “standardized/de-standardized” of the respective educational systems. Results show a nearly perfect confirmation of the mentioned implications of the MoAbiT, including some indications, that – in contrast also to common standard opinions – strict ability tracking has advantages in educational success not only for natives, but especially for migrant children, too.