The Sociology of Education

Studying the Relationships Between Education and Society

How social categories like race and gender impact student participation and learning in the classroom is one of things that researchers study within the sociology of education.
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The sociology of education is a diverse and vibrant subfield that features theory and research focused on how education as a social institution is affected by and affects other social institutions and the social structure overall, and how various social forces shape the policies, practices, and outcomes of schooling.

While education is typically viewed in most societies as a pathway to personal development, success, and social mobility, and as a cornerstone of democracy, sociologists who study education take a critical view of these assumptions to study how the institution actually operates within society.

They consider what other social functions education might have, like for example socialization into gender and class roles, and what other social outcomes contemporary educational institutions might produce, like reproducing class and racial hierarchies, among others.

Theoretical Approaches within the Sociology of Education

Classical French sociologist Émile Durkheim was one of the first sociologists to consider the social function of education. He believed that a moral education was necessary for society to exist because it provided the basis for the social solidarity that held society together. By writing about education in this way, Durkheim established the functionalist perspective on education. This perspective champions the work of socialization that takes place within the educational institution, including the teaching of society’s culture, including moral values, ethics, politics, religious beliefs, habits, and norms.

According to this view, the socializing function of education also serves to promote social control and to curb deviant behavior.

The symbolic interaction approach to studying education focuses on interactions during the schooling process and the outcomes of those interactions. For instance, interactions between students and teachers, and social forces that shape those interactions like race, class, and gender, create expectations on both parts.

Teachers expect certain behaviors from certain students, and those expectations, when communicated to students through interaction, can actually produce those very behaviors. This is called the “teacher expectancy effect.” For example, if a white teacher expects a Black student to perform below average on a math test when compared to white students, over time the teacher may act in ways that encourage Black students to underperform.

Stemming from Marx's theory of the relationship between workers and capitalism, the conflict theory approach to education examines the way educational institutions and the hierarchy of degree levels contribute to the reproduction of hierarchies and inequalities in society. This approach recognizes that schooling reflects class, racial, and gender stratification, and tends to reproduce it. For example, sociologists have documented in many different settings how "tracking" of students based on class, race, and gender effectively sorts students into classes of laborers and managers/entrepreneurs, which reproduces the already existing class structure rather than producing social mobility.

Sociologists who work from this perspective also assert that educational institutions and school curricula are products of the dominant worldviews, beliefs, and values of the majority, which typically produces educational experiences that marginalize and disadvantage those in the minority in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, among other things.

By operating in this fashion, the educational institution is involved in the work of reproducing power, domination, oppression, and inequality within society. It is for this reason that there have long been campaigns across the U.S. to include ethnic studies courses in middle schools and high schools, in order to balance a curriculum otherwise structured by a white, colonialist worldview. In fact, sociologists have found that providing ethnic studies courses to students of color who are on the brink of failing out or dropping out of high school effectively re-engages and inspires them, raises their overall grade point average and improves their academic performance overall.

Notable Sociological Studies of Education

  • Learning to Labour, 1977, by Paul Willis. An ethnographic study set in England focused on the reproduction of the working class within the school system.
  • Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, 1987, by Cookson and Persell. An ethnographic study set at elite boarding schools in the U.S. focused on the reproduction of the social and economic elite.
  • Women Without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity, 2003, by Julie Bettie. An ethnographic study of how gender, race, and class intersect within the schooling experience to leave some without the cultural capital necessary for social mobility within society.
  • Academic Profiling: Latinos, Asian Americans, and the Achievement Gap, 2013, by Gilda Ochoa. An ethnographic study within a California high school of how race, class, and gender intersect to produce the "achievement gap" between Latinos and Asian Americans.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.