Motivation and its Sociocultural Context

We have seen in several places in this chapter (e.g. regarding self-determination theory, self-efficacy and social goals) that socio-contextual factors can play a significant role in shaping motivation. This has indeed turned out to become a major theme in contemporary motivation research: although the field of motivational psychology was originally characterised by an individualistic perspective, whereby the sociocultural environment was considered through the individual’s eyes and was thus seen to play a relatively marginal role, this view has undergone a dramatic change over the past two decades. Theoretical accounts of motivation - and also of other related psychological constructs such as identity and self-esteem - have increasingly abandoned the tacit assumption of environmental generalisability and included contextual factors into the research paradigms. In fact, the sociocultural dimension of motivation has gained such an importance that the notion of “social motivation” was introduced in the 1990s to provide an umbrella term for related research. We shall begin the current discussion by describing the rise of social motivation, and then survey the main social factors impacting student motivation, from the influences of the peer group to the broader cultural context.

2.2.1 The Rise of “Social Motivation’’

Motivational psychology has traditionally focused on personal factors (e.g. needs, beliefs, desires, interests, goals) as the primary determinants of human behaviour. This emphasis does not mean, however, that social concerns and influences were completely ignored, as the historically dominant theories of motivation did recognise the importance of certain interpersonal relationships as determinants of human behaviour; yet, as Graham (1996) rightly pointed out, these social

Theories of Motivation in Psychology 29 concerns did not affect the core trajectory of motivation research, which had been dominated by the study of “intrapsychic processes and individual achievement strivings” (p. 349). This general trajectory underwent a profound change in the 1990s, well reflected by the publication of an influential paper by Weiner (1994) entitled “Integrating social and personal theories of achievement motivation”. This was followed by a continuous stream of publications related to social motivation, including two high-profile edited volumes involving sterling casts of contributors, Social Motivation: Understanding Children’s School Adjustment (Juvonen & Wentzel, 1996) and Student Motivation: The Culture and Context of Learning (Salili, Chiu & Hong, 2001 ). Thus, by the beginning of the new millennium, social motivation had passed its infancy and the topic became a permanent component of most relevant research agendas (for a review of the development of sociocultural awareness in the field, see Dôrnyei, 2020).

2.2.2 Peer Qroup Influence

Peer groups may exert a powerful influence on individual motivation, especially among young adolescent learners, since adolescence is a period when peer relations take on increasing significance over parental influence and relations, when students often experience transitions to new school environments and social networks, and when processes of identity and self-concept formation are shaped (Berndt & Keefe, 1995). Peer influence on student motivation is often portrayed negatively in terms of social comparison and the development of self-conscious emotions in performing in front of peers (Lewis &. Sullivan, 2007); or of underachievement and the “norm of mediocrity” in response to the prevailing peer group culture (Graham, 2001); or of more serious behavioural consequences such as disaffection, classroom countercultures and school dropout (Hymel et al., 1996). However, as Wigfield et al. (2019) note, there is plenty of research evidence to suggest that peers often gravitate to similar others and strengthen one another’s motivational orientations, and where these motivational orientations are learning or achievement-focused, the effects of such social influence can be very positive. For example, Wentzel et al. (2017) have found that “at the individual level, student’s perceptions of peer supports are likely to impact student effort and mastery goal orientations by way of internalized values and academic self-efficacy” (p. 42).


Peers are another important social influence on motivation. When children are socially supported and accepted by their peers, they have stronger motivation, have better achievement outcomes, and are more engaged in school.

Wigfield et al. (2019, P. 448)

The important role played by peers in shaping student motivation highlights the relevance of the vivid discipline of group dynamics. As Dôrnyei and Muir (2019) summarise, one particularly fruitful avenue of studying the context of classroom reality is to investigate the dynamics of learner groups. The most important group-level counterparts of individual-level motivation are group cohesiveness, group norms and group leadership styles. Because these factors play an important role in determining the behaviour of the learners within the group, they should be seen as valid motivational antecedents. In other words, as Dôrnyei and Muir conclude, “when we discuss the learning behaviour of groups of learners, motivational psychology and group dynamics converge” (p. 729). We shall return to this topic in Chapter 5 when we discuss practical strategies and approaches to promoting student engagement in language classrooms.

2.2.3 Classroom Qoal Structures

Evaluation practices and grouping structures are also likely to influence student motivation in terms of the kinds of learning goal they promote and the extent to which they emphasise normative evaluation (Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1999). While the common educational practice of tracking (or ability-grouping or streaming) children based on their academic abilities makes such normative evaluation obvious, within-class grouping structures can affect student motivation in subtler ways by providing cues that inform students about their capabilities (Schunk, Meece & Pintrich, 2014). Three types of classroom structure have usually been identified in this respect:

  • competitive (where the focus is on how students perform relative to one another);
  • individualistic (where the focus is on individual learning goals);
  • cooperative (where students work together to achieve a shared goal).

Research suggests that while high achievers may thrive in competitive classroom structures, the motivational consequences for low achievers may be detrimental, leading to poor self-esteem, disaffection or learned helplessness (Dweck, 1999; Peterson, Maier & Seligman, 1993). Individualistic structures, on the other hand, are more likely to shape motivation towards personal progress and mastery, and may also promote self-efficacy, while successful cooperative learning is likely to generate motivation and self-efficacy among all members of the group (see Concept 2.7).


A prominent aspect of group motivation concerns the unique motivational setup of cooperative learning, which is a generic name for a number of related methods of organising classroom instruction in order to achieve common learning goals via cooperation. In a cooperatively organised classroom, students work in small groups in which each member shares responsibility for the outcome and is equally rewarded (which can be contrasted to a “competitive” structure in which students work against each other and only the best ones are rewarded). In many ways, cooperative learning can be seen as a philosophy that maximises student collaboration, and investigations have almost invariably proved that this approach is superior to most traditional forms of instruction in terms of producing learning gains and student achievement. Cooperative learning has been shown to generate a powerful motivational system to energise learning (see Dornyei, 1997; Slavin, 1996), indicating that if a number of individuals form a social unit by joining in a group, under certain conditions the motivational level associated with this collection of people can significantly exceed the motivational level the individuals would have demonstrated if they had remained independent.

2.2.4 Schools

Schools as a whole may also play an important role in socialising student motivation, depending on the kinds of ethos they promote. In a pioneering article, Maehr and Midgley (1991) argued that schools vary in their general climate and policies, for example in terms of:

  • • school-wide stress on accomplishment;
  • • general expectations regarding student potential;
  • • school-level authority and management structures;
  • • the teachers’ general sense of efficacy;
  • • school-wide grouping and evaluation practices;
  • • promoting ability-tracking.

The significance of such school-level practices is obvious, and indeed, it has been a common observation that many students’ general disposition to learning is to a large extent determined when they enter the school gate, even before they reach the language classroom (Mercer &. Dornyei, 2020). Maehr and Midgley’s (1991) research was also instrumental in drawing attention to the fact that the culture of a school is an amalgam made up of several diverse components, such as the structures, policies, norms and physical spaces of the school, as well as informal and invisible dimensions of school life, such as beliefs and emotional climate. These create an overall ethos that pervades the whole school and influences the collective behaviour of staff. Arguably the most salient aspect of this school climate is how it relates to behaviour management. As Juvonen and Knifsend (2016) summarise, students are - unsurprisingly - more motivated to work hard in environments where they feel safe and respected, as opposed to contexts where they feel unsafe, for example because some form of bullying or discrimination is tolerated. More generally, the authors point out that if students lack a sense of belonging and do not identify with the school, this is likely to alienate them from academic work in general (see also Cemalcilar, 2010), especially if they have insufficient support outside the school to keep them academically motivated (to be discussed in the next section).

A powerful illustration of the significance of a whole-school culture has been presented by Mercer and Dôrnyei (2020) when they described the remarkable transformation of a British secondary school, Redhill Academy. Located in one of the educationally most disadvantaged regions of the UK, the school managed to reach excellence through transforming the school climate and ethos, thereby increasing student engagement. One of the main tools they used for this purpose involved a Pledge System, comprising ten commitments students had to make regarding participation in school life ( That these pledges were not merely lip-service was indicated by the fact that each student had their own individual Pledge Passport, the pledges were displayed on posters throughout the school and the students’ pledge achievements were regularly celebrated at school events. Through this system, students were actively brought on board and the quality of learning dramatically increased. What is particularly noteworthy of this initiative is that the ten pledges did not directly concern academic achievement as such, but rather aimed at strengthening the foundation of such achievement by promoting a climate of school-wide student engagement.

2.2.5 Parents and Family

We mentioned above that support outside the school can keep students academically motivated even if the school-based conditions are less-than-ideal. The primary source of such support comes from parents and family (we are using the term “parents” here broadly, to refer to any carer who looks after a child outside of school). Educational psychologists have long recognised that various family characteristics and practices are linked to school achievement, and one of the central mediators between family and school is generally thought to be motivation (for recent reviews, see Simpkins & Fredericks, 2015; Pomerantz, Cheung & Qin, 2019). There are various aspects of a learner’s home life that can affect their engagement in class: the attitudes they pick up at home towards learning, including achievement demands and pressures; the kinds of literacy practices that are present in home life; and the degree of academic support the learner receives (see Concept 2.8).



There is much evidence supporting the idea that parents play a significant role in either facilitating or undermining children’s motivation. ... Indeed, children’s relationships with their parents have been identified as key contexts for virtually all aspects of their psychological development.

Pomerantz, Cheung &. Qin (2019, p. 337)


  • • parents’ child-specific beliefs;
  • • perceptions of child’s abilities;
  • • expectations for child’s achievement;
  • • role-modelling behaviours;
  • • training of specific values;
  • • teaching strategies;
  • • encouragement of various activities;
  • • provisions of tools, toys, opportunities to learn various skills;
  • • causal attributions for child’s outcomes;
  • • career guidance.

An important aspect of the parents’ motivational influence concerns whether they are autonomy-supportive or controlling. As Simpkins and Fredericks summarise, autonomy-supportive parents allow children to explore their own environment and to take an active role in solving their own problems, all of which leads children to experience themselves as capable. This, in turn, positively impacts a variety of outcomes relevant to children’s success in school. Significantly, Raftery, Grolnick and Flamm’s (2012) review of the link between parental autonomy support and achievement motivation indicates that there is a growing body of research confirming the benefits of such support, and these researchers also highlight the importance of a firmly established “parental structure", which involves providing clear and consistent guidelines, expectations and rules for children. Homes with such a structure give children a clear sense of how their actions are connected to important learning outcomes, which in turn results in an increased sense of perceived control. Pomerantz et al. (2019) further underline the fact that because structure also includes providing children with ability-appropriate instructions, “it assists children in not only identifying societally valued standards but also developing the skills to achieve them” (p. 342). Finally, we should note that the nature of optimal parenting styles varies across ethnic groups and cultures, which takes us to the broadest dimension of the sociocultural context, culture, to be discussed next.

2.2.6 Culture

The wider influence of culture and society on individual motivation has been receiving increasing attention with the growth of cross-cultural psychology and the study of culturally specific motivational orientations, values and socialisation practices. As King and McInerney (2014) explain, there is no single definition of the notion of culture; it can refer to what has been called “material culture” (e.g., dress, tools, machines) and “subjective culture”, which refers to patterns of perceptions, values, beliefs and corresponding behaviours; in King and McInerney’s words, the subjective culture “pertains to a society’s characteristic way of perceiving and interacting with the social environment” (p. 176).

A key tenet in motivation studies adopting a cross-cultural perspective is the assumption that setting-specific cultural values mediate achievement cognition and behaviour. That is, sociocultural values can be conceived as normative beliefs about what is right or wrong, shared by most members of a given cultural or social group; for example, an oft-cited finding in this respect is that Chinese students, parents and teachers are more likely to attribute student performance outcomes to effort than ability, compared with their western counterparts, since Chinese Confucian culture places particular value on hard work and perseverance (Hong, 2001). However, an obvious risk of this kind of approach is that it may lead to cultural stereotyping or essentialisation, whereby all members of a particular cultural or social group are ascribed certain motivational tendencies. This risk is especially acute when such groups are defined in rather broad terms such as East Asians, or western versus eastern cultures, or individualist versus collectivist cultures. Moreover, in the current postmodern world of globalisation, migration and multiculturalism where people may belong to or move between multiple ethnic, social and cultural communities, cultural boundaries and identities are far from easy to define in a clear-cut sense (Pavlenko, 2002).

However, certain culture-specific trends tend to be too powerful to ignore, even if we accept that they involve a certain amount of stereotypical generalisation. A case in point is, for example, a study reported by King and McInerney (2014), in which Anglophone children were found to become more motivated in a problem-solving task when they were allowed to make personal choices, whereas with Asian children, motivation increased when trusted authority figures or peers made the choices for them. In this case, therefore, cultural factors overrode the power of the “need for autonomy”, which is a pillar of self-determination theory.

On the basis of this and similar examples, the authors conclude: “Culture plays an important role in students’ motivation in school but prominent motivation theories have relegated it to the sidelines” (p. 194)- In response to this observation, Liem and McInerney (2018) have recently edited an intriguing anthology containing summaries of mainstream motivation theories - Big Theories Revisited 2 - in which they invited renowned scholars to re-examine their theoretical and conceptual work on school motivation in the light of sociocultural influences, addressing several of the theories reviewed in the first part of this chapter (e.g. self-determination theory, achievement goal theory, expectancy-value theory and self-efficacy theory).

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