The three social theoretical perspectives concerning education are Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and the Interpretivist Approach. For this blog post I will discuss the “Education and Societal Inequality: Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity” and “Education as Cultural Transmission” themes to illustrate and compare the three social theoretical perspectives concerning education and how they contribute to an understanding of the sociology of education.
The theme of Education and Societal Inequality: Race, Gender, Class and Ethnicity offers an excellent opportunity to compare the three theoretical perspectives. In the Banks article on multicultural education we can compare the three social theoretical perspectives of education by looking at his five dimensions of multicultural education typology he provides. To briefly review, the five dimensions of multicultural education (according to Banks) are: content integration; knowledge construction; prejudice reduction; equity pedagogy; and, empowering school culture. The functionalist perspective, for example, can be found in the prejudice reduction dimension of Banks’ multicultural education typology. As cited by Banks, the prejudice reduction dimension of multicultural education “is designed to help students develop more democratic attitudes, values, and behaviors.” When students develop more democratic attitudes, values, and behaviors they become more socialized and are better able “to adapt to the economic, political and social institutions of that society” (Feinberg and Soltis).
Both the equity pedagogy and empowering school culture dimensions of Banks’ multicultural education typology demonstrate the conflict theory approach. Teachers in the equity pedagogy dimension attempt to use teaching strategies that “facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse, racial, ethnic, and social-class groups…to help students who are members of low-status population groups to increase their academic achievement” (Banks). In particular, it’s the cultural deprivationists approach that focuses on social class and the culture of poverty that best demonstrates the conflict theory approach. According to Banks, “social scientists developed the culture of poverty concept to describe experiences of low income populations and in education this concept became known as cultural deprivation or the disadvantaged.” In many ways, the equity pedagogy dimension is quite similar to the empowering school culture dimension. The idea of the empowering school culture dimension, according to Banks, is “the process of restructuring the culture and organization of the school so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups will experience educational equality and cultural empowerment.” Banks notes that to achieve an empowering school culture for minority students and students from low social economic status backgrounds schools must “restructure” their culture and organization.
The interpretivist perspective can be found in both the content integration and the knowledge construction dimensions of Banks’ multicultural education typology. Content integration, according to Banks, “deals with the extent to which teachers use examples, data, and information from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline. Similarly, with the knowledge construction dimension, “teachers help students to understand how knowledge is created and how it is influenced by the racial, ethnic, and social-class positions of individuals and groups” (Banks). These two dimensions of Banks’ multicultural education typology seem to fit Feinberg and Soltis’ description of the interpretivist perspective as quite well. Feinberg and Soltis describe the interpretivist who “sees the social world as a world made up of purposeful actors who acquire, share, and interpret a set of meanings, rules, and norms that make social interaction possible. The social forces at work are shared meanings and interpreting individuals who interact in particular social contexts.”
Education ad Cultural Transmission is the second theme analyzed to complete this discussion. In her introduction to this theme, Strouse identifies the following three questions that come from the selected readings: What are the key values reflected in U.S. culture?; How is contemporary U.S. culture transmitted and maintained?; and, What are the roles of schools and teachers in promulgating these values, attitudes, and beliefs, or in fostering changes in them in anticipation of our society’s future needs? I won’t attempt to answer each of these questions with examples of each of the three social theoretical perspectives concerning education. Instead, I plan to look at Spindler’s account of modernizing cultures and what is the purpose of education? Spindler discusses the Sisala of Northern Ghana and the developing relationships among educated children and their parents and/or elders in the Sisala society. Specifically, Spindler looks at fathers and sons and how education has affected their relationships. From a functionalist perspective, the schools of the Sisala are socializing the children to learn and adjust to the changing and modernizing world around them. As Spindler states “the new schools, with their curricula and the concepts behind them, are future oriented.” They recruit students into a system that does not yet exist, or is just emerging.” This most certainly will create conflicts with their “illiterate” or uneducated fathers. In the Sisala schools the conflict theory perspective is most evident in the example Spindler provides of the teacher-student interaction. Spindler states that the “interaction between the teacher and his students is characterized by an authoritarian rigidity.” For example, students rise from their desks as the teacher enters the room as a sign of respect and students are not expected to ask questions of the material but rather are to give the “correct” answer when asked.
It's important for all educators (both teachers and administrators), researchers, and policy makers to have a “grasp” or knowledge of the three social theoretical perspectives concerning education if they are to have a good understanding of the sociology of education. Regardless of how one views education and the role schools play in society, without an understanding of the major theoretical perspectives and how different viewpoints interact with one’s own positions they are a less effective educator.
Banks, James A. “Multicultural Education: Historical Development, Dimensions, and Practice,” in Exploring Socio-Cultural Themes in Education: Readings in Social Foundations (Ed. Joan H. Strouse). (2001): 248-282.
Feinberg, Walter & Jomas F. Soltis. School and Society. (4th ed.). (2002). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University Press.
Spindler, George, D. “The Transmission of Culture,” in Exploring Socio-Cultural Themes in Education: Readings in Social Foundations (Ed. Joan H. Strouse). (2001): 5-28.