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An investigation of social class inequalities in general cognitive ability in two British birth cohorts

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Publication details

JournalBritish Journal of Sociology
DateAccepted/In press - 14 Nov 2017
DateE-pub ahead of print - 19 Dec 2017
DatePublished (current) - Jan 2019
Issue number1
Number of pages19
Pages (from-to)90-108
Early online date19/12/17
Original languageEnglish


The ‘Flynn effect’ describes the substantial and long-standing increase in average cognitive ability test scores, which has been observed in numerous psychological studies. Flynn makes an appeal for researchers to move beyond psychology's standard disciplinary boundaries and to consider sociological contexts, in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of cognitive inequalities. In this article we respond to this appeal and investigate social class inequalities in general cognitive ability test scores over time. We analyse data from the National Child Development Study (1958) and the British Cohort Study (1970). These two British birth cohorts are suitable nationally representative large-scale data resources for studying inequalities in general cognitive ability. We observe a large parental social class effect, net of parental education and gender in both cohorts. The overall finding is that large social class divisions in cognitive ability can be observed when children are still at primary school, and similar patterns are observed in each cohort. Notably, pupils with fathers at the lower end of the class structure are at a distinct disadvantage. This is a disturbing finding and it is especially important because cognitive ability is known to influence individuals later in the lifecourse.

    Research areas

  • Social Class, cognitive ability, Longitudinal, Cohort Studies, social stratification, INEQUALITY, inequality, cohort studies, Social class, longitudinal

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