Education is a social institution which is often seen as a positive pathway towards development of self and gaining knowledge about the world around us, facts, different cultures, concepts, etc. however, since it is a social institution, one cannot separate that fact that it will operate in relation to the other social institutions of the society.
The sociology of education thus focuses its attention on understanding how the institution of education functions in relation to other social institutions in society. It studies how the various institutions such as caste, family and in general the structure of the society shape the institution of education and in turn how they are shaped by the institution of education. Thus those studying the sociology of education focus on the various social functions that education may have such as socialization or the reproduction of the inequalities based on race, class, gender, and caste.
The institution and its effect on the larger society as a whole can be viewed from the functionalist and the conflict perspective. One of the first to study education with relations to other social institutions in the society was Emile Durkheim, he gave the functionalist perspective of education, he believed that education played an important role in socialization especially of the moral nature and thus it was important for one to be educated to gain the values, norms, ethics, ideas about politics and religious beliefs and other aspects of culture of one’s society. Such a social function of education thus plays a role in controlling the deviant behavior of society.
The other perspective is the conflict perspective, this perspective gives the idea that educational institutions play a great role in social reproduction i.e. the reproduction of the existing social structures. The educational institutions act in a way to favor those already at the higher ends of the strata. They are modeled in such ways and are often engineered to teach the values, morals, ethics, of the already dominant sections of the society. By ensuring that those in power are more likely to remain in power educational institutions play a role in the maintenance of the inequality in the society. Such an example can be seen when we look at how the educational institutions have often helped maintain the caste system, this was done by ensuring that there are separate schools for the higher and the lower castes and those belonging to the higher castes would not go to the same school as the lower castes, the quality of education thus provided was different based on the caste to which one belonged. Such social and cultural reproduction carried out by the educational institutions has also been studies by Pierre Bourdieu, who states that the educational institutions reproduce themselves in such a way that those with greater cultural capital will always tend to remain at the position of power. As this cultural capital tends to ensure that those who possess it to get better access to education.
Education is also studied in sociology from the perspective of symbolic interactionism where it studies the interaction between in individual units who are a part of the institution, here we see how different people are treated differently such as how the whites are treated differently from the blacks.