Education is a social institution that sociologists are very interested in studying. This includes teaching formal knowledge such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, as well as teaching other things such as morals, values, and ethics. Education prepares young people for entry into society and is thus a form of socialization. Sociologists want to know how this form of socialization affects and is affected by other social structures, experiences, and outcomes.
Sociology of education is a field that focuses on two separate levels of analysis. At a macro-level, sociologists work to identify how various social forces, such as politics, economics, culture, etc., creates variation in schools. In other words, what effects do other social institutions have on the educational system? At a micro-level, sociologists look to identify how variation in school practices lead to differences in individual-level student outcomes. That is, when schools have different teaching methods or have different practices, how does that affect the individual students and what are the individual outcomes?
Example of Sociological Studies on Education
A classic study by sociologist James Coleman done in 1966, known as the “Coleman Report” looked at the performance of over 150,000 students and found that student background and socioeconomic status were much more important in determining educational outcomes than were differences in school resources, such as per pupil spending. He also found that socially disadvantaged black students benefited and did better in school when they were in racially mixed classrooms rather than black only classrooms. This ignited controversy that still continues today.
Major Sociological Theories of Education
Like any other topic in sociology, the three major theoretical perspectives (functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction theory) each have different views on education.
The functionalist perspective argues that education serves many important functions in society. First, it socializes children and prepares them for life in society. This is not only done by teaching “book knowledge,” but also teaching the society’s culture, including moral values, ethics, politics, religious beliefs, habits, and norms. Second, education provides occupational training, especially in industrialized societies such as the United States. Unlike in less complex societies or in the United States prior to 1900 when most jobs and training were passed on from father to son, most jobs in the United States today require at least a high school education, and many professions require a college or post-graduate degree. The third function that education serves, according to functionalist theorists, is social control, or the regulation of deviant behavior. By requiring young people to attend school, this keeps them off the streets and out of trouble.
The symbolic interaction view of education focuses on interactions during the schooling process and the outcomes of those interactions. For instance, interactions between students and teachers can create expectations on both parts. The teacher begins to expect certain behaviors from students, which in turn can actually create that very behavior. This is called the “teacher expectancy effect.” For example, if a White teacher expects a black student to perform below average on a math test when compared to White students, over time the teacher may act in ways that encourage the black students to get below average math scores.
Conflict theory looks at the disintegrative and disruptive aspects of education. These theorists argue that education is unequally distributed through society and is used to separate groups (based on class, gender, or race). Educational level is therefore a mechanism for producing and reproducing inequality in our society. Educational level, according to conflict theorists, can also be used as a tool for discrimination, such as when potential employers require certain educational credentials that may or may not be important for the job. It discriminates against minorities, working-class people, and women – those who are often less educated and least likely to have credentials because of discriminatory practices within the educational system.
Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Anderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.