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Sociology and Education Essay

Social class is based on socio-economic status, which is the key part of social stratification in Ireland and western industrialised societies today and is categorised using an International Classification Code (Donohoe and Gaynor, 2007).

A child’s social class is obtained from their parent’s occupation. Until the 1981 census women’s social class was assigned to them according to the occupation of their father or their husband. However, nowadays, woman’s social class is obtained primarily from her own occupation (Donohoe and Gaynor, 2007).

The most important part of the social class system is the inequality that is present between social classes in the distribution of both wealth and income. An estimated 10% of the population own nearly half the wealth in Ireland. This means that 90% of the population share the other half. However, this is not distributed equally (Donohoe and Gaynor, 2007).

Education has become an extremely significant in occupational attainment in modern society. This takes up the main position in the analysis of stratification and social mobility (Collins, 2007).

For this assignment, the topic that is going to be discussed is whether class background related to educational success. In order to do this, I will discuss two theorists in relation to the sociology of education. I will then go onto discuss the importance of social class in relation to educational attainment in Ireland and educational disadvantage.

Collins (2007) states that education has become extremely important in order to get a job in modern society and this takes centre place in the analysis of both social stratification and mobility. Bilton, Bonnett, Jones, Skinner, Stanworth, and Webster, (2002) refers to education as one of the most significant social institutions in one’s life. A variety of studies have shown that in society, the longer you spend in education the better the job you will achieve, with your social background constant. These studies have also shown that social background affects your educational and employment success after the completion of education. There are significant differences in employment opportunities independent of social background between graduates of more well-known and less well-known secondary school, colleges, graduate and law schools (Collins, 2007). The educational requirements for employment have become progressively extensive, not only for the best jobs but also for jobs from the bottom of hierarchy (Collins, 2007).

Smyth and McCoy (2007: p. 8) state that young people who come from manual backgrounds are unlikely to get at least one honour in the Leaving Certificate. However, students from higher professional backgrounds get four or more honours in the Leaving Certificate, 16% of those from semi and unskilled backgrounds. The sociology of education has reflected the bigger theoretical debates of sociology. The traditional sociology of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, to the modern influences of ‘symbolic interactionism, postmodernism and critical theory, sociology of education, research has been influenced by a number of different theoretical perspectives (Sadovnik, 2007: p. 3).

Two theoretical perspectives in the sociology of education that will be discussed in this assignment are the functionalist perspective and the conflict perspective. The functionalist perspective is linked with Durkheim and Parsons, which is based on a relationship between both the social systems and organic systems. This perspective states that the character of a society’s various institutions must be recognised in terms of the function each performs in order for society as a whole to run smoothly. Whereas, the conflict perspective is associated with Karl Marx, which focuses on the idea that society is based on an unequal distribution of advantage (Bilton et al., 2002).

Functional Theory

Functionalist sociologists begin with an idea of society that emphasises the link between the social system. Functionalists consider the society like a machine. They also analyse the social procedures that are required to the establishment and maintenance of social order (Sadovnik, 2007). Functionalist theories of school and society can be traced back to Emile Durkheim’s general sociological theory. Durkheim’s theory related to the effects of the ‘decline of traditional rituals and community during the transition from traditional to modern societies’. He offered a sociological examination of the consequences of ‘modernity on community’ (Sadovnik, 2007: 3). Durkheim believed that the ‘process of industrialisation, urbanization and modernization’ was the reason for the collapse of ‘traditional rituals and methods of social control’, which further led to the breakdown of ‘social solidarity and cohesion’ (Sadovnik, 2007: 3).

Durkheim was the first sociologist to apply their sociologist theory to education. He identified that education had taken different forms, at different times and places and believed that in almost every society, education is essential in order to create ‘moral unity’ which is crucial for social structure and harmony. Durkheim’s emphasis on values and structure was a guide for how present-day functionalists attempt the study of education (Sadovnik, 2007: 4). Functionalism is related to the functions of schooling in the maintenance of social order. Functionalists examine the reason behind going to school and its role in society. Bennett and LeCompte, (1990), states that the reasons include intellectual, political, social and economical and is associated to their role within society.

However, functionalists are more interested about the function of schools within a modern society (Sadovnik, 2007). The social purpose of education is to socialise children with the various roles, behaviours and values of society. Sociologists refer to this social purpose as socialisation which is considered a significant component in the strength of any society and it allows people from society to help to solve social problems, through participation in socialisation in order to ensure social harmony (Sadovnik, 2007). Sadovnik, (2007), states that the main difference made by the functionalist perspective was between equality of opportunity and equality of results. Therefore, the functionalist theory view education is the most essential part to ensure a fair competition for unequal rewards. Education is therefore considered extremely important in order to continue to move up the social class ladder. The functionalist theory was the main theory in sociology until 1960s. In the 1960s, the conflict theory surfaced as an important analysis and different to functionalism.

Conflict Theory

Not all educational sociologists ‘believe that society is held together by shared values and collective agreement alone, instead they believe that society is held together through ‘economic, political, cultural and military power’. Conflict sociologists view the link between school and society as challenging. They also think that ‘schools are similar to social battlefields (Sadovnik, 2007: 6).

Karl Marx did not write specifically about education. He believed that the ‘class system, which separated owners from workers and workers from the benefits of their own labour, made class struggle inevitable’. Bowles and Gintis (1976), use a Marxist view in studying the development of the American public school. They believed that there is an exact connection between school and society and that there is no hope of restructuring schools until society is changed. However, other conflict sociologists of education claim that this traditional Marxist view is too structured and ignores the influence of both culture and human society in order to encourage change. They also believe that Marxism there is too much importance placed on the independent effects of the economy. Instead, they consider the effects of cultural, social and political factors much more significant (Sadovnik, 2007: 6-7).

Traditionally, social class was the first of the three key elements of social difference that were examined sociologically and in policy terms it is the main reason for educational reform. Class is the most important factor in social differences. While ‘more and more people have received extended education, educational achievement continues to be systematically linked to social background’. The main fact is that even though lower social groups have continued to improve their total level of educational attainment, they have not changed their relative position (Bilton, et al., 2002: 274). According to Breen and Whelan (1996: 98) there has been a significant change in the class bases in Irish society.

The main influence of social wealth and society has been replaced by the ability to secure wages in a competitive and dynamic labour market. Therefore, a closer link has been made between educational attainment and labour market position. Today, there is a lot of Irish sociological research that analyses the issues of educational opportunity and economic and class inequality (Tovey and Share, 2000). Lynch and O’Riordan as cited in Tovey and Share (2000) argue that the ‘equality empiricists’ have dictated the argument based on educational inequality, which is framed in a ‘liberal political perspective and a broadly functionalist sociological tradition’.

On the whole, as investing in education in Ireland has led to the increase in educational attainment and performance, the difference between classes has not reduced. The increased emphasis that has been placed on education as a mechanism for social advantage has shown that people at the top of the social class hierarchy in Irish society has further guaranteed their position (Tovey and Share, 2000).

The study ‘Who Went to College in 2004?’ carried out by O’Connell, Clancy and McCoy, (2006) reassess the patterns of access to higher education in Ireland. The main question being asked in this study is the socio-economic backgrounds of new participant to higher education. A lot of children from higher professional and farming backgrounds are two of the most popular socio-economic groups that attend higher education. Other socio-economic groups that are disproportionally represented amongst new entrants include; ‘employers and managers, lower professionals, skilled manual works and own account workers’. The socio-economic groups that are ‘under-represented include non-manual workers, semi- and unskilled manual workers, and agricultural workers’ (O’Connell et al., 2006: 132). Clancy (2001), states that this under-representation of low income groups entering higher education is one of the many factors which leads to educational disadvantage.

Under The Education Act (1998: 32 [9]) defines educational disadvantage as: ‘the impediments to education arising from social or economic disadvantage which prevent students from deriving appropriate benefit from education in schools’.

NESF (2002), claims that approximately 1,000 students do not make the move from primary school to secondary school education each year. There is increasing evidence that there is a direct link between the social background of a child and their educational outcomes (Combat Poverty Agency, 2003). Furthermore, the success scores of children in schools which are specifically allocated for disadvantaged children are significantly lower than students from non-disadvantaged schools (Thrupp, 1999). ‘Certain individuals, social groupings and communities are more vulnerable to educational disadvantage than others’, especially people from low-income or working class backgrounds.

Inequalities in educational participation and success highlight the wide range of both social and economical inequalities within Irish society and it also emphasises the increasing gap between the upper class and the lower-class in Ireland (Combat Poverty Agency, 2003). ‘Where there is a greater socio-economic inequality, there is an increased likelihood of educational inequality’ (Combat Poverty Agency, 2003). OECD (2007) highlighted that countries with the ‘highest levels of income inequality’ are the countries with the most important literacy inequality. Ireland is considered to have the third highest levels among OECD countries on both scores.

For this assignment, the topic that was discussed was whether class background is related to educational success. In order to do this, I discussed two theorists in relation to the sociology of education, these included Emile Durkheim’s functionalist perspective and Karl Marx’s conflict perspective. I then went on to discuss social class in relation to education and educational disadvantage in Ireland. Finally, after carrying out extensive research to see if class background is related to educational success, I have come to the opinion that class background is related to educational success, as Combat Poverty Agency (2003) stated that ‘Where there is a greater socio-economic inequality, there is an increased likelihood of educational inequality’.


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