Essay on Sociological Theories of Education


This essay evaluates three sociological theories of education. It compares symbolic interactionism, Marxism, and functionalist view on education and its role in society. It provides criticism of these theories and their approaches to the phenomenon.

Education encompasses teaching and learning specific skills, and also something less tangible but more profound. The impact of knowledge, positive judgment, and well-developed wisdom. Education has one of the fundamental aspects of the imparting of culture from generation to generation. Education means drawing out, facilitating the realization of the self-potential and latent talents of an individual.

Functionalist View on Education

Functionalists take the view that societies must be divided into separate groups, each of which performs a task that is necessary to the survival of the society as a whole-the organic whole. Societie functions well when people accept internally, either consciously or unconsciously, the need to contribute to the organic functioning of the whole society. They do this because they recognize that there is no simple alternative to society. They would accuse Marxists of utopianism that is dreaming up a perfect but wholly unrealistic and unrealizable society based on a dream world. (Jameson, 1970).

Functionalists tend to look to the sociologist point of Emile Durkeim as the founder of their point of view. Different people find different roles in society. Although Durkheim is not exactly a defender of capitalism, his functionalism, which tells us that every social grouping is a functional part of the whole of society, tends to favor a defense of capitalism., Capitalism sees education as fair, and as preparing individuals for their roles in adult society according to their abilities. Education socializes young people for adult roles. According to Talcott parsons functionalism, individuals interact with each other through the medium of social structures. Therefore, parsons see education as serving a part in the function of integration. Through education, individuals are socialized to conform. Education also supports the economic imperative of society by inculcating certain technical skills and requirements. Separating potential workers for different points of entry to the labor market (Jameson, 1970).

Radical functionalists share fundamental assumptions that buttress functionalism but are committed to the overthrow of social structures that build false consciousness. If the radical humanists focus on consciousness and meaning, radical functionalists focus on structures, modes of domination, deprivation, and contradictions within an objective social world. Education construed from a radical functionalist perspective would focus on the commoditization of education, the corporate penetration of colleges and universities, and corporate aspirations concerning education (Jameson, 1970)

A radical functionalist would show how struggles over technology and education arise from objective social-economic circumstances. Sometimes the focus is on what appear to be simple observations- such as the fact that, in many countries, the minimum monthly access fees for internet and phone are greater than the salary of a full professor at the university. Within this world, some focus on deep-seated internal contradictions within society while others focus on power relationships (Davis, 2005).

Common to all theories here is the notion that each society is characterized by inherent conflicts and, within these, lays the basis of change. Functionalism is a way of looking at society and argues that we all share very similar values and we agree about what is right. They argue that society is in harmony and that all parts of society contribute to the way it functions. These parts are the family, education, the legal system, religion e.t.c. Functionalists claim that education contributes to society. (Jameson, 1970)

Functionalist usually focuses on the ways that universal education serves the needs of the society. Functionalists see education in its manifest role: conveying basic knowledge and skills to the next generatio (Durkeim, 1858), the founder of nationalist theory identified the latent role of education as one of socializing people into society’s mainstream. This moral education as he called it, helped form a more cohesive social structure by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds which echoes the historical concern of Americanizing immigrants. Functionalists point out latent roles of education such as the transmission of core values and social control the core values in American education reflect those characteristics that support the political and economic systems that originally fuelled education (Stone and Planell, 1999)

Related Sociological Theories of Education

An older but good example of this perspective was (Bowls and Gintis’s, 1976) analysis of schooling in capitalist America which shows how social and educational structures reproduce elites and underclasses. In the U.K. writers at the center for contemporary cultural studies at the University of Birmingham linked a critical radical functionalist perspective to the particularities of everyday experience. They claim all experience is “vulnerable to ideological inscription” but maintaining theorizing outside everyday experience (the material facts) produces work that is overly formal and deterministic. Good examples of a fusion of radical functionalist and post-modern sensibilities are (Willis, 1977) learning to labor- about how working-class kids learn to accept (and not challenge) their class origins.

Technology and Education

An example of a radical functionalist perspective on technology and education is Nobles (1997; 1998; 1998a) Web posting concerning online learning and education. Noble does not see the stampede into online education and development of virtual universities as “innovative” are part of any attempt to secure “access” to educational environments and “equity” within them.

Criticism of Functionalist View on Education

Functionalism does not appear to offer a satisfactory account of conflict within the educational system. The goals and purposes of education are not generally agreed upon by professionals and employees within it. It fails to deal adequately with the content of curriculum and teacher-pupil interaction in the classroom. It treats individuals as if they were puppets of society. Nothing more than the product of the societal norms and valu7eswhich they internalize through their experience of socialization in the home, school, workplace e.t.c.Functionalists especially of the Talcott parson’s type, tend to idealize the existing society and ignore facts that are critical in their views. Seeking to argue that society is a meritocracy based on equality of opportunity, functionalists tend to be willfully blind to the very real differences of educational experience between members of different classes (Davis, 2005).

Marxist View on Education

Marxists argue that society is not in harmony and that ordinary people are exploited by the wealthy. They see every part of society contributing to this exploitation. For Marx education performs two main functions in society. It reduces the inequalities and increases social relations in production in the society. It serves to reduce these inequalities under the guise of education. Marx sees the purpose of education as maintaining social inequality and preserving the power of those who dominate the society. See education as perpetuating the status quo by dulling the lower classes into been obedient workers. The educational system practices sorting, but disagree on how it enacts the sorting. They argue that schools sort along distinct class and ethnic lines. Schools train those in the working classes to accept their position as a lower –class members of society (McCarthy, 1990).

Criticism of Marxist View on Education

The product of education is alienation. Hasty is the human-produced by the educational process is an alienated human being. It ought to be now understood how Marxist view education as the product of alienation and how the process of education is alienating.

Criticized of his utopianism by the functionalist. i.e. Dreaming up a perfect but wholly unrealistic and unrealizable society based on a dream world (McCarthy, 1990).

Symbolic Interactionism on Education

Symbolic integrationists limit their analysis of education to what they directly observe happening in the classroom. They focus on how teacher expectations influence student performance, perceptions, and attitudes. Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted the landmark study for this approach in 1968. First, they examined a group of students with standard IQ tests. The researchers then identified several students who they say would likely show a sharp increase in abilities over the coming year. They informed the teachers of the results and asked them to watch and see if this increase did occur. When the researchers repeated the IQ tests at the end of the year, the students identified by the researchers did indeed show higher IQ scores. The significance of this study lies in the fact that the researchers had randomly selected many average students (Davis, 2005).

Criticism of Symbolic Interactionism View on Education

Social interaction limits their analysis of what is happening in the classroom and not basing their argument on the real world i.e. they base their argument on the teacher and student interactions and hence criticized. (Stone, 1999).

Similarities between Sociological Theories of Education

The three theories see education as increasing social relations in society since it’s through education that different social groups meet and share their ideas. Education is a means of change in society since individuals are transformed to better ways of living say through the improved technology in the society. Education leads to harmony in society since different groups come together and share their ideas. Education also serves the needs of society in all three theories.

Choosing the Most Convincing Theory

According to my view, the best theory is the functionalist theory since it’s this theory that sees societies to be different with different tasks for the survival of the whole society. Societies function well when they interact either consciously or unconsciously need to contribute to the organic functioning of the whole society. Functionalist also sees education as a way of transmitting core values and social control.


In conclusion, education is very vital in every society since it’s through education that societies function well, increase social relations and lead to a change in the society, perpetuates the status quo, leads to harmony in the society, and serves the needs of the society.


  1. Davis, M. (2005): How students understand the past: From the theory of practice; Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, California.
  2. Jameson, J. (1970): Presenting Archaeology to the public: Digging for truths. Altamira press, Walnut creek, California
  3. Stone, P. And Planell, P. (1999): The constructed past: Experimental Archaeology, Education and Public. Taylor and Francis, London.

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