An A-level sociology essay written for the AQA’s 7192 (1) specification, exam paper 1. This is the long, ‘overkill’ version of the essay, written using the PEAC system (Point – Explain – Analyse – Criticise)
NB – At time of posting, it’s half an essay, more to follow!
Functionalism is a somewhat dated structural theory popular in 19th century France (Durkheim) and mid-20th century America (Parsons). Functionalist theorists adopted a ‘top-down’ approach to analysing the role which institutions, such as schools play in relation to other institutions, such as work, and generally believe that schools form an important part of a society’s structure. Functionalism is also a consensus theory: functionalists generally emphasise the positive functions which schools perform for individuals and society, arguing that schools tend to promote social harmony and social order, which they see as a good thing.
Below I will analyse and evaluate four specific ‘functions’ or roles which schools perform according to Functionalist theory, ultimately arguing that it obscures more than it enlightens our understanding of the role of education in society.
POINT 1: According to Emile Durkheim (1890s), the founder of modern Functionalism, the first role of education was to create a sense of social solidarity which in turn promoted value consensus.
EXPLANATION: Social Solidarity is where the individual members of society feel themselves to be a part of a single ‘body’ or community and work together towards shared goals. According to Durkhiem schools achieved social solidarity through children learning subjects such as history and English which gave them a shared sense of national identity, which in turn promoted value consensus, or agreement on shared values at the societal level.
Analysis: Durkheim thought schools were one of the few institutions which could promote solidarity at a national level – he may have a point. It is difficult to imagine any other institution which governments could use to socialise individuals in to a sense of national identity.
Evaluation: To evaluate this point, there do seem to be examples of where schools attempt to promote a sense of social solidarity. Writing in the 1950s, Talcott Parsons pointed to how, in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag; while today British schools and colleges are obliged to promote ‘British Values’ (woohoo!)
However, it is debatable whether schools are successful in instilling a genuine sense of social solidarity into most, let alone all students. A minority of students are excluded from schools, and around 5% are persistent absentees – if students are not in mainstream education, then schools cannot promote a sense of belonging; while for those students who are at school, many are there ‘in body, but not necessarily in spirit. Finally there is the fact there is such a huge diversity of schools (faith schools, private schools, home education) that surely education is too fragmented and divided for it to promote true solidarity at the national level – to the extent that postmodernists suggested there is no such thing as a unified culture anymore.
POINT 2: A second function of education, again according to Durkhiem, is that schools teach individuals the specialist skills for work, which is crucial in a complex, modern industrial economy. (Schools thus have an important economic function).
Durkhiem argued that school was an efficient way of teaching individuals these diverse skills while at the same time teaching them to co-operate with each-other – schools thus instilled a sense of organic solidarity, or solidarity based on difference and interdependency, with school being one of the only institutions which could do both of these functions simultaneously within the context of a national economy.
The idea that schools have an economic function certainly seems to be true – basic literacy and numeracy are certainly important for any job today, and ever since the New Right, Vocational education has expanded, right up to the present day in the form of Modern Apprenticeships, and today. There is also a relationship between government expenditure on education and economic growth – more developed countries tend to have stronger economies.
However, it is debatable whether schools prepare children adequately for work – for example, there is a shortage of STEM graduates, and many doctors come to Britain from abroad, so maybe the education system today focuses on the wrong subjects, not the subjects the economy actually needs to grow effectively? There is also a Postmodern critique from Ken Robinson that suggests that ‘schools kill creativity’ – a system obsessed with standardised testing hardly prepares people to go into the creative industries or become entrepreneurs, both of which are growth areas in the current UK economy.
More to follow…!
This entry was posted in A level sociology exam practice, Essay plans, Exams and revision advice and tagged A-level, education, essay, exams, Functionalism, perspectives, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs
1. Creating social solidarity
2. Teaching skills necessary for work
3. Teaching us core values
4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
1. Creating Social Solidarity
We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.
Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.
2. Learning specialist skills for work
Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs.
3. Teaching us core values
Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.
In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.
In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.
The above ties in quite nicely with the modernisation theory view of development – achieved status is seen as a superior system to the ascribed status found in traditional societies.
4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
- School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low
- Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees
- Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – PSHE
- Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses
- Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Negative Evaluations of Functionalism (Criticisms)
- Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
- Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying/
- Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
- Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
If you like this sort of thing then you might also like to follow me for regular updates on twitter – @realsociology, or through my Facebook Page.
Sociology of Education Revision Bundle
If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my sociology of education revision notes bundle – which contains the following:
- 34 pages of revision notes
- mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering various topics within the sociology of education
- short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers
- how to write sociology essays, including 7 specific templates and model answers on the sociology of education
You might also like my brief vodcast on the same topic…
The Functionalist Perspective on Education Key Terms Quiz (Quizlet)
Sociological Perspectives on Education – Summary Grid
Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education
The Marxist Perspective on Education
The New Right View of Education
The Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Views of Education – A Comparison
Related Online Sources
Twynham’s Sociology Pages offer an OK round up of The Functionalist Perspective on Education (written by an ex-student)
This post from Podology (also by a student) is also OK – written as an essay (no title given), but it does tend to just juxtapose criticisms from other perspectives
This entry was posted in education, Functionalism and tagged Durkhiem, education, Functionalism, meritocracy, Parsons, role allocation, Sociology. Bookmark the permalink.