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The Impact of Sociological Theories

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Education is an integral part of any society. Different sociologists hold different views as to how the society is built and organized. There are three sociological theories that may be applied to education, namely the theory of functionalism, the conflict theory and the theory of interactionism. These three theories can be seen to be applied in education as it is at the elementary level, at high school or even in colleges. These three theories of education conflict when one is seeking to analyze the nature of education and its relationship with those concerned. Firstly, I will take a look at each of the three theories closely and examine how they msy be applied to education.  I will seek to give a brief background to each of the sociological theories and where they originate from. I will then compare the theories to examine their differences and similarities. In the second part of this research paper, I will look at how each of these three theories affects the views of an individual who is a part of the education system. Thirdly, I will examine how each theory affects the approach to a social change within an educational institution. Finally, this essay will seek to examine how each of the theories affects the view of the society.

The Theory of Functionalism

The theory of functionalism seeks to examine the ways through which education serves the needs of the society.  It is also known as the structural functionalism proposing that the social world can also be studied in the same way that the physical world is being studied.  Functionalists generally view the society as a structure and, thus, certain things must be done for its survival. This theory has been founded by Emile Durkheim who believed that the core function of the education system is to pass basic skills and knowledge from one generation to the next one.

According to Durkheim (1951), education had an important role in socializing learners into the mainstream society. In his view, the society was held together in consensus, namely the mechanical solidarity and the organic solidarity. The mechanical solidarity, as he believed, occurred as a result of the society holding on to similar norms and beliefs. This, however, is only possible in a simple traditional society without the complexities. The second solidarity, the organic one, was a result of interdependence in the society.  This was possible due to the fact that although people had various beliefs, they needed the others to survive.

This is what he referred to as the moral education which, in his view, created some social structures of unity and cohesion. Functionalists hold the view that the education system should allow the transmission of societal norms and values. Such values as obeying rules and following instructions are, therefore, the part and parcel of a good education system and should be rewarded.

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The functionalist theory also applies to education in the sense that the students are sorted out basing on the performance. The brighter students are the more channeled they are to esteemed professions. This is what a sociologist Kerbo (1999) refers to as a social placement. The other function of education other than sorting is networking. People in similar classes or in the particular college tend to form their personal connections. In this regard, the education also performs the role of matchmaking where people with similar interests and preferences come together, and their relationships have been known to get started from these associations.

According to the functionalists, education has both the role of preserving and changing the culture. As the students progress in the education system, they seem to become more open minded, and hence, liberal. As students research, they come across many changes and developments as opposed to some uneducated individuals who tend to be more conservative. This then, according to functionalists, is the ironical role of education that while it is supposed to preserve the culture, it also has the role of transforming learners.

The Conflict Theory

According to Arrighi (2009), the conflict theory has risen from the works of Max Weber and Karl Marx who both focused on the struggle between the social classes in the society and the desire to dominate and rule the society by the elite.  This theory has stated that the education has a patent role of maintaining the inequality in any society. It does this by preserving the power of those who are ruling or dominating the society. The conflict theory bases its argument on the fact that the society is contained of two groups with conflicting interests. These two groups do not have the equal access to resources and power and, as such, are in a constant competition for the same.

Conflict theorists believe education has the role of maintaining the status quo, whereby the lower classes are taught to accept that they can never be anything more than the lower class. Through what they refer to as a hidden curriculum, these lower class workers are taught to be the obedient workers. They give an example of property taxes that are funding schools. This means that richer neighborhoods have more funding for their schools are able to build the better learning facilities and hire only the best teachers. Students going through these schools have a distinct advantage and end up getting into the best colleges and eventually into important professions. The other students from poor neighborhoods with much less funding do not get the same quality education. Most of them do not get into the college and end up as casual laborers, and this way the cycle continues. Education, therefore, according to the conflict theory, is not beneficial to the society.

Conflict theorists see it as a tool used by capitalists to preserve power with the rich and maintain a working class to serve their needs. This theory has been faulted mainly for seeing the society from a negative point of view. The theory ignores democracy and all other humanitarian efforts and instead focuses on the negatives in the society. Critics believe that evils seen by conflict theories can be eliminated through democracy and the social equity.

The Interactionism Theory

The third theory is the interactionism theory which originates from the works of a philosopher George Mead and his nemesis Charles Cooley. It is also known as the symbolic interactionism theory which focuses on the usual activities of the day and their meanings. This theory analyses the education based only on what is observed in the classroom. Symbolic interactionists believe that individuals attach the particular meaning to various symbols and will act depending on how they interpret these symbols.

This theory seeks to analyze how the expectations, attitude and perception of a teacher influence on the performance of a student in the classroom. In a study conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968), it was discovered that whenever the teacher expected to observe a certain degree of growth in the performance, it actually occurred. This is what interactionists refer to as the self-fulfilling prophesy where something predicted by an individual actually occurs.

Interactionism theory states that students being close to the teacher interact more with him or her, and this close attention to them by the teacher leads to them performing better than those being far from the teacher. According to Rist (1970), an interactionism theorist, students who are labeled in the eighth grade carried the labels all the way to the end of schooling. This theory, however, has been criticized for failing to focus on the bigger picture by focusing only on one aspect of the education system.

The Comparison of the Sociological Theories

Functionalists tend to view the roles of education in the same was as a conflict theorist. Both functionalists and conflict theorists believe that education sorts out the society entrusting important professions to better performing students. Again, both conflict theorists and structural theorists believe that the society is a structure and that education has a strong bearing on culture and cohesion within the society. You could say, however, that the two ones represent two different faces of the same society.

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Although both functionalists and conflict theorists state that education has a sorting role, they disagree on how the sorting occurs. While the functionalists believe that sorting is based on a merit, the conflict theorists argue that the merit or performance is not the basis upon which sorting is done, rather along ethnic lines and a social class. Conflict theorists believe there is a hidden curriculum that tends to encourage the working class to accept their position in the society.

The major difference between the conflict theorists and the functionalism theorists is that while the functionalists seek to analyze how the education system operates,  the conflict theorist are interested in which interests the education system serves to. The interactionism theorists on the other hand look at it from how it actually happens. According to Barakett and Cleghorn (2008) that, “the task is to understand how structural variables become incorporated into the individual’s perceptions and interpretations of social action and how he or she acts on the basis of these” (39).

While conflict theorists and the functionalists agree that education is an important tool for passing on values and norms, the interactionists do not agree pointing out that not all the people in the society can have the same interests and beliefs. The functionalists and the conflict theorists argue that the interests of the social unit should be more important than the interests of an individual. According to the interactionism theory, it is impossible for the entire society to have the same norms and values as cultures are diverse.

Sociological Theories and Social Change in Education

Education is very instrumental to a social change within the society. The social change occurs when the structures that already exist fail to meet the current human needs, when the society desires the change and when the new and better ways of meeting human needs are discovered. According to the functionalism theory, education serves the purpose of passing on skills and knowledge from one generation to the next one. When this knowledge is passed on to students, it causes the change in their attitude and approach to life. This change in the students’ outlook eventually influences on his or her personal relationships.

Functional theorists though tend to view education as a means of social control as opposed to the social change. This approach has, however, changed over the years with the modern educational systems not being too concerned about passing on societal norms and culture from one generation to the next one.

Durkheim (1951), a conflict theorist, disagrees with the notion that education can be a force that transforms the society. In his view, “society can be reformed only if society itself is reformed” and that education is “only the image and reflection of society. It imitates and reproduces the latter…it does not create it” (372-373). He argued that the role of education in any society could not be overemphasized as it played a very important role. The interactionism theory, however, insists that since the culture is different from the society to the next one, students should only be measured using a standard method like tests that are universal and status achieved based on the merit. This means that the student is judged based on the merit as opposed to how well he or she fits into the society.

Sociological Theories and the View of the Society

Functionalists view education as having an immense influence on the society and have a positive function of keeping it together. In their view, education is important in keeping the society stable, achieving the consensus and resolving it and differences that may arise. Through education, cohesion is achieved as basic skills are passed on from one generation to the next one. Students are socialized, while at school and prepared for their future roles in the community.

Both the conflict theory and the interactionism theory view education as performing the important role of socialization. Through socialization, values and norms are passed on to young people in the society. Both theorists agree that education acts as a bridge between the family and the society, at large. In the society that is largely industrial, the society judges the individual based on his or her performance at school. When sorting occurs, according to the functionalism theory, the society entrusts the highest performers with the most important professions. Schools are, therefore, expected to prepare learners to be judged based on how well they perform while being at school.

The conflict theorists were, however, fast to warn that education is not always a perfect agent for socialization as the values and norms passed could be those of the particular class meant to exploit the other one. This is what they referred to as the hidden curriculum, the one that socialized the poor or the working class to think that they could not become better. The students from the lower class are taught to believe that it was okay to be the lower class, and that they needed to be obedient workers. In this hidden curriculum, a set of ideas were passed on to students, and they were required to believe them without a question or a discussion.

The functionalists believe that the role allocation in the society should be based on the merit, and that the person with the best grades should have the best paid job. This, the conflict theorists argue, is not the best method as someone may be judged wrongly for not having performed well at school when the reality is that they may never have had a chance to get the quality education. The internationalism theorists feel that the functional approach is very general and does not take into account various factors that may have contributed to the poor performance such as sickness; the influence a teacher may have had on a student.

Sociological Theories of Education and the Views of the Concerned Individual

According to functionalism theorists, the individual is judged depending on how he or she performs at school. With this in mind, the student works really hard in order to please not only himself but his family and the wider society. Failure is looked down upon, and the good performance is rewarded. The student’s conduct is measured against the set rules and regulations and the performance is measured using examinations. The society rewards the excellent performance with good jobs and praises. The individual then has to work very hard in order to get these benefits of good performance.

According to Arrighi (2009), everyone should be treated equally regardless of his or her race, color or religion giving every student a chance to succeed. As a result, those that score the best grades do so after working harder than the rest, and the society should, therefore, give them the best jobs. The interactionism theorists, however, disagree with this view pointing out that some students that were talented and creative had been overlooked by this approach. They argued that it was possible for teachers to overlook at these gifted children just because they did not follow certain rules laid out by teachers.

Again, while the society is structured, in such a way, that the best jobs are given to students with the best grades, Kerbo (1999) noted that, in some instances, they were not the people best suited for these professions. The functionalists argue that education should provide equal opportunities for all students and reward them basing on their merits. This is not always the case as argued by the conflict theorists who point out that not all schools are well funded with the well trained teachers. Marxists insist that education can never be fair as the rich can afford the best tutors, private schools, best texts while the poor people cannot afford this. A child from the wealthier family then has the access to a better education.


In conclusion, education should be viewed from all three perspectives to be fully understood. The three theories of education are conflicting and, as a result, are giving a rise to the confusion among students of education. Trying to understand the basic principles and tenets that govern the education, this student discovers the world of theories conflicting with one another. It is, therefore, important that the student of education analyses all three sociological theories of education in order to fully understand their applications. All the three theories have the principles that are important to an education system. It must be understood that education has changed over the years from the informal means of passing knowledge and skills from one generation to the next one and has become very formal. As such, some of the principles contained in these three theories have been overcome by some changes in the society and the education system.

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