The Impact of Education on Individual Autonomy and Perception of Influence

Education has often been accredited with the introduction of westernised notions and practice leading to marked shifts in attitudes, the norm of achievement replacing the weight of ascription, the drive toward individual independence eroding the value of group solidarities and obligation. In this context the relationship between educational levels and a sense of individual influence and perceived control over one's own life will be examined.

It is generally assumed that the well educated feel a greater sense of personal control over their lives and of influence over the forces that shape their future. Is this also the case in Palestinian society? Does education provide for a sense of individual autonomy?

The survey posed various questions concerning how much influence the individual felt he or she had within different realms of daily life - the family, the neighbourhood, the wider community and so forth. Answer categories ranged from decisive influence to none whatsoever. The results are indicative of some of the critical organising principles shaping Palestinian society.

Table 5.9 shows, not unexpectedly, that the degree of influence within the family felt by men across all educational levels is far in excess of that felt by women regardless of education. They also indicate a certain correlation between influence and education, but with the exception of the most educated men and women, the correlation is slightly negative.

Table 5.9 Degree of perceived influence within family by education of respondent
DecisiveConsiderableOccasionalNot at all
Men's responses
13 or more4734162
Total men4432214
Women's responses
13 or more273232 9
Total women15333914

With reference to influence within the wider community, again the differential between men and women is clear (table 5.10). But once outside the domestic sphere, education does seem to give men a slightly increasing sense of authority, as measured by responses to "not at all". Education tends to have no similar empowering impact upon women. This pattern is repeated on all levels outside the domestic sphere.

Table 5.10 Degree of perceived influence within neighbourhood by education of respondent
DecisiveConsiderableOccasionalNot at all
Men's responses
13 or more3235321
Women's responses
13 or more2182357

The seemingly weak correlation between education and perceived influence, especially inside the domestic realm, is probably related to the hierarchical manner in which authority is organised. Two separate dimensions in particular are germane; gender and age or, more precisely, household position. Authority resides mainly with the household head.

A sense of empowerment among men climbs steeply with age, with a sharp drop in the feeling of influence among the highest age group (table 5.11). The pattern is similar for women although the changes are not so marked and is repeated with reference to influence within the wider community. Men have more influence than women, the middle aged more than the very old or the young. In short, in Palestinian society education seems so far to have done little to erode ascribed status as the prime determinant of authority.

Table 5.11 Degree of perceived influence within family by age of respondent
DecisiveConsiderableOccasionalNot at all
Men's responses
60 or more593192
Total men4432214
Women's responses
60 or more20332919
Total women15333914

Although education appears not to affect the distribution of authority in Palestinian society, does it nonetheless provide the individual with a sense of release from the forces of family ascription and fate? Do the well educated more often than the poorly educated feel that life is more determined by individual endeavour than by family background and the vagaries of unrevealed destiny? The survey asked several questions in order to explore this dimension. The one shown in table 5.12 was one of them.

Table 5.12 What one achieves in life is mainly dependent on his or her family's social background
Men's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
10-126830 2
13 or more5545 
Total men62353
Women's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
13 or more5941
Total women62334

For men and women there seems to be a slight decline in the belief in the importance of family background with increasing educational attainment. However, strikingly, the most educated Palestinian men and women seem to place much more emphasis on family background as a determinant of achievement suggesting that they view family background as very relevant to the position they have acquired.

However, the significance of family can also be understood in a manner that relates to family as a source of protection and safety rather than as a basis for ascribed status. The following question attempted to explore this dimension (table 5.13).

Men's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
13 or more1486 
Total men10882
Women's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
13 or more8902
Total women9883

The differences between these tables is revealing. In relation to individual achievement, Palestinians seem to stress the critical importance of the solidity of kinship bonds far more than the kinship unit as a transmitter of social status to its members. While family solidarity is viewed as a key contributor to success, the tables suggest that success in life is claimed by Palestinians to be more achieved than ascribed regardless of the actual facts of the matter.

However, certain beliefs concerning the forces that shape individual futures are clearly influenced by education. Another question involved the power of destiny (table 5.14).

Table 5.14 Man's destiny is written in advance
Men's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
10-12 71272
13 or more77212
Total men65323
Women's responses by educational level
DisagreeAgreeDon't know
13 or more9460
Total women80173

In the Arabic questionnaire this question was phrased slightly differently from the well-known Arabic proverb in order to ensure that respondents would reflect on the substance of this often repeated adage. Among men belief in the power of fate decreases rapidly with increased education. Nonetheless, a full 20% of the most educated men still seem to retain a fatalistic approach to life's challenges.

The picture that emerges from women's responses is somewhat different. Because of the dependent status of most women in Palestinian society and their relative domestic confinement, the picture is also somewhat surprising.

Women's belief in the power of destiny is not particularly affected by educational levels, except among the most educated where it declines abruptly. However, in comparison to men, women generally seem to find the power of fate notably less compelling.


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