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Sociology of Education

Sociology of Education

10 August, 2016

The sociology of education is the study of how public institutions and individual experiences affect education and its consequences. It is most concerned with the public schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education.


A systematic sociology of education began with Émile Durkheim’s work on moral education as a basis for organic solidarity and that by Max Weber, on the Chinese literati as an instrument of political control. It was after World War II, however, that the subject received renewed curiosity around the world: from technological functionalism in the US, egalitarian reform of opportunity in Europe, and human-capital theory in economics. These all implied that, with industrialization, the need for a technologically-skilled labor force undermines class distinctions and other descriptive systems of stratification, and that education promotes social mobility. However, statistical and field research across various societies showed a persistent link between an individual’s social class and attainment, and suggested that education could only achieve limited social mobility. Sociological studies presented how schooling designs reflected, rather than challenged, class stratification and racial and sexual discrimination. After the general collapse of functionalism from the late 1960s onwards, the idea of education as an unmitigated good was even more profoundly challenged. Neo-Marxists argued that school education simply produced a docile labour-force essential to late-capitalist class relations.

Theoretical perspectives

  • Structural functionalism
    Structural functionalists believe that society leans towards equilibrium and social order. They see society like a human body, in which institutions such as education are like vital organs that keep the society/body healthy and well. Social health means the same as social order, and is guaranteed when nearly everyone accepts the general moral values of their society. Hence structural functionalists believe the aim of key institutions, such as education, is to socialize children and teenagers. Socialization is the process by which the new generation learns the knowledge, attitudes and values that they will need as useful citizens. Although this aim is stated in the formal curriculum, it is mainly achieved through “the hidden curriculum”, an understated, but nonetheless powerful, indoctrination of the norms and values of the wider society. Students learn these values for their behavior at school is regulated until they gradually internalize and accept them. Education must, however perform another role. As various jobs become vacant, they must be filled with the appropriate people. Therefore the other purpose of education is to sort and rank individuals for placement in the labor market. Those with high attainment will be trained for the most important jobs and in reward, be given the highest incomes. Those who achieve the least, will be given the least demanding (intellectually at any rate, if not physically) jobs, and hence the least income.

According to Sennet and Cobb however, “to believe that ability alone decides who is rewarded is to be deceived”. Meighan agrees, stating that large numbers of capable students from working class backgrounds fail to achieve acceptable standards in school and therefore fail to achieve the status they deserve. Jacob believes this is because the middle class cultural experiences that are offered at school may be contrary to the experiences working-class children receive at home. In other words, working class children are not sufficiently prepared to cope at school. They are therefore “cooled out” from school with the least qualifications, hence they get the least desirable jobs, and so remain working class. Sargent confirms this cycle, arguing that schooling supports continuity, which in turn supports social order. Talcott Parsons believed that this process, whereby some students were identified and labeled educational disappointments, “was a necessary activity which one part of the social system, education, performed for the whole”. Yet the structural functionalist perspective keeps that this social order, this continuity, is what most people desire. The weakness of this perspective thus becomes evident. Why would the working class wish to stay working class? Such an inconsistency demonstrates that another perspective may be useful.

  • Education and social reproduction
    The perspective of conflict theory, contrary to the structural functionalist perspective, believes that society is full of competing social groups with different aspirations, different access to life chances and gain different social rewards. Relations in society, in this view, are mainly based on exploitation, oppression, domination and subordination.

Many teachers assume that students will have specific middle class experiences at home, and for some children this assumption isn’t necessarily true. Some children are expected to help their parents after school and carry considerable domestic accountabilities in their often single-parent home. The demands of this domestic labor often make it challenging for them to find time to do all their homework and thus affect their academic performance.

Where teachers have softened the formality of regular study and incorporated student’s preferred working methods into the curriculum, they noted that particular students displayed strengths they had not been aware of before. However few teachers turn away from the traditional curriculum, and the curriculum conveys what constitutes knowledge as determined by the state – and those in power. This knowledge isn’t very meaningful to many of the students, who see it as pointless. Wilson & Wyn state that the students realize there is little or no direct link between the subjects they are doing and their perceived future in the labor market.

Anti-school values showed by these children are often derived from their consciousness of their real interests. Sargent believes that for working class students, striving to succeed and absorbing the school’s middle class values, is accepting their inferior social position as much as if they were determined to fail. Fitzgerald states that “irrespective of their academic ability or desire to learn, students from poor families have relatively little chance of securing success”. On the other hand, for middle and especially upper-class children, upholding their superior position in society requires little effort. The federal government subsidizes ‘independent’ private schools enabling the rich to obtain ‘good education’ by paying for it. With this ‘good education’, rich children perform better, achieve higher and obtain greater rewards. In this way, the continuation of privilege and wealth for the elite is made possible.

Conflict theorists believe this social reproduction continues to occur because the whole education system is overlain with ideology provided by the dominant group. In effect, they perpetuate the myth that education is available to all to provide a means of achieving wealth and status. Anyone who fails to achieve this goal, according to the myth, has only themself to blame. Wright agrees, stating that “the effect of the myth is to…stop them from seeing that their personal troubles are part of major social issues”. The duplicity is so successful that many parents endure appalling jobs for many years, believing that this sacrifice will enable their children to have chances in life that they did not have themselves. These people who are poor and disadvantaged are victims of a societal confidence trick. They have been encouraged to believe that a major goal of schooling is to strengthen equality while, in reality, schools reflect society’s intention to maintain the previous unequal distribution of status and power.

This perspective has been criticized as deterministic, pessimistic and allowing no room for the agency of individuals to improve their situation.

It should be known however that it is a model, an aspect of reality which is an important part of the picture.

Structure and agency

Bourdieu and cultural capital.

  • This theory of social reproduction has been significantly theorized by Pierre Bourdieu. However Bourdieu as a social theorist has always been worried with the dichotomy between the objective and subjective, or to put it another way, between structure and agency. Bourdieu has therefore built his theoretical framework around the important concepts of habitus, field and cultural capital. These concepts are based on the idea that objective structures decide individuals’ chances, through the mechanism of the habitus, where individuals internalize these structures. However, the habitus is also formed by, for example, an individual’s position in various fields, their family and their everyday experiences. Therefore one’s class position does not state one’s life chances, although it does play an important part, alongside other factors.

Bourdieu used the idea of cultural capital to discover the differences in outcomes for students from different classes in the French educational system. He explored the tension between the conservative reproduction and the innovative production of knowledge and experience. He found that this tension is intensified by considerations of which particular cultural past and present is to be conserved and reproduced in schools. Bourdieu argues that it is the culture of the dominant groups, and therefore their cultural capital, which is embodied in schools, and that this leads to social reproduction.

Therefore Bourdieu’s viewpoint reveals how objective structures play an important role in determining individual achievement in school, but allows for the exercise of an individual’s agency to overcome these barriers, although this choice is not without its consequences.