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Sociology of Education

Lawrence J. Saha

Australian National University, 2011

Not all conflict-oriented theories are derived from Marxist origins. As noted earlier, Weber also saw educa-tion as a source of credentials or legitimacy for claims to status positions. Therefore, ownership or control over the credentializing process constitutes a struggle or conflict

between different societal status groups. Weberian approaches to the study of education are less likely to focus on social class, the economy, and the class struggle. Weberians tend to focus on the culture and lifestyles of different status groups and on the competition over creden-tials. Several classic examples of a Weberian approach are Collins’ The Credential Society(1979) and Archer’s Social Origins of Educational Systems(1979).

Other Weberian-related approaches in the sociology of education concern research on the bureaucratic structure of education. This field of study is less easily classified as a type of conflict theory, but it represents a link with Weber’s writing. Recent work on aspects of education leadership, teacher professionalism, teacher satisfaction, teacher burn-out, teacher accountability, and teacher unions, insofar as the studies take into consideration the bureaucratic struc-ture of schooling, has Weberian origins. The legacy of Durkheim in modern sociology of educa-tion is best reflected in studies of how schools contribute to the socialization of the young and how education con-tributes to a range of life outcomes, especially occupational attainment and social mobility. Durkheimian sociology of education tends to be functionalist. Therefore, studies that tend to take a positivistic approach to the study of educa-tional processes, in particular those based on empirical data and explicit or implicit causal assumptions, are linked with forms of Durkheimian functionalism. Although sociologists now recognize that Durkheim did not ignore the presence of conflict in educational processes (Saha, 2001), there are few studies that have analyzed educational processes from his conflict perspective. Contemporary sociology of education owes much to the founding fathers of sociology. Even the contemporary

theoretical approaches are embedded in the foundation theories of sociology. The influence of these early “classical” sociologists remains influential in the discipline today.


The legacy of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim in the sociology of education focuses on macrolevel processes, even though the unit of analysis might be the individual. In other words, both the functionalist and conflict paradigms direct attention to the relationship between aspects of social structures and the individual or groups. But there has long been a strong microlevel tradition in the sociology of education that focuses on the patterns of interaction in educational processes. The most well-known of these perspectives is symbolic interaction theory, which focuses on how the actions and interactions between people are the result of the meanings that people attribute to objects and to other people’s actions. In short, symbolic interactionists take the view that in symbolic interaction theory, every-thing from the self to the patterns of interaction between individuals is the result of social processes. The roots of symbolic interactionism are complex. They embrace phenomenologist philosophers such as Schutz and Husserl, but also some elements of the late Durkheim and Mead (Turner & Mitchell, 1997). The term symbolic interactionismwas first used by Blumer (1969). Symbolic interactionism has evolved into a number of related perspectives, in particular the dramaturgical per-spective Goffman described in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and the ethnomethodological perspective, which Garfinkle developed in Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967).

The first of these focused on how the individual managed the social self in the process of interaction with others. The latter focused on the methods and social competence individuals use to construct social reality. These theoretical perspectives have influenced the understanding of interaction patterns between

individuals in schools, especially the interactions between teacher and student, and student and student.

Interactionist theory also was important in the development of role theory, a perspective which focuses on the definition and perceptions of relevant roles that individuals follow in their daily lives. In some cases, the roles are in society, the result of social consensus. In other cases, roles are constructed. Role theory continues to be an important theoretical perspective that informs much of the way that administrators, teachers, and students go about their every-day duties (Biddle, 1997). In spite of some problems in

role theory, Biddle comments that “ . . . it is clear that the role orientation continues to offer insights for educators and a challenge for those who seek to understand what it means to be a teacher in today’s world” (p. 515).

Emerging Perspectives for the 21st Century. The sociology of education is a dynamic field. Theory and research methods are continually evolving, and new perspectives have emerged that have little connection to traditional approaches. Toward the end of the 20th century, many attempts were made to evaluate the state of the sociology of education. These attempts called for a break with the past paradigms primarily because of the perceived breaks in the nature of society itself. Torres and Mitchell (1995) identified three departures from the past that future research in the sociology of education must take: (1) there must be a new epistemology that differs from positivism and empiricism; (2) the sociol-ogy of education must confront the dilemmas caused by the break between modernism and postmodernism, and structuralists and poststructuralists, and (3) the sociology of education must resolve the challenges posed by these new theoretical approaches for educational research.

Torres and Mitchell argue that today’s increasing unpredictabilities render the previous notions of a scientific sociology of education difficult to sustain. Their critique of the sociology of education is actually a critique of sociology and social science generally. Torres and Mitchell argue that the scientific model of linear and causal explanations cannot be sustained currently where behavioral events are more discontinuous and discrete. Thus, traditional notions of objectivity can be expected to give way to subjective approaches, which take into account both the knower and the known in attempts to understand a social world that is more complex and global than previous paradigms have recognized. Torres and

Mitchell advocate a new sociology of education that incorporates topics hitherto neglected or unrecognized and that focuses on creating an educational system that produces a more democratic society free of prejudices and injustices.

Dale (2001) agrees that theoretical perspectives in the sociology of education are not linear. He argues, however, that the emergence of new theoretical perspectives is due to what he calls “the selection principle,” namely through the political and social contexts within which sociologists of education operate. The evolution of theories in the subdiscipline is not due to any kind of inner dynamic. The

sociology of education, unlike other subdisciplines in soci-ology, is closely tied to the training of professionals (that is, teachers). So, for Dale, political orientations toward the education profession affect what sociologists of education think and do. Therefore, every time there is an education reform, there will be a comparable effect on the theoretical orientations of sociologists of education, at least those affiliated with teacher training faculties.

Similarly, Hallinan (2000) has argued that the sociology of education lacks adequate education-related sociological theory: “The heavy reliance of sociologists of education on general social theory and on ideas and models from other sociological subdisciplines to study schooling demon-strates the greatest weakness in the area” (p. 3). Hallinan contends that education-specific theories need to be devel-oped if sociology of education is to progress beyond its present state of knowledge. Her own volume reflects the

types of theoretical developments she has in mind, for example a social-psychological theory of the social context and social construction of schooling, a theory of the organizational context of schools, and a sociological theory of race and ethnicity that would be relevant to research on these issues in schools.

As the sociology of education enters the 21st century, there is no single paradigm or theory that dominates the subdiscipline. Some sociologists argue that a unique theory still needs to be developed, and others appear content with a plurality of general sociological theories. Various reasons for this lack of consensus have been put forward. Two explanations have merit. First, the subdiscipline includes both a normative (applied) dimension and an objective (scientific) dimension. Researchers within each group

have their own perceived appropriate theoretical perspec-tives. Second, the social and cultural contexts within which sociologists of education work have an effect on both the relevant substantive issues and the appropriate methodolo-gies. According to some, however, this diversity in the sociology of education is precisely what gives the field its vitality and promise.

Empirical Methods in the Sociology of Education. Sociologists of education tend to use the full array of methodological techniques, both quantitative and qualitative, in their studies of education. Sociologists of education also have contributed to the development of both research methodologies, which have made important general contri-butions to sociology. LeCompte (1997) observed that the use of qualitative

research methodologies within the functionalist tradition were very popular in the early to mid-20th century. These studies used participant observation to provide a holistic view of schools and their location in community systems, like Hollingshead’s Elmstown’s Youth(1947) or an interpretive perspective, such as Making the Grade(1968) by Becker, Geer, and Hughes. These types of qualitative studies have continued and have adopted newer theoretical and methodological approaches such as the postmodernist the-ories and interpretive and narrative methodologies (Denzin, 1997). But LeCompte claims that the rapid development of large-scale quantitative studies from the 1950s onward dominated research in the sociology of education virtually until the end of the century (LeCompte, 1997). She argues that in the 21st century a newer qualitative tradition influ-enced by critical theory has returned. There are many labels for these new qualitative methodologies, from criti-cal ethnography, where the researcher critically connects

data with both its source and subjects under study, to biographical and narrative approaches, where the focus is on the subjects’ lived experience. While advances were made in qualitative methods, equal—if not more dramatic—developments in quantitative approaches were also made. Rapid improvements

in computer technology and sophisticated advancements in statistical techniques facilitated these developments.

Hallinan (2000) claims that since the 1960s sociologists of education have borrowed from econometrics and other fields to develop linear models for studying educational processes, and she points to the Coleman Report (Coleman et al., 1966) as an important example of this development. From this approach, many different strands of statistical analysis emerged. Perhaps the most important of these is

the Wisconsin Model by Sewell and his colleagues (Sewell & Hauser, 1980), which focused on the rela-tionships between educational aspirations, grades, and occupational attainments. This model has been replicated around the world, in places such as Canada, Latin Amer-ica, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, with surprisingly similar results. Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM), another recent development in statistical analysis, has revolutionized research in the sociology of education and in sociology generally. The study of students in schools has always presented challenges for researchers because students are members of classrooms, and classrooms are part of schools. One could go further and note that schools exist in neighborhoods which in turn are parts of cities. Clearly, at each of these levels there could be some influ-ence on schools, classrooms, and individual students. Traditionally, researchers nested the variables at one level, then used aggregate level values for the other levels for each student. But the development of hierarchical lin-ear models makes possible the analysis of each level separately and linked (Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002). Thus, the study of the multiple levels of analysis that affect

individual student academic achievement becomes more powerful and precise.

Because of the unique nature of educational research, various statistical techniques have been developed that eventually were incorporated into the research repertoire in the general sociological community. Researchers in sociology of education have led the way in the advance-ment of analytic techniques that continue to uncover new levels of understanding of what goes on in schools (Saha

& Keeves, 2003). The increasing availability of large longitudinal data sets and large comparative data sets across countries has also advanced quantitative research methods in the sociol-ogy of education. Longitudinal data are of particular importance to the study of educational processes “within the black box of the school” (Schiller, 2002, p. 403). Longitudinal studies can be either trend studies, where the

same population is followed over time, or panel studies, where individuals are followed over time. The latter is more commonly used in sociology of education research (Schiller, 2002). Longitudinal studies play an important role in understanding the multiple factors that contribute to educational outcomes. These studies of education have been conducted in many countries by individual research-ers and increasingly under government sponsorship. For example, the advances made by the development of the

Wisconsin Model were based on longitudinal data. Between 1972 and 1996, the United States National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted five major government-funded longitudinal studies, spanning students from primary to tertiary education. International organizations have increasingly supported standardized questionnaire studies of school-aged youth across countries. These large international data sets have become popular among researchers who are interested in one or several countries. Examples of these studies are those of the International Association for the Evaluation of

Educational Achievement (IEA) and the Program for Inter-national Student Assessment (PISA). These data sets have not only made it possible to advance our knowledge in a comparative context, but also have been responsible for the development of methodological strategies for dealing with cross-national analyses.


Some Research Themes in the Sociology of Education. The sociology of education is characterized by a number of dominant research themes. Often these themes are driven by research interests and sometimes by practical necessities. There are many areas in which sociologists of education work, but only a select few will be discussed here: gender, race and ethnicity, and teacher accountability and burnout.

Gender has not always been on the research agenda for sociologists of education. Before 1970, studies of educa-tional achievement and attainment were often based on male-only samples, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Since then, because of the feminist movement and educational expansion, more attention has been given to the education of girls. The gender gap is a persistent research theme. Early studies focused on male dominance in academic achievement and in education attainment, a pattern found across virtually all countries for which data were available. But in many countries the

gender gap has been closing. In some countries, for exam-ple Australia, girls have overtaken boys in retention and attainment, and also in achievement in some subjects. The reversal has been so dramatic that discussions now focus on the “boy problem.” Researchers have put forth biological, structural, and socialization or child rearing explanations for these gender differences.

Race, Ethnicity, and minority group status. Sociologists have traditionally placed strong focus on the effects of race and ethnicity on a wide range of social and economic outcomes. In the United States, sociologists are particularly interested in the educational attainments of African American and the Hispanic populations. But in general, similar attention has been given to all minority groups, especially since movements of populations across national boundaries have increased, both voluntarily and nonvoluntarily. The study of racial and ethnic minorities has included indigenous, migrant, and refugee populations. Sociologists of education in the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia have been particularly active in this research. They have identified many factors that work to the disadvantage of minority groups. Ogbu (1992) argued that a strong core curriculum was one factor that affected the learning process of these minority groups. Cultures of various racial and ethnic groups hold differing expectations about education that may affect the ways these students encounter a school system. Research

has also found that the attitudes and values of various minorities affect educational attainment and achievement, particularly where multiple attitudes conflict with each other or attitudes conflict with the goals of the school (Mikelson, 1990). This conflict can exist between the attitudes and values of the home and the school teacher.

Accountability and Burnout. Sociological studies regarding the teacher fall into two categories: the teacher as a professional and the teacher as a worker. Studies of the teacher as professional have exam-ined teacher recruitment, the decision to become a teacher, and the professional careers and life cycles of teachers. Willard Waller (1932) conducted perhaps the first classical sociological study of teachers and teaching. A more recent study, itself a classic, is Lortie’s Schoolteacher(1975), which looked at teaching as an occupation. Some researchers argue there is a division between teaching as a profession and as an occupation, and that the increasing structural constraints of accountability, salary issues, and prestige have eroded its professional nature. These pressures have produced stress and alienation, resulting in increased teacher burnout. Often considered a psychological phenomenon, burnout also has a sociological dimension that seriously impedes teacher performance and effectiveness (Dworkin, 1987).

How effective are teachers? To answer this question researchers have conducted research in classrooms and investigated topics like teaching styles, teacher interac-tion with students, and teacher expectations, all of which have an effect on student outcomes (Good & Brophy, 1997). How the expanding practice of high-stakes testing is changing the roles of teachers is another recent research topic. Valli and Buese (2007) found that the passing of the Education Act of 2001 (No Child Left Behind) has increased teacher workloads and account-ability, deteriorated classroom pedagogy, lowered the quality of teacher-student interaction, and increased teacher stress.


Conclusion. The sociology of education, as a subdiscipline of both education and sociology, has contributed much to the understanding of educational processes. As a source of information and training for future teachers, and as a source of information for policy makers, it continues to draw attention to the social context of what goes on in schools. The tensions within the sociology of education will no doubt continue, but the subdiscipline as a whole is so eclectic and robust that this can only be a sign of its

strength. In either case, the sociology of education uniquely focuses attention on the social context of educational structures and processes, and its contribution will continue to be invaluable for understanding and reforming educational systems, particularly as they change to accommodate new social needs and new technologies.


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