Sociology of Education Research Paper Starter

Sociology of Education

This article presents an overview of the sociology of education. Unlike many academic disciplines, the sociology of education is a relatively new field of study. Despite its short history, however, it is a rich and diverse field. Educational sociologists study a variety of topics, using a variety of theoretical approaches and methodologies. Unlike educational psychologists who study the relationship between learning and an individual student's mental processes (e.g. memory, attention, and perception), educational sociologists are interested in the relationship between learning and variables outside the individual's control - such as family background, race, access to resources, and social class. They also study education as a social institution, and its relationship to other institutions and society in general. The following will highlight some of the theoretical, methodological, and topical contributions of the field.

Keywords Conflict Theory; Durkheim, Emile; Interaction Theory; Positivism; Postmodernism; Sociology; Structural-Functionalism; Qualitative Methodologies


Unlike many academic disciplines, the sociology of education is a relatively new field of study. Although it is an outgrowth of sociology, whose origins date to the turn of the 20th century, sociologists didn't begin systematically studying educational institutions until the 1950s. Prior to that time, sociological studies in education were few in number, were largely based on anecdotal evidence and value judgments, and avoided the more controversial aspects of teaching and learning (Ballantine, 1997; Boocock, 1985).

In general, sociology is the study of people in groups, or more specifically, the study of human societies and social interaction. Sociologists sometimes describe their field as the study of social structures and institutions, and the processes that bring the structures and institutions alive (Ballantine, 1997). Education and schools are but one institution of society; others include family, religion, politics, economics, and health. The sociology of education should also be distinguished from the psychology of education, which focuses on the mental processes - such as memory, perception, and cognitive stages of development - that affect learning. Whereas psychologists study achievement in relation to the individual, sociologists study achievement in relation to the larger social environment.

Even though the sociology of education emerged more recently than some academic disciplines, it has grown exponentially in the last several decades. As a field, the diversity of theoretical perspectives, levels of analyses, and questions asked make it impossible to define singularly. As one sociologist explains, "any attempt to encompass or sum up the sociology of education within a single framework is fraught with difficulties. Indeed, there is no single, unified or stable discipline or intellectual project to which we can refer" (Ball, 2004, p. 1). Nevertheless, the following will attempt to summarize the discipline by outlining its theoretical and methodological history, and by taking a brief look at some of its core topics of study.

Applications: Theoretical

Structural - Functionalism

As a theoretical perspective, structural-functionalism is known by many different names which include functionalism, consensus theory, and equilibrium theory (Ballantine, 1997). Functionalists approach the sociology of education from a macro level, arguing that society and its institutions are made up of interdependent parts, all of which function together to create a whole. They often use the body as a metaphor, suggesting that schools contribute to the healthy functioning of society in much the same way as the heart, for example, contributes to the healthy functioning of the body.

Emile Durkheim, a professor of pedagogy in early 20th century France, was not only one of the earliest proponents of functionalism, he is also considered the "father of sociology," and one of the first to study education from a sociological perspective. Durkheim studied many aspects of society - including but not limited to religion, crime, and suicide - but his contributions to the sociology of teaching and learning are documented in his works Moral Education, The Evolution of Educational Thought, and Education and Sociology.

One of the questions Durkheim spent much of his lifetime studying was the way in which societies maintain and reproduce themselves. As a functionalist, he believed schools served a critical role in perpetuating a society. He wrote, "Education is the influence exercised by adult generations on those that are not yet ready for social life. Its object is to arouse and to develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual and moral states which are demanded of him by…the political society" (as quoted in Ballantine, 1997, p. 7). He also recognized that schools would differ across time and place, in relation to the larger society in which they were embedded.

Critics of Durkheim and of functionalists more generally, argue that functionalism fails to take into account conflict and instability. It may explain how some societies maintain the status quo, but it doesn't adequately represent reality to the extent that groups of people often have different agendas and goals, and subscribe to different ideologies. Ballantine (1997) suggests "that the dominant theoretical approach of structural-functionalism has not been capable of moving the field ahead because of its status quo orientation in a society faced with constant change" (p. 8).

Michael Apple (2013), on the other hand, wrote that “one of the things that sets [educational sociologist] Stephen Ball apart from many others is his insistence that both structural and poststructural theories and analyses are necessary for ‘bearing witness’ and for an adequate critical understanding of educational realities” (Apple, 2013). Apple then demonstrates how Ball “creatively employs both sets of traditions.”

Conflict Theory

As its name suggests, conflict theory assumes a much less stable view of society than structural-functionalism. Based largely on the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber, conflict theorists suggest that a society is largely defined by two groups - those who have a larger share of the resources, often referred to as 'the haves,' and those who have few resources, often referred to as the 'have nots.' Societies are generally unstable because the 'have nots' compete with the 'haves' to gain more resources; change is inevitable and happens quickly.

One of the predominant issues studied by present-day conflict theorists is class structure, and the role education plays in its perpetuation. Schools are often thought to be vehicles for upward social mobility, but according to conflict theorists, "education in fact serves to reproduce inequalities based on power, income, and social status" (Ballantine, 1997, p. 64). Bowles and Gintis (1976), and more recently Apple (1993) and Giroux (1994), suggest that capitalists control access to educational resources, thereby reproducing existing class structures. But conflict theorists recognize the possibility of change, and the individual's ability to fight the system. Willis' (1979) classic study of working-class boys in England was one of the first to document the ways in which students resist the dominant power structure.

Interaction Theories

While stucturalists and conflict theorists understand society and education very differently, both have been criticized for ignoring what happens in schools on a micro-level - in terms of the person-to-person interactions between students and teachers, for example, and in terms of what (content) is taught and how (method) it is taught. As a result, interaction theorists have adopted a more social-psychological approach to education, studying individuals in interaction with one another, recognizing that they bring shared norms to the interaction, as well as individual differences based on social class, race, gender, and experience.

Some of the questions that interactionists have introduced to the field include the impact of teacher expectations on student achievement, the relationship of socio-economic status to achievement, and the way in which a student's understanding and experience of education is a function of her cultural and ethnic background.

Labeling Theory - the idea that labels can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, as when a teacher calls a student dumb and he acts in such a way as to confirm the label - and Exchange Theory - the notion that there are rewards and costs in every interaction - are two offshoots of interaction theories (Ballantine, 1997).

Standpoint Theories

Before discussing the theoretical approach of what are sometimes called 'standpoint theories' (Ball, 2004), it is important to make a note about methodology. Although methodology and theory are not necessarily determined by one another, Ball (2004) shows how shifts in the way education is studied (method) can lead to shifts in theory and content as well. While positivism - the notion that the social sciences can be studied in much the same way as the natural sciences, using empirical, objectivity-seeking, quantitative analysis - brought legitimacy to the developing field of sociology of education in the 1950s, it was the rejection of positivism in the 1970s and 80s that opened to the door to...

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