Education and Society – AS & A Level Sociology Notes

Synopsis– This article delves into the complex dynamicity that exists between education and society. Multifarious theories have been proposed to analyse this aspect of the inter-connectedness and it’s societal impacts. The role of education in promoting social mobility, social stability has also been discussed in an elaborate manner. Besides these, designing curriculum as a social construction of knowledge and making it an instrument of exercise of power and  ideological control are also dealt with in this article.


Education is considered to be the reflection of the society and is very impactful in maintaining social order. It shows the operationalization of different structures and institutions and also explains how is it necessary for the process of socialization in individuals. Education is a valued asset in modern society as it provides right conscience to an individual and makes them aware as to how they can exercise their agency of negotiation within these social structures. There are various perspectives which look at the relationship between education and society from different lenses. Some of them are discussed below.

Theories about the Role of Education

Functionalist Perspective

Functionalists like Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons believed in the interdependence of social elements catering towards society’s stability and functioning as a whole. According to them, society is like a biological organism with interconnected parts held together by a value consensus. The idea of value consensus is premised on the process of socialization which is largely enmeshed with domain of education. Durkheim (1898) stated that ‘socialization agencies  teach children how to get along with others and prepare them for adult economic roles’ and in majority of the societies, education system has taken over this responsibility. In addition to this, the educational setting also introduces students to social networks which  makes an individual experience the taste of collective way of working. For example- In a classroom scenario, students are assigned group tasks which encompasses students from diverse backgrounds to work together for the achievement of a common goal, thereby laying the  foundation of social solidarity. One of the roles of education system is to teach students conformity to law and respect for authority which forms the very basis of social organisation.

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945), on the interplay of Education and role allocation, states that the education system ‘sifts and sorts people into the social hierarchy which is linked to the idea of meritocracy’. An individual in order to conform to the universalistic values, has to mould themselves in a manner which befits social expectations. For example- Every society reward individuals who conform to the social norms and impose sanctions who becomes the deviant. These roles are highly in sync with the social principles of maintenance of collectivity. Schools and other educational institutions select and allocate pupils to their future roles to cater to the social construct of ‘Division of Labour’ which is the operating principle of the society. The very idea of meritocracy and society being the agent of secondary socialization emerges from there. The education system strengthens the base of collective representation as students share common sets of beliefs, ideas and norms which results in building social cohesion and social solidarity. For example- History literature of every country binds students together under shared commonalities of events.

Marxist Perspective

Louis Pierre Althusser, a French Marxist philosopher stated that although education operates as an ‘ideological apparatus’ of the State and  acts an important instrument for the bourgeoisie elite to operate in the society and form their hegemony. The evidence lies in the biased designing of academics curriculum. Karl Marx, a German philosopher and sociologist,  believes that education is the means to legitimize the grounds of inequality and stratification that exists in the society. He even denies the idea of meritocracy by labelling it as an ‘ ideological myth’ as it helps in the sustenance of exploitative principles of division of labour. He critiques the functional value of education as it is favours the children of elites to continue the legacy of holding power and privileges in the society, thereby promoting the most crude form of capitalism and making the proletariats face the very brunt of it. Haralambos and Holborn (1980) stated that ‘Education is subservient to the needs of those who control the workforce, the owners of the means of production’. It therefore profoundly justifies as in how elites of the society conceal their true source of power and disguise their ways of exploiting the masses.  With the help of agents of capitalism like operationalization of biased ‘hidden curriculum’ in the education system, the covert ways in which bourgeoisie exercise their agency is showcased in the most elaborative manner, thereby substantiating the Marxist view.

Read More: Marxist perspective on Education

New Right and Social Democratic Views

The New Right’s believe that the role of education in the society is to instil drive, initiative and enterprise, which is the most important element in the modern society.  The proponents of this school of thought consider themselves similar to the functionalists as they believe in the liberty of the individual and society exerting less social coercion. It connects the dots between education and working of economy in the most realistic manner. The stalwarts here believe in national prosperity for which they require ‘a competitive economy’.  They want the educational policies to be in alignment with the market principles in order to increase the standard of living of people in the society. Besides these, they adhere to the principle that every individual has the right to send their children to a decent, competitive school and these educational institutions shall fund themselves in order to exercise more freedom in decision-making. They believe that schools should be managed in the same way as businesses – something Hargreaves referred to as ‘Kentucky Fried Schooling’ (1989). Thus, the proponents of this perspective claims that the education system shouldn’t be made a realm of  monopolization and consumers should  have rights to higgle-haggle in choosing alternatives.

Social democrats tried to study the relationship that exists between the individual and state that lies in the domain of socio-economic development. They believe that government plays an interventionist role through its ability to rebalance the education system to meet the changing economic and  social demands. Thus, to counter the inequalities produced due  to technological advancement post second World War and  the existence of tri-partite system of class divisions, they suggested the idea of ‘Comprehensive Schooling’. In such educational institutions, same knowledge shall be provided to all children irrespective of the class divisions which shall not only revitalize the idea of meritocracy but also shall carve out the true meaning of ‘Equality’ in terms of opportunities.

Relation between Education and Social Mobility

Many sociologists believe that education is a powerful instrument which can bring in a prominent social change and reduce the social disparity that exists in both the overt and covert form. In order to uplift the position in the hierarchy of the social ladder, an individual has to navigate through the path of education. To increase the efficiency of such social system, the idea of meritocracy was introduced whose primary objective was to cater to the ways of social mobility. Educational setting which is subsumed in the larger social politics caters only to the interests of bourgeoisie class while negates the interests of the proletariats and more adversely, the Lumpen-proletarians. For example- An extremely limited number of scholarship is given as the financial help to the working-class children. It is so because it lies in the larger interests of the chieftains of the society.  The social hierarchy provides a very limited scope for upward social climbing and also restricts the means for the children of the working-class to achieve the upper social status, thereby leading to the debate as to whether state shall take over as the interventionist approach or not. In developing countries, where intersectionality of race, class, gender etc. dominates; it becomes very difficult for an individual to deviate from these constructs and achieve their individual goals. For instance- It took so many years for a ‘Black’ person like Barack Obama to become the U.S. President.

 Critics state that it’s an ‘ideological myth’ that has been constructed as giving faces to few members of the working-class doesn’t account for the upliftment of the entire community. The concept of ‘inherited meritocracy ‘ which thrives upon the social background of an individual, very well substantiates for their argument. In institutions like family and other social groups that are arranged hierarchically, individuals have different access to the educational process and the benefits that they generate which gets passed on to a certain extent to their children, thereby it creates the space for disparities. Equality in terms of opportunities seems to lie in the tiniest bubble form which is handled predominantly by the elites. For example- Though equality in the international laws mentioned in our textbooks, seems to provide equal opportunities of trade to every country, but internal politics in the international relations showcase the true picture of it, which undermines the reality. Thus, overtly it may seem that the education is facilitating enormous vertical social climbing but the covert picture portrays a very different reality that is premised on the ‘Politics of Elites’.

Influences on the curriculum

Curriculum design follows a dynamic trend that is multi-factorial in nature. Some factors on diversity includes religion, culture, race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age etc. It depends highly on the power dynamics as to which dominant group is formulating the curriculum. Several literatures  have shown that textbooks reinforce traditional views of masculinity and femininity and encourage children to accept a traditional gender order. Additionally, educational institutions often use materials, including texts, images or examples that reinforce stereotyped roles. For instance-  A recent study conducted by Kostas (2021), noted that female characters in textbooks of primary education portrayed mainly as mothers and housewives whilst male characters were identified as breadwinners. These strengthens the very foundation of traditional social structure. 

The curriculum is also an arena of political activity. It has a political function which promotes ideologies which influence the power structure within society. For example- Portrayal of iconic leaders like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King etc. in the Political Science textbooks show that within individual lies the will to bring in the social change and this in turn, can bring in a profound radical change in the power dynamics of the society. Since allocation of resources is mainly controlled by the State and the bourgeoisie elites, therefore their views is taken into consideration in curriculum planning. There exists a complex interplay between the coalition of the elites, thereby they leave no stone unturned to provide space for the masses to uplift their social status and designing of curriculum becomes the most potent instrument for it. Portrayal of MNC’s as a ‘legal personality’ representing a Nation,  profoundly substantiates the existing symbiotic relationship of power dynamics.

Curriculum for educational institutions also has an ethnocentric element in it. For instance- Majority of the primitive society which is prescribed in the anthropological textbooks is drawn from the ‘Third-World Countries’. Even Margaret Mead’s anthropological film ‘Bathing Babies in Three Cultures’ received criticism for the presence of ethnocentric element in it.  The historical literatures are highly biased in itself. It is in alignment with the politics and the government in power.  Since curriculum, thus, acts as a cultural capital for the future generations therefore the style of writing gets influenced by the author’s social background. It is a way of continuing and preserving the legacy thus, the face of elites takes over on these roles.


It can be concluded that education and society are inseparable as there exists a symbiotic relationship between the two. Education not only provides a way for social mobilization and social organisation but also a medium to understand the complex dynamics of different parts in the society. The different perspectives on functional value of education caters to a holistic approach in understanding its mechanism. Thus, it can be inferred that society depends on education to a large extent and also labels it as a potent medium for the maintenance of the social order and social stability.

Also Read: Sociology of Education


Davis, K., & Moore, W. E. (1945). Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10, p.242–249. accessed on February 24, 2023.

Durkheim, E. (1982). The Nature of Society and Causal Explanation (1898). In: Lukes, S. (eds) The Rules of Sociological Method. Contemporary Social Theory. Palgrave, London.  accessed on February 24, 2023.

Haralambos & Holborn. (2008). Sociological Themes and Perspectives, Vol.(8). London: Collins, p.885; accessed on February 23, 2023.

Hargreaves, A. (1995) Kentucky fried schooling? The Times Educational Supplement. Accessed on February 24, 2023.

Kostas, M. (2021), “Discursive construction of hegemonic masculinity and emphasised femininity in the textbooks of primary education: Children’s discursive agency and polysemy of the narratives”, Gender and Education, Vol. 33/1, pp. 50-67,

Praveen, C (2016). ‘Sociological aspects of curriculum development’ Socio-Ed: accessed on February 23, 2023.

Thompson, Karl (2015). ‘The Functionalist Perspective on Education’ Revise Sociology: accessed on February 22, 2023.

Truemman, CN (2015). ‘The New Right and Education’ The History Learning Site :  accessed on February 23, 2023.

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Pushpanjali is a Sociology student at Miranda House with a keen interest in reading fictional novels, discerning aesthetics within the ordinary, and expressing her complex emotions through writing. She is dedicated to championing various facets of feminism and is committed to leveraging her viewpoints to effect positive change in society.