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Social Theory in the Function of Education


Social theories seek to explain the construction of individuals into various classes by the existing practices of a community, define and explain these classes as relates to categories of power, prestige, and special functions in the community (Lemke, n.d.). One of such happenings in the society that has constructed various classes of individuals and divided them into special functions and levels of power and authority is education. Yet education is offered in a continuous process as the child grows. Thus studying of educational sociology and its theories as relates to growth of children is important since it gives an explanation of how educational systems may influence the child’s adoption of surroundings, its cognitive and intellectual development, the formulation and adoption of child’s perception and future development at maturity. In addition, such studies would make it possible for formulation and adoption of the best mechanism possible in relaying intelligence, skill and abilities to children during various stages of growth and development.

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During growth, the child will encounter many experiences some of which would shape his life to the adulthood or completely. In acquiring and organizing these experiences, the child uses institutions and social forms which can be described and explained by educational sociology. The evolution and changing functions of education can be linked to the institutional and social forms that explain the child’s mastery and acquire, and organization of experiences during growth and development.

Functional theories can be used to explain how the variable societal needs are met by the social structures; one of the structures being the education system-analysis has been carried out on the basic functions of education (individual selection, integration of education into the culture, and qualification of attitudes, skills and knowledge) (Antikainen, 2003) as relates to the social setting.

Interaction theories seek to explain: the interaction theory of meaning; the social construction of individuals’ sense of knowledge, ability, intelligence and reality; the meso and micro-level analysis of an individual in the educational systems (Antikainen, 2003).

Symbolic-interactionist Theory

Theorists in this field have studied influence of teachers’ expectations on student’s performance, perceptions and attitudes and noted that higher expectations of teachers for students to perform better actually led to better performance. The interactionists focus on the happenings in the classroom to analyze education and deduce inferences. A research that was conducted on Kindergarten class students all of whom were African Americans taught by an African American teacher showed that the students who were arranged on tables closer to the teacher performed best while those who sat next table were average and those furthest were the weakest. The explanation is that those sitting closest received the most attention than the rest. Results from this research after it was carried further in the subsequent several years by the same researcher, indicated that students were haunted throughout their schooling by the labels placed on them at kindergarten on the eighth day (CliffsNotes, 2009).

Functionalist theory

This theory looks at the education as having a role to serve the needs of the society by meeting these needs. The founder of this theory Durkheim viewed education as having an important role of ensuring integration of different people from different and diverse background, a character of the United States of America today. According to this founder, the “socializing” of individuals into the society’s mainstream was the role of education (CliffsNotes, 2009). Thus education was a player, according to him, in building a more cohesive social structure through performing its role of merging different people together. Education, according to this theory is supposed to instill important core values that help individuals respond positively in support of the political and economic systems which are the original drivers of education.

It is in this theory where individualism is emphasized through recognition of the best read, best performer and other classifications that seek to instill the ideals of independence among students in activities they indulge in. this is opposed to community focus that may derail or hamper personal development. Even where individuals are supposed to work as a team, the whole thing is reduced to one person or just a few-the leaders-who are the recognized champions after the group wins. Students also learn to compete in such an environment.

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Social placement of individuals into various social roles and occupations is achieved through selection that identifies capabilities in children while at school. This can also be referred to assorting. This functional role of education is best suited in systems where the society demands that the best performers be absorbed into performing the most important roles and responsibilities in the society. Sorting and networking-another role of education in this perspective-have been linked together by sociologists primarily because they can bring together two couples who share interests, backgrounds, education and income capabilities. Even some parents have been indicated as to making sure that their children attend schools where they can meet their future spouses, by limiting their children’s options for college (CliffsNotes, 2009). Functionalist theory explains how education can not only preserve but also transform culture through advancement of education. The further people get educated, the more they become more liberal as opposed to the conservative nature of the lesser educated members of the society. Engaging in research helps the educated acquire more knowledge and more often than not, a change in their values. The functional theory focuses on the beneficial role of education in an organized state (CliffsNotes, 2009).

Conflict theory

The side effects of education such as emergence of social inequalities, and reduction of the lesser educated members of the society to “obedient workers”, have been explored by conflict theorists (CliffsNotes, 2009). Although conflict theory agrees with the idea of education as performing a sorting role as similarly held by functional theorists, the former argue that sorting is performed along “distinct class and ethnic lines” as opposed to the latter who argue that sorting is based on merit. Under conflict theory, education plays the role of “hidden curriculum” by training the working classes in the society to accept a lower-class position in the society (CliffsNotes, 2009). The conflict theory has explored the discriminatory nature of education in America by arguing out that those students attending schools in the affluent districts have advantages over their counterparts because these affluent schools can afford better facilities, technology and teaching labor, since they receive more funds which emanate from property taxes that fund most schools. The students so favored find their way into better colleges and are then tracked into higher paying jobs while those from the lesser affluent regions most likely end up in technical and vocational training as going to college is less likely. Conflict theorists have attacked the American education system for favoring a particular group of people, not only economically, but also through the IQ testing method which can be applied at school for the purposes of sorting students (by arguing that the test questions examine cultural knowledge that favors a particular color and does not actually test intelligence as claimed). Although the theory conclusively attacks education as “not a social benefit or opportunity” but as performing a role of advancing capitalism through creation of a “docile workforce” and a means to maintain power structures (CliffsNotes, 2009).

Postmodernism and Poststructuralism

Postmodernism theory deals with society, culture and history while poststructuralism deals with knowledge and language as argues by Agger (1991) and (Derrida, the French feminists; qtd. in Agger, 1991). The idea of Deconstructionism has been put forward where every reading says a text, carries assumptions or understatements without whose reference causes the whole text to be “undecidable” (Derrida; qtd. in Agger, 1991). Thus for example, a researcher may come to conclusions after his or her study but after considering the underestimate (which must exist in every case any way), the results may as well be false or not substantial-the “undecidable” according to Derrida (qtd in Agger, 1991). In this way, readers can give true meaning to the work they read and challenge the reading hierarchy overwriting in addition to a better means to reorganize presentation of ideas in the education systems. Knowledge is formulated within different discourses or practices to which this knowledge must be traced according to Foucault (1976, 1980; qtd. in Agger, 1991). Postmodernism rejects the view of defragmented perspective on race, gender, class among other affiliating groups and also rejects explanation of disparate social phenomena by axial structural principal-an approach employed by Marx in logic of capital theory. The historical and cultural nature plays the role of forming the context for knowledge (Agger, 1991). The work of Foucault His Discipline and Punish can help further conceptualization of the ideas behind school discipline and formulation of necessary measures thereof (Foucault, 1977; qtd. in Agger, 1991).


It can be deduced that among the discussed theories that the most useful would be the Symbolic-interactionist Theory which tries to examine the real value of the practically applied system and influences rather than focusing on theory. It would be true to say that this method would be geared towards solving the existing problems since we will be starting from somewhere. The theory presents a challenge that can engage theorists and scientists in trying to find out the answers to the questions like how students may relay information to instructors about skill and intelligence among other things and the exact process by which instructors pin high expectations and low expectations for students (CliffsNotes, 2009).


Agger Ben. Critical Theory, Poststructuralism, Postmodernism: Their sociological relevance. Annual Rev. Sociology. 1991. Web.

Antikainen Ari. Classical Sociological Theories and the Modern Sociology of Education. 2003. Web.

CliffsNotes. Theories of Education. 2009. Web.

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Foucault, M., (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon

Foucault, M., (1976). The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Harper & Row

Foucault, M., (1980). Power/Knowledge. New York: Pantheon

Lemke J. Important Theories for Research Topics. 2009. Web.

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