Dissertation Abstracts

Labouring to Learn: A Sociological Assessment of Educational Underachievement Amongst Tamil Youths in Singapore

Author: Lavanya Balachandran, a0020594@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: National University of Singapore, Singapore
Supervisor: A/P Narayanan Ganapathy
Year of completion: 2017
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Social capital , Race , Singapore , Educational Underachievement
Areas of Research: Education , Social Classes and Social Movements , Youth


In explaining academic achievement amongst ethnic minorities, scholarship has paid attention to the role of structure, culture and agency and how these intersect. While the significance of social relations rooted within particular social contexts has been acknowledged to be pertinent to mobility, social capital has not been explicitly explored as an explanatory framework for academic underachievement amongst ethnic minorities. Using qualitative methodology and drawing upon the concepts of ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ social capital, this thesis explores how social capital mediates the interactive effects of ‘race and class’ on educational performance amongst Singaporean Tamil youths. The biographical narratives of Singaporean Tamil boys and girls from the lower ability tracks in secondary schools suggest that the context of racialization in the colonial and post-colonial state limits their structural access to and activation of capital embedded in bridging ties and institutional forms of bonding networks, making mainstream resources that can otherwise be leveraged to achieve academic mobility, unavailable. In turning the youths towards investing and nurturing in the more viable co-ethnic family and peer networks, collective articulations of ‘racialized’ modes of resistance gain legitimacy as an adaptive response to the structural disadvantage Tamil students experience in school and wider society, on account of race, socioeconomic and academic location. This tangibly takes Tamil youths away from mainstream activities and learning processes in school even though such networks provide practical benefits of friendship and social support. Ethnic Tamil students from marginalized academic tracks ultimately get trapped in a vicious cycle of underachievement - educational and economic immobility - because these ‘racialized’ articulations of resistance end up being perceived by mainstream society as culturally deficient validating the state’s racialization project reproducing the process of blocked social capital that impeded academic mobility for these underachieving Tamil youths in the first place. Currently the lack of scholarship on the educational underachievement of Indians in Singapore warrants a study of the disadvantaged – the majority of whom are Singaporean Tamils – who remain invisible amidst a highly stratified ethnic community along educational, economic, linguistic and migratory lines. The particular documentation of the ethnic Tamil experience is also an important contribution to a scholarly understanding of social inequality in multicultural societies because it unpacks how the trajectories of marginalization are shaped by the broader socio-historical context of migration, assimilation and minority-majority relations in these societies; hence experiences of disadvantage are qualitatively different across ethnic minority groups.

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