How School Choice Leads to Segregation: An Analysis of Structural and Symbolic Boundaries at Play

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapter


In this chapter we analyze the pathways through which school choice leads to segregation in the multicultural setting of Malmö (Sweden), and in relation to an elite-oriented program: the natural science program. As a result of school choice reforms this program has grown rapidly in recent years, as has the number of students with an immigrant background attending it. In this chapter we examine whether the latter is to be interpreted as a sign of increased integration, or whether segregation persists within the program; that is, whether these high-performing students who have chosen the same elite program still end up in different schools, depending on their social and ethnic background. Thereafter we examine the extent to which the segregation (that is indeed found) can be explained by students’ “free” choices (self-selection), and the extent to which these choices are restricted by previous school performance. We use the concepts of structural and symbolic boundaries and examine the importance of each, using a combination of register and survey data. We find that roughly half of the segregation found can be attributed to structural boundaries (grades) and the other half to symbolic boundaries. Further examining the latter, we find that the most attractive schools (“high threshold schools”) sustain a symbolic boundary based on Swedishness/whiteness and intertwined with a performance culture, which makes these schools less accessible to students with a migrant background. We find however that these symbolic boundaries surrounding the less attractive (“low threshold”) schools seem more permeable: high-achieving students with a Swedish background quite often choose a low threshold school because it offers a specific program orientation. It thus seems that the symbolic boundaries based on ethnicity and school performance are not necessarily more persuasive than that they, at least in some instances, can be surpassed by subject interest. In the light of these results, the recent political decision to substantially restrict Swedish upper secondary schools’ opportunities to offer specific subject orientation within a program, seems unfortunate since this is likely to reinforce rather than counteract the boundaries between high- and low-threshold schools.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Sociology (excluding Social Work, Social Psychology and Social Anthropology)
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSecondary Education: Perspectives, Global Issues and Challenges
EditorsEdmund Harvey
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
ISBN (Print)9781634850353
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Publication categoryResearch