Position Paper 2
From a sociological (vs. psychological) point of view, there are two main explanatory frameworks within the field of Education. First from a logical as well as chronological standpoint is the Social Transmission and Social Reproduction camp, whose significant theories include Consensus Theory, Conflict Theory, Social Reproduction, Economic Reproduction, Cultural Reproduction; what these theories have in common is a focus on knowledge as objective reality, empirically measurable.
Representative of the Social Transmission/Reproduction camp is Functionalism, the earliest and most prevalent of the theories in this group, which, according to DeMarrais and LeCompte, “argues that society operates as does the human body: Like living organisms, all societies possess basic functions which they must carry out to survive. Like living organisms, they evolve structures to carry out the functions” (1999). The actual educational function described by this metaphor is the transmission of knowledge – between generations through various institutions such as school, church, family (the institutions serving as “organs” within the metaphorical organism) – as well as the evolution over time of the relationships amongst these institutions, comparable to the evolution of the relationships amongst organs within a species.
The second sociological explanatory framework within the field of Education is the collection of theories known as Interpretive or Social Transformation Theories. Within this collection are Phenomenology, Symbolic Interactionism, Critical Theory, Postmodernism, and Feminist Theories. These are united by a focus on the knowledge bearer and an assumption that reality is socially constructed, with knowledge being subjective rather than objective. DeMarrais & LeComte explain that “neither quantitative nor experimental research is adequate for examining complex, uncontrollable, and multi-faceted phenomena such as behavior in schools,” and so “interpretive researchers believe that the best way to understand human behavior is to examine real-world situations using qualitative or descriptive rather than experimental methods of inquiry.”
After surveying the wide-range of sociological viewpoints espoused over the last hundred years, I find myself drawn most to Critical Theory. I can explain this by describing what I think are the true attributes of Conflict Theory – that is, how it realistically describes what I’ve seen on high-school campuses – and then by moving on to how Critical Theory proposes to resolve the the “conflicts” cataloged in Conflict Theory.
Conflict Theory affirms the social systems of Functionalism – the dynamic functional relationships among the systems in society which are charged with transmitting knowledge – while acknowledging and addressing the tension inherent in those systems. Marxism is the best-known of the Conflict theories which developed in the years before World War I. According to DeMarrais & LeComte, “Inequality of property or of resource distribution, then, is the major source of conflict in societies. Insofar as schools are intimately linked to future economic opportunities, they too are institutions in which social conflict is played out.” Conflict theorists looked at inequality in society, and the obvious incentive that the elite have in retaining power, and decided that schools were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As described by DeMarrais & LeComte, “Schools tend to magnify class differences by sorting individuals into occupational niches, not so much by their ability as by their social class origins. Thus children from middle- or upper-class families are thought to be more able and so are pushed toward professional or other desirable careers.”
Having identified the problem – the educational system as a tool used by the dominant class to retain power – how do the Conflict theorists propose to fix it? “Their view is a pessimistic one, giving no consideration to how individuals could interact to ameliorate or alter the constraints of the system” (DeMarrais & LeComte). A third category of social theorists addressed this during the 20th century. “Critical theory” analyzes sources of oppression, with special focus on the successes and failures of previous social theories to understand society. Critical theorists see themselves as unobjective advocates who hope to actually solve some of society’s inequities, an activist rather than deterministic viewpoint (in special contrast to Marxism).
From my experience in the classroom, class differences are magnified throughout the school day. English learners, students from unstable homes, students from families with low socioeconomic status, students of color, and female students all have disadvantages when compared with the students who come from the group which traditionally has wielded a disproportionate share of the power: white middle-class male students. Conflict theory perfectly describes what can occur in a classroom and in a school in general if teachers and administrators are ignorant, thoughtless, or lazy: “the dominant socioeconomic groups exploit and oppress subordinate groups.”
Depending on the individual student, I often find myself identifying with the people in my classroom whose families share a deep tradition of English language, especially the English language of newspapers, TV, radio, and book and magazine publishing. In the course of my Master’s program, I have recognized the biases inherent in all levels of the educational system, and I’ve made an effort to fix the broken parts that I personally encounter. I find myself speaking more often to the Anglo or African-American kids (the people whom I assume, correctly or not, have family traditions of word play), and then re-direct my conversation to others in the room. I find myself speaking too fast, using sentences that are too long or words that are too big, or facing the whiteboard, or not using the whiteboard to illustrate my words, and then I make an effort to bring the conversation back to a level which is helpful to the English learners. I have discovered that a white teacher singling out a white student (for poor choices such as tardiness, chattering, or not being prepared to work) has completely different implications to that student than does singling out a student from a different ethnic group for those same reasons. The student who receives the whole class’s attention, for a dressing down from the teacher, may resent the attention or may even feel the attention is justified; however, the action often serves to reinforce the alienation that student feels in the classroom. I am working to find a better balance.
DeMarrais, K.B., & LeCompte, M.D. (1999). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.