Sociology of Education: Meaning, Scope, Importance, Perspectives

Synopsis: This article explores the discipline of Sociology of Education, a branch of the broader subject of Sociology, through its meaning, history of development, significance, differences with Educational Sociology, and scope. It also portrays how education can be examined using the three main theoretical perspectives in sociology.

What is Sociology of Education?

To understand what Sociology of Education comprises, it is, first and foremost, imperative to define education from a sociological understanding. In sociology, education is held to be a social institution that serves the objective of socializing an individual from their very birth into the systems of society. Henslin (2017) defines education as “a formal system” which engages in imparting knowledge to individuals, instilling morals and beliefs (which are at par with those of the culture and society), and providing formal training for skill development. In non-industrial, simple societies, the specific institution of education did not exist in society.

Sociology of Education Notes

For quite a long period after it was established as a formal means of knowledge development, education was available only to those privileged enough to afford it. Requirements under industrialization to have literate workers for some jobs reshaped the structure of the education system to a great extent. Even in today’s world, the education system varies from one country to another due to various factors, ranging from cultural values to the availability of proper resources.

Sociology of Education is the discipline or field of study which deals with the institution of education, and all the other factors related to it, in society. Sociology of education is also defined as the academic discipline which “examines the ways in which individuals’ experiences affect their educational achievement and outcomes” (Williams, 2011). Scott (2014) states that the subject is “mostly concerned with schooling, and especially the mass schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education.”

In simple words, the discipline studies education as a social institution, and examines its functions, roles, and other behaviors within the broader social context, as well as how it influences individuals and is influenced reciprocally by them. It highlights the significance of education within the different cultures and other social groups, as well as assesses factors (such as economic, political, etc.) associated with the individuals which might affect their access to education. Some themes discussed within the field are modules or curriculum, testing methods (such as standardized testing), etc.

Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Lancelot Hogben, Talcott Parsons, Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman, John Wilfred Meyer, etc., are some scholars associated with the Sociology of Education. The discipline was made popular in India by scholars such as Madhav Sadashiv Gore, Akshay Ramanlal Desai, Yogendra Singh, and Shyama Charan Dube, among others (Pathania, 2013). 

Historical Background:

French sociologist Emile Durkheim was the person who helped establish Sociology as a formal educational discipline. Durkheim also became the first professor of sociology, the first individual to pursue a sociological understanding of the functioning of societies, and the foremost person to initiate a discussion on the sociology of education (Boronski & Hassan, 2020). He identified that the base of organic solidarity is moral education, in which self-discipline and keeping one’s desires in check are the essential principles of moral development.

However, even before sociology emerged as a formal academic discipline or pursued interest in the West, Arab philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun has been designated the position of being one of the pioneer thinkers in Sociology, and in the sociology of education in particular. Khaldun understood education as a tool of significance, the advancement of which is crucial to the growth and development of society and economy (Boronski & Hassan, 2020).

With the advent of the Fabian Society, which was originally established in 1884, during the middle of the twentieth century, sociology of education began in its early stage in Britain.

Boronski & Hassan (2020) describe the Fabian society and its activities as the “political foundation” of the sociology of education in Britain. The methodology followed during this time was ‘political arithmetic’: examining the capability of education to result in a society that was more supportive of and characterized by democracy, and its related principles.

The intellectual roots of sociology of education in Britain lie in the influence of structural functionalism, strongly visible in both Britain and America. The British sociology of education saw a drastic shift to a more critical view of education during the 1970s and 1980s. This was termed as “New Sociology of Education (NSOE)”, which consisted of not one, but several different approaches to education, all of which, however, had a similar base: the system or institution of education was considered as fundamentally adverse to those belonging from the working class (Boronski & Hassan, 2020).

The feminist perspective of sociology grew apace in the education scenario, providing a bolder and enhanced voice to the agenda of the women’s movement, and literature on the same, such as those of Dale Spencer and Judy Samuel, also expanded. Today, the field of Sociology itself, and in particular, the sub-field of Sociology of Education faces a continuous and increasing demand to make the discipline more embracive by facilitating and encouraging the incorporation of involvement of the global South.

Theoretical Perspectives on Education:

The social institution of education can be examined using the three main theoretical perspectives in Sociology:

  • Structural Functionalism: This perspective views education as a crucial and integral institution that provides several benefits to society (Henslin, 2017). The first manifest function of education is providing a source of knowledge and teaching essential aptitude, required both for social survival and economic necessities. Standardized testing scores help employers discern and select the ‘good’ potential workers from the ‘bad’ wherever there is a lack of prior knowledge about each of them. 

The second function is facilitating distribution or passing on of core cultural values, norms, beliefs, ideals, as well as patriotic feelings towards one’s country, and harmony towards fellow citizens. These are passed on from generation to generation to ensure that these values are kept intact.

“Social integration”, that is, feelings of solidarity towards other people due to sharing the same nationality as them, the inclusion of people with special needs, etc., is the third manifest function of education (Henslin, 2017). At the same time, it also serves the function of separating people into ‘appropriate’ groups based on differences in their characteristics (such as merit, skills, etc.).

Other functions vary from place to place and include providing childcare, providing nutrition (free midday meal systems), facilitating sex education and proper healthcare, diminishing the rate of unemployment, as well as ensuring security in society by keeping individuals in schools and away from corrupt activities (Henslin, 2017).

  • Symbolic Interactionism: This perspective focuses on the interaction taking place in schools–in classrooms, playgrounds, etc., between students and teachers, and among students themselves, and how these can affect the individuals involved in the interactions. Socialization into gender roles is a primary example of the influence of in-school interaction upon individuals. Teachers’ expectations, type of peer groups, etc., have an impact on the performance of students (higher the teacher’s expectations, the better the students will perform, and vice versa) (Henslin, 2017). Expectations of students oneself based on their life situations (such as financial conditions) also affect an individual’s educational performance. 
  • Conflict Theory: This theoretical perspective is inherently skeptical and critical of the education system. According to conflict theorists, education serves the purpose of introducing, reiterating, and maintaining the class division which is present in society. They posit the presence of a “hidden curriculum” which instills values such as submission to power or authority, adherence to social or cultural rules (such as maintenance of racial discrimination, treating students from different social classes differently), etc. (Henslin, 2017). 

Also Read: Maxist Perspective on Education

By implementing some latent and some visible rules, schools also promote the current social structures (such as capitalism: by encouraging competitive behavior and pitting students against one another based on test scores, social stratification: regions having lower-class students have poorly funded schools, etc.), thereby facilitating their existence rather than working towards their removal from society. 

Other theoretical perspectives which have had a significant impact on how education, and the system around it, is analyzed are feminist approaches, which highlight the gender differences in education, with the third wave of feminism also incorporating race and class-based discriminations into the gender imbalance; and critical race theory which focuses on all matters concerning race (mainly the obstacles which people have to encounter due to race) in education (Robson, 2019).

Scope of Sociology of Education:

Sociology of Education covers a wide range of topics. Society and all other components within it, such as culture, class, race, gender, etc., the ongoing processes of socialization, acculturation, social organization, etc., and other factors such as status, roles, values, morals, etc., all fall under the inspection of this field of study (Satapathy, n.d.). Aligning the design of education according to geographical, ethnic, and linguistic necessities, and requirements of other population subgroups also falls under Sociology of Education. How economic background and situations, family structures and relations, friends, peer groups and teachers, and other more overarching social issues affect the personality, quality of education, and accessibility of opportunities to students is an integral point of consideration under Sociology of Education.

Significance of Studying Sociology of Education:

Dynamic nature of culture, the fact that culture varies from one place to another and sometimes even within the same region, and because education, culture, and society affect each other drastically, it is important to have an understanding of the relationship between these so that education can be used effectively as a tool for human advancement (Satapathy, n.d.). Sociology of Education helps in facilitating that.

Teachers are able to learn cultural differences, practice cultural relativism, understand how differences in culture translate into the educational sphere as well, and work towards providing individuals equitable opportunities for education through the Sociology of Education (Ogechi, 2011). They can also motivate the same knowledge among students. As a discipline, Sociology of Education instills cultural appreciation, respect, and admiration towards diversity, and more in-depth knowledge about different cultures and other social groups through the patterns in education within them.

Sociology of Education also provides greater knowledge about human behavior, clarity on how people organize themselves in society and helps unravel and simplify the complexities within human society (Ogechi, 2011). Because education, whether in the formal, institutionalized form or otherwise, is one of the few components in human society which more or less remains constant across cultures, it becomes an important tool to analyze and interpret human societies.

The discipline also enhances one’s understanding of the position education occupies in society, and the roles it plays in the lives of humans (Ogechi, 2011). At the same time, it helps develop knowledge about the benefits as well as the shortcomings of education and devise policies to make the institution more beneficial for society by facilitating an analytical examination.

Due to its focus on studying one of the most vital parts of human lives today, the academic field of Sociology of Education holds a position of great importance among the several branches and sub-branches of sociology. The discipline is constantly evolving, and undergoing improvement and changes as the society, and the values held by it change.

Differences between Educational Sociology and Sociology of Education:

Although the two are related, Sociology of Education is distinctly different from Educational Sociology in certain factors. Sociology of education is the process of scientifically investigating the institution of education within the society–how the society affects it, how education influences people in the society in return, and the problems which might occur as a result of the interaction between the two (Chathu, 2017). Educational Sociology also deals with these, but where Sociology of Education is a more theory-based study, Educational Sociology focuses on applying principles in sociology to the entire system of education and how it operates within the society. In other words, Sociology of Education studies the practices within the social institution of education using sociological concepts, while Educational Sociology engages in the practical application of understandings developed through sociological research into education (Bhat, 2016).

In the same context, Sociology of Education views education as a part of the larger society, and hence the institution is analyzed both as a separate unit, as well as by considering it alongside other factors in society (Bhat, 2016). Therefore, the discipline tries to form a relationship between education and other facets of society and seeks to understand how education affects these different components of the society, and vice versa (for example, how education ingrains gender roles, as well as how pre-existing gender roles affect the quality, quantity, availability, and access to education). Educational Sociology, on the other hand, aims to provide solutions to the problems which occur in education (Bhat, 2016). In doing so, the discipline views education as a separate entity within society.

Sociology of Education tends to strive towards developing an understanding of how the education system affects individuals, and what outcomes are visible in people as a result of education (Chathu, 2017). Educational Sociology, on the other hand, strives to find ways of improving the institution and system of education so that its potentials can be more advantageously harnessed for the greater interest of all in the future.


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Boronski, T., & Hassan, N. (2020). Sociology of education (2nd ed.). Editorial: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington Dc, Melbourne Sage.

Chathu. (2017, January 30). Difference between educational sociology and sociology of education | definition, features, characteristics.

Ogechi, R. (2011). QUESTION: Discuss the importance of sociology of education to both teachers and students. Academia.

Pathania, G. J. (2013). Sociology of Education. Economic and Political Weekly, 48(50), 29–31.

Robson, K. L. (2019). Theories in the sociology of education. In Sociology of Education in Canada. Pressbooks.

Satapathy, S. S. (n.d.). Sociology of education.

Scott, J. (2014). A dictionary of sociology (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

Williams, S. M. (2011). Sociology of education. Education.

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Soumili is an undergraduate student pursuing her degree in Social Sciences at Tata Institute of Social Sciences with Sociology, Psychology and Economics as her core subjects. She loves learning about different cultures, traditions, and languages, and takes particular interest in scholarship on intersectional feminism and environmentalism, gender and sexuality, and clinical psychology and counseling. Her other areas of interest include reading, fine arts, and volunteering.