Policy Research and the Sociology of Education: Contributions to Understanding the Experiences of Marginalized Populations

Article excerpt

Historically, policy analysis has assisted in the country's move from an unquestioned "meritocracy" to a system that strives towards the democratic ideals of equal educational opportunity and civil rights (Boyd, 1999 p. 231). In his discussion of the paradoxes of educational policy, William Lowe Boyd explains how rather than having a strong direct effect on educational policy through problem solving and data accumulation, educational research holds greater influence indirectly through problem formation and defining alternatives to a given problem (Boyd, 1999, p. 230). The following discusses the contributions of policy research in the policy process and methodological strands in the sociology of education that facilitate application of sociology to educational research as it relates to Blacks and other marginalized groups.

The Identification of Social Problems

A key contribution of policy research to the policy process is the identification or definition of a given problem. The very act of defining a problem yields power to the definer. Schattschneider acknowledges this truth in explaining:

   The definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of
   power; the antagonist can rarely agree on what the issues are
   because power is involved in the definition. He who determines what
   politics is runs the country, because the definition of
   alternatives is the choice of conflicts, and the choice of
   conflicts allocates power" (1960, p. 68, emphasis in the original).

Influenced by one's interests, preferences and perceptions, the same problem may be defined in various ways depending upon "different standards of judgment, different explanations of causation, and different solutions" (Portz, 1996, p. 372). The definitions of problems are shaped by interpretation, as well as social definition, and must compete for consideration on policymakers' agendas (1996). Multiple definitions of one issue may even compete for resources and attention (1996). Defining elements that influence the prominence of a particular definition are the problem's visibility, political sponsorship, and viable solutions (1996).

Analysis of Interest Group Concerns

Policy research has also played a crucial role in understanding and addressing concerns of interest groups within education, most notably, that of educational equality. David Truman defines an interest group as a "shared-attitude group that makes certain claims upon other groups in the society" (Truman, 1954). This group becomes political "if and when it makes a claim through or upon any of the institutions of government" collectively (1954). A group's strength is determined by its organization, internal cohesion, population, wealth, leadership, and access to decision makers (Dye, 1998). Interest groups in the educational arena include professional educators, teachers' unions, voters, tax payers, parents, school boards, alumni, and racial, as well as religious groups (1998). Within higher education, interest groups include students, faculty, trustees, presidents, and unions (1998). Policy research, which is conducted at both the micro (institutional) and macro (national) levels, defines and advocates issues of importance for a given population. Policy analysts utilize qualitative, quantitative, and theoretical frameworks in understanding the effects of policies and contributing factors to inequality, as well as social, economic, and educational stratification between various segments of the population.

Forms of (Critical) Policy Analysis

Both academic and applied policy analysis contribute to the prediction of the impact and effects of policy through empirical study, theory, and evaluation. To maintain social strata, governments act according to the values and interest of dominant groups (Taylor, et al, 1997). This elitist approach influences the social values that shape the distribution of resources. …