Schooling, Structured Inequality, and Individual Experience: A Qualitative Study

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By applying sexuality as a category of difference to various schooling processes, it becomes apparent that schooling conditions students to function as heterosexuals in a heterosexual society and sanctions those who do not comply. Students' responses to this type of education are generally empirically unknown, and research tends to focus on the lack of psychosocial adjustment in gay and lesbian youth. A major focus of this study was to understand how female students make sense of their lives in schools and in a society that privileges heterosexuality. The backdrop for this study is the longstanding problem of fusing the micro-macro chasm in educational sociology (Archer, 1996).

This qualitative study used Consensual Qualitative Research (Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997) to analyze data collected through semi-structured, open-ended interviews with 15 women between 18 to 20 years old who did not identify as heterosexual while high school students.

What participants talked about in the interviews was neither a sense of possessing free agency in all aspects of their lives nor a sense that an overarching structure limited their opportunities in the environments discussed in the interviews. What participants suggested, instead, was that their individual experiences were shaped in a set of interrelated environments in ways that they perceived as both enabling and constraining.

One important implication of this study is that professionals in schools must be intentional in their institutional actions to deliver an enabling education so that students will not expect that any unequal power relations that exist in the larger society will be a naturalized, integral part of their school experience.