Essential Concepts in Sociology


First published in 2014 by Polity Press; ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-4985-6


  • Working Definition A social institution which promotes and enables the transmission of knowledge and skills across generations, most commonly through compulsory schooling.
  • Origins of the Concept Education is the passing on of knowledge, skills and norms of behaviour so that new members can become part of their society. Education today is widely seen as ‘a good thing’, and most people who have been through an education system and emerged literate, numerate and reasonably knowledgeable would agree that it has clear benefits. However, sociologists make a distinction between education and schooling. Education can be defined as a social institution, which enables and promotes the acquisition of skills, knowledge and the broadening of personal horizons and can take place in many settings. Schooling, though, is the formal process through which certain types of knowledge and skill are delivered via a pre-designed curriculum and is usually compulsory up to a certain age. Increasingly mandatory education in the developed countries is being extended to college and even university level. Before the late eighteenth century, education in schools was a private matter, and only the wealthiest families could afford an education for their children. Throughout the nineteenth century and into the wentieth, compulsory state education systems were introduced as the need for literacy and numeracy among workers grew in industrial workplaces and offices. While functionalist theories see the formal function of schools as the production of an educated and skilled population, many Marxist and radical critics argue that there is a hidden curriculum that subtly conveys the values and norms which support a grossly unequal capitalist society. More recent research has tended to focus on the role of education and schooling in cultural reproduction, the generational transmission of cultural values, norms and experience and all of the mechanisms and processes through which this is achieved.

Meaning and Interpretation
Émile Durkheim argued that education is a key agency of socialization, inculcating in children society’s common values which sustain social solidarity.
Durkheim was concerned particularly with moral guidelines and mutual responsibility, as these helped to mitigate the kind of competitive individualism that many thought would destroy solidarity. But in industrial societies, Durkheim argued, education also has another function in teaching the skills needed to take up increasingly specialized occupational roles which could no longer be learned within the family. Talcott Parsons took this basically functionalist approach further. He maintained that one of the key functions of education is to instil the central value of individual achievement, often via competitive examinations and assessment. This is crucial because exams are based on universal, meritocratic standards in contrast to the particularistic standards of the family, and in the wider society people generally achieve their positions on the basis of ability and
merit rather than on their class, gender or ethnicity.
However, many research studies have found that education and schooling
reproduce social inequalities rather than helping to equalize life chances. Paul Willis’s (1977) UK study, based on fieldwork in a Birmingham school, asked how it happens that working-class kids generally get working-class jobs. This is a pertinent question in a meritocratic education system. Willis found anti-school subcultures in which young boys had no interest in exams or a ‘career’ but simply wanted to get out and earn money. He argued that these were very similar to the blue-collar work cultures, and, in that way, failing in school did, unintentionally, prepare such children for working-class work.

Critical Points
Functionalist theory is correct to point out the formal functions of education systems, but is there really a single set of society-wide values, especially in the multicultural societies of today? Marxists agree that schools socialize children, but they do so to ensure that capitalist companies get the kind of workforce they need, not because they are committed to equality of opportunity. The structures of school life correspond to the structures of working life; conforming leads to success, teachers and managers dictate tasks, pupils and workers perform them, school and work staff are organized hierarchically, and this is taught as inevitable (Bowles and Gintis 1976).
This idea of a ‘hidden curriculum’ has also had a major influence on the sociology of education. Illich (1971) argued that schools are custodial organizations designed to keep young people occupied and off the streets until they enter work.
They promote an uncritical acceptance of the social order and teach children to know their class position. Illich advocated the ‘deschooling’ of society in favour of making educational resources available to everyone at whatever time they need them and to study whatever they want rather than being forced to learn a standardized curriculum. Resources could be stored in libraries and information storage banks (today probably online) and made available to any student. These ideas seemed hopelessly idealistic at the time, but, with today’s new focus on lifelong learning and distance learning over the Internet, they no longer seem quite so far-fetched.

Continuing Relevance
How can we square the positive functions of education with the serious critiques?
Schooling is part of the reproduction of structural inequalities, but, at one and the same time, it also equips people with some of the skills and knowledge that enable them to understand and challenge those inequalities. And, in addition, it is the case that many teachers who fully appreciate the structural role of the education system work to improve and change it from the inside. Any theory which offers no prospect of change perhaps gives too much weight to the power of social structure and not enough to creative human agency. Education is an important site for a whole range of debates that are not just about what happens within schools, but also about the direction of society itself.
In recent years many developed societies have seen girls ‘overtake’ boys in
achieving school and college qualifications, and a debate has emerged as to why boys are ‘underachieving’ and what can be done about it. This implies that girls must have overcome the previous obstacles to their doing well. However, an empirical study in the UK found that a sample of twelve- and thirteen-year-old high-achieving girls continue to face identity problems caused by trying to ‘be clever’ within the existing norms of acceptable femininity (Skelton et al. 2010).
The girls faced particular problems in their relations with classmates but also struggled to gain the attention of their teachers. The reality of life for increasingly successful young girls and women is clearly more complex than is illustrated in the bald statistics of academic achievement.

References and Further Reading

  • Bartlett, S., and Burton, D. M. (2007) Introduction to Education Studies (London: Sage), esp. chapter 2.
  • Bowles, S., and Gintis, H. (1976) Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and Contradictions of Economic Life (New York: Basic Books).
  • Gatto, J. T. (2002) Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (2nd edn, New York: New Society).
  • Illich, I. D. (1971) Deschooling Society (Harmondsworth: Penguin).
  • Skelton, C., Francis, B., and Read, B. (2010) ‘Brains before Beauty? High Achieving Girls, School and Gender Identities’, Educational Studies, 36(2): 185–94.
  • UNESCO (2009) Overcoming Inequality:Why Governance Matters, Education for All: Global Monitoring Report (Oxford: Oxford University Press), esp. chapter 2.
  • Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working-Class Kids Get Working-Class Jobs (London: Saxon House).
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.