Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Understanding Education. A Sociological Perspective

Academic journal article Polish Sociological Review

Understanding Education. A Sociological Perspective

Article excerpt

Sharon Gewirtz, Alan Cribb, Understanding Education. A Sociological Perspective, Cambridge: Polity Press UK; Maiden: Polity Press, USA, 2009, pp. 240.

Keywords: education, sociology of education, educational knowledge.

According to the authors of Understanding Education,

the sociology of education has made a very important contribution to the understanding of social and educational values and how they are produced, allocated and experienced. In other words, sociology has both descriptive/explanatory and normative agenda (emphasis by MZ). (p. vi)

This excerpt contains the authors' credo around which they structured their book and its contents. Their intention was to introduce readers into the sociology of education but also to present this subdiscipline from the perspective of values. Thus, the volume does not only offer an overview of essential concepts and problems in the sociology of education but also imposes authors' vision of what this branch of sociology should stand for. The key theme in the sociology of education centres around development and balancing of educational inequalities. Therefore, it is forced to take a normative stance and to determine what is good, just or desirable. Oftentimes, it is not obvious what such an unambiguous stance should be as discussions reveal dilemmas around divergent values professed by people from various cultures and social groups, and different hierarchies of values. By analysing educational problems sociologists of education become involved into debates on practical and political solutions. Therefore, "Sociology of education [...] is a subject full of controversy and contestation [...]" (p. 21). Sociologists constantly have to ask about the nature of knowledge they have, their goals and social consequences. The sociology of education should be, to a very large extent, a reflexive discipline.

Already in the first chapter Gewirtz and Cribb present various controversies and dilemmas faced by scholars researching education processes. They use some examples to show the conflict between official knowledge transmitted in recognised institutions and individuals' interests and values. This chapter also uses the pattern around which the remaining sections of the book are structured. When presenting theories and directions in the sociology of education, the authors use examples from relevant studies. This is an excellent didactic approach: various theoretical issues are presented to readers through specific research questions operationalising those issues. By showing real-life situations and research dilemmas the book becomes interesting rather than fatiguing, which is often the case with many other handbook publica- tions.

The book consists of two parts. Part I offers a general introduction into the sociology of education, presenting its key theorists and major concepts. Part II analyses four key themes: social reproduction, dilemmas associated with constructing curricula, identity processes and factors determining teachers' positions. The eighth chapter at the end elaborates on, and summarises, the authors' key idea: sociology of education as a reflexive discipline.

Part I, which presents key strands and scholars of this branch of sociology, con- sists of two chapters. The first one outlines classic theories whereas the second one talks about modern concepts. Each consists of a brief description followed by a sum- mary of a seminal work which the authors consider representative for a particular line of inquiry. The first chapter focuses on two classic theories. It begins with struc- tural functionalism and, as an example, summarises a paper by Talcott Parsons "The School Class as a Social System" (1959). This is followed by a description of symbolic interactionism and a summary of Howard S. Becker's "The teacher in the authority system of the public school" (1953). These sample papers are used by the authors to explain essential differences between the two theories, stressing the dominant role of structure (Parsons) and the role of the actor (teacher) in creating or contesting the schooling system (Becker). …

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