2 Theories in the Sociology of Education
After reading this chapter, you will be able to
- Understand what is meant by macrosocial, microsocial, mesosocial, and middle-range theory.
- Explain how agency, structure, ontology, and epistemology are related to major underlying assumptions within sociological theories of education.
- Describe structural functionalism and the contributions made by Durkheim and Parsons.
- Explain Marxism and neo-Marxism, and name the major theorists associated with these perspectives.
- Explain how critical pedagogy is associated with the Marxist perspectives.
- Describe Weberian and neo-Weberian approaches to the sociology of education.
- Define institutional theory.
- Describe symbolic interactionism and identify major theorists associated with this perspective.
- Explain what is meant by phenomenology.
- Define what is meant by cultural reproduction theory and identify major theorists associated with this orientation.
- Explain what is meant by social capital.
- Describe the social mobility approaches to the sociology of education.
- Define ecological systems theory.
- Describe how feminist theory is connected to the sociology of education.
- Explain critical race theory and how it is related to the sociology of education.
This chapter introduces several theories concerning the sociology of education. Because this text explores education from a sociological perspective, it is essential that we consider how theory contributes to our understanding of education as a part of society. Sociological theories help us to take various pieces of a puzzle and put them together, using a specific framework to help us make sense of it all and to give us the tools we need to talk about the “bigger picture.” Each theoretical perspective represents a particular way of understanding the social world. It is like seeing the world through a specific set of glasses (see Figure 2.1). The way we see the world clearly influences how we interpret the social processes that are occurring within it. In this chapter, theories are presented chronologically as they have developed over time.
Many theories are given consideration in this chapter. No one theory is “right”—you will see that every theory has its own strengths and weaknesses. All theories focus on different aspects of human society; some focus on class, others on race, others on gender. There is much overlap, and while many theorists talk about class, for example, you will find that they think of it in markedly different ways. And the prominence of particular theoretical perspectives follows definite trends. Some of these theories were very popular in the discipline at one point (e.g., structural functionalism) but are barely considered now. However, it is important to understand the origins of all theories of educational sociology in use today. Understanding the era of a theory—that is, the historical circumstances under which it emerged—often also helps to understand the emphasis given to different aspects of social life.
Each theory is presented with a brief overview followed by examples from recent research, including Canadian research where possible. This chapter is meant to be a synopsis of the various theories used by sociologists of education; it is in no way an exhaustive overview of all theories within the discipline. Theories are presented in roughly chronological order, starting with structural functionalism of the late 1890s and ending with critical race theory, which is dominant today.
When you are learning about sociological theories, you may run across numerous words that you have not encountered before. Various theories are peppered with strange terminology. Theorists have adopted the use of specialized words to capture concepts that often have very complex meanings. Below, many such instances of these terms are discussed: cultural capital, habitus, racialization, and primary effects, just to name a few. Many of these terms are specific to one particular body of theories or a particular theorist.
Some terms, however, are used throughout the discussion of theory rather frequently. These terms are macrosocial theory, microsocial theory, mesosocial theory, middle-range theory, agency, and structure.
Agency and Structure
What is more important in explaining social life—individuals or the social structures around them? This is the question at the heart of the debate between agency and structure. refers to the individual’s ability to act and make independent choices, while refers to aspects of the social landscape that appear to limit or influence the choices made by individuals. So, which one takes primacy—individual autonomy or socialization? Of course, this question is not easily resolved and it is central to theoretical approaches in sociology. Some theorists emphasize the importance of individual experience, therefore favouring agency. Those theorists who favour agency are associated with microsociological explanations of social phenomena. Other theorists view society as a large functional organism. These are macrosociologists, who see the social world as a series of structures with varying degrees of harmony.
The agency–structure debate in social theory isn’t simply about which is more important; it also considers what it is that ties the individual to society. Society is more than a collection of individuals—there is something larger at work that makes those individuals a “society.” The structural functionalists and Marxists (i.e., macro theorists) emphasize how social structures determine social life and maintain that individual actions can be reinterpreted as the outcomes of structural forces. In other words, it may seem that individuals made decisions to act in certain ways (e.g., get a specific job or take a specific course) and these theorists would argue that the larger forces of society and structure constrain an individual’s choices in such a way that these are the only decisions that can be made. Symbolic interactionists and phenomenologists are microsociological theorists who focus on the subjective meanings of social life and how these meanings are responsible for creating individuals’ social worlds. Much research in social theory has focused on how to reconcile the structure and agency debate by exploring how individuals are connected to society. Some reconciliatons are offered by Berger and Luckmann (1969), Giddens (1984), Ritzer (2000), and Bourdieu (1986). Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus as a bridge between structure and agency will be discussed later in this chapter. Similarly, Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) discussion of the various ways and levels at which the child interacts with the environment will also be a considered as way of bridging the gap between agency and structure.
Ontology and Epistemology
Also underlying theoretical perspectives are other assumptions about the social world. There are two very important assumptions to consider when thinking about theories in the sociology of education—ontology and epistemology.
The theoretical perspectives considered in this text all have “taken-for-granted” ontological and epistemological orientations in their worldviews. Figure 2.2 graphically illustrates how ontology, epistemology, agency, structure, and the levels of social theory tend to correspond to each other on a spectrum. Microsocial theorists, for example, tend to emphasize agency over structure, point to the importance of understanding subjective reality, and use interpretive methods (in-depth qualitative interviews) when undertaking their studies. On the opposite end of the spectrum are macrosocial theorists, who focus on structure and believe in an objective reality that is to be learned about through positivist methods.
When learning about theories, it is important to think about what the theorist is assuming about social life. Theorists approach their subject with specific orientations to the primacy of agency or structure, micro/macro/meso sociological concerns, and specific beliefs about the nature of reality and how it should be studied. There are stark distinctions among theoretical approaches and recognizing the assumptions made by theorists in this way can help you understand the major differences in the “schools of thought” explored in the rest of the chapter.
is a body of theories that understand the world as a large system of interrelated parts that all work together. Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons are two major theorists in this area.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) is best known for his theory of moral regulation. He was also the first sociologist of education. Durkheim was interested in explaining why the rise of individualism in society did not result in widespread social breakdown. Durkheim wrote during a time when individualism was replacing the authority of the Catholic church in France and the collectivist social bond built on religious homogeneity. Societies no longer had singular dominant religions that bonded them together, or even dominant ethnicities. How was society being held together? Durkheim’s answer was that social life was possible because of the trust that existed among members of society. For society to function, there must exist an unwritten moral code that people follow. This moral framework is at the core of Durkheim’s theory of society.
Because of this belief in the importance of a shared moral code, Durkheim considered it the role of education in society to instill society’s morals in the minds (and actions) of young people. His writings on the subject stress this point very much, as reflected in such titles as Moral Education (1925).1 He argued that it is only through education that a given society can forge a commitment to an underlying set of common beliefs and values, as well as create a strong sense of community or nationhood. This moral education prepares us to be productive members of society by socializing and integrating us, whereby we not only understand but also value common morals. We become autonomous adults but we are guided in our acts by the moral codes that have become firmly ingrained in our beings.
Durkheim’s belief that society is held together by a common set of values and morals is at the heart of structural functionalism because it emphasizes how the various parts of a social system work together. Society functions because shared norms and morals create a sense of trust that leads to general social cohesion. Schools are integral to this process because they instill the correct moral codes into children so that they can develop into productive adults that contribute to society.
Durkheim died in 1917 and structural functionalism, particularly as it related to the sociology of education, was largely ignored until Talcott Parsons invigorated the discussion in the late 1950s with his widely cited article “The School Class as a Social System: Some of Its Functions in American Society.” Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that schools existed to socialize students. Up to school age, children are primarily socialized at home by their families, but the values instilled in the child at home are particular to the family. The child is judged in a particular way—as a member of his or her family. There is no way of judging his or her character relative to other children. The school plays a central role in bridging individuals to society. It is within schools that children are assessed in a standardized universalistic way that does not take their social background characteristics into account. According to Parsons, schools level the playing field so that children are assessed on the basis of merit—how they are judged is based only on how they perform on a standardized set of goals regardless of social background.
In this way, school prepares young people for their roles as adults. Parsons argued that American schools emphasized the values of achievement and equality of opportunity. Adults’ later placement in the workforce is a reflection of how much they achieved and how successful they were in their schooling. The school is functionally related to the workforce because it assigns people to their roles based on achievement, skills, and capability. It needs to be emphasized that structural functionalists do not believe that inequality is non-existent. On the contrary, they believe it is inherent to the functional system. Social inequality, in other words, exists because it is functional in society. People who are at the lower ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum are there because they fill necessary places there—and because they did not meet the qualifications for higher placement.
As you may imagine, structural functionalism is not without its critics, and many criticisms are well-founded. In particular, the approach fails to account for how many ascribed traits, like socioeconomic background, gender, and race, appear to be so important in determining life outcomes. A plethora of research has provided compelling evidence that the education system does not operate on a purely meritocratic basis. However, despite its shortcomings, structural functionalism has been a useful framework for understanding how morality and norms are spread across society and the school’s role in this process. See Box 2.1 for a recent analysis of education in Canada using a Durkheimian perspective.
Box 2.1 – Understanding Past Practices through a Durkheimian Lens
Recently, Loren Lerner (2010) presented an analysis of how children were portrayed in photographs contained in Canadian Pictorial, a monthly magazine published in Montreal, between 1906 and 1916. The magazine published mostly photographs and, according to Lerner, these photos served to “uphold the ideals of Canada’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant citizens who originated from Great Britain and to educate Canadians from non-British backgrounds to be like them” (p. 234).
Lerner argues that the photos were part of a larger educational mandate, following Durkheim, to teach young Canadians how to be “good” and “moral” citizens. Below, she comments on the implied meaning of a photo of Aboriginal children taken in a residential school in 1914. In an attempt to assimilate the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, residential schools were established by European-Canadians in the early twentieth century and funded by churches and the government. Aboriginal children were taken away from their families and communities and forced to abandon their language and culture. Many children experienced abuse in these schools. These worldviews of a presumed collective conscience and correct moral character, argues Lerner, are clearly depicted in the above photo:
English Canadians saw it as their social mission to impose particular meanings on these images of children, and so manipulated them to cohere with a worldview that was embedded with class-consciousness and traditional beliefs and customs. This was a collective vision that seemed to either ignore or reluctantly endorse the new realities of a society that was quickly changing . . . Durkheim believed that education was intrinsically linked to a society’s notion of an ideal person. The object of education was to develop in the child a certain number of physical, intellectual, and moral states demanded by society. It could be argued that Durkheim’s concept of education as the socialization of youth based on moral beliefs and traditions was consistent with Canadian Pictorial’s objective to educate the Canadian child. (p. 257)
The conviction that Aboriginal children could be assimilated is proudly documented in a full-page professional photograph of a classroom of students at Mellapolla near Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The banner-like title above the picture reads “Making Good Canadians of the Children of the Red Man.” The students, who are of all ages and include a few adults, are sitting at attention, while the female teacher at the back of the classroom stands in front of a very large map of Canada. The caption reads: “Only within quite recent times have the Indians of that part of the country come within close touch of civilization.” This statement was untrue. The text continues: “Now there is a well-equipped little school for the Indian children with a young lady teacher from England in charge. The photograph was specially taken for the ‘Pictorial’ by the first man to penetrate far north of Prince Rupert with a moving-picture camera . . .” The words are loaded with the supremacist connotation that the children, until now isolated, are being civilized by the white race that has come to save them from their non-civilized condition. The children’s submissiveness in front of the camera suggests that the experiment is succeeding, though most look unhappy or uncomfortable in the setting. The last sentence of the caption is particularly telling: “The expressions on the faces of the Indian children are worth studying.” The phrase “expressions on the faces” speaks to a longstanding belief that the human face carries signs of character and attributes. While it may hide a person’s true nature, if studied correctly, that nature will be disclosed. The expressions of Aboriginal people were often said to be wild and savage, but if they changed in an appropriate way, it signaled that the person had been successfully converted into a peace-loving Christian. Similarly, indoctrination in the guise of education could lead to the metamorphosis of Aboriginal children into acceptable Canadian children. (pp. 254–255)
For Durkheim, the intervention of the state in the internal life of the family was mandatory because the traditional family had the power to retard social development. He believed that society was created through the development of a collective conscience shared by all different types of children. As such, through education the child could be released from the bonds of a regressive family and learn to become integrated into a social group. This was also true of the immigrant or Aboriginal child, who could become a functioning member of society by learning to make a living as part of an occupational group. Only when the normative functions once exercised by institutions such as the family and religion turned into a relationship of mutual dependence could these children become real Canadian citizens. (p. 259)
Source: Lerner, Loren. 2010. “Photographs of the Child in Canadian Pictorial from 1906 to 1916: A Reflection of the Ideas and Values of English Canadians about Themselves and ‘Other’ Canadians.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth3(2):233–263. doi:10.1353/hcy.0.0098.
Karl Marx and Neo-Marxism
Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German intellectual and revolutionary known for his creation and endorsement of socialism and communism. Marx was a prolific writer, and among his many books were The Communist Manifesto and three volumes of Das Kapital. Writing during the industrial revolution in Europe (a point in history which markedly changed how goods were produced and thereby how people earned a living), Marx believed that all social relations were rooted in economic relations, particularly the mode of production, which refers to the way of producing goods and services. In capitalist systems, the mode of production is such that it places workers and owners in direct opposition to one another. Both groups have differing interests: the workers, for example, want to command the highest wage, while the owners, in order to drive the greatest profit, want to pay the lowest possible wage. This relation of production under capitalism, or the social relations that stem from capitalism, means that workers are always subservient and dependent on owners.
Marx viewed society as divided into distinct classes. At the most basic level, there were owners (the bourgeoisie) and workers (the proletariat). He argued that the only way to achieve a just society was for the proletariat to achieve class consciousness—to collectively become self-aware of their class group and the possibilities for them to act in their own rational self-interest.
The idea of class is at the very core of Marx and Marxist scholarship. While Marx was a prolific writer, he wrote relatively little on education. However, he did emphasize that class relations spilled into all aspects of social life, therefore the role of education in society—capitalist society—would be a topic of much relevance under a Marxist framework. In particular, the educational system of a society exists to maintain and reproduce the economic systems of society. Institutions in society, including education, were the outcome of activities and ideas that were created through the specific material conditions and circumstances surrounding them.
Neo-Marxism and Marxist Social Reproduction Analysis
The social activism of the 1960s in North America provided fertile ground for scholars to become receptive to Marxist theory. In the 1970s, two important contributions were made to Marxist social reproduction analysis in the sociology of education. The first was by Louis Althusser in 1970 and the second was by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in 1976.
Althusser (1918–1990) was a French Marxist philosopher who wrote on a wide range of topics. In terms of the sociology of education, he is best known for his theory of ideology. He believed that ideology was used to socialize children into their subordinate statuses in the capitalist system. Not only did the education system work to reinforce this socialization, but religion, the law, and the media (and other social structures) were used to pass on this ideology of the ruling class. He referred to the forces of these social structures in reproducing the social order as . To Althusser, ideology had two meanings. The first refers to the set of routine material practices in which teachers and students are involved. For example, rooms in schools are divided into spaces where certain people or groups of people accomplish certain jobs—the principal has his own office, the teachers have their own social space, and the support staff have their own area. The second aspect of ideology relates to “the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence” (Althusser 1971:153). In other words, ideology refers to “those systems of meanings, representations and values embedded in the concrete practices that structure the unconsciousness of students” (Arnowitz and Giroux 1987:86). To Althusser, this second aspect of ideology meant that individuals were engaged in unconscious acts that reproduced their class positions without even being aware of such processes. The physical and cultural surroundings reinforced this ideology, making it seem natural, although it was driven by the larger capitalist agenda, which was responsible for reproducing inequalities in social class.
In 1976 Bowles and Gintis wrote Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, which is widely considered to be the most influential neo-Marxist work in the sociology of education. The authors critically examined the education system in the United States and argued, in a Marxist vein, that the way school was organized in the United States was designed to replicate the class system and to benefit elites. There are two terms that are popularly associated with the work of Bowles and Gintis, and which overlap somewhat with Althusser’s concept of ideology: the correspondence principle and the hidden curriculum. The is the overarching theme of their book, which suggests that the education system is set up to serve (or correspond to) the class-based system so that classes are reproduced and so that elites maintain their positions. The authors provide evidence of this relationship by showing how the statistical relationship between (1) intelligence and future earnings and (2) intelligence and future occupation disappears once socioeconomic background is accounted for. In other words, class origins are the major driving force behind the future jobs and incomes that young people achieve—not their intelligence. It is through the hidden curriculum that schools are able to reproduce the class system. The refers to the subtle ways that students are taught to be co-operative members of the class system. There is a “correspondence” between the economic system and the structure of school. Social relations and work principles developed at a young age in the education system parallel those of the wider capitalist society. Students must learn deference and be subservient to teachers, have respect for the established order, and accept that they have no control over what they learn. Engraining these traits in young people “corresponds” with their future roles in the labour market. From a young age, young people are therefore socialized to accept their class placement in the capitalist economy.2
Marxist theory and neo-Marxism enjoyed popularity in the sociology of education in 1970s and 1980s, but has since fallen from favour as the theoretical paradigm of choice among researchers. Neo-Marxism is a term that generally refers to Marxist approaches from the twentieth century and beyond which in some way modify original Marxist theory. In Canada, the 1970s and ’80s produced numerous important pieces of work in the sociology of education under the Marxist/neo-Marxist umbrella, including Wotherspoon (1984, 1987) and Livingstone (1983, 1985). However, one major criticism of the versions of Marxism described above is that they tend to ignore other characteristics that are influential in the social landscape, such as gender and race or ethnicity.
Marxist theory and neo-Marxism have largely been superseded by other theories in the discipline, particularly postmodern theories of gender and race, which are discussed below. Some researchers in the sociology of education refer to Marxist authors covered in this section and use certain aspects of their theory, combined with other theories. For example, in their study of how working-class students from an inner-city school in Vancouver understood Canadian citizenship, Kennelly and Dillabough (2008) used the framework of phenomenology but appealed to Althusser’s concept of ideology to help them understand the position of disadvantaged youth.
Makropolous (2010) has called upon Bowles and Gintis’s correspondence principle to explain Ottawa students’ attitudes to French immersion curriculum. She concluded that the French immersion program in Ottawa was geared toward students who were preparing for university. Those who did not share that goal were not successful in the program. See Box 2.2 for a discussion of how Marxist theory is related to approaches in pedagogy.
Box 2.2 – Critical Pedagogy and Its Marxist Roots
Critical pedagogy is a term that frequently comes up in neo-Marxist approaches to teaching. refers to a general philosophy of teaching that recognizes and attempts to rid the classroom and teacher–student interactions of relationships and practices that perpetuate inequalities. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, is credited with starting this movement with the publication of his highly influential book Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1970. Freire uses a metaphor of “banking” to describe how the education system is organized—students are empty banks and teachers deposit knowledge into them. Freire rejects this model, arguing that this assumes that the object of education (the student) knows nothing and has nothing to offer to the “educator,” which serves to dehumanize both the student and the teacher.
Many prominent education researchers have been influenced by the work of Freire, including Henry Giroux and Peter McLaren. Giroux is currently a professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University and has published about 35 books and 300 scholarly articles. His most recent interests have focused on how the media represent youth and negatively influence current pedagogical practices (Giroux 2010; Giroux and Pollock 2010).
Canadian-born McLaren is a professor of Education at UCLA and has written over 45 books, along with hundreds of scholarly articles (see, for example, McLaren 2010; McLaren and Jaramillo 2010). McLaren is known for his work in promoting a radical critical pedagogy which “attempts to create the conditions of pedagogical possibility that enables students to see how, through the exercise of power, the dominant structures of class rule protect their practices from being publicly scrutinized as they appropriate resources to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many” (McLaren 2010:5). Like the neo-Marxists described above, McLaren understands schools as being a place of social reproduction, and his critical pedagogy is aimed at dismantling this process which results in what he views as the continued oppression of many.
Critical pedagogical approaches are used extensively in Canadian research. For example, Barrett et al. (2009) interviewed 47 teacher-educators from Ontario’s New Teacher Induction Program from eight different faculties of education across Ontario. The researchers used elements of McLaren’s approach to critical pedagogy, indicating that teacher-educators suggested that the curriculum of teacher training contained elements that reduced the likelihood of teachers adopting a critical pedagogical perspective. One example is the pairing of new teachers with senior colleagues who were not likely receptive to the idea of introducing emancipatory teaching practices.
Other prominent scholars associated with neo-Marxism include Michael Apple and Paul Willis. Apple’s work Ideology and Curriculum (1979) was critical of Bowles and Gintis, indicating that they had failed to account for the role of ideology and culture in reproducing systems of domination. He agreed that economic reproduction (i.e., reproducing social classes) was indeed an outcome of schooling, but that it went beyond simple economic aspects. To Apple, social reproduction was also the result of ideological and cultural practices that occurred within schools. Schools serve to educate students and as such they convey knowledge to students. This knowledge is a particular type of knowledge, however, which is considered “legitimate knowledge.” It reflects the ideologies and cultural practices of the ruling classes, and passing this type of knowledge on to students also contributes to social reproduction. More recently, Apple has been interested in the rise of neo-conservatism in the United States and its influence on creating American educational policy (based upon right-wing political ideology). Aurini and Davies (2005) have considered Apple’s perspective in their research on the growth of homeschooling in Canada. They agree with Apple that to some extent many parents who opt to homeschool are politically conservative, but they trace the growth of homeschooling to a more general trend of parents being closely involved in their children’s education (i.e., “intensive” or “helicopter” parenting) rather than any particular politically based movement.
Another neo-Marxist theorist is Paul Willis, who is best known for his resistance theory. His groundbreaking work Learning to Labour (1977) was an ethnographic study of working-class adolescent boys in the UK. In particular, Willis examined how these youth resisted the schools’ attempt to control them by rejecting the values associated with the middle class. They openly rejected the value of the intellectual offerings associated with school work. They also openly rejected the authoritative structure associated with the school. The findings from this research led him to coin the term , which referred to how marginalized students do not comply with the values, discipline, and expected behaviours of middle class school structures. Instead of being viewed as acts of delinquency, these acts of rule breaking are interpreted as a class-based resistance. Paradoxically, however, these resisting behaviours also served to reproduce their class position—preventing the acquisition of the skills and training required for jobs outside the realm of manual labour.
Raby and Domitrek’s (2007) more recent study of rule-breaking by Canadian high school students largely confirms Willis’s theory. They found that adolescent boys from marginalized backgrounds tended to resist the White middle-class techniques for dispute resolution (i.e., “talking it out”), favouring physical aggression. They were also more likely to have been in conflicts with teachers and lacked the middle class cultural knowledge required to navigate the school system effectively.
Weber and Neo-Weberian Approaches
Max Weber (1868–1920) was a German sociologist who, along with Marx and Durkheim, is widely regarded as being a “founding father” of sociology. Weber, however, differed from Marx and Durkheim in a very important way. Unlike Marx and Durkheim, who were macro-theorists, his theory does not describe the overall nature of society. Instead, his micro-theoretical ideas pointed to how people both construct society and are constrained by it at the same time (King 1980). Weber focused on education in many of his writings.
One of Weber’s most famous analyses is contained within The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where he identifies the growth and success of capitalism as being largely contingent upon the spread of Protestantism in Northern Europe. The values and tenets associated with this branch of Christianity encourage hard work, and the subdivision of Calvinism provided even more support for his association between the rise of capitalism and religious affiliation. Calvinists believed in predestination; in other words, one’s “destination” (i.e., heaven or hell) was determined at birth. As a result of this uncertainty, people looked for clues about their fate. They consequently interpreted success in business and in work as a signal that they were held in God’s favour. Weber argued that the religious beliefs at the time facilitated the growth of capitalism. As time went on and beliefs became more secularized, capitalism was so entrenched and established within society that the initial complimentary religious attitudes that allowed it to develop were no longer necessary. Unlike Marx, Weber argued that ideas were central to the social groups and institutions we observe. His understanding of ideology is one that, in contrast to Marx, is based upon subjective understandings held by people, not overarching dominant forces that control individuals.
Linked to his interest in religion and its place in society was Weber’s analysis of rationalization. occurred when society became more secular, scientific knowledge began to develop, and an increasing reliance on scientific and technological explanations began to emerge. Instead of being based on customs or religious belief, more and more social actions were the outcome of beliefs related to scientific thought. Rationalization paved the way for what Weber referred to as “rational-legal authority,” which is a type of political leadership that is regarded as legitimate due to being rooted in established laws (which themselves are the outcome of rationalization). Closely related to the concepts of rationalization and rational-legal authority is , which is an administrative structure that follows a clear hierarchical structure and involves very specific rules and chains of command. If you are enrolled in a post-secondary institution like a college or university, you have had first-hand experience of bureaucracy. If you want to appeal a grade, for example, you must fill out the right forms, send them to the right office, and wait until various people in the bureaucracy (professors, deans, heads of departments, grade appeal committees) read your appeal and make a decision on it. The decision then trickles back to you in the reverse manner. Bureaucracies organize work in specific ways and can be frustrating because they are, by design, inflexible.
In addition to his contributions above, Weber also provided a unique interpretation of the nature of social stratification. As discussed earlier, Marx indicated that there were two social classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These classes were entirely determined by the relationship that individuals had to the means of production. Max Weber, in contrast, had a more complex understanding of stratification, identifying class and status groups as the two major distributors of power within a society.
However, both Marx and Weber argued that social classes had the tendency to reproduce themselves. This tendency for reproduction is, in fact, the ultimate feature of classes. The concept of status is central to understanding how Weber understood how society was divided into groups with competing interests. Weber defined as being associated with honour and privilege, independent of class membership. According to Weber, are moral communities, concerned with upholding the privilege of their members in society. Weber also argued that status groups could cut across classes and thus acted to work against class unification. As well, status groups also secure power through “social closure,” whereby they restrict rewards to those who possess certain characteristics (social or physical) (Parkin 1982). Weber indicated that it did not matter which criteria were used to distinguish “outsiders”: “whatever suggests itself most easily is seized upon” (Parkin 1982:102, quoting Weber 1968:1012). The result of this social closure would be to secure resources and advantages at the expense of other groups.
Status groups often limit membership based on credentials. Credentialism is a major theme in Weberian (and neo-Weberian) discussions of the sociology of education. refers to the requirement of obtaining specific qualifications for membership to particular groups. More specifically, the actual skills obtained through these credentials are often not explicitly associated with the job’s task. Many entry-level office jobs or jobs in the civil service require new recruits to have a university degree, although the skills required in these jobs may have nothing to do with the degree that individuals have. This is an instance of credentialism. People with many years of practical experience in a given field but who have no degree may be denied jobs or promotions because they have no formal credentials.
Randall Collins is probably the best-known sociologist of education working in a neo-Weberian framework. Like neo-Marxism, neo-Weberian approaches refer to modifications to Weber’s theories that have occurred in the twentieth century forward, but still retain many of the core elements of Weber’s writings. In 1979 he published The Credential Society, a book that continues to be influential in the study of credentialism. He coined the term to refer to the decreased value of the expected advantage associated with educational qualifications over time. You may be familiar with the popular notion that a bachelor’s degree is now equivalent to what a high school diploma “used to” be. This is an example of credential inflation—that expected returns to a university degree now are what the high school diploma used to be “worth” a generation ago. See Box 2.3 for examples of studies in the sociology of education drawing on Weberian and neo-Weberian perspectives.
Box 2.3 – Weberian Approaches to the Study of the Sociology of Education
Weber’s (1951) major study of how occupational status groups controlled entry with credentials was done in China, where he described how administrative positions were granted to individuals based upon their knowledge of esoteric Confucian texts, rather than on any skills that were particular to that job (Brown 2001). Weber described how the “testing rituals that gained one admittance to sectarian religious communities and the various forms of economic and political credit they afforded were predecessors to the formalized educational credential requirements for employment in the modern era. Formal educational claims of competence . . . were inseparable from jurisdictional issues (politics) of employment, that is, from position monopolies that were based on substantively unassailable cultural qualifications” (Brown 2001:21). In other words, credentialism, in its many forms and through many processes, has been around in various cultures for some time and serves to reproduce culture and protect status groups.
Taylor (2010) recently examined credential inflation in high school apprenticeships in Canada. She notes that education policy-makers have shown an interest in making the “academic” and “vocational” streams in high school education more comparable by mixing these curricula. The typical trajectory is for teens to attend secondary schools where they can take courses in various subjects (vocational and academic) and receive a diploma upon credit completion. However, Taylor’s data analysis showed that vocational education occupied a vague position within secondary education, particularly when credentialism was being emphasized. Trades training continues to be stigmatized and associated with less intelligent students, despite efforts to integrate the programs. Instead of an integration of these programs, the researcher instead saw a pronounced effect of educational stratification and an “intensification of positional competition” where students tried to further differentiate themselves in the labour market.
Foster (2008) traces the professionalization of medicine in Canada in his analysis of foreign-trained doctors. The medical profession is a status group that requires certain credentials for entry. In Canada, that credential is a medical degree from Canada (or a recognized foreign institution). Foster asks why there is a doctor shortage while there are so many foreign-trained doctors in Canada who are unable to practise. He argues that the professional closure of the medical profession in Canada is regulated so that foreign-born, non-European and non-White practitioners are at a serious disadvantage.
John Meyer (along with his associates) is another sociologist of education (currently professor emeritus of sociology at Stanford University) who also questions the overall legitimacy of credentialism. His developments in the theories around sociology of education were largely a reaction to the arguments put forth by the structural functionalists and the Marxist scholars in the 1970s. He has noted that educational systems have expanded worldwide, but that this expansion is not necessarily related to labour market demands. Known as , Meyer’s central argument is that the global expansion of education has not been the result of institutional or workforce requirements for this level of training, but rather that of a wider democratic belief in the good of expanding education associated with institutional rituals and ceremonies that make it legitimate, rather than actual practices in the workforce that necessitate such levels of training (Meyer and Rowan 1977, 1978; Meyer, Boli, Thomas, and Ramirez 1997). He has further argued that there is a loose coupling (or a weak association) between the belief in the importance of expanding schooling in democratic societies (reflected in government and political positions) and the actual need for such skills. Loose coupling also exists when educational ideals are expressed (again, perhaps by government agencies or in policies), but the actual ability to attain those skills is rather limited.
Aurini (2006) provides useful illustrations of loose coupling in a Canadian context. She describes how public education in Canada has “loosely coupled by adhering to common institutional scripts (e.g., hiring credentialed staff), by avoiding performance indicators such as standardized tests, and by adopting vague and expansive language to describe organizational activities, such as ‘social development’ and ‘emotional intelligence’” (p. 89). Aurini goes on to argue that Ontario public schools have “recoupled” in recent years by introducing standardized tests in an attempt to demonstrate competency. Her research on private schooling businesses (i.e., private tutoring companies like Kumon or Sylvan Learning Centre) demonstrates that these institutions are examples of loose coupling because they do not make promises of improved grades (which would be a logical coupling of tutoring and educational outcomes), but focus on their services as providing the outcome of increased “skills” and self-esteem.
Symbolic interaction is a microsociological approach to social theory that emerged in the 1960s and is closely associated with the work of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead is regarded as a founder of what is known today as social psychology.
Mead and the Development of the Self
in general asserts that the world is constructed through meanings that individuals attach to social interactions. Mead’s approach to understanding social life was grounded in his understanding of the steps in child development. In 1934, he used the terms “I” and “Me” to refer to the process that individuals go through in understanding themselves in a social world. A child enters the world only understanding the concept of “I”—he or she is mostly unaware of the social world except as it relates to fulfilling his or her own needs. The “I” is controlled by impulses and basic human needs and desires. As a child gets older, the social part of the self—the “Me”—develops. The child learns about other people through the understanding and meaning he or she attributes to gestures. The “Me” develops through interaction with other people and through the social environment. This happens by learning how individuals respond to specific acts and gestures made by the individual. The “Me” is the social self. The “I” is our immediate response to others.
Mead posited that there are two distinct stages that a child goes through in order to realize “Me.” The first is the play stage, where children learn how to take the attitude of a single particular other. For example, children may play house and act as “mommy” or “daddy.” This stage, however, is very limiting because it allows the child to take on only two possible roles. The second stage—where full development of the self occurs—is the game stage, where a child learns to take on the attitude of everyone else. By being able to internalize the roles of several others, he or she is about to function in organized groups in society. By being able to take on various roles at a time, he or she understands the roles and attitudes of multiple people. This understanding of collective attitudes of a society is what Mead referred to as the generalized other. The generalized other keeps individuals connected to society by an understanding of shared meanings; it can be considered a bridge between the individual (micro) and the wider society (macro).
Symbols and Herbert Blumer
In addition to these concepts, Mead emphasized the importance of significant symbols and social life. Significant symbols are generated vocally through the use of language and are embedded in a deep web of meaning. One task of symbolic interaction (SI) is to understand how people attribute meaning to different symbols. This aspect of SI was more fully developed by Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), a student of Mead’s. Blumer (1969) extended Mead’s theory and focused on three basic concepts: meaning, language, and thought. People’s behaviours toward things are based upon the meaning that such things have for them. “Things” can refer to objects, other people, ideas, and the self. The meaning that people attribute to things is derived largely from complex social interactions that individuals have amongst themselves that involve vocal language. There is also no pre-existing objective meaning—meaning is continuously created dependent on particular contexts and is constantly negotiated through thought. In creating meaning, the social actor must be able to take different points of view (i.e., the generalized other).
Box 2.4 – Recent Examples of Symbolic Interaction Theory Used in Education Research
How do ethnic minority students perceive racism in their teachers? This is the question Stevens (2008) asked in his study of Turkish students in a vocational school in Belgium. Stevens was interested in exploring how ethnic minorities in a White, Flemish educational institution defined racism and how particular contexts and interactions between students influenced the students’ perceptions of racism. He found that students made different claims about racism based on perception, which were very specific to students and particular contexts. The students regarded “racist-joking” by teachers to be perceived as racist only if there was a definite racist intent. He also found that students did not evaluate teachers’ ability to teach based on their perceived racism of that teacher; perceived racists were also considered good teachers by some students.
Alternatively, Rafalovich (2005) used an SI approach to examine how children’s behaviour was “medicalized.” Interviewing teachers, parents, and clinicians from two cities in North America (one in Canada, the other in the United States), Rafalovich examined language to reveal how certain childhood behaviours were contextualized by educators as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Typically, the behaviour was escalated to a potential “medical” problem (rather than just an individual behavioural characteristic of being a child, such as “daydreaming”) when teachers started to compare such children with other children in the class. While not denying the existence of ADHD as a medical problem, the author argues that this process often acted to assign meanings to behaviours as a problematic medical condition, instead of typical childhood behaviours. Rafalovich argues from an SI perspective that the meaning of the behaviour of acts such as “daydreaming” are open to interpretation. The author examines how teachers, who are not certified to make official diagnoses, play an important role in the medicalization of children’s behaviours.
Within the sociology of education, symbolic interactionist perspectives are useful for examining how meaning is attributed to language. When drawing upon an SI theoretical framework, researchers are much more likely to reference Blumer or successive theorists in the area (e.g., Denzin 1989), rather than referring to Mead. The general spirit of the research, however, remains the same: examining how meaning is created through the use of language in various social settings. See Box 2.4 for recent examples of research in the sociology of education employing an SI approach.
The term is used to refer to a variety of philosophies that span many disciplines. Here, the discussion is based upon phenomenological sociology, which originated with the work of Austrian social scientist Alfred Schütz (1899–1959) in the early 1930s. Schütz’s work was very much influenced by the writings of Max Weber. While he admired Weber’s work, he felt that it had a serious deficit in that it overlooked the meaning that individuals attributed to their actions.
Schütz (1970, 1972) found a way to manage this perceived shortcoming of Weber by borrowing insights from the phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859–1938). Husserl’s focus as a phenomenological philosopher was in the area of formal structures of consciousness. Schütz’s theory emerged as a blend of Weberian theory with Husserl’s understanding of consciousness (Hamilton 1991). He agreed with Weber that social sciences were different from the natural sciences and therefore required special techniques for the study of the subject (an interpretivist epistemological orientation). He argued that people are continuously trying to make sense of the world and that the social scientists must recognize that we are engaged in a process of trying to make sense of the process of other people trying to make sense. Unlike those he or she is observing, however, social researchers have a “disinterested attitude” (Schütz 1970) because they are concerned with making sense out of what they see as a purely cognitive exercise—not because they have any practical interest in the outcomes of the interactions they are analyzing. Therefore, social scientists must study unintentional consciousness—or the meanings attributed to actions in everyday life. The term “life-world” (Lebenswelt in German) is one closely associated with Schütz’s work and refers to the analytical attention given to meaning in the lived world.
Many sociologists since Schütz have taken up the phenomenological position. Berger and Luckmann further popularized the approach in the late 1960s with the publication of The Social Construction of Reality. More recently, Scanlon (2009) used a Schützian approach to studying the learning experiences of Canadian adult learners. Using this approach, the author was able to understand the complex life-worlds of adult students, and identify specific segments which helped or distracted them from their studies. Through the use of phenomenological sociology, Scanlon was able to produce a nuanced understanding of the complexities of adult education that may enable adult educators to better understand their world, which is of growing importance as more adults return to education for retraining.
Wong and Lohfield (2008) similarly studied the experiences of immigrants with foreign medical doctor credentials who had to re-enter medical school in Canada in order to have their credentials recognized. Using a phenomenological approach, the researchers analyzed interviews they had undertaken with 12 recertifying medical students in Ontario. The researchers’ analysis revealed that the recertifying doctors experienced many barriers to gaining access to retraining. After they were accepted into recertification programs, they then went through periods of loss tied to their professional devaluation in their host country. They also experienced a sense of disorientation during training because they did not know how to act in social situations around their peers, not understanding their “expected roles” as international medical graduates. The participants described various coping strategies that helped them adapt to their situation. Like Scanlon (2009), Wong and Lohfield indicate that information from their study can be used to assist medical educators of the unique needs that recertifying doctors may bring to the medical classroom.
Cultural Reproduction Theory
Cultural reproduction theory is most closely associated with the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). Bourdieu is one of many theorists associated with what is known as poststructuralism. Poststructuralism is a reaction to structural functionalism, which favours the importance of social structures in explanation of social life over individual action. is associated mostly with the writings of a fairly diverse set of French philosophers (including Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault) whose only substantial area of agreement was that structuralism was flawed. There is no tidy definition that encompasses all the major theorists associated with poststructuralism—their areas of writing were all very disparate.
Like many social theorists, Bourdieu wrote on a host of topics. Bourdieu was markedly influenced by Marxism, as he believed that social position (class) greatly determined the life chances of people. But he disagreed with the Marxist notion of class and argued that social stratification processes emerged from a variety of difference sources, such as the forms of capital. Bordieu’s writings that pertain specifically to education (1977, 1984, 1986) will be focused on here and deal with the role of cultural reproduction in the education system. Like many theories, it is necessary to understand various terms the theorists in question used.
The Forms of Capital
Many social theorists talk about “capital.” The term capital is borrowed from the discipline of economics and is used to describe tangible assets. The idea of capital is typically associated with money and assets that are easily converted to money. Social theorists have borrowed the term capital and used it to refer to other assets that people possess, such as their social skills and cultural knowledge.
Bourdieu is perhaps most well-known in the field of education for his contributions in the area of cultural capital. It is not easy to define cultural capital, as Bourdieu himself defined the term in several different ways throughout the course of his writings. But the characteristic that his various definitions shared is that refers to high status cultural knowledge possessed by individuals. High status cultural knowledge is acquired by experience and familiarity with high culture activities, such as going to the opera, ballet, or theatre as well as the appreciation of art, literature, and classical musical, and theatre attendance. It is theorized that familiarity with these forms of leisure allows individuals to give off signals that give them advantage in high status circles. Bourdieu argued that children with cultural capital were appraised more favourably by their teachers than children who did not possess this form of capital, even though this form of capital did not necessarily impact on how well the child was doing in school. Familiarity with high culture may give a child more sophisticated language skills, for example, which may result in the teacher rating that child more positively.
Cultural capital is one vehicle through which culture is reproduced. By , it is meant that the high status classes reward individuals who exhibit the traits and possess the knowledge of the upper class, therefore maintaining their power. Having cultural capital gives individuals access to exclusive social circles that those who do not possess cultural capital cannot penetrate. The honing of (or investment in) this capital occurs over the life course. In the case of upper class families, children are groomed to have certain cultural knowledge and mannerisms from a very young age. Children exposed to high culture will adopt the language and knowledge associated with participation in these leisure pursuits, and as a result of this, may give cues to teachers that will result in their preferential treatment in the classroom (Bourdieu 1977). These signals are very similar to what Bernstein (1971) referred to as “language codes.” This is essentially Bourdieu’s argument about how inequality persists in schools, despite efforts to base academic achievement solely on merit and ability.
As well, cultural capital functions by a principle of cumulative advantage (for those who possess it) or cumulative disadvantage (for those who do not have any). While there are types of tastes and styles associated with all social classes or subgroups, only those that are able to potentially further economic and/or social resources are considered cultural capital.
In addition to cultural capital, Bourdieu (1986) identified (at least) two other broad types of capital. The first is , which refers to characteristics that are quickly and relatively easily converted into money. Educational attainment, job skills, and job experience are included in this type of capital as their transformation into money is a well-understood process. The second type of capital is , which Bourdieu conceptualized as micro-based in networks and individual relationships that potentially led to access to resources.
These forms of capital do not exist in isolation from one another, but are closely linked. Each form of capital is convertible into another form. Economic capital is at the root of all capitals such that economic reward can be derived from both social and cultural capital. For example, signals of cultural knowledge (such as the ability to speak in an “educated manner”) are rewarded in the classroom, which is easily converted into a type of economic capital—educational attainment.
As Bourdieu was a poststructuralist, his theoretical positionings were somewhat in response to structuralism. Bourdieu was not content to advocate a theory according to which individuals were either bound by social structures or where individual agency was prioritized. His solution to the structure/agency problem was the habitus. The habitus can be understood as embodied social structure—that piece of social structure that we all carry around in our heads, and which largely regulates our actions. The habitus guides our behaviours, our dispositions, and our tastes. It originates from our lived experience of class and the social structures in which we have become familiarized and socialized. Our decisions may be our own decisions, but they are greatly guided and restricted by the social structure that exists within each of us (see Figure 2.3).
Field is another major concept used by Bourdieu. Field refers to social settings in which individuals and their stocks of capital are located. Fields are important because it is only within these contexts that we can understand how the rules of the field interact with individuals’ “capitals” and their habitus to produce specific outcomes.
Box 2.5 – Applying Bourdieu’s Theory to the Study of Education
Lehmann (2009) used Bourdieu’s ideas of cultural capital and habitus to explore how first-generation university students from working class backgrounds integrated into the culture of the university. Being “first generation,” these individuals were the first persons from their families to enter university. Bourdieu himself argued that universities (especially elite ones) are places where the possession of cultural capital is particularly important for success. Students from working class backgrounds, however, are at a disadvantage because they typically do not possess much cultural capital. Lehmann was interested to see how these individuals coped with being university students—the university being a field that was mismatched to their class, and stocks of capital. Lehmann conducted qualitative interviews with 55 first-generation students at a large university in Ontario at two points: (1) at the beginning of their studies in their first year, and (2) at the beginning of their second year. Lehmann found that students compensated for their deficiencies in cultural capital by focusing on aspects of their social class background that they felt gave them an advantage. The habitus of the working class students was characterized by a strong work ethic, maturity, and independence.
Taylor and Mackay (2008) studied the creation of alternative programs within the Edmonton Public School Board. The EPSB is well-known for its policies on school choice and alternatives, and combined with provincial policies from the 1970s, much flexibility has existed for the creation of alternative programs. The authors focus on the creation of three alternative programs between 1973 and 1996: a Cree program, a fine arts program, and a Christian program. The authors note that alternative programs are tied to fields that are stratified by race and class. They noted that some proponents of the different schools found it easier to access social and cultural capital to exert influence than others. Advocates for the Cree school had to find individuals with cultural capital (university professors) to back them in order to be considered legitimate, while advocates for the Christian school had individuals with vast stocks of economic, social, and cultural capital in the core of their membership.
The school setting is an example of a field (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002). Students bring their social, cultural, and economic capital and their habitus to this field, and the power relations within this field (teachers, principals) interact with them to bring about certain outcomes. Getting good grades is valued in the educational field, but a student’s cultural capital may impact on his or her grades because teachers have been found to reward students who possess cultural capital more favourably than students who do not (Bourdieu and Wacquant 2002). See Box 2.5 for how Canadian researchers have used Bourdieu’s framework in education research.
Social Capital Approaches
While Bourdieu discusses multiple forms of capital, other theorists have focused solely on the important role that social capital plays in the educational outcomes of young people. Most notable among these theorists is James Coleman (1946–1995), who found that children who attended Catholic and private high schools (both of which are privately funded in the United States) had a much lower dropout rate than those who went to public schools, even when parental socioeconomic characteristics were taken into consideration. Coleman (1988) argued that it was the social capital in the students’ communities and families that accounted for this difference, arguing that social ties were much stronger among those who went to Catholic and private high schools. Coleman theorized that children’s educational achievement was driven by strong parental interest, which had additional effects that extended into the community. Additionally, strong bonds between parents and children, and among extended family, led to intergenerational closure which resulted in informal social control and monitoring of children.
In contrast to Bourdieu, Coleman was a theorist mostly influenced by rational choice theory—the idea that people’s actions are the result of decisions based on reason. Coleman argued that social capital was not simply a possession of individuals but that it was a public good whose benefits may be received not only by those who actively contribute to it, but also by all members of the social structure. Being active in a parent–teacher association may, for example, benefit an individual’s child, but it will also serve to strengthen the ties within the community, which has positive effects for all members.
Field (2003:24) documents how Coleman’s later definition of social capital is explicated almost exclusively in terms of children’s development. The ties that develop in a community through the civic engagement of parents have the “spillover” effect of not only improving the educational attainment of children, but also ensuring their healthy cognitive development. Coleman (1988) asserted that social capital is something that individuals can possess but that it also serves to reinforce the social structure. However, Coleman’s rational choice background meant that he interpreted the “public good” aspect act of investing in social structures not as an intended consequence of individuals’ actions, but rather as an “unintended consequence of their pursuit of self-interest” (Field 2003:25).
Coleman also contrasts with Bourdieu in his understanding of the holders of social capital and the good that it served. While Bourdieu maintained that social capital was held by the privileged elite, Coleman’s conceptualization of social capital involves all members of the social structure. Field also indicates that Coleman’s view is
. . . naively optimistic; as a public good, social capital is almost entirely benign in its functions, providing a set of norms and sanctions that allow individuals to co-operate for mutual advantage, and with little or no “dark side.” Bourdieu’s usage of the concept, by contrast, virtually allows only for a dark side for the oppressed and a bright side for the privileged. (2003:26)
The third major theorist associated with social capital is Robert Putnam (b. 1941). To Putnam, “social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (2000:19). In this view, social capital is more a characteristic of societies than individuals (Portes 1998). Putnam emphasized membership to voluntary organizations as key indicators of social capital in communities, with the steady decline since the 1960s as proof that social capital is on the decline in the United States.
Putnam identified two different types of social capital: bonding capital and bridging capital. is considered “exclusive” in the sense that it occurs within established groups in order to reinforce group solidarity, whereas is “inclusive” in that it is used for information diffusion and linkage to other groups. Bonding capital is useful for reinforcing group solidarity and identity, while bridging capital is useful for diffusion of information and network expansion (Putnam 2000:22–23).
While Putnam regarded social capital as a characteristic that is contingent upon the social and economic specificities of individual societies, Field (2003) notes that Putnam has been criticized for failing to clearly account for the processes underlying the creation and maintenance of social capital in communities. Like Coleman, Putnam’s understanding of social capital is rather celebratory of “the good old days,” with little consideration of the potentially negative aspects of social capital. Both Coleman and Putnam regard social capital as a remedy for various social problems in American cities. See Box 2.6 for an example of how social capital theory has been used to study university education in Canada.
Box 2.6 – Immigrants and the Role of Social Capital in University Education
Abada and Tenkorang (2009) were interested in social capital’s impact on the pursuit of university education among immigrants in Canada. Particularly, they wanted to examine how different ethnic groups used different forms of social capital to their advantage. Social capital theorists tend to discuss social capital in very broad terms, and therefore there are a lot of different ways of understanding what social capital actually is. Coleman emphasized the role of the family in providing social support while Putnam focused on civic engagement (ties to the community). Abada and Tenkorang looked at the role of family characteristics (including how much of a sense of “family belonging” individuals had), the extent to which individuals participated in community events, and how much trust they had for family members, people in their neighbourhood, and people in their workplace. Abada and Tenkorang also argued that language usage among friends could be thought of as social capital, as speaking in one’s mother tongue may be understood as maintaining ties among members of ethnic groups.
Abada and Tenkorang found that intergenerational relations in the family facilitated the pursuit of post-secondary education among immigrants, supporting Coleman’s idea for the importance of intergenerational closure (i.e., parents interacting with parents of other children) on achievement. In terms of minority language retention, however, the researchers found that this can actually inhibit academic achievement, suggesting that while it may have positive effects in connecting individuals to their communities, it may also prevent them from making connections with external social networks that lead to a larger variety of opportunities. The researchers also found that different aspects of social capital mattered more to different ethnic groups. In particular, trust was found to be much more important to the success of Black youth compared to the other ethnic groups examined. The researchers suggest that a chronic misunderstanding of this group’s culture by the education system has potentially led to a greater mistrust of school authorities, which may have made trust a key issue among Black youth.
Micro/Meso/Macro Aspects of Social Capital
Social capital, as described above, is unique in that it is one of the few concepts associated with sociology of education that is explicitly discussed in terms of its micro, meso, and macro aspects (see Figure 2.4). Bourdieu discusses social capital as a characteristic that people have—their connections and networks. This is a micro-social approach to social capital. Putnam, on the other hand, speaks of social capital as it being a property of societies—a very macrosocial approach. He also suggests the idea of bridging capital, which connects groups to each other—which is a mesosocial idea. Coleman, in contrast, speaks of social capital that emerges out of individual actions (e.g., the micro acts of parents) that serves to create closer-knit communities (a macro effect). To Coleman (1987), the ability of individual effects to serve the public group was evidence of a micro–macro linkage.
Social Mobility Approaches
Social mobility approaches within the sociology of education examine how social class positions influence the educational achievement and attainment of individuals. refers to the ability of individuals to move from one social class to another. Much previous research has shown that social class background matters for educational achievement and attainment—this is not news. But how researchers approach this process does indeed vary considerably. Below, the approaches of Raymond Boudon and John Goldthorpe are considered.
French sociologist Raymond Boudon (b. 1934) identified what he called primary and secondary effects of class differentials on educational attainment (Boudon 1973). are differences between classes and educational attainment that relate directly to academic performance. In other words, children from working-class families doing worse on standardized tests than their peers in the higher social classes would be considered a primary effect. Primary effects are dependent on characteristics of the family of origin, such as wealth, material conditions, and socialization.
, however, refer to the difference between the classes and educational attainment that relate to educational choices irrespective of educational performance. In a very simplistic example, a secondary effect would be if two individuals who were doing equally well at school were from opposite social classes and the working-class student decided to pursue an apprenticeship in the trades and the middle- or upper-class student decided to go to university. Unlike primary effects, secondary effects are entirely dependent upon choices made by individuals and their families. In a similar vein, many researchers have found that even when children from the working class perform at the same levels as middle- and upper-class children, they tend to have less ambitious educational goals (Jackson, Erikson, Goldthorpe, and Yaish 2007).
One assumption underlying the idea of secondary effects in Boudon’s theory is that children from the lower social classes have limited ambitions because they are socialized that way. Boudon (1981) argued that middle-class families had to encourage their own children to aspire to higher levels in order to simply maintain their status. Working-class children, however, may not be pushed as hard because the requirements to maintain the same social class is necessarily lower than for the middle classes. Researchers from around the world have asked how relevant primary and secondary effects are on the academic achievement of children. Nash (2005) found that in Canada, the secondary effects were found among high school students, showing that students who had high aspirations were likely to have higher grades and come from higher social origins. Nash also found, however, that these secondary effects on school achievement were relatively minor compared to overall primary effects.
Dutch researchers (Kloosterman, Ruiter, de Graaf, and Kraaykamp 2009) have also explored how primary and secondary effects impact on the transition to post-secondary education (i.e., beyond high school). They also explored whether secondary effects had diminished over time, given the emphasis placed on the importance of post-secondary credentials in Dutch culture. The authors found that in Dutch society, the importance of primary effects in determining educational inequality had grown between 1965 and 1999.
Similarly, Swedish (Erikson 2007) and British (Jackson et al. 2007) research has also found that the impact of primary effects on the transition to post-secondary education has significantly increased over time. In the Netherlands and Sweden, the lessened effect of secondary effects (and increase of primary effects) from the late 1960s to the 1990s were at a similar level, while in Britain the effect of primary characteristics was much greater. Overall, this suggests that cross-nationally, individual social backgrounds are at the root of educational inequality and that aspirations play a lesser, yet still important, role.
Goldthorpe and Associates
John Goldthorpe (b. 1935) changed British sociology in the 1970s when he and his colleagues embarked on an extensive study of social mobility in the UK. Conventional research in this vein focuses on intergenerational mobility between the social class positions. Social class positions are determined by characteristics of their occupations (or their fathers’ occupation). Goldthorpe and his colleagues are best known for their creation of this way of measuring and understanding social class, an idea that is more engrained in British culture—but is no less important in determining the life chances of individuals in Canada.
More recently, Goldthorpe (1996) and colleagues (Breen and Goldthorpe 1997) have been examining the role of social class and educational attainment in an approach that is inspired by Boudon’s. Specifically, Goldthorpe is interested in why individuals tend to stay in the same social class, despite popular belief that upward mobility is possible to anyone who desires it. Breen and Goldthorpe (1997) proposed a formal rational action theory of educational differentials that states that the differences we observe in educational attainment by social class is due to rational decisions made by individuals. Breen and Goldthorpe acknowledge that the secondary effects of social class do play an important role in explaining educational differentials by class, but strongly reject that this is due to influences of a “(sub)cultural kind . . . operating through class differences in values, norms or beliefs regarding education or through more obscure ‘subintentional’ pro-cesses” (p. 278). Rather, they argue, these differences come about through individuals rationally weighing the costs and benefits associated with pursuing additional education. People engage in a process of considering how likely they are to succeed at additional schooling, the associated tuition fees, the anticipated payoffs and time investments, and weigh these against potential alternatives. And all these factors themselves vary according to a person’s social class position. For example, someone from a working class background may decide it is simply not worth it to invest all the time and effort into a university degree when they will be saddled with the responsibility of repaying a huge student debt when they are done. Recent Canadian research by Caro, McDonald, and Willms (2009) has considered this theoretical position when examining the academic achievement of children in Canada. The authors found a gap between academic achievement and social class that increasingly widened as children got older.
Bronfenbrenner and Ecological Systems Theory
Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917–2005) was the founder of ecological systems theory. As an educational psychologist, Bronfenbrenner made numerous contributions to American education policy during his life. Most significantly, he was co-founder of the Head Start program in the United States. Head Start began in 1965 as a set of educational, nutritional, health, and parental involvement intervention programs aimed at low-income children in the United States.3 These programs stem from Bronfenbrenner’s theory about the nature of child development and how children are profoundly affected by various aspects of their environment. His asserts that child outcomes are the results of the many reciprocal effects between the child and his or her environment. For example, how children are treated by parents and by their peers has a strong influence on their development. Children who are mistreated by their parents and bullied by their peers will have less favourable developmental outcomes than those who are raised in a positive and nurturing environment and get along well with other children.
The environment in which the child is raised has profound impacts on their outcomes as human beings in society. This is not limited, however, to just interactions with parents, peers, teachers, and family members. Bronfenbrenner theorized that a child’s environment had five distinct elements which interacted together and all had the potential to impact on a child’s development: the microsystem, the mesosystem, the exosystem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem. The micro, macro, and mesosystems relate very closely to the way microlevel, mesolevel, and macrolevel were defined earlier in this chapter. refer to the immediate setting in which the individual lives and his or her individual experiences with family members, caregivers, friends, teachers, and others. The biological makeup of the child (including temperament) is also included in the microsystem. The refers to how various microsystems connect to one another; so for example, mesosystems are concerned with how children’s interactions with their parents may carry over into how they interact with their teachers. The level contains people and places with which the child may not be directly involved yet still be impacted by. A child may not have any direct interaction with a parent’s workplace, but the outcomes of the interactions that occur there will have an impact on him or her. Parental job stress or job loss will definitely impact the child in terms of the parent’s disposition in the home (in the case of job stress) or the economic resources he or she can provide (in the case of job loss). concern the larger environment in which children live—urban or rural, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or non-democratic, multicultural or not, for example. The final system, the , relates to the socio-historical changes and major events that influence the world. For example, the chronosystem is vastly different for people during a time of war than during a time of peace. The way that particular ethnicities are regarded during specific historical times is also a chronosystem feature. For example, the way that Aboriginals in Canada have been treated historically in Canada is part of the larger chronosystem of how they experience social life. How Muslims are regarded in post–September 11 North America is also part of the chronosystem.
As you can see, elements of all these systems work together to shape the development of children, and many of them are beyond the control of the parent. This theory recognizes that while parents have an important role in shaping the lives of their children, there are bigger, external forces over which they have no control, but which similarly impact on their child’s development. Figure 2.5 illustrates how these systems all relate to each other and different characteristics that comprise each system.
The Healthy Families Project in Canada is an example of a policy that is based upon theoretical assertions made by ecological systems theory. The Healthy Families Project was an intervention that involved extensive home visitation to families who had children deemed to be at very high risk for future criminal behaviour.4 The project was carried out in five test sites across the country between 2001 and 2004: three in Edmonton, one in Whitehorse, and one in Charlottetown. The goal of such interventions from an ecological systems perspective is to improve the environmental contexts of children, where possible, mostly targeted at improving parenting techniques. In terms of the effectiveness of the program, results indicated noticeable benefits of the intervention. In Prince Edward Island, for example, an increase in parents’ knowledge of child development and their child’s temperament were noted, although the intervention was not successful at improving family function overall (Elnitsky et al. 2003). They also found that the intervention was associated with a sharp drop in child welfare involvement, and was more effective overall with younger first-time parents.
Feminist theory within the sociology of education is concerned with how gender produces differences in education, whether it concerns access to education, treatment in the classroom, achievement, or learning processes. Feminist theory and feminism in general has undergone tremendous shifts since its beginning in the late nineteenth century compared to how it is popularly understood in academic research today. There are three general “waves” that are associated with feminism (Gaskell 2009). First wave feminism is associated with the women’s rights and suffrage movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The concern of feminists of this generation was to achieve equal rights to men.
Second wave feminism, which occurred in the 1960s and extended into the early 1990s, focused on women’s equality, financial independence, women’s access to work, and sexual harassment. An important theoretical orientation that developed during this time period was standpoint theory, which is associated with the work of prominent Canadian sociologist Dorothy Smith. Among her contributions to sociology, Smith is known for , which calls for a sociology from the standpoint of women. Standpoint theory focuses on the settings, social relations, and activities of women that are their own lived realities. Unlike other feminist approaches that emphasize how sex roles shape the domination of women, standpoint theory focuses on how knowledge plays a central role in social domination of women and how a dearth of women’s voices in the construction of this knowledge contributes to oppression. In Mothering for Schooling, Griffith and Smith (2005) used a similar approach to show how mothers’ work in getting children ready for school, volunteering at schools, and helping with homework is necessary for the school system to function, but it also serves to hinder women in working for income. The authors show how this gendered labour is closely tied to the success or failure of children at school and how the school system depends on this invisible and uncompensated labour.
Having emerged in the early 1990s, third wave feminism is what is most commonly (but not exclusively) associated with feminist approaches in research today. Also known as critical feminism, third wave feminism is largely a response to the White middle-class focus of second wave feminism. Not only concerned with gender, third wave feminist scholarship also focuses on the intersection of race and class in producing inequality.
Box 2.7 – Examples of How Feminist Researchers Approach the Sociology of Education
Zine (2008) uses a feminist approach to study identity among Muslim girls at an Islamic school in Toronto. She notes how these girls construct a gendered and religious identity “within and against the dominant patriarchal discourses promoted in Islamic schools” (p. 35). Zine examines how the girls’ identities have been shaped by resisting the dominant Islamophobic discourses prevalent in mainstream society as well as the patriarchal discourses in parts of the Muslim community. The author highlights how these girls have multiple discourses of oppression that they resist when forming their identities.
Currie, Kelly, and Pomerantz (2007) studied teenage girls at a high school in Vancouver to illustrate how a discourse of “meanness” was used to maintain covert forms of power. Teenage girls reported how popularity was maintained through the use of relational aggression, which refers to subtle forms of aggression that are couched in “mean” gossip creation, “backstabbing,” being given the “silent treatment,” and being ridiculed and called names. The authors found that the girls described myriad unspoken rules about what constituted the right type of femininity, which involved interactions with boys and manners of dress. The authors stressed that this type of aggression is usually absent from discussion of girls’ aggression because it embedded in girls’ identities and is often invisible to teachers.
Often dubbed , the critical feminist scholarship of third wave feminism frequently scrutinizes the meaning surrounding gender and how power relations play themselves out in subtle ways. The work included under critical feminist or postmodern studies in the sociology of education is incredibly varied. There is no single theory or theorist that can be associated with this perspective. Other feminist scholars (Dillabough and Acker 2008; McNay 2000) have adapted the work of major theorists, such as Bourdieu, so that they are more overtly focused on issues of gender. Many self-identified postmodern feminists draw on the work of Michel Foucault, a theorist associated with discourse analysis (and poststructuralism). Discourse refers to the way that a certain topic is talked about—the words, images, and emotions that are used when talking about something. Postmodern feminists who use a Foucauldian approach would be interested in examining how language is used to maintain gendered power relationships. Many critical feminist scholars draw upon the work of several theorists to fine-tune their particular theoretical orientation. Box 2.7 provides some examples of some recent Canadian critical feminist scholarship in the sociology of education.
Critical Race Theory
As suggested by the name, critical race theories put race at the centre of analysis, particularly when analyzing educational disadvantage. has its roots in legal scholarship from the United States. Examination of the racialized nature of the law has been extended to examine how race is embedded in various aspects of social life, including education (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995; Tate 1997). Critical race theorists assert that inequalities experienced in education cannot be explained solely by theories of class or gender—that it is also race and the experience of being racialized that contributes to stratification of many aspects of social life, including education. In general, critical race theorists do not assert that race is the only thing that matters, but that race intersects with many other important factors that determine life chances, like class and gender. Like their predecessors studying law, critical race theorists examining education emerged from studying African Americans and school achievement. Acknowledging that gender and race do account for many differences observed in educational attainment, it still remained a fact that middle class African-Americans had significantly lower academic achievement than White Americans (Ladson-Billings and Tate 1995).
Discourses and Cultural Hegemony
Critical race theory is not simply about overt racism. Scholars and educators—and most people in general—like to view themselves as nonracist. Critical race theorists examine the often very subtle ways that racism plays itself out in various social structures. In fact, they point to how racism has become “normal” in society (Ladson-Billings 1998). Their mandate is not simply to highlight race as a topic of study, but also to point to how traditional methods, texts, and paradigms, combined with race and class, contribute to discourses which impact upon communities of colour (Solorzano, Ceja, and Yosso 2000). There are dominant discourses in Canadian society which, critical race theorists argue, favour White culture. A very simple example is to look at how the topic of “family” is discussed in classrooms. A curriculum that is based upon North American “White” culture may assume that “family” means two parents (a male and a female) and their children. When teachers are discussing “the family,” this may be what they are assuming everyone understands and experiences in their home life. If, however, a child comes from a different background where “family” constitutes an extended family or even an entire community, he or she would be subject to a dominant discourse that does not reflect his or her lived reality. See Box 2.8 for an additional example of how discursive practices influence curriculum.
Box 2.8 – Canada the Redeemer: Discourse and the Understanding of Canadian History
Schick and St. Denis (2005) describe how curriculum is a major discourse through which White privilege is maintained. Drawing on the term “Canada the Redeemer,” coined by Roman and Stanley in 1997, they argue that curriculum has normalized Whiteness by creating a national mythology around the history of Canada. In particular, the discourse that is perpetuated is one that characterizes Canada as being “fair.” The intentionally ironic phrase “Canada the Redeemer” refers to the discourse that surrounds Canadian culture as being perhaps a “little bit racist” but “nowhere as bad as the United States,” and that Canada “saves” people from racism and provides a safe haven. The mainstream discourse of Canadian culture tends to emphasize that Canada is a peaceful and multicultural society and that early pioneers’ hardships and toil tamed the land into what we enjoy today. Shick and St. Denis argue that this discourse favours a particular “White” perspective and reveals only a very specific view of how Canada originated—one that is highly debatable, particularly if the perspective of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are taken into account.
Schick and St. Denis argue that Whiteness as the dominant cultural reference is embedded in everyday taken-for-granted “knowledge”—so much so that it in effect becomes invisible and permeates all aspects of curriculum. White students may believe that hard work and meritocracy allowed their ancestors to earn their place in society, but this fails to acknowledge that racist policies limiting Aboriginal education actually enabled the success of White students. Canadian history curriculum has traditionally taught that Canada was particularly generous to White European settlers, “giving away” land to these newcomers. Such a historical discourse fails to recognize that this free land was originally taken by violent and coercive means from the original inhabitants. The authors, speaking about the discourse surrounding Canada’s national identity, state that “one point of pride about how Canada is different from the United States depends on the construction of an egalitarian, not racist, national self-image. There is a great deal at stake in keeping this mythology intact” (p. 308). The authors suggest that it is necessary that anti-racist pedagogies are promoted within the classroom. These ways of teaching students specifically address the taken-for-granted, day-to-day practices of how White identities are produced and maintained. Antiracist pedagogies specifically confront the notion of “White culture” being normative and “natural” and reconceptualize these assumptions as being a major force in the perpetuation of subtle forms of racism.
The idea of cultural power also relates back to Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci, who popularized the term hegemony (Gramsci, Hoare, and Smith 1971). While Gramsci himself was associated with Marxism, aspects of his writings on power relationships have been useful for critical race theorists and feminist scholars alike. refers to popular beliefs and values in a culture that reflect the ideology of powerful members of society. In turn, these values are used to legitimate existing social structures and relationships. It is a form of power used by one group over another, largely by consensus. The widely accepted definition of the family described above would fit into this category of cultural hegemony in Canada. Cultural hegemony also exists, to a much larger extent, in the dominance of “Whiteness” and White values in much of Canadian society. Pidgeon (2008) has written about how the typical Canadian definition of “success” in post-secondary education refers to finishing a program and making financial gains as a result. Success, however, for Aboriginal students means something much more complex. According to Pidgeon, “Success in university for many Aboriginal nations means more than matriculating through prescribed curriculum to graduation. The benefits of university-trained Indigenous peoples extend beyond financial outcomes. Higher education is valued for capacity building within Aboriginal nations toward their goals of self-government and self-determination. Higher education is also connected to empowerment of self and community, decolonization and self-determination” (2008:340). The author argues that counter-hegemonic discourses around the notion of success must be entertained by university officials to improve Aboriginal student retention.
is the process by which various groups are differentially organized in the social order (Dei 2009). These groups exist within hierarchies of power that value the identity and characteristics of one group over all others. According to CRT, “Whiteness” and the culture surrounding Whites is prioritized in our culture, and various social institutions, including those responsible for education, embrace those values (whether they acknowledge it or not) which place racialized individuals at an inherent disadvantage. White privilege is embedded in a discursive practice that legitimizes hierarchies that are based on race (Schick and St. Denis 2005). An important task for teachers, students, administrators, and researchers is to question how the privilege associated with Whiteness keeps existing power positions in place. See Box 2.9 for additional discussion of Whiteness.
If White culture is understood as the “norm,” and the practices and beliefs from this culture are embedded in the curriculum of our places of education, students from non-White backgrounds will be at a disadvantage in variety of ways. First, their own cultural knowledge and practices are, by default, considered illegitimate at worst, or “weird” or “exotic” at best. Second, they are made to adapt to White culture in order to succeed. In the words of Ladson-Billings (1998:18), they are made to follow a curriculum based upon a “White supremacist master script.” Third, teaching strategies developed from the dominant culture may fail with racialized students, thus labelling such students as “high risk.”
Box 2.9 – What Is Meant by “Whiteness”?
Critical race theorists speak a lot about “Whiteness.” But what is Whiteness? Is it appearance? is it a race? or a culture? How should we understand Whiteness? Within CRT, Whiteness refers to people who are phenotypically (i.e., appear as) Caucasian and have experienced the socialization of living in a culture where they are the dominant group. Whiteness implies the general shared value and cultural experiences of Caucasians in Canada as the dominant group. Their values and ways of thinking are the default for “normal” in Canadian society and for all societies where colonialism has resulted in racial inequality. In a qualitative study of White student teachers, Solomon, Portelli, Daniel, and Campbell (2005) illustrate how they resisted and downplayed their own racial identities. They tended to argue that their successes in life were due to merit and hard work alone and that White privilege did not exist in Canadian society. Many voiced hostility at the suggestion that their achievements were the outcome of anything but their own diligence. It is not surprising that many student teachers reacted to the suggestion that they possessed “White privilege” (and that this permeated into areas of their lives and clouded their judgment) with some degree of hostility. Indeed, anti-racist educators have identified this as an uncomfortable yet necessary stage of anti-racist pedagogy (McIntyre 1997; Schick and St. Denis 2005; Solomon et al. 2005).
Millington, Vertinsky, Boyle, and Wilson (2008) used a critical race approach in their examination of Chinese-Canadian masculinities and physical education (PE) curriculum in Vancouver, British Columbia. The authors examined how, historically, Chinese boys are stereotyped as “unmanly” by White boys, as they are characterized as studious and passive. The authors note how this specific definition of masculinity prevailed in a Vancouver high school. This White, middle-class definition of masculinity was realized through the rewarding of physically aggressive performances in PE class by these males and by their physical and verbal intimidation of the Chinese-Canadian males. The researchers noted how the types of games played in the PE curriculum—like football and dodgeball—rewarded this kind of behaviour, while marginalizing the Chinese-Canadian boys. Furthermore, the teachers did not see these unfolding dynamics as acts of racism, although they had a key role in facilitating such hegemonic masculinities.
In contrast, Levine-Rasky (2008) uses CRT in an analysis of a neighbourhood school referred to as Pinecrest, within a large Canadian city. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, the school that served a particular area was comprised of a relatively homogenous student body which reflected the make-up of the neighbourhood—Jewish from a high socioeconomic background. Starting in the 1990s, a neighbouring community that was made up largely of new immigrants was beginning to grow. As a result, children from the neighbouring community started attending Pinecrest, eventually resulting in a stark shift in the demographic of the school. Levine-Rasky spoke to parents in the neighbourhood, many of whom themselves attended Pinecrest as children, to see if they sent their own children there. Nearly half of their own children who were entitled to attend Pinecrest (due to the catchment area) did not. The author explored the reasons these parents had for sending their children elsewhere and found that many of these parents were engaged in maintaining their “Whiteness” and “middle-classness.” Rather than being overtly racist or ethnocentric, the parents often indicated their reservations stemmed from their belief that immigrant children may somehow disrupt the educational process by requiring disproportionate attention or having parents who did not understand the value of education.
An important extension of critical race theory is anti-racist pedagogy, which refers to classroom techniques and curricular approaches that address racialization. This will be covered in Chapter 5.
In this chapter, several theoretical perspectives have been described, all of which have application to the study of the sociology of education. The chapter began by introducing theoretical terminology that is embedded within many theoretical perspectives: macro-social theory, microsocial theory, mesosocial theory, middle range theory, agency/structure, and ontology and epistemology. The first theoretical perspective that was discussed was structural functionalism, which is associated with the work of Émile Durkheim, and later, Talcott Parsons. The critical perspective of Karl Marx, which emphasizes the idea of social class and conflict between classes, and those who were influenced by Marxist theory (neo-Marxists) were then discussed, as was the linkage between Marxism and critical pedagogy. The next classical theorist considered was Max Weber, as well as the neo-Weberians, who emphasized the idea of credentialism within the sociology of education.
Meyer’s institutional theory was next introduced, which juxtaposes the democratic entitlement to education with the “loose coupling” that such education actually serves in the job market. The microsocial approaches of symbolic interaction and phenomenology were then briefly addressed. Next, theories focused on the reproduction of culture were considered. Social capital was also introduced, and it was shown that social capital can be understood as macro-, meso-, and microtheoretical theoretical concept. Theorists that regard education as a major component of social mobility were then discussed, with emphasis placed on the notion of “primary” and “secondary” effects.
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory understood the process of child development (and hence the role of education) as being influenced from several spheres (i.e., systems) that interacted with each other to contribute to children’s life chances. The chapter ended with newer contributions from feminist and critical race theorists, who prioritize gender and race in their understanding of educational processes and practices in Canada.
Some approaches, like functionalism and Marxism/neo-Marxism, described the overarching nature of society, while others like symbolic interaction and phenomenology emphasized that subjective meaning was core to understanding social processes. Other theories occupied a middle range, focusing only on trying to explain distinct aspects of social life, like the social mobility approaches and their attention to the relationship between social class and educational attainment. Each theoretical perspective has its own strengths and weaknesses and the prominence of many fades as new theories develop.
When considering a particular topic area in the sociology of education, one should think about the particular theoretical perspective(s) that would be appropriate to explore it. Some will be more fitting than others. An interest in how students experience racism in the classroom, for example, is probably best addressed through the use of critical race theory while structural functionalism probably will not be helpful here. Questions around how society reproduces itself through subtle means can be approached from the perspective of the cultural and social reproduction theories that have been presented—but institutional theory or symbolic interaction probably will not be much help. A researcher must also consider his or her own beliefs about the nature of reality. What is given priority, agency or structure? What bridges the two? In terms of ontology, is meaning all essentially subjective, or is it that scientists have the task of uncovering objective facts? These are not at all easy issues to resolve and have engaged philosophers and social theorists for centuries. But all these preconceptions influence what social theories will make their way into sociology of education research.
1. Define what is meant by macrosocial, microsocial, mesosocial, and middle-range theories.
2. Explain why ontology, epistemology, agency, and structure are important underlying concepts within the theories of the sociology of education.
3. What is meant by structural functionalism? Who are two major theorists associated with this approach and what is the difference between their approaches?
4. Define Marxism in terms of how it relates to the sociology of education. What is neo-Marxism? Who are some key neo-Marxists within the sociology of education and what are their contributions?
5. What are Weber’s main contributions to the sociology of education? What major terms have neo-Weberians added to discussions in sociology of education?
6. Define symbolic interactionism. How is it different from phenomenology?
7. According to cultural reproduction theory and social mobility approaches, what are the underlying forces that shape educational outcomes?
8. Identify and define the “systems” within ecological systems theory and how they relate to one another.
9. What is meant by “waves” of feminism? What is meant by postmodern feminism?
10. According to critical race theory, what is meant by racialization? What is meant by “Whiteness”?
- Communicate where five theorists discussed in this chapter fit on the spectrum. Explain the rationale behind your placements.
- How are Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and Boudon’s idea of secondary effects similar and how are they different?
- How is “Whiteness,” as described by critical race theorists, also related to habitus and to cultural hegemony?
- Select three theorists and explain how they attempt to link agency and structure.
- How would Marx, Bourdieu, Boudon, and Goldthorpe explain the differences behind educational attainment by social class?
- Look on the internet for information about intervention programs that have been informed by ecological systems theory, including the programs mentioned in the chapter. What were the programs? How were they informed by ecological systems theory? Were they effective?
- Look up the phrase “the myth of meritocracy.” What does it mean? Where does it come from? How can it be applied to the theories that have been discussed in this chapter?
- What topics would you be interested in studying in the sociology of education? What theoretical position(s) would be most appealing to your interests and why? Discuss in groups.
- Using sociological abstracts through e-resources in your university or college library, find a recent journal article on education that considers more than one theoretical approach. Which theories does the author(s) use? Which aspects of the theories are considered? Were the theories supported by findings? Why or why not?
- Think about your experiences in the education system up to this point. From the perspective of a postmodern feminist or critical race theorist, can you identify any instances of cultural hegemony? Have you experienced any curriculum, for example, that you recognize as promoting a hegemonic view, whether it be gendered and/or racist?
Refers to the individual’s ability to act and make independent choices.
Refers to aspects of the social landscape that appear to limit or influence the choices made by individuals.
A body of theories that understand the world as a large system of interrelated parts that all work together.
The social structures that reproduce the social order of the ruling class in Althusser’s theory of ideology; the education system, along with religion, the law, the media are the forces within this apparatus.
The idea that the education system is set up to serve (or correspond to) the class-based system so that classes are reproduced and so that elites maintain their positions.
The method by which schools are able to reproduce the class system; the subtle ways that students are taught to be co-operative members of the class system.
The general philosophy of teaching that recognizes and attempts to rid the classroom and teacher–student interactions of relationships and practices that perpetuate inequalities.
A reinterpretation of rule breaking or delinquency as acts of class-based resistance in which marginalized students do not comply with the values, discipline, and expected behaviours of middle-class school structures; resisting behaviours also serve to reproduce class position—preventing the acquisition of the skills and training required for jobs outside the realm of manual labour.
The process in which society became more secular, scientific knowledge began to develop, and an increasing reliance on scientific and technological explanations began to emerge and more and more social actions were the outcome of beliefs related to scientific thought instead of customs or religious belief.
An administrative structure that follows a clear hierarchical structure and follows very specific rules and chains of command.
An identifier that serves to divide society into groups with competing interests; associated with honour and privilege, independent of class membership.
Moral communities concerned with upholding the privilege of their members in society; membership is often limited based on credentials and such groups work against class unification by cutting across classes.
The requirement of obtaining specific qualifications for membership in particular groups; the actual skills obtained through these credentials are often not explicitly associated with the job’s task.
The decreasing value of the expected advantage associated with educational qualifications over time; for example, the notion that a bachelor’s degree is now equivalent to what a high school diploma used to be.
The notion that the expansion in education is related to the democratic belief in the good of expanding education rather than actual demand for the levels of training.
A theory that asserts that the world is constructed through meanings that individuals attach to social interactions.
A branch of philosophy that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience.
A wide collection of theories reacting to structural functionalism that favour the importance of social structures in explanation of social life over individual action; associated with the writings of French philosophers, such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, whose only main agreement was that structuralism was flawed.
A term associated with the work of Pierre Bourdieu that refers to the high-status cultural knowledge possessed by individuals that is acquired by experience and familiarity with high-culture activities, such as going to the opera, ballet, or theatre as well as the appreciation of art, literature, and classical music and theatre attendance.
The process by which cultural capital is maintained in which high status classes reward individuals who exhibit the traits and possess the knowledge of the upper class, therefore maintaining their power.
Characteristics that are quickly and relatively easily converted into money, such as educational attainment, job skills, and job experience.
The networks and individual relationships that potentially lead to access to resources.
A type of social capital that is “exclusive” in the sense that it occurs within established groups in order to reinforce group solidarity.
A type of social capital that is “inclusive” in that it is used for information diffusion and linkage to other groups.
The ability of individuals to move from one social class to another.
According to Boudon, the differences between classes and educational attainment that relate directly to academic performance; dependent on characteristics of the family of origin, such as wealth, material conditions, and socialization.
According to Boudon, the differences between the classes and educational attainment that relate to educational choices irrespective of educational performance, such as choosing apprenticeship over university, regardless of achievement in secondary school.
A theory by Bronfenbrenner that asserts that child outcomes are the results of the many reciprocal effects between the child and his or her environment; for example, how children are treated by parents and by their peers has a strong influence on their development.
In ecological systems theory, the ways in which various microsystems connect to one another; for example, how children’s interactions with their parents may carry over into how they interact with their teachers.
In ecological systems theory, the people and places with which individuals may not be directly involved but by which they are still impacted; for example, the effect a parent’s workplace may have on a child.
In ecological systems theory, the larger environment in which individuals live—urban or rural, developed or underdeveloped, democratic or non-democratic, multicultural or not, for example.
In ecological systems theory, the socio-historical changes and major events that influence the world.
A theory that calls for a sociology from the standpoint of women and focusing on the settings, social relations, and activities of women that are their own lived realities.
The critical feminist scholarship of third wave feminism that frequently scrutinizes the meaning surrounding gender and how power relations play themselves out in subtle ways.
A theory that puts race at the centre of analysis and examines how race is embedded in various aspects of social life, including education; does not assert that race is the only thing that matters, but that race intersects with many other important factors that determine life chances, such as class and gender.
The popular beliefs and values in a culture that reflect the ideology of powerful members of society; these values are used to legitimate existing social structures and relationships.
The process by which various groups are differentially organized in the social order and exist within hierarchies of power that value the identity and characteristics of one group over all others.
A branch of philosophy that studies knowledge, including how we pursue knowledge.
The belief that how we understand society is fundamentally different from the natural sciences and that it is wholly inappropriate to study society in similar manners; contrary to positivism.
A theory that focuses on society at the level of social structures and populations; also often referred to as grand theories.
A theory that occupies a position between the macro and micro, directing its attentions to the rule of social organizations and social institutions in society, such as schools and communities.
A theory focused on individuals and individual action, such as the individual experiences of students.
In ecological systems theory, immediate setting in which the individual lives and his or her individual experiences with family members, caregivers, friends, teachers, and others; also includes the biological makeup of the individual.
A theory that focuses on specific aspects of social life and sociological topics that can be tested with empirical hypotheses.
A branch of philosophy that considers the way we understand the nature of reality.
The belief that the social world should be studied in a similar manner to the scientific world; contrary to interpretivism.