Sociology of education

The sociology of education is the study of how public institutions and individual experiences affects education and its outcome. It is most concerned with the public schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education.Gordon Marshall (ed) "A Dictionary of Sociology" (Article: Sociology of Education), Oxford University Press, 1998]

Education has always been seen as a fundamentally optimistic human endeavour characterised by aspirations for progress and betterment.Schofield, K. (1999). [ "The Purposes of Education, Queensland State Education: 2010"] Accessed 2002, Oct 28.] It is understood by many to be a means of overcoming handicaps, achieving greater equality and acquiring wealth and status. Sargent, M. (1994) "The New Sociology for Australians" (3rd Ed), Longman Chesire, Melbourne] Education is perceived as a place where children can develop according to their unique needs and potential. Ideally, it is also perceived as one of the best means of achieving greater social equality. The purpose of education must be to develop every individual to their full potential and give them a chance to achieve as much in life as their natural abilities allow. This promising vision, however, does not unfold into reality. The reality, according to many sociologists, is that education works towards a larger goal than that of the individual and its purpose is to maintain social stability, through the social reproduction of inequality. What the goal of this stability is differs depending on which sociological perspective one uses to approach the issue.


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 the Second World War, however, that the subject received renewed interest 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 labour force undermines class distinctions and other ascriptive systems of stratification, and that education promotes social mobility. However, statistical and field research across numerous societies showed a persistent link between an individual's social class and achievement, and suggested that education could only achieve limited social mobility . Sociological studies showed how schooling patterns 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

The sociology of education contains a number of theories. The work of each theory is presented below.

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 important organs that keep the society/body healthy and wellBessant, J. and Watts, R. (2002) "Sociology Australia" (2nd ed), Allen & Unwin, Sydney] . 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 socialise children and teenagers. Socialisation is the process by which the new generation learns the knowledge, attitudes and values that they will need as productive citizens. Although this aim is stated in the formal curriculum [NSW Board of Studies, "K-6 HSIE Syllabus (NSW Australia)" [] ] , it is mainly achieved through "the hidden curriculum"Harper, G. (1997) “Society, culture, socialisation and the individual” in Stafford, C. and Furze, B. (eds) "Society and Change" (2nd ed), Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne] , a subtler, but nonetheless powerful, indoctrination of the norms and values of the wider society. Students learn these values because their behaviour at school is regulated [Durkheim in ] until they gradually internalise and accept them. Education must, however perform another function. 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 labour market [Munro, 1997] . Those with high achievement 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 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 satisfactory standards in school and therefore fail to obtain the status they deserveMeighan, R. & Siraj-Blatchford, I. (1997) "A Sociology of Educating" (3rd Ed), Cassell, London] . Jacob believes this is because the middle class cultural experiences that are provided at school may be contrary to the experiences working-class children receive at home Jacob, A. (2001) "Research links poverty and literacy", ABC Radio Transcript [] ] . In other words, working class children are not adequately prepared to cope at school. They are therefore “cooled out”Foster, L. E. (1987) "Australian Education: A Sociological Perspective"(2nd Ed), Prentice Hall, Sydney] 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 labelled educational failures, “was a necessary activity which one part of the social system, education, performed for the whole”. Yet the structural functionalist perspective maintains 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 vying social groups with different aspirations, different access to life chances and gain different social rewards Furze, B. and Healy, P. (1997) “Understanding society and change” in Stafford, C. and Furze, B. (eds) "Society and Change" (2nd Ed), Macmillan Education Australia, Melbourne ] . Relations in society, in this view, are mainly based on exploitation, oppression, domination and subordination. Some conflict theorists believe education is controlled by the state which is controlled by the powerful, and its purpose is to reproduce existing inequalities, as well as legitimise ‘acceptable’ ideas which actually work to reinforce the privileged positions of the dominant group. Connell and White state that the education system is as much an arbiter of social privilege as a transmitter of knowledge. Connell, R. W. and White, V., (1989) ‘Child poverty and educational action’ in Edgar, D., Keane, D. & McDonald, P. (eds), "Child Poverty", Allen & Unwin, Sydney]

Education achieves its purpose by maintaining the status quo, where lower-class children become lower class adults, and middle and upper class children become middle and upper-class adults. This cycle occurs because the dominant group has, over time, closely aligned education with middle class values and aims, thus alienating people of other classes. Many teachers assume that students will have particular 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 responsibilities in their often single-parent home.Wilson, B. and Wyn, J. (1987) "Shaping Futures: Youth Action for Livelihood", Allen & Unwin, Hong Kong] The demands of this domestic labour often make it difficult for them to find time to do all their homework and thus affects their academic performance.

Where teachers have softened the formality of regular study and integrated student’s preferred working methods into the curriculum, they noted that particular students displayed strengths they had not been aware of before. However few teacher deviate from the traditional curriculum, and the curriculum conveys what constitutes knowledge as determined by the state - and those in power [Young in ] . This knowledge isn’t very meaningful to many of the students, who see it as pointless. Wilson & Wyn state that the students realise there is little or no direct link between the subjects they are doing and their perceived future in the labour market. Anti-school values displayed 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”.Henry, M., Knight, J., Lingard, R. and Taylor, S. (1988) "Understanding Schooling: An Introductory Sociology of Australian Education", Routledge, Sydney] On the other hand, for middle and especially upper-class children, maintaining their superior position in society requires little effort. The federal government subsidises ‘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 opportunities 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 [Fitzgerald, cited in ] .

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

Structure and Agency

Bourdieu and Cultural Capital

This theory of social reproduction has been significantly theorised by Pierre Bourdieu. However Bourdieu as a social theorist has always been concerned 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 determine individuals' chances, through the mechanism of the habitus, where individuals internalise 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 determine one's life chances, although it does play an important part, alongside other factors.

Bourdieu used the idea of cultural capital to explore 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.Harker, R., (1990) “Education and Cultural Capital” in Harker, R., Mahar, C., & Wilkes, C., (eds) (1990) "An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory", Macmillan Press, London] 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.

The cultural capital of the dominant group, in the form of practices and relation to culture, is assumed by the school to be the natural and only proper type of cultural capital and is therefore legitimated. It demands “uniformly of all its students that they should have what it does not give” [Bourdieu Swartz, D., “Pierre Bourdieu: The Cultural Transmission of Social Inequality” in Robbins, D., (2000) "Pierre Bourdieu Volume II", Sage Publications, London, pp.207-217] ] . This legitimate cultural capital allows students who possess it to gain educational capital in the form of qualifications. Those lower-class students are therefore disadvantaged. To gain qualifications they must acquire legitimate cultural capital, by exchanging their own (usually working-class) cultural capital. [Harker, R., (1984) “On Reproduction, Habitus and Education” in Robbins, D., (2000) "Pierre Bourdieu Volume II", Sage Publications, London, pp.164-176] This exchange is not a straight forward one, due to the class ethos of the lower-class students. Class ethos is described as the particular dispositions towards, and subjective expectations of, school and culture. It is in part determined by the objective chances of that class.Gorder, K., (1980) “Understanding School Knowledge: a critical appraisal of Basil Bernstein and Pierre Bourdieu” in Robbins, D., (2000) "Pierre Bourdieu Volume II", Sage Publications, London, pp.218-233] This means that not only do children find success harder in school due to the fact that they must learn a new way of ‘being’, or relating to the world, and especially, a new way of relating to and using language, but they must also act against their instincts and expectations. The subjective expectations influenced by the objective structures found in the school, perpetuate social reproduction by encouraging less-privileged students to eliminate themselves from the system, so that fewer and fewer are to be found as one journeys through the levels of the system. The process of social reproduction is neither perfect nor complete, but still, only a small number of less-privileged students achieve success. For the majority of these students who do succeed at school, they have had to internalise the values of the dominant classes and use them as their own, to the detriment of their original habitus and cultural values.

Therefore Bourdieu's perspective 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 penalties.

Educational sociologists Around the World


* Basil Bernstein
* Pierre Bourdieu


* James S. Coleman
* Michael Apple
* Charles Bidwell
* Anthony Bryk
* Robert Dreeben
* Henry Giroux
* Stephen Raudenbush
* James Rosenbaum
* Barbara Schneider
* Barbra Tye


* Sereyvathnak Tep

"Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China"

* Chan Kit Wah
* Cheng Kai Ming(程介明)
* Cheung Kwok Wah(张国华)
* Choi Po King
* Chan K.K., David
* Greg P. Fairbrother
* Koo Ching Hua, Anita
* Mok Ka Ho, Joshua
* Gerard A. Postiglione (白杰瑞)
* Tang Hei Hang, Hayes (鄧希恆)

"India"धोती तुम लोगो का काम नही हे ।
* Krishna Kumar
* Avijith Pathak
* Meenakshi Thapan
* Suresh Shukla
* Anil Sadgopal

* Akira Arimoto
* Ikuo Amano
* Morikazu Ushiogi
* Takehiko Kariya
* Teruyuki Hirota
* Hidenori Fujita
* Yuki Honda


* Raewyn Connell, University of Sydney
* Karl Maton, University of Sydney []
* Bill Tyler
* Parlo Singh, Griffith University

ee also

*Educational psychology
*Educational research
*Education policy


Further reading

*Block, A.A., (1997) "I’m only bleeding, Education as the Practice of Violence Against Children", Peter Lang, New York
* Bourdieu, P., (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
* Bourdieu, P., (1984) Distinction, a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
* [ Bourdieu, P., (1986) “The Forms of Capital”]
* Bourdieu, P., (1990) Reproduction: In Education, Society and Culture, Sage Publications, London
* Bourdieu, P., (1996) The State Nobility, Polity Press, Cambridge
* Gabbard, D and Saltman, Ken (eds) (2003) "Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schooling"
* Grenfell, M. (ed) (2008) Pierre Bourdieu: Key concepts, London, Acumen Press.
* Harker, R., Mahar, C., & Wilkes, C., (eds) (1990) "An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory", Macmillan Press, London
* Paulo Freire, (2000) "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (3rd Ed), Continuum Press, New York
* Schofield, K. (1999) “The Purposes of Education”, in "Queensland State Education: 2010 (Conference Papers)"
* Spring, J., (2000) "Deculturalization and the struggle for Equality: A brief history of the education of dominant cultures in the U.S." McGraw Hill

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • sociology of education — education, sociology of …   Dictionary of sociology

  • education, sociology of — Education is a philosophical as well as a sociological concept, denoting ideologies, curricula, and pedagogical techniques of the inculcation and management of knowledge and the social reproduction of personalities and cultures. In practice, the… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Education in Hong Kong — has a similar system to that of the United Kingdom, in particular the English education system of Hong Kong was modernized by the British in 1861. The system can be described as extremely competitive by global standards.HistoryPrior to 1841, the… …   Wikipedia

  • Sociology — For the journal, see Sociology (journal). Sociology …   Wikipedia

  • Education — Educate redirects here. For the journal published by the Institute of Education, see Educate . For the stained glass window at Yale University, see Education (Chittenden Memorial Window). Children in a kindergarten classroom in France …   Wikipedia

  • EDUCATION — The Jewish people has an educational tradition as old as history (see Education, Jewish ). From the very beginning of their identification as a distinct entity, Jews have contributed not only to the advancement of their own education, but also to …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • SOCIOLOGY — as a field of intellectual endeavor is much older than sociology as an academic discipline. Modern sociology can be traced to the Scottish moralists such as Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Adam Smith, and possibly to Thomas Hobbes. The word sociology… …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • Sociology of sport — Sociology of sport, alternately referred to as sports sociology , is an area of sociology that focuses on sport as a social phenomenon and on the social and cultural structures, patterns, and organizations or groups engaged in sport. There are… …   Wikipedia

  • Sociology — • The claims of sociology to a place in the hierarchy of sciences are subjected to varied controversy. It has been held that there is no distinct problem for a science of sociology, no feature of human society not already provided for in the… …   Catholic encyclopedia

  • sociology —    Sociology as a scholarly discipline developed late in Spain, as elsewhere. The foundations were laid by the work of the Instituto de Estudios Políticos (Political Studies Institute), where, from 1948, figures like Javier Conde, Juan José Linz… …   Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.