Structural Theories

Structural Theories

Most theory is nothing more than a hypothesis that seems to be confirmed by observation. That is a hunch that seems 'true'. Theory is thus an organizing principal, a particular viewpoint from which we view the world and interpret what we see.

What you will find with theory in sociology is that competing theories often agree about what can be observed but disagree about what these observations mean. Thus where theory leads you depends on how you interpret the situation or behaviour from which you start.


Both Marxism and Functionalism agree that schooling socialises students into the prevailing norms and values of a society. But, whether this is a 'good' thing or not depends on whether it is believed that the present state of a society (the status quo) is worth preserving or in need of change. You need to try and distinguish between statements of fact and statements of value.

Structural Theories

In sociology there are two main structural approaches:

  • Consensus theory
  • Conflict theory

These are the theories that attempt to relate educational systems to societal outcomes.

Note: These theories look at schooling from the 'outside'.

Functionalism investigates institutions to consider the functions they perform in society. The functionalist premise is that if an institution exists, then there must be some reason for its existence. As regards education, functionalists assume that educational institutions serve some societal need. Educational institutions are examined for the positive contribution they make towards maintaining society.

Education is seen as vital as regards socialization. All societies have to have ways of socialising new members, and some societies need specialist institutions for differentiating between people and allocating them to specific levels of economic activity within their society - such is the case with industrial societies.

So here are two central functions performed by educational institutions:

  1. General socialisation of the whole population into the dominant culture, values and beliefs of a society.
  2. Selecting people for different types and levels of education.

These two basic intentions are suggested by Parsons. He argues that education has the two central functions outlined above. In brief, education meets the needs of the system by:

  1. Making sure that all children have a basic commitment to their society's values and beliefs.
  2. Preparing individuals for their specific location within the social hierarchy.

Note: Point 1 is essentially what Marxists regard as the 'hidden curriculum'.

These two functions achieve different but overlapping goals. Transmitting norms and values promotes social solidarity. Differentiation matches skills to societal needs and supports society's economic needs.

Structural Theories

The idea of differentiation derives from Durkheim. He argued that as societies develop and become more complex they need to enhance the division of labour and provide specialist agencies for executing this function. Education takes over the role previously filled by the family, work and any other social location that presented a learning environment.

At the level of individuals, industrial societies require specialists and education is seen as providing the appropriate educational output. More generally, Durkheim explains this change in the nature of relationships between individuals in a society as the change from solidaristic to organic forms of social solidarity (cohesion).

The existence of a connection between personal abilities and industrial needs is assumed by the tendency towards meritocracy. That is, people come to fill particular positions on the basis of achievement, rather than their ascribed characteristics.

Note: The principal functionalist support for the existence and need for meritocracy is Davis and Moore, 'Some Principles of Stratification'.

However, although it is true that achievement is more important in societies such as ours, social class, gender and ethnicity remain as important 'indirect determinants' in the sense that the quality of a person's educational attainment can be related to these ascribed characteristics.

Structural Theories

The concept of meritocracy tends to lead functionalists into the area of genetics rather than culture. It is argued that some people are quite simply 'brighter' than others, and the education system picks these people out and gives them a higher level of education. Schools are seen as neutral and impartial screening devices.

Note: These ideas are still popular and increasingly powerful.

Clearly, it would be nonsense to deny that schools do differentiate and allocate, but to subscribe to the functionalist position requires more than this. Functionalists argue that this function is a good and necessary thing.

The functionalist account is an idealised one, based on the illusion that educational attainment is based on merit. The account does not 'cash out' in terms of observable outcomes. To believe that schooling develops talents for the benefit of society we would need to show; first, that educational achievement results from ability and, second, that such abilities are taken up by the occupation system in a free market. They cannot, it is an observable fact that educational achievement is systematically related to social factors and that educational success is not clearly related to occupational attainment.

Functionalism - Good points

  1. Structural perspective enables analysis to move beyond the level of the classroom or individual school.
  2. Links schools to systemic needs of the wider society.
  3. Identifies schools as transmitters of knowledge, norms and values and as a selecting mechanism.

Functionalism - Criticisms

  1. Overstates the extent to which education serves the 'common good'. Underestimates interests of dominant groups.
  2. School is a 'black box'. Does not investigate the 'meaning' of education for its participants.
  3. Too much emphasis on power of school to shape attitudes. People seen as 'cultural dopes'.

For Marxists, education is apart of the superstructure of society. This superstructure is regarded as being ultimately subordinate to the base - the economic organization of society. The economic arrangements of a society structure the holding of wealth and capital and create social classes.

Structural Theories

Marxists agree with functionalists that education contributes to the working of industrial society, and economic organisation. But, since Marxists disapprove of the organisation of society on capitalist lines, it follows that they disapprove of education in its present form.

Louis Althusser argued that economic relations structure education so as to reproduce these same economic relations. Education is part of the system of the reproduction of labour power. Schooling, argued Althusser, is an 'ideological state apparatus'. Schools work to ensure that those who are to do the work will do so co-operatively, out of a belief that the situation is just and reasonable.

From this point of view, the failure of so many pupils in schools is not a failing of the system (as for liberals) but actually what the schooling system is designed to do. So working class children who opt out, or fail, or find schools alien, are indications that schooling is working successfully. This reverses functionalism. Education is not designed to develop human potential, but to limit it.

Such an approach is clearly capable of fitting the evidence on patterns of achievement. It can also help to uncover working class attitudes to education as being realistic rather than bloody-minded. However, is the account overly simplified? Are the working class willing fodder for the capitalists?

Incidentally, critics have argued that the performance of the educational system in differentiating and hierarchically structuring students is not limited to capitalist economies. Karabel and Halsey point out that the actual performance of the educational system is remarkably similar in socialist countries.

Marxism - Good points

  1. Unveils the interests of the dominant and powerful groups in shaping schooling.
  2. Reveals the undeclared agenda of schooling. But, so do functionalists.
  3. Documents resistance by students to negative labelling.

Marxism - Criticism

  1. People treated as 'cultural dopes'.
  2. Tends towards conspiracy theory
  3. Very value laden (capitalism - no advantages?).