Sociology of education looks at education as evolving from and altering the social environment. From a sociological point of view, education is the organized and regulated process by which society transfers knowledge and values to groom young people for adult social roles. Sociology of education is part of social science largely concerned with the mass educational systems (publicly funded schools) of modern societies. It covers sociological issues such as social stratification, socialization, economic development and culture.
French scholar Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917), is regarded as the father of modern social science. In his view, educational systems are mirrors of society, which has an in-built tendency to reproduce commonly accepted sets of values, norms and beliefs. A system of education is a product of collective thought and follows the changes of social values. For example, society where social status depends on merit will have an educational system that reflects this value by admitting young people to educational institutions through examination. As teachers instill knowledge and ideals of society into the students, changes in both the content and form of teaching reflects underlying changes in the wider social and cultural context. Durkheim also believed society was the source of morality and that society could be reformed through moral education. He viewed morality as comprised of three elements: discipline, attachment (commitment to social groups) and autonomy (individual responsibility). According to Durkheim, education provides children with these moral tools needed to function in society.
Karl Marx (1818 to 1883) and Max Weber (1864 to 1920) are the other two pioneers of modern social science as well as being influential figures in political economics. Marx is largely associated with his work on economics, Das Kapital, and his concept of class struggle. He believed the political, the legal and the educational system are all products of the class nature of society and its economic base. The educational system, therefore, reproduces the economic base. Weber formulated a three-component stratification theory based on class (economic relations to the market), status (non-economic characteristics such as honor and religion) and party (based on affiliation with political party). He developed a multi-level approach to social stratification based on the relation between wealth, prestige and power.
Basic theories and research in sociology of education have explicitly or implicitly focused on the role of education in modern society. In practical terms, studies examine how much education has fulfilled its major goal of creating productive and adaptive citizens and, in a wider context, has contributed to positive change in society. The two main theories in the field are structural functionalism and the conflict theory.
Structural functionalists view society as a structure, with each part playing an integral role in the whole system. British philosopher and sociological functionalist Herbert Spencer (1820 to 1903) speaks of society's elements (norms, traditions, institutions) as "organs," that contribute to the functioning of the "body," as a whole. Functionalists claim the educational system serves the needs of social order characterized by rationality and meritocracy. Thus, schools train individuals to become productive citizens and give society an efficient way to sort people for the labor market. People with the highest achievements will get the top jobs and highest income and those with lower scores will take lower positions and lower pay.
The functionalist theory was challenged in the 1970s by conflict-oriented theories, which highlight the social, political and economic inequality of social groups. The most prominent conflict approach, the neo-Marxist theory, states that the educational system follows the rules of capitalism, claiming that educational disparity reflects the inequality of the capitalist society.
The status conflict approach views the struggle of class groups to use education to gain or maintain privilege (Collins 1979). Consistent with this approach, the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930 to 2002) introduced the notion of cultural capital, arguing that the educational system reproduces the distribution of cultural capital among classes. The cultural capital refers to personal, social and cultural values and tastes that make a person fit a socially valued role.
The interpretative approach draws from the principles of ethnomethodology, which focus on the "social practices of real time people in real settings and the methods by which these people produce a shared sense of social order," (Harold Garfinkel: Ethnomethodology's Program). This tradition is also close to the symbolic interactionism, which explores how people create meaning through social interaction. Sociologists in this tradition use qualitative methods to study social interactions, or the relations between two or more individuals.