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Social Theory in the Function of Education

The purpose of this post to outline the strengths and weaknesses of four social theories—Functionalism, Marxism, Interpretivism, and Post-Modernism. Further, these theories will be considered in context of their relevance to education in contemporary American society as the social dynamics and influences of educators directly impact how students are educated (Knapp & Woolverton, 1995). Additionally, as public school systems are considered by most as essentially mechanisms that shape society, the values inherent in these theories in order to determine which of them may best be suited for our students should be taken into consideration with some depth.

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The Functionalist theory views society as a mechanism composed of interrelated components (Pai & Adler, 2001). That is, the degree to which society as a whole functions is directly related to the way its many parts function. So, as children are burgeoning members of a society, Functionalism imposes a responsibility onto the education system to socialize them by way of imparting a set of skills for them to acquire and use in their “…future role-performance” (Parsons, 1985, p. 180). Education systems must therefore determine what skills, morals, and values students should be acquire. Of course, one of the challenges that these theory doesn’t take into consideration in context of education is that morals and values differ greatly from one household to another and yet, the school chooses to purport a set of them which can lead to conflict between parents and educators. For example, If a mid-sized school district promotes the treatment of men and women equally but services a pocket of the population that may be entrenched in a culture that has its own perspective on how men and women should be treated in society, such as some Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures do, it begins to infringe on the family’s inalienable right to raise its children accordingly. Therefore, in order for the Functionalist theory to be the guiding light of how social systems intermix with education, the society at large must have common beliefs and values.

The Marxist Conflict Theory asserts that educational systems in capitalistic societies play the central role of “…enabling the dominant class to maintain the class structure by controlling the kinds of knowledge, skills, and attitudes…” (Pai & Adler, 2001, p. 137). The Marxist approach actually promotes the abolishment of credentials and degrees in order to eradicate inequities in Capitalistic societies (Pai & Adler). However, as many states sponsor public institutions of higher education, students can acquire the degrees and licenses necessary for high-status positions. The Marxist Conflict Theory actually renders school systems into legitimizing tools in America.

Interpretivism, in context of its function in education, advocates the need to analyze the language used as students, their families, and educators interact through daily communication as well as the curricula utilized in schools. While schools are key to the socialization process, the family transmits to the child the basic understanding of the prevailing culture. Therefore, a student who hails from a sub-culture in society that is not in line with the norm of the school may experience great dissonance in his educational experience (Bourdieu, 1977). Therefore, what happens at home as well as what happens at school must be taken into consideration in order to determine ways to improve the American education system. Although the theory may seem logical at an intuitive level, it represents a relativist approach to determining how best to reform and better education in America as, in order to be able to study the interactions between students, families, and instruction, the observer must necessarily become entrenched in the interactions. The level of objectivity necessary in measuring needed reforms is lessened as a result.

Lastly, Postmodernism negates the assumptions of Functionalism, Marxist Conflict Theory, and Interpretivism inasmuch as it states that meaning is not fixed and therefore, systemic relationships cannot be controlled (Derrida, 1972). Therefore, this perspective suggests that in order to empower marginal sub-groups in society, an integrated approach to learning must be undertaken “…rather than following the lines of discrete and established academic disciplines” (Pai & Adler, 2001, p. 149). This perspective of schooling suggests that the school should not automatically be a tool for bringing a society together but rather an engine for promoting multi-culturalism and divergent intellection.

In sum, Functionalism contends that the primary role of education is to maintain social order and transfer cultural norms to students so that they may be able to function in society. Marxist Conflict Theory professes that the primary role of education must be to engender critical thinking in children in order for them to be able to break the grip of the egalitarian institutions, including the schools themselves, that prevent them from progressing in society. Interpretivists believe that the key to improved education lies with a significant examination of the language and interactions that bind educators, students, and schools and Postmodernists promote the need for deviating from established norms and canons of knowledge by legitimizing the variant minority perspectives and integrating approaches to socialization.

In America, the Functionalist approach is the perspective that the citizenry believes that schools should adhere to as our society is built primarily on a well-performing economy replete with roles and jobs in which all people must be prepared for. The increase in vocational school enrollment is evidence of this point of view (Nicol, 2008). With the cost of four-year institutions as well as community colleges soaring (Block, 2007), people are having trouble seeing the value of extended educational experiences and are turning to ways that will allow them to function in a capitalist society. However, this uninformed position can be misleading as most work no available in the United States that will perpetuate upwardly mobile people require four-year degrees (Cheeseman & Newburger, 2002)

Additionally, in an ever-evolving and technologically accelerated world, the Postmodernist point of view seems to make the most sense in light of the level of diversity now seen in school populations as well as political and social beliefs in American families. Postmodernism does not suggest a solution to school reform. Rather, it points out the need to rethink assumptions about values and meaning itself by taking advantage of integrating disciplines and breaking the shackles of what is right and what is wrong. In America, the code of conduct should only be mandated by way of legislation. That is, value judgments regarding appropriateness and efficacy must take a back seat in order to promote creativity and innovation. This is not to say that morality and ethics must be thrown out in the name of ingenuity. Rather, the Postmodernist perspective makes room for new ways for children to make meaning and communities to construct, transmit, and evaluate the norms that they adhere to.


Block, S. (2007, November 23). Lawmakers take aim at college costs. USA Today, p. 1.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel & A. H.

Halsey (Eds.), Power and ideology in education (pp. 487-510). New York: Oxford University Press.

Cheeseman, J., & Newburger, E. C. (2002, July). The big payoff: Educational attainment and synthetic estimates of work-life earnings (U.S. Census Bureau). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce.

Derrida, J. (1972). Discussion: Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In R. Macksey & E. Donato (Eds.), The structuralist controversy (pp. 247-272). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Knapp, M. S., & Woolverton, S. (1995). Social class and schooling. In J. A. Banks & C. A.

McGee (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 548-549). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Nicol, B. (2008). Career and technical education’s role in workforce readiness credentials [Brochure]. Alexandra, VA: Association for Career and Technical Education.

Pai, Y., & Adler, S. A. (2001). Cultural foundations of education (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Parsons, T. (1985). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. In J. H. Ballantine (Ed.), Schools and society: A reader in education and sociology (pp. 179-197). Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield.

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