Sociology - Education - Functionalists

Functionalist approach to education. 

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Functionalist approach to education

There are 3 functions of education:

  • Socialisation - the education system helps to maintain society as it teaches the young key cultural values and norms. Social solidarity, individualism, competition, democracy and equality of opportunity are taught. 
  • Skills - the education system prepares children for the world of work as it provides them with skills and abilities which enable them to get jobs, this can be academic or vocational. 
  • Role allocation - the education system sorts and sifts children into the hierarchy. Talented/gifted children will get the most important jobs and the low skilled/less gifted children will get lower jobs down the hierarchy. This is fair as there is equality of opportunity as everyone has the chance to achieve. 
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Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim 1858 - 1917 

Social solidarity or social unity -
Social solidarity is essential for society to survive. Social solidarity is based on essential similarities; education teaches us these similarities and binds us all together. 
One way of binding us all together is through a common history, for example America is a nation made up of many cultures, ethnicities and religions however they are all bound together through common stories such as George Washington and Davy Crockett. 
Education also binds us together through common norms and values, all these things provide a sense of belonging for all members of the community. 

Society is more important than the individual

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Emile Durkheim continued

'To become attached to society the child must feel in it something that is real, alive and powerful, which dominates the person and to which he also owes the best part of himself' 

Education teaches individuals to cooperate with other people who are different from them, not family members or friends. 

Durkheim believes that school rules should be strictly enforced, punishments should reflect the seriousness of the offence and it should be made clear to the child why they are being punished. In this way the child learns that it is wrong to act against the social group as a whole and learns self-discipline. 

Education teaches children certain skills and abilities which they can use in industrial society. Education has allowed a specialised division of labour emerge as there are more high-skilled jobs such as plumbing and doctors. Children no longer need to learn the trade their father had, children can learn any skill they want to pursue. 

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Talcott Parsons

Similar to Durkheim, Parsons believes that education is important to society. Education provides a bridge between the family and the workplace. 

Particularistic values                      - - - - - >                     Universalistic values
Ascribed status                              - - - - - >                      Achieved status 

During childhood children have special relationships with family members and are given their ascribed status e.g. brother, sister. Once grown up children shift from their personal identifiable relationships to universalistic values (values that all people follow, there is a standard bar) and their status is now achieved (earned through hard work and effort). This bridge is necessary as children need to learn that we live in a meritocratic society, children need social solidarity and not individual relationships. 

Meritocracy - a society based on achieved status not ascribed status.

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Talcott Parsons continued

Is the education system meritocratic?

Parsons definition of meritocracy -
' People have to earn their status positions according to their individual achievements, such as a talent, skill or educational qualifications' 

My opinion -
' School can be meritocratic as students are based in tier groups according to their personal achievements, however, children who are working class will almost always come out with working class jobs. This means that society is not based on achievement but on ascribed status (tends to be socio-economic status).  

Individual achievement - 
Children are encouraged to achieve as individuals. High achievement is rewarded with praise, high status, good grades and valuable qualifications. This prepares children for the world of work.   

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Davis and Moore

Davis and Moore 

Role allocation - 
One main function of education is role allocation. Education sorts, sifts, moves and assesses children in terms of talents and abilities, they are then allocated to appropriate roles in wider society. For example people with a passion for music will be directed into this occupation as they are most talented and suited to this role. 


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Davis and Moore

Is education good at this?

 Education is good at role allocation as it allows all children the potential of success - equality of opportunity, despite race, culture or socio-economic status so role allocation into the hierarchy is fair. However some children who are naturally bright may suffer from the rigid examinations and the sorting, shifting and streaming of education. This means that they are poorly placed in the hierarchy as they do not do as well as children who are culturally prepared/well -off. For example working class children obtain working class jobs. 

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Evaluation of Functionalists

Evaluation - 

  • Education transmits the norms and values of society, however, it may be in fact transmitting the values of the ruling class. 
  • History is culturally biased and it ignore ethnic minorities.
  • Certain classes and groups do not succeed in education. Socio-economic and cultural differences make a difference in attainment levels. 
  • Education does not prepare children for the world of work. 
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