Education - Sociological Perspectives


Education - Functionalism 1/2

In sociology, there are three main perspectives that make assumptions about how society functions, the role of individuals and the role of institutions: Functionalism, Feminism and Marxism


  • A consensus, macro and structural perspective whereby society is based on agreement and equality of opportunity for all.
  • Everyone works together as small cogs in a big machine that only works when everyone works harmoniously together and has their own roles.
  • They favour the interests of everyone as everyone works together and has the same values and norms

Particularist standards =  the idea that (within a family) a person may be treated differently from another member depending on attributes

Universalistic standards =  the idea that everyone is treated fairly and equally

Meritocratic system = where rewards are based on talent and effort

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Education - Functionalism 2/2

According to Durkheim, “The education system is a major part of socialisation that guarantees individuals all understand and conform to the same set of social values and behave in a manner of social solidarity that ensures people are integrated and value society.”

Parsons: “Schools act as a bridge between wider society and homes. At home, children are treated as individuals, with particularist standards, though at school children then learn through a meritocratic system with universalistic standards that takes away individuality.” 

Economy and Role Allocation: Functionalists are optimistic about the role of education for society - they believe that education responds to the needs of the economy and provides the right amount of workers for the particular skills that the economy demands. Davis and Moore claim that education prepares people for their future roles (called role acclamation). 

Education does this by giving students insights into career fields that they may later pursue, highlighting strengths and weaknesses that a person may later acknowledge when choosing a future career, giving students basic skills needed in any career path, teaching students to respect and obey authority, and by instilling similar values

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Education - The New Right 1/2

The New Right:

  • A consensus perspective,
  • a modern version of functionalism,
  • a political theory - associated with right-wing politics e.g the Conservative party,
  • value tradition - like the traditional nuclear family w/ instrumental and expressive roles,
  • doesn’t like the welfare state, 'nanny state' - over-involvement in family/society - Murray,
  • values competition in society as it drives up standards

New Right politicians and sociologists argue that the education system should be run more like a business, e.g ability to choose an appropriate service, trade, import/export, buying/selling, market, merchandising, bargaining.

Key assumptions of the New Right: parents should be able to choose where they send their children, the education system offers opportunity for all, the current education system is not perfect and needs to be privatised to ensure a higher quality of education for all

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Education - The New Right 2/2

Issues with privatising education: the cost - not everyone can afford school fees, encourages elitism, those who can’t afford then suffer and receive a lower quality education - furthers the social divide

The New Right’s ideas are visible in conservative government policy and within the conservative and liberal democrat government of 2010-2015, and they value competition and choice - they want individuals to choose their education in order to maximise their abilities (so children who excel at subjects such as art can attend schools that specialise in those subjects). This would result in a range of schools being needed in order to meet such a standard, including selective and non-selective schools that require entrance exams such as the eleven plus. 

Chubb & Moe (1990) suggest “the introduction of market forces into education (known as marketisation) is beneficial to the education system as it helps to improve standard and efficiency.” 

Marketisation: running a school like a business through the introduction of market forces (price, demand and availability of service)

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Education - Marxism 1/3


  • a conflict, macro and structural perspective
  • society is based on disagreement and class inequality
  • society is ordered into a hierarchy of the upper class and working class known as capitalism
  • upper class have the money, power, and control over the working class and exploit them for their own benefit
  • marxists favour the interests of the working class as they believe they are oppressed by the upper class.

Upper class = capitalists, the elite, bourgeoisie, owners of the means of production, ruling class. Working class = proletariat, workforce, labourers. Capitalism =  a society based on private property, which is divided into social classes. A capitalist’s primary purpose is to make a profit through industry. Structural theories = see individuals as entirely shaped by the way society is structured/organised. Macro = focus of the larger scale, see the individuals as shaped by society

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Education - Marxism 2/3

Assumptions of the Marxist approach:

  • Education is a way of reinforcing the inequalities that exist in society already
  • Marx argued that education acts as a means to socialise children into their respective class positions (e.g. a working-class child will be guided into options which will mean they remain as working class into adulthood, meaning that they are unlikely to challenge such a system)
  • Marxists also state that education supports capitalism by ensuring working-class children are guided into roles which involve mundane repetitive labour, middle-class children are guided into higher education and encouraged to make connections which will benefit them in later life 

Marxists argue that education reproduces existing social class differences and such inequalities are passed on from one generation to the next. 

Althusser (1971) states the main function of the education system is to reproduce capitalism and an efficient and obedient labour force, done by the reproduction of ruling class ideology through secondary socialisation, making students/workers accept the ideology of capitalists without recalling knowing it, also - false class consciousness??. 

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Education - Marxism 3/3

Bourdieu (1977) argues that each social class has their own cultural framework, a habitus. Your habitus is picked up through the socialisation process in the family. e.g. the working-class habitus might be financial survival, getting a job as soon as they leave school, etc. The middle-class habitus might be to make as much money as possible, to go on as many holidays as possible, to stay in education as long as possible, to get the best out of education, etc. 

Bordieu also talks about cultural capital - knowledge, language and behaviour that gives the middle-class advantages over the working class in all elements of life, e.g. they have something more than money to ensure their success. 

The hidden curriculum is seen by Marxists as a negative, socialising students from a young age to be subservient by instilling the ideology of the ruling class into the lower classes, further assisting the reproduction of existing social classes and social inequalities.

This contrasts with the functionalist view that the hidden curriculum is a positive, socialising students into being obedient members of society in a manner that then contributes to society and helps prevent anomie, whilst maintaining the status quo.

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Education- Willis' 'The Lads'

Willis recognises that schools do not always produce a willing and obedient workforce  - students do not always obey their teachers and can be disruptive and attack the norms and values of that establishment.

It is easy to understand why middle-class young people are willing to go into secure and well-paid jobs but it is more difficult to explain why working-class youths go willingly into low paid and dead-end jobs. 

  • studied a group of 12 working class male pupils in a school on a working-class housing estate during the 70s, who developed an anti-school subculture 
  • their main aim was to free themselves of the control of the school, have a laugh and get into the world of work as soon as possible, to impress their mates and show they could graft; to them, school was boring and pointless, stopping them smoking, drinking, and getting a job
  • found that the lads main priority was to enter the ‘real’ world of a man, with links between the anti-school subculture to that of the workplace culture of male, low paid jobs, as well as evidence of sexism
  •  the lack of respect in schools continued into the workplace, where it was found they treated their employers in a similar way to their teachers; the lads wanted to escape school so they could make money to have an active social life of drinking, smoking and women. Men seem to like low paid and manual jobs because it gives them money to enjoy their social lives, and It is more about social life than 9-5 work, which is merely a means to an end
  • Schools are therefore not prepping the sort of obedient labour force required by capitalism which Althusser suggested.
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Education - Feminism 1/2

Feminists have a similar viewpoint to the Marxists, but they believe that education is oppressive towards women in particular and is patriarchal. They agree with functionalists and Marxists that education is a mini-society but unlike functionalists, they see this as a negative thing. Liberal feminists such as Walker accept that there has been a ‘march of progress’ and that education (like wider society) is improving for women. 

There are four strands of feminism: radical feminism, liberal feminism, Marxist feminism, black feminism (and difference feminism). 

Ways women are now treated more fairly in education: they can continue with education rather than staying home, Female teachers aren’t fired for having children/getting married, less sexist lessons/no gender discrimination in classes and curriculum. 

Ways women are now treated more fairly in society: they can actually have jobs and careers, ‘equal’ pay, they can vote

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Education - Feminism 2/2

Radical feminists - Greer - argue that education is still as oppressive towards women and that they are disadvantaged at every angle. They believe that the patriarchal ideology promotes male values in education

Marxist feminists - Bensen, or Ansley & Cooper -  agree with traditional Marxists in that education is a mini-society dominated by one social group one another. In this case, men having power over women. They argue that women are socialised to be mothers, housewives and domestic labourers and men are socialised to be workers who bring in money to provide. 

Ways education was patriarchal: boys could stay in school and attend higher education, male teachers didn’t have to leave to get married/start families, boys got to do sport and more physical subjects when girls didn’t 

Until the 1990s, boys outperformed girls at every level of education; feminists have focused on two reasons why: gendered subject choices, and lower paid/ status jobs occupied by women

Women are more likely to pick subjects like home economics, health and social care, English because they are socialised to be caregivers through speech-centric toys, whereas men are given toys as children such as cars that don’t encourage speak/nurturing as much. 

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