The aim of the established processes of public education arising at the end of the 19th century was to provide equal opportunity. As long as there is an equal distribution of ability among people born into different social classes, if opportunity is equalized then movement between social classes should result. And if, in addition, all individuals are equal in ability, then they should all end up receiving the same amount of resources. In practice, however, this expected result did not occur. The existing social classes were maintained, and it has been acknowledged that modern society does not in fact differ so greatly in regard to these hierarchical strata from the pre-modern societies criticized under this doctrine. It has also been acknowledged that the gap between different social classes still exists and has indeed expanded and solidified under the system of capitalism.
Approaches that focus on the environment explain this in terms of factors like the amount of resources that can be invested in education and the fact that in practice the opportunities given to individuals and the environments in which they are raised are not equal. They then assert that these disparities should be remedied. Approaches that focus on innateness, on the other hand, assert that differences in abilities and achieved social status do not depend on previously existing hierarchical structures, and that reforms of these structures are pointless or at least of limited value. They reject the driving force behind various social policies, and have become intertwined with movements attempting to suppress them. On this oppositional axis between emphasis on innate and environmental causes, the "political right" has taken up approaches based on innateness while "liberals" and the "political left" have favored approaches emphasizing environmental causes. If an individual's lot in life is determined by their social environment/circumstances, then these should be changed to give them greater opportunity. This is therefore connected to the improvement of society. The subject responsible for these conditions, or at least the subject that enforces them, is society and its structures. Depending on what kinds of changes in these structures are seen as being needed, various approaches from the moderate (which hold, for example, that changes in the public education system alone would suffice) to the revolutionary (which hold that the fundamental system of distribution of resources must be changed) are advocated. If the determinative causes are innate, such changes in social structures will have little or no effect, and there is no role here for sociologists whose work involves identifying social factors. It can therefore be said that sociologists, by the nature of their occupation, also tend to support an emphasis on environmental causes.
People's understanding of this issue will no doubt differ depending on the kind of normative attitude on which it is based and whether or not it is thought of as something connected to social practices. For some, ableism has been seen as something to be actively supported. The "caused by the self -> owned by the self" schema was actively accepted, but there was also recognition of the fact that there are "clearly" some things that cannot be attributed to the individual. This was understood as something that was clearly the case for anyone in society. This fact raised doubts about the establishment of this schema itself and shook people's faith in the system. Something therefore had to be done, and attempts were made to more effectively equalize opportunity. As the phrase "head start" suggests, this approach involved a two-step process in which initially disparate starting points were adjusted and success or failure was then left up to individuals themselves.
For others, the goal was not seen as the maintenance of ableist systems but rather the elimination of disparity and progress towards greater equality. If disparity was the result of social conditions, then those conditions should be changed. They also presumably aimed to improve standards of living by adjusting social structures to increase production by society as a whole, and to justify the kinds of governmental intervention needed to achieve these ends.
Following the Second World War and the world's experience of Nazism, assertions that ability was determined by inherited factors, or at least by factors that differed between races, were not generally accepted. But assertions that differences were caused by genetic factors did not disappear. These assertions were put forward in milder forms and then debated. In the 1970s there was a "sociobiology debate" ◆1. Research seeking to explain crime through genetic factors, while criticized, was nonetheless carried out◆2.
One focal point in this debate was the field of education. In America, for example, economic disparity between different races did not decrease. The reasons for this were thought perhaps to lie in the social environment in which children lived prior to attending school. In the 1960s, a program known as "project head-start" was introduced in an effort to effectively ensure that all children enjoyed equal social opportunity. This program, however, did not succeed. As a result there were both assertions◆3 that (some of) the causes of this disparity were genetic in nature and criticism of these assertions. This argument became known as the "I.Q. debate" ◆4.
There were also other approaches that, while still connected to these kinds of policies and debates, attempted to explain the social factors that maintained economic disparity and solidified class distinctions in a different manner. These sorts of disparities did not only occur in America or between people of different races, and during the same period attempts to explain them also flourished in France and Britain.