Education – A Functionalist Perspective
Emile Durkheim proposed an explicitly functionalist explanation of the role of education in society. The major function/task of education was, according to Durkheim, the transmission of society’s norms and values. Durkheim considered that all societies must have means of passing on their norms and values to the young. If they did not, they could not continue. Such transmission then is a “functional prerequisite”, and it is the educational system which has the job of carrying it out. Or at least this is so for modern industrial societies, says Durkheim. (In “traditional” societies – in pre-industrial societies, where no formal educational systems existed, this transmission was carried out by the family).
For Durkheim, a vital task which must be fulfilled in all modern, industrial societies is the welding of a mass of individuals into a collective whole – in other words, “social solidarity” must be created. This means that individuals must become capable of co-operation with each other, of working harmoniously in the modern complex division of labor; of conducting themselves for the good of society as a whole. If this necessity is not achieved, so Durkheim argues, modern social life would be impossible. It would become little but a war against all, as individuals, united by no common aims, norms and values pursued their own selfish interests to the detriment of society itself.
The family cannot promote the social solidarity of individuals. It is only the modern educational system which can do so. Why? Essentially because the family, says Durkheim, is based on principles other than those required to promote social solidarity and integration.
Modern education, Durkheim continues, teaches those basic rules of co-operation necessary to the continuation of modern society. In school, the child must learn to interact with others in terms of a fixed set of rules – punctuality, respect for authority, and all manner of other requirements. Indeed, the school is society in miniature; as such it demands that individuals follow rules of conduct so that the organization / school can continue to function and to carry out its responsibilities.
For Durkheim, modern education has two functions:
– The MAJOR function is the transmission to the young of cultural norms and values. Here are included all manner of beliefs.
– The teaching of skills so as to occupy a position in the modern division of labor.
Education – A Conflict Perspective (Marxist)
For Marxists, the analysis focuses upon the workings of the CAPITALIST economic system and the degree of conflict within society between social groups, notably between the ruling, capitalist class and the working class. The Education System is seen as a tool by which the working class are kept in their place, in a position of subservience, exploited and oppressed.
They maintain that education reproduces the social class structure: or more simply education promotes the interests of a society’s power elite and perpetuates a society’s class divisions.
They say this is accomplished by the Hidden Curriculum – where teachers insist on “proper” English and good “manners” from students with prosperous backgrounds because the teacher knows where they are headed.
Lower status children are not encouraged to use these skills by the teachers and are destined for low status positions. Therefore they are blocked from higher education.
Education – The Interactionist Perspective
The interactionist perspective on education differs in three crucial ways from both the conflict and functionalism perspectives.
– It adopts a micro sociological approach whereas Marxism and Functionalism adopt a macro sociological approach.
That is, interactionist sociology of education is concerned above all else with classroom interactions between students and teachers; not with broader questions about the functions and (economic) class analysis of education. The focus then, is on what goes on in classrooms every day of a student’s life; and how this influences a student’s performance. Accordingly the attitudes and labeling practices of teachers, as well as the possible effects these might have on students’ achievement, becomes the focus of investigation for the interactionist perspective.
– This reflects an important theoretical difference between Interactionsim on the one hand, and Marxism and Functionalism on the other.
Society is analyzed as a whole (with parts) by both Marxism and Functionalism. This means that both are structural approaches. Interactionist sociology is not a structural approach/perspective; it argues that society cannot be understood as a ‘whole’ at all. Society is not a thing external to individuals which influences their beliefs and behavior. It is nothing but how individuals interpret it.
Interactionism and Education
– The Interactionists focus upon the way we create or construct the many aspects of our world by way of individuals continually acting and reacting to each other.
– The complex and ever changing nature of our society is reflected in the complexity of these interactions.
– Aspects of the sociology of education can be explained and understood by looking closely at the interactions that take place within schools between the ‘actors’ (interactionists see all members of society as ‘actors’, ‘performing’ many ‘roles’-as child, student, parent, etc.)
The significant actors in the school setting are teachers, pupils and parents – the significant interactions therefore take place between:
– teachers and pupils
– teachers and teachers
– pupils and pupils
– teachers and parents
– pupils and parents
These interactions can be either positive and constructive or negative and damaging. They clearly are intertwined with each other and the lines between them are far from clearly defined.