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The Contribution of Functionalist Sociology to an Understanding of the Role of Education in Society

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The Contribution of Functionalist Sociology to an Understanding of the Role of Education in Society
Works Cited Missing

''Schools serve a function in a complex industrial society that family
and peer groups cannot'' ( Durkheim,1956)

Education is important in society. The structure and processes of
education systems are related to the general process of socialisation.
All sociologists agree with this, but sociologists have many different
views about how societies are structured. They have many different
views about the role of education in society. The following research
will focus on the role of education from a Functionalist, Marxist and
an Interactionalist's perspective.

Functionalists think of education as a positive function for all
individuals in society, which has a powerful influence over it. The
aims of education in functionalism are to maintain social stability,
keep society in consensus and resolve any conflict. Durkheim and
Parsons saw education as an essential agency of socialisation whose
function is to transmit common values to the next generation. Parsons
argued that schools act as a bridge between the family and a wide
society within the role of education being to promote universal values
such as achievement, individuation, competition and equal
opportunities. Education is the mainsecondary agent of socialisation,
family being the primary agent. In advanced industrial society we are
judged in terms of achieved status and universalistic values. That is
to say we are judged in terms of what we achieve and schools prepare
us for this. At school, our conduct is measured against the universal
school rules and our status is achieved through examination. Parsons
claims that education reinforces norms and values, such as individual
achievement is rewarded with praise, good grades and a good job.
However, these norms and values transmitted could be those of the
ruling class or elites to exploit the proletariat. This idea of false
ideology is recognised by Marxist-Louis Althusser. Althusser argues
that lower class people are told what to believe and how to achieve
this, is then reinforced by education.

''children are given a set of ideas which they use to understand the
world. They are not allowed to examine and discuss these ideas, just
accept and believe them''(cited in Sociology in perspective)

If this is true, individuals are being exploited and easily controlled
conforming to the position given to them in society.

Durkehim agrees with the idea that shared norms and values create
social solidarity. This involves a commitment to society, a sense of
belonging and a feeling that the social unit is more important to the
individual, however, from an interactionalist point of view, how can
so many different individuals all have the same type of norms and
values, especially when according to functionalism, these are a
continuation of norms and values created from home life. If this was
correct, every family would have the same norms and values which every
school would then continue. However, as there is a diverse range of
cultures, life experiences and beliefs, every would family would not
operate the same norms and values. Parsons claims that school
establishes universalistic standards in terms of which pupils achieve
their status. Behaviour and achievement can be measured so that status
is achieved on the basis of merit. Every pupil can be equally measured
regardless of sex, race, religion etc. This meritocratic principle
means that the education of students is based on achievement rather
than ascription.

Private and grammar schools could be argued to have an advantage than
to state schools. If parents can pay for a school with fewer pupils in
classes and the opportunity for a wider variety of subjects, this must
be considered better than state schools. However, it could be argued
that many higher and richer classes do not want private education for
their children as they want them to achieve their status and not
inherit it. Also, if a child is attending private school, it does not
necessarily mean that the child will be of better conduct. Also, a
child maybe placed into the wrong set for a subject, if this happens
their intelligence may not be able to flourish, or, if a child is put
into a higher set which is too advanced for them, they may feel
negative as they struggle with the work, or perhaps embarrassed to ask
for help if all the other children understand. On the other hand, it
may create a positive influence and encourage the individual to work
harder and challenge the fellow students. This is the functionalist
idea of a self fulfilling prophecy, so that a student could start to
believe and make impossible situations possible.

According to functionalism, our status is achieved through exams.
Parsons argues that everyone is treated the same way and everyone has
the same chance to succeed, therefore those that achieve most in
school do so due to their effort and ability and will benefit the
society as a whole and will fill the best jobs available.

However, Marxist Bowles and Gintis found that students that were
creative and independent achieved lower grades which meant these
qualities being overlooked. Students who were punctual and dependable
would become teachers' favourites just because the creative and
independent students did not like the way in which there education and
work is organised.

Davis and Moore (1945) believe that social stratification ensures the
most talented members of society are allocated to the best jobs. In
theory, this means that these are jobs people compete for and that the
most talented people will be selected. In opposition to this, the
relationship between academic talent and occupational background is
not very close e.g. income and educational attainment. Everyday, we
rely on the emergency services such as ambulance, police, fire etc.
These occupations save lives everyday but don't get paid the highest
salary, whereas, footballers kicking a football on a field get paid
far greater; therefore, according to Davis and Moore, this would be a
more important job than saving lives.

According to the functionalist theory, education today is very fair
and provides equal opportunities for everyone. We are told that
education is based on meritocratic principles; this could be an
ideology to legitimise inequalities in society that education helps to
reproduce, however, Marxists would argue that education is not a
meritocracy because the higher class or the wealthier people can
afford private tutors with one to one attention, whereas if a family
cannot afford this, the people with private tutors will have better

Role allocation is described as finding the appropriate person and
their talents for the jobs to best suit them, however, a person may be
misjudged or have not had the best chance at education but when given
a good chance, may be able to do a better job. From an
Interactionalist's point of view, the person may have had personal
problems so could have achieved better in exams. Functionalists judge
things in a very general and wide scale way, and therefore, things
found by the interactionalist approach would never be known e.g. the
effect a teacher has on pupils.

Not every individual can be examined and a bad exam result could not
be excused as a pupil ''having a bad day''(cited at

According to the functionalist theory, the norms and values being
transmitted may be those of the elite and ruling class, and much of
the education is based on exams and that status is achieved, not
ascribed. Some sociologists may not agree with this, and may find
weaknesses in the functionalist theory. However, the functionalist
theory takes into consideration, themes which other theories do not.
E.g. Some people would like jobs which are considered of lower status,
and not everyone can be a high achiever. According to the Marxist
theory, everyone should be equal, which is impossible. ''Some will be
better than others'' (cited in sociology in perspectives) will be
recognised by Functionalism. The fact that education does fulfil its
role is an indication that theories of functionalism, such as role
allocation must be a contributing factor.

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"The Contribution of Functionalist Sociology to an Understanding of the Role of Education in Society." 20 Apr 2014

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