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Sociological Perspectives on Education

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Subject: A-level Sociology
Last updated: 02/12/2008
Tags: a-level sociology, advice (advanced)

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In the mid-nineteenth century the founding fathers of Sociology like Marx, Comte and Durkheim, sought to
achieve their political objectives by using scientific methods. They wanted to convince others about the validity or
desirability of their views and the most effective way to achieve that was to employ the tried and tested research
methods of the natural sciences. Whether they were critics of capitalism like Marx, or were supporters of it like
Comte and Durkheim, all were systems theorists. They offered meta-narratives which set out how the social
system worked. Yet these grand theories did not continue to multiply and later Sociologists have proved to be
much less ambitious, simply preferring to limit themselves to more manageable topics within the discipline like
education. As such, these Sociologists are known as middle-range theorists.
Whilst theres been an enduring interest in the subject, theories of education have come in and gone out of
fashion. Whether a theory/perspective was in vogue or not, owed much to the state of the economy and the
dominant political values of the time.
For example, Functionalism dominated Sociology in the 1950s due to the post-war boom. The education system
was largely viewed as beyond reproach. It was a multifunctional institution that socialised the younger
generation, gave them economically useful skills and it acted as a sifting and sorting device, differentiating
between the able and less able.
By the 1970s, structural tensions, inflation, economic stagnation and unemployment, meant that Marxism and
other critical theories like Feminism and anti-authoritarian Liberals became far more influential.
The education system was undemocratic, unequal and unfair. Marxists like Raymond Boudon argued that
positional theory determined educational success or failure. It was your position in the class structure that gave
you an advantage, or a disadvantage, in the competitive world of education. For Bourdieu, the working class
lacked what he referred to as cultural capital; without which they were doomed to failure. Cultural capital included
the valuable cultural experiences of foreign travel, museums, theatre and the possession of a sophisticated
register and middle class norms and values.
For Bowles and Gintis, the education system propagated a hidden curriculum where the working classes learnt to
know their place, to obey rules and were also socialised to accept that inequality was natural and inevitable.

Feminist theories of education focused on gendered learning materials, a gendered curriculum and discrimination
in the classroom. Liberals like Ivan Illich in his De-schooling Society argued that young people should not be
encumbered by rules and regulations because all discipline stifled their natural creativity. Practitioners should
take a laissez-faire approach to student management and students should only work when, and if they choose.
Additionally, prescriptive rules of grammar and punctuation should be ignored as what students have to say, is far
more important than how they say it. This approach was later referred to as trendy teaching methods in the UK
and the unfortunate product of this was a generation of largely illiterate, unemployable youngsters.
As the New Right became dominant on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s, education was viewed as
being too concerned with the accumulation of knowledge for its own sake. Not only was much of the output of
education unproductive in any immediately apparent sense, it was often far too critical of society. Education
should concern itself with making an economic contribution to society, focus on vocational training and
maintaining social control; all of which was designed to tackle the behaviour and skills deficit amongst working
class males.
Today, the Sociology of education remains interested in the classical theories developed by the founding fathers
and the seemingly endless reinterpretation of their groundbreaking work, yet there has been a noticeable change
in emphasis as researchers try to understand how post-modernity affects education. A post-modern world is an
uncertain one thats chaotic and lacks the optimism of the enlightenment. This makes it very difficult for those
charged with planning education policy. Sociologists no longer claim to be able to discover the truth in a risk
society, so they limit themselves to offering interpretations of what they see, rather than solutions. Government is
then left to make of it what they will and to try and formulate policy prescriptions that will equip our young people
for the world of work. Unfortunately, this has led to hyper-reform where qualifications and the regulatory
framework are in a constant state of flux. Students are unclear which of the new qualifications have real currency,
which qualifications will be discontinued and employers have been equally confused by the whole scenario,
especially where the new vocational diplomas are concerned.