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The Sociology of Education: Theoretical Perspectives

As with other social institutions, sociological theory provides perspectives that

illuminate public concerns about education. Questions about the purposes of education,
how education is organized, and who education serves are addressed in different ways by
the major theoretical perspectives in sociology.

Functionalist Theory

Functionalist theory in sociology argues that education accomplishes the following

consequences, or functions, for a society. First is socialization. Socialization takes place
in the family, but the family is not the sole location of socialization. Schools also have a
socializing influence through passing on book knowledge in the form of information and
skills. Schools also pass on cultural heritage and history, including values, beliefs,
habits, and normsin short, culture. Some of this is explicit in the schools, such as learning
a language or the music and art of ones culture. Learning culture can also be implicitsuch
as guiding students through norms around punctuality, discipline, and manners.

Occupational training is another function of education, especially in an industrialized

society. In less technologically based societies, jobs and training may be passed from
parent to child. A significant number of occupations and professions today are still passed on
from parents to offspring, particularly among the upper classes (such as a father passing on
a law practice to his son) or among certain highly skilled occupations (plumbers and
electricians). In todays highly technological society, though, higher levels of education are
increasingly necessary to secure a job with a livable wage.

Social control, or the regulation of deviant behavior, is also a function of education,

although a less obvious one. Such indirect, subtle consequences emerging from the
activities of institutions are called latent functions of the institution. Increased urbanization
and immigration beginning in the late nineteenth century were accompanied by rises in
crime, overcrowding, homelessness, and other urban ills. One perceived benefit of
compulsory education (that is, one latent function) was that it kept young people off the
streets and out of trouble. There is a hidden curriculum in schoolsa latent function of
education; that is, schools not only function to give skills and training, but they also teach
students norms, identities, and other forms of social learning that are not part of the formal

Social Conflict Theory

In contrast to functionalist theory, which emphasizes how education unifies and

stabilizes society, conflict theory emphasizes the power and inequality that are part of
education as a social institution. Inequality in education occurs along numerous lines,
with class, race, and gender among the most significant.

The higher ones social class, the more likely one will have higher educational attainment.
Racial differences in education have also produced what is called the achievement gap
with volumes of research and heated public debate about the causes and
consequences of this gap. Women now also outpace men in completing college (DiPrete
and Buchmann 2014), although a gender gap persists is in science, technology, engineering,
and mathematic majors, or STEM disciplines. Men still outnumber women in these fields,
fields that are widely believed to be important for global competition and employment.
These facts support the argument of conflict theorists that educational institutions are a
site for producing and reproducing inequality in our society.

Educational and behavioral expectations are reinforced in schools, from preschool through
college and beyond.

Education is designed to produce workers for the continued growth of a capitalist economy.
Those people in society, given the opportunity for educational advancement, are the same
ones awarded opportunities within the economic structure of the United States. Schools are
also systems of powernot just on the level of teacherstudent relationships, but also
as a social system. School boards, principals, parents, teachers, and unions all vie for
power and control in a system that ties them togethernot just in stability and cooperation
as functionalist theory presumes, but also in conflict and through power dynamics, the
insight of conflict theory.

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic interaction theory focuses on how people interpret social interactionin other
words, some of the subjective dimensions of education and schooling. This is well
illustrated in what has come to be known as the teacher expectancy effect the
effect of teacher expectations on a students actual performance. When students and
teachers interact, certain expectations arise on the part of both. The teacher may expect or
anticipate certain behaviors, good or bad, from students. Through the operation of
the teacher expectancy effect, these expectations can actually create the very behavior
in question. Thus fulfilled, the behavior is actually caused by the expectation rather than
the other way around. For example, if a White teacher expects Latino boys to
perform below average on a math test relative to White students, over time the teacher
may act in ways that encourage the Latino boys to get below-average math test scores. The
point is that what the teacher expects students to do affects what they will do. Teachers
expectations can dramatically influence how much students learn independent of their
actual ability.

Insights into the teacher expectancy effect come from symbolic interaction theory. In
a classic study, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) told teachers of several grades in an
elementary school that certain children in their class were academic spurters, who
would increase their performance that year. The rest of the students were called
nonspurters. The researchers selected the spurters list completely at random,
unbeknownst to the teachers. The distinction had no relation to an ability test the children
took early in the school year, although the teachers were told (falsely) that it did. At the
end of the school year, although all students improved somewhat on the achievement
test, those labeled spurters made greater gains than those designated nonspurters.
Although more recent sociological research has attempted to replicate this study, true
replication is nearly impossible. Studies continue to show evidence that teacher
expectations influence outcomes, but this is mediated by many factors beyond labeling of
students (Jussim and Harber 2005).

How are expectations converted into performance? The powerful mechanism of the self-
fulfilling prophecy, in which merely applying a label has the effect of justifying it, affects
performance (Ballan -tine and Spade 2015). In other words, if a student is defined (labeled)
as a certain type, the student often becomes that type. You can see how such a process
might also be deeply affected by race, class, and gender stereotypes. A very good example
of this is the concept of stereotype threat. This refers to the fact that perceived
negative stereotypes about ones group can actually affect ones academic performance.
A series of experiments have repeatedly shown that when students perceive that they
are being judged by a negative stereotype, their performance, such as on tests, actually
declines. This holds true for both students of color and women (Steele and Aronson
1995; Steele 2010).

Stereotypes about women and minorities regarding educational abilities in math and
science lead to anxiety for the students and can also affect their choice of college
majors, leaving science, engineering, and math courses, for example, if stereotypes about
them are invoked. One of the brilliant insights of symbolic interaction theory is that the
meaning attributed to a behavior can be a powerful predictor of what a person becomes.
Each of the three core sociological theories offers an important perspective on education.

Do you agree with this statement?

The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but
they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the
same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what
you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend
more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that
sense school is worse than prison. (Peter Gray 2009)

Some sociologists consider school as a total institution. Do you agree? Explain.

Conflict theory emphasizes the power and inequality that are part of education as a
social institution. Expalin.

What is a role?

What is sociological imagination?

Symbols derives from the way they are interpreted within a culture. Explain.

How groups determine who is in and who is out?

What is referent power?

In Solomon Aschs experiment,

Why do people

How do you achieve resocialization?

How does mass media influence you?