The three major sociological approaches are the functional, symbolic interactionism, and conflict perspective. According to the conflict theory of sociology, society exists in the form of unequal systems which are in a constant struggle. Conflict usually arises from inequality in the distribution of resources. In most cases, the proletariats in society are at the disadvantaged end of the fight as the bourgeoisie amass resources. Through ideological coercion, those who are in power manipulate the less fortunate. This theory paints society as comprising of a hierarchy with those at the top trying to maintain control while those at the bottom struggling to gain control (Tischler, 2013).
On the other hand, the structural-functional theory paints the picture of society as a system that is made of different interdependent parts. Similar to the conflict theory, the functional approach takes a macro-level look at society. Under the functional theory, various parts of society exist because they serve different purposes. As such, this theory attempts to explain how diverse social institutions such as education, family, and the media synchronize with each other to create a functional society (Tischler, 2013).
However, the symbolic interaction theory is different from the above assumptions since it takes a micro-level perspective of society. As per this theory, perspective is important in social interaction. It also holds the assumption that people place greater importance on subjective beliefs over objectivity. As such, the symbolic interaction theory looks at personal meanings that are given by individuals to various items or acts (Tischler, 2013).
Inequality in Education
Education serves as a frontier for educational inequality through the use of standardized testing and the hidden curriculum. As pointed out by Ballantine and Hammack (2012), students who are perceived as educationally gifted are given better opportunities at excelling in their studies than those who are not as smart through a tracking system. A study by Ansalone (2010) shows that tracking disadvantages students who come from minority groups in society and those who are poor as they face educational hurdles. Furthermore, after students are placed in lower classes, they begin to lose their self-esteem. They also exhibit low morale with no desire to strive to perform based on their predicament (Ansalone, 2010).
Inequality in the education sector is also promoted by the lack of uniformity in schools. Not all schools are funded equally, and not all have similar facilities. A report by Ushomsky and Williams (2015) points out that in the US, a majority of states spend less than they should in educating needy students. This means that poor students are likely to study in low-quality environments as compared to their wealthy counterparts who can afford private schooling or those live in upmarket or urban areas where amenities are accessible.
Education plays an important function in society as it acts as a center for cultural innovation, socialization, and integration. Also, it reduces unemployment by imparting skills to students and delaying their deployment to the labor market, and it offers child care services. Problems within the education sector arise when one, some or all of the functions are inadequately addressed (Tischler, 2013).
For instance, if the number of schools is not sufficient enough to cater to the needs of children then there will be a good number of children who will be forced to join the labor pool earlier than expected. On top of that, if schools do not have the resources to train students, then they will lack the requisite skills to succeed in life. The structural function theory appreciates the importance of education as part of the societal system and recognizes the ripple effect that occurs on the failure of one system. A failure in education can have effects on crime, employment, inequality, and culture (Sever, 2012).
Symbolic Interaction Theory
Education can promote inequality by encouraging gender roles. Thorne (1993) conducted a study where he observed children playing and noted that gender roles played a significant influence on the games played. Games played by girls were less vigorous and cooperative while boys played competitive games. The childrens choice of games was based on perceptions of what is right for their sex.
Also, education can create inequality by reinforcing negative labels on disadvantaged children. Best (1987) cites a study by David Hagreaves who conducted a survey on the effects of labeling and streaming. The results of the study show that students who were placed in lower classes were likely to be those described by their teachers as troublesome. On the other hand, students who were positively perceived were the ones who studied in upper classes. The knock-on effect of such labels was that the unfavorable students began to seek their peers approval by trying to be the biggest trouble makers. The research by Hagreaves shows that education can strengthen labels which in turn have undesirable outcomes on the wellbeing of children (Best, 1987). As indicated in the study by Thorne (1993), labels can also propagate gender stereotypes.
The structural functionalism theory views society as comprising of interlocking systems. The symbolic interactionism theory describes society as being made of shared meanings while the social conflict theory states that social orders are created through power struggles. Instances of educational inequality arise from the use of standardized testing, lack of resource uniformity, failure in education processes, promotion of gender roles, and the reinforcement of negative labels.
Ansalone, G. (2010). Tracking: Educational differentiation or defective strategy. Educational Research Quarterly, 34(2), 317.
Ballantine, J. H., & Hammack, F. M. (2012). The sociology of education: A systematic analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Best, R. (1987). Pupil perspectives on remedial education: An empirical comment. International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 1(1), 69-97,
Sever, M. (2012). A critical look at the theories of sociology of education. International Journal of Human Sciences, 9(1).
Tischler, H. L. (2014). Introduction to sociology. Belmont, CA, USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning
Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Ushomirsky, N. and Williams, D. (2015). Funding gaps 2015. Washington D.C: The Education Trust.
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