The Sociology of Education and Work


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Few would argue that any education system accomplishes this goal perfectly. Some take a particularly critical view, arguing that the education system is designed with the intention of causing the social reproduction of inequality.

Review of Bills, David B.: The Sociology of Education and Work

After World War II , however, the subject received renewed interest around the world: These all implied that, with industrialization , the need for a technologically skilled labour force undermines class distinctions and other ascriptive systems of stratification, and that education promotes social mobility. However, statistical and field research across numerous societies showed a persistent link between an individual's social class and achievement, and suggested that education could only achieve limited social mobility. Neo-Marxists argued that school education simply produced a docile labour force essential to late-capitalist class relations.

The sociology of education contains a number of theories. Some of the main theories are presented below. The Political Arithmetic tradition within the sociology of education began with Hogben [4] and denotes a tradition of politically critical quantitative research dealing with social inequalities, especially those generated by social stratification Heath More recent work in this tradition has broadened its focus to include gender, [9] [10] ethnic differentials [11] and international differences. The political arithmetic tradition was attacked by the 'New Sociology of Education' of the s [15] which rejected quantitative research methods.

This heralded a period of methodological division within the sociology of education. However, the political arithmetic tradition, while rooted in quantitative methods, has increasingly engaged with mixed methods approaches. Structural functionalists believe that society leans towards social equilibrium and social order. Social health means the same as social order, and is guaranteed when nearly everyone accepts the general moral values of their society.


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Hence structural functionalists believe the aim of key institutions, such as education, is to socialize children and teenagers. Socialization is the process by which the new generation learns the knowledge, attitudes and values that they will need as productive citizens. Although this aim is stated in the formal curriculum, [18] it is mainly achieved through the hidden curriculum , [19] a subtler, but nonetheless powerful, indoctrination of the norms and values of the wider society.

Students learn these values because their behavior at school is regulated Durkheim in [3] until they gradually internalize and accept them. Education must also perform another function: As various jobs become vacant, they must be filled with the appropriate people.

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Therefore, the other purpose of education is to sort and rank individuals for placement in the labor market [Munro, ]. Those with high achievement will be trained for the most important jobs and in reward, be given the highest incomes. Those who achieve the least, will be given the least demanding intellectually at any rate, if not physically jobs, and hence the least income. According to Sennet and Cobb however, "to believe that ability alone decides who is rewarded is to be deceived".

They are therefore "cooled out" [22] from school with the least qualifications, hence they get the least desirable jobs, and so remain working class. Sargent confirms this cycle, arguing that schooling supports continuity, which in turn supports social order.


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  • The perspective of conflict theory , contrary to the structural functionalist perspective, believes that society is full of vying social groups with different aspirations, different access to life chances and gain different social rewards. Where teachers have softened the formality of regular study and integrated student's preferred working methods into the curriculum, they noted that particular students displayed strengths they had not been aware of before.

    This knowledge isn't very meaningful to many of the students, who see it as pointless.

    Sociology of education

    Sargent believes that for working-class students, striving to succeed and absorbing the school's middle class values, are accepting their inferior social position as much as if they were determined to fail. The federal government subsidises 'independent' private schools enabling the rich to obtain 'good education' by paying for it.

    In this way, the continuation of privilege and wealth for the elite is made possible in continuum. Conflict theorists believe this social reproduction continues to occur because the whole education system is overlain with ideology provided by the dominant group. In effect, they perpetuate the myth that education is available to all to provide a means of achieving wealth and status. Anyone who fails to achieve this goal, according to the myth, has only themselves to blame. They have been encouraged to believe that a major goal of schooling is to strengthen equality while, in reality, schools reflect society's intention to maintain the previous unequal distribution of status and power [Fitzgerald, cited in [3] ].

    This perspective has been criticised as deterministic and pessimistic, while there is some evidence for social mobility among disadvantaged students. It should be recognised however that it is a model, an aspect of reality which is an important part of the picture. This theory of social reproduction has been significantly theorised by Pierre Bourdieu. However Bourdieu as a social theorist has always been concerned with the dichotomy between the objective and subjective, or to put it another way, between structure and agency. Bourdieu has therefore built his theoretical framework around the important concepts of habitus , field and cultural capital.

    These concepts are based on the idea that objective structures determine individuals' chances, through the mechanism of the habitus, where individuals internalise these structures. However, the habitus is also formed by, for example, an individual's position in various fields, their family and their everyday experiences. Therefore, one's class position does not determine one's life chances, although it does play an important part, alongside other factors. He deals at length with how the relationship between education and work is or could be shaped differently in the post-industrial society.

    He also explores the consequences of the recent demographic boosts and busts and the immigration waves. The book's final chapters are devoted to the analysis of the changes in people's life course, transformations in the school system such as the post-war expansion of higher education and the possibilities of the learning society lifelong learning.

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    Throughout the different chapters, Bills uses a similar strategy. This al-lows him to reduce the complexity of the underlying issues and debates.

    It also makes it rela-tively easy to follow the construction of Bills' argument throughout the entire book. But this strategy also entails some disadvantages. In my view, at least two problems can be indicated. First, there is the problem that not all of Bills' classics have in common that they are often cited but rarely read. Although some of his summaries and overviews of this literature are ex-cellent, others do not add something new. A few chapters such as Chapter 2 are too conven-tional and somewhat long-winded. Second, and related to this, there is the issue of the selec-tion of these classics.

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