sociology of education


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sociology of education

the application of sociological theories, perspectives and research methods to an analysis of educational processes and practices. It is characteristic of industrial societies that, compared with previous societies, education is provided by specialized institutions. It is the performance of these institutions that is the central object of study in the sociology of education.

Although the emergence of the sociology of education as a distinct field of enquiry is of fairly recent origin, it has its roots in the early development of sociology, especially the FUNCTIONALISM of DURKHEIM. For Durkheim (1922), the process of education was to be understood in terms of its contribution to the promotion and maintenance of the social order. A related viewpoint (e.g. MANNHEIM) was to regard education as a means of solving problems and removing social antagonisms.

Until the 1950s, the sociology of education remained strongly influenced by such perspectives, although the development of the discipline owed much to the role of sociology in teacher training, especially in the US, as well as to the tradition of’political arithmetic’ in the UK. The latter tradition led to a range of surveys and statistical studies exploring the social influences on educational attainment, and educational and occupational selection and SOCIAL MOBILITY (e.g. Floud, HALSEY and Martin, 1957). Although these studies revealed the persistence of class and gender inequalities in educational opportunity, the assumption remained that education could become a means of social transformation in the long run. In the UK, the introduction of COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOLS, programmes of COMPENSATORY EDUCATION and the expansion of HIGHER EDUCATION in the 1950s and subsequently, were intended to achieve this end, creating not only a more equal society, but also eliminating unnecessary waste of the nation's human talent.

During the 1960s, a breakdown of the functionalist hegemony in sociology and an increasing pessimism about reformist policies in education, especially in the US, led to the emergence of a sociology of education markedly different in tenor. Sources of inequality lying outside the school were seen as intractable and fundamental questions were raised about both the traditional sociology of education and the assumed relationship between education and social reform. One aspect of this new phase in the sociology of education was to direct attention to features of schooling such as classroom interaction and curriculum organization, work which derived from the application of standard interactionist approaches. Other work was more radical (e.g. Young's work on the curriculum, and Bowles and Gintis's Schooling in Capitalist America, 1976), suggesting that schools function above all as agencies which necessarily reproduce the social relations of capitalist production. Part of the inspiration behind analysis of this type was Marxist (e.g. drawing on the conceptions of GRAMSCI and ALTHUSSER). Other sociologists, however, combined the thinking of Marx, Durkheim and Weber to achieve much the same outcome, e.g. BOURDIEU's arguments about the dependence of education on CULTURAL CAPITAL.

It would be wrong to imagine that later perspectives in the sociology of education have entirely replaced earlier ones. Nor should it be assumed that all attempts to expand educational opportunity have been to no avail. For example, in the UK the percentage of men and women entering higher education is now approaching parity the overall proportion of schoolchildren entering higher education has substantially increased since the 1950s, and the number of entrants from working-class homes has also greatly increased. On the other hand, class differences in educational achievement remain striking and the role of educational systems in sustaining a class society equally apparent. See also BERNSTEIN, HIDDEN CURRICULUM, INTELLIGENCE, MERITOCRACY, CONTEST AND SPONSORED MOBILITY.