Monday, September 8, 2008

Key Conceptual Frameworks of Social Justice of each of the Three Social Theoretical Perspectives Concerning Education

Defining social justice can be a difficult thing. Not only individually but also collectively. When applied to the three social theoretical perspectives concerning education, the concept of social justice can have very different meanings. Within the functionalism perspective, the concept of social justice generally refers to the equality of educational opportunity. Specifically, rewards will be granted and achieved on the basis of achievement (Feinberg and Soltis). Feinberg and Soltis further explain this as “the idea of equal opportunity means that individuals are to be chosen for certain roles and rewarded on the basis of achieved, rather than ascribed, characteristics.” A good example of educational advancement based on achievement can be found in the Kjeldal, Rindfleish and Sherridan article “Deal-Making and Rule-Breaking: Behind the Façade of Equity in Academia.” In Australia (and arguably in numerous other countries, including the United States), women have been historically underrepresented in academic positions above the senior lecturer level. Kjeldal, Rindfleish and Sherridan provide interesting data showing that 15.5% of men are above the senior lecturer position while only 3.5% of women were in positions above the senior lecturer level. While there is certainly a system of achievement equaling advancement the authors found that due to academic employment in historically lower level positions led to lower levels achievement. In other words, women were not in positions to receive grant funds or have the time outside of teaching to conduct research, both of which can lead to advancement beyond the senior lecturer level. Another example of this is found in the O’Connor article where she is discussing Kingston’s theory that teachers place high value on certain characteristics such as ability, hard work, staying out of trouble, etc. and that this does not reflect social biases that produce high achievement but “professionally informed assessments of which characteristics are essential to high academic and subsequent social achievement.” O’Connor further describes Kingston’s view and states “hard work, ability, articulateness, and staying out of trouble are wholly objective and culturally unambiguous phenomena.”

The conflict theorist’s view of social justice in education would be one of structural equality. In other words, there would be no struggle for power and that competition and achievement would have no place in the school. In a certain way, the EEO legislation in Australia (and in the United States) is an effort to create such a structural equality. Certainly functionalism is at play in this article about women academic in Australia as competition and achievement are driving the desire to gain power by advancing to high levels in the educational system. However, the conflict theorist would argue for a level playing field in the selection of academic positions beyond the senior lecturer position. The real question is how does one determine who is qualified and what would the selection criteria be? O’Connor provides a good discussion on social identity and what I believe relates to conflict theory. Specifically, O’Connor states:

“At the structural level, social identities reflect divisions in society that are marked by systematic material and/or power inequalities. Thus, class identity is marked by the fact that those with wealth have privilege and power compared to those without…Thus women, unlike men, are subordinated by sexism; minorities, unlike whites, are subordinated by racism; and the poor and working class, unlike the middle class, are subordinated by classism. It is these three structural divisions – race, class, and gender – that have generally preoccupied sociologists of education.”

The concept of social justice in the interpretivist approach to education can, in my opinion, vary from school to school of from culture to culture. The interpretivist approach to social justice is society specific (society can be any size) and not universal. In the Kjeldal, Rindfleish and Sherridan the issue of social justice from an interpretivist viewpoint is limited to women advancing in academia in Australia and the country’s EEO legislation and hiring practices and does not apply to the United States or other countries of the world. O’Connor provides an interpretivist’s view of social justice by stating “making sense of social identity is further complicated by the fact that social identities are also reflected and refracted differently across space…Thus, the experience of being black, male, and poor for example, is not exactly the same from one nation to the next, one school to the next, one family to the next, or one historical period to the next.

All three social theoretical perspectives concerning education have a different concept of social justice and how it can be realized in schools.


Feinberg, Walter & Jomas F. Soltis. School and Society. (4th ed.). (2004). New York: Teachers College, Columbia University Press.

Kjeldal, Sue-Ellen, Jennifer Rindfleish and Alison Sherridan. “Deal-Making and Rule-Breaking: Behind the Façade of Equity in Academia,” Gender and Education, Vol. 17 no. 4 (2005): 431-447.

O’Connor, Carla. “Making Sense of the Complexity of Social Identity in Relation to Achievement: A Sociological Challenge in the New Millenium,” Sociology of Education (2001) 159-168.

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