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Education in a New Society: Renewing the Sociology of Education
Jal Mehta and Scott Davies
This volume considers the development of the sociology of education over the past fifty years, beginning in the 1960s and continuing to the present day. Our argument is that the field needs to be renewed: specifically, that many of the dominant ideas, concepts, and theories in the sociology of education were created by a few well-known theorists in a highly generative period between 1966 and 1979, and that much of the work since has followed the tracks laid down by these giants. We argue both that over the intervening period the real world of education has changed considerably (often in ways that were not anticipated by the early theorists) and that the broader field of sociology has evolved in ways that have not been integrated into the sociological study of education. We also argue that there are new strands of sociological thinking about education which are not recognized within what is commonly known as "sociology of education," but which provide templates for fresh modes of study. Taken together, these developments suggest the moment has come to ask new questions and develop new theories, drawing together disparate strands of inquiry and creating new programs of empirical research.
The rest of this introduction seeks to develop that case. First, we examine the key ideas of James Coleman, Daniel Bell, John Meyer, Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis, Paul Willis, Pierre Bourdieu, and Randall Collins, whose theoretical frameworks have proven so influential to this day. Second, we explore empirically which topics have been taken up in the sociology of education since 1965. We do this in part through an original content and citation analysis of Sociology of Education, American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, and Annual Review of Sociology. We then suggest that this analysis of leading American sociology journals misses other visions of the sociology of education which also have wide followings; we delineate five sociologies of education that have succeeded in different niches of the academic landscape. Third, we examine key trends that have shaped the educational world over this period, and consider the ways in which these are or are not captured by either the theories or the empirical work examined above. Finally, we conclude by examining strands of newer work, including those by many contributors to this volume, which begin to meet the challenges we have outlined.
Given the potential scope of this enterprise, it is important to specify what we are and are not seeking to accomplish. Our work does not purport to be a comprehensive review of the sociology of education. There are a number of existing reviews which, in different ways, cover the field (Dreeben 1994; Sadovnik 2007; Hallinan 2006; Bidwell and Friedkin 1988; Karabel and Halsey 1977). Rather, we are attempting something more pointed: (1) to document the distribution of topics that have received scholarly attention within the sociology of education from American sociology departments and journals over the past 50 years; (2) to suggest that this analysis reveals that there are a few central topics, particularly status attainment research and school effects, that have been critical to establishing sociology of education as a legitimate and respected subfield, but which have also crowded out other potentially important topics and ideas; (3) to point to a range of other approaches which are well-developed in their own niches but are not well recognized within American sociology departments; (4) to argue that, in particular, that there has been a neglect of questions related to culture, institutions, politics, knowledge, comparative education, and values, which are critical to understanding education in all its manifestations in the twenty-first century; (5) to conclude, based on a summary of these points, that sociology of education is both highly fragmented and heavily reliant on a small number of classic theories from forty to fifty years ago, and that the moment has come for new, more integrative theorizing and research in the field.
We fully acknowledge that someone else might look at the field and see different strengths and lacunae; we would welcome other "sociologies" of the sociology of education. But whether or not readers accept our specific assessment, we hope to convince them that the time is long overdue to "get on the balcony" and map the ecology of the field as a whole. This view allows us to consider not only the debates within the field, but to look at the contours of the field — to take stock of which topics are explored, which are not, and why. More theoretically, we employ a sociology of knowledge approach to understand how the contexts of production and reception have shaped the kinds of sociological knowledge that have been produced, legitimated, and located.
Overall, since the modern field of the sociology of education was created under the influence of a small number of theories and methods in the 1960s and 1970s, the world has changed considerably, and the field has developed many more conceptual tools. The moment has come to develop a new sociology of education for a new society.
Sociology of Education on the Eve of the 1960s
While our main topic is sociology of education over the past fifty years, it is important to set the stage by describing the field as it stood on the eve of the developments we are about to describe. Roughly speaking, there were a few classic texts, specifically Durkheim's discussion of schooling as a moral enterprise, Waller's treatise on the conflict between student and adult visions of school, and Sorokin's studies of social mobility patterns (Dreeben 1994). Education was also a major theme in well-known community studies, such as the Lynds' Middletown and Hollingshead's Elmtown's Youth. However, most overviews of the sociology of education at the time were not kind in describing the field (Gross 1959; Brookover 1955; Floud and Halsey 1958). For instance, Harvard sociologist Neal Gross (1959: 128) took stock of the sociology of education in a prominent Robert Merton-edited volume, Sociology Today, and concluded: "The sociological analysis of education may be described as a relatively underdeveloped and unfashionable subfield of sociology. There are currently only a handful of sociologists who make this field their specialty. Relatively few students in graduate training aspire to be known as educational sociologists, and few courses are offered in this area in American universities."
Why was education such an "unfashionable" field? Gross continues: "With a few notable exceptions, the literature is characterized by an undue emphasis on description in contrast to analysis. Many of the research studies lack theoretical orientation, and they have yielded few hypotheses of sociological importance. In addition the majority of the studies have not met the methodological standards generally accepted as minimal criteria for competent research. Although these criticisms might be applied to the research literature in other subdivisions of sociology, they appear to be especially applicable to the literature in the sociology of education."
What accounted for this bleak state of affairs? Gross argued that one cause was the absence of even an effort to develop significant empirical scholarship on schools. Gross (1959:129) writes that much of the "literature published under the rubric of 'educational sociology' ... has little or no sociological relevance, largely consisting of hortatory essays. Essays pleading for a reorientation of the goals of American education or reporting educational practices in foreign countries have their place; but they are not, as they have been termed, 'studies' in the sociology of education." As we will document later in this chapter, a review of the early years of the journal that would become the Sociology of Education supports Gross's analysis; the vast majority of contributions were essays rather than studies based on empirical research.
A related challenge, Gross argued, in what would become a familiar refrain, was that sociologists of education might become associated with or be employed by schools of education. "In most institutions of higher learning, the educational faculty ranks at or near the bottom of the academic prestige hierarchy." Connecting too closely with such "low-status colleagues" is to "risk further loss of prestige for members of a discipline which itself has not yet received full acceptance by many members of more entrenched departments." Additionally, the "traditional 'applied' emphasis in the field has not especially enhanced the prestige of sociologists who have been associated with it."
In retrospect, perhaps as interesting as Gross's analysis of the field were his predictions of what the next decade might yield. Reflecting the reigning influences of sociology in the 1950s, he argued that schools would be good sites through which Parsons' structural functional lens could be developed; he thought that Howard Becker's early work on the occupation and career trajectory of teaching might be extended; he thought that questions about teaching as a profession should be explored; he argued that Waller's work was worth revisiting and testing more systematically; and he thought that schools were intriguing organizational sites to study questions of organizational control and change. While some of these predictions would be born out, particularly the ones concerning school-as-organization and teaching as a profession, notably absent in retrospect was any interest in measuring the impact of schools versus family background, or in quantitatively understanding the roles that schools play in social reproduction and mobility.
Overall, sociology of education on the eve of the 1960s was neither strong on its own feet nor well respected within sociology. Viewed from this perspective, what was to come would be nothing less than a revolution in the study of education, one which yielded a growing science of schooling and which secured a significant place for the sociology of education in the broader sociological discipline.
Classics: 1960s and 1970s Theorizing and Its Influences
We begin the modern story of the empirical study of education with the Coleman report, which by many accounts was the single most influential document in the sociology of education in the second half of the twentieth century (Walters 2009). As is well known, the report emerged from a federal government request to analyze whether measurable school factors were creating inequalities, particularly between blacks and whites. Coleman found that family background and peer composition of classes were the most important two factors in predicting student achievement, while many of the measurable variables about schools were less influential in explaining student outcomes. In a similar vein, a Christopher Jencks–led study, Inequality, used a range of data sets to argue that schools were much less important than previously thought in predicting adult outcomes.
While the results themselves continue to be both cited and debated, in the longer run perhaps the most important consequence of the Coleman report was the template it offered for how to do sociological research on education. Its vision was methodologically individualistic; the dependent variable was individual student achievement, and the independent variables were features of schools or families that could be easily quantified and entered into a regression. Its core questions were about differences across groups — in this case blacks and whites — and the factors that predicted those differences. Its underlying normative ethos was convergent with a prominent strain of equal-opportunity liberalism, which suggested that the problem was less the distribution of wealth or economic power than whether the link between parents and children's life chances could be broken through quality schooling. It promised policy relevance, because policymakers, working within a similar normative paradigm, also wanted to know what factors were important in helping more students "get ahead." And, finally, it gave social scientists a tool that differentiated them from lay inquirers: any journalist could write about how large classes were worse than small ones, but the power of large quantitative data sets and the regressions they enabled seemed to allow social scientists to provide definitive evidence about whether such a claim was actually true.
A related line of work was developing at the University of Wisconsin and elsewhere, which came to be known as the status attainment school. Led by Peter Blau, Otis Dudley Duncan, William Sewell, and later Robert Hauser, this work took a methodologically similar stance to Coleman's, although with a less explicit focus on policy and more attention to patterns in intergenerational mobility. Drawing on the Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey and other sources, these scholars computed whether children's educational and occupational status exceeded that of their parents, as well as the role played by mediating factors, such as students' aspirations. While the initial research focused on white farm boys, over time as more and different data became available, the work expanded to explore different patterns of mobility by race and gender. The core empirical argument of these theorists also converged with Talcott Parsons's famous thesis that society was moving from a world of ascription to one of achievement — namely, that advantage was no longer directly passed on from parents to children, but instead was largely mediated by children's educational attainment. In mapping these dynamics, the status attainment theorists also won a place for the sociology of education in the larger sociological discipline by establishing empirically the importance of education to the broader processes of social reproduction and mobility.
At the same time, the success of the work of Coleman and the status attainment researchers meant that the attention of the field was directed to some dynamics and not others. In particular, what happened inside schools was largely a black box — the mechanisms and processes of schooling were not visible within the status attainment picture (see Karabel and Halsey 1977). Higher education was largely ignored, except for its contribution to measuring years of schooling. The focus was primarily on the American system, with little interest in comparative perspective. Questions of history and politics were abstracted away in favor of a macroscopic vision of schools as conduits of social reproduction and mobility. And in their focus on differences across groups and factors that produced individual social mobility, the status attainment theorists did not examine the broader question of the growing role that schooling as a whole would play in society.
After the Coleman Report, the 1970s became the golden age of theorizing about schooling and society. A series of ambitious works, written in a remarkably short time span, offered accounts of modern school systems in contemporary society. Each of these classics observed how the expansion of schooling since World War II, particularly at secondary and postsecondary levels, was reshaping life courses and labor markets. In individual ways, each challenged prevailing human capital and functionalist thinking both in the academy and in policy circles. These theories are still major touchstones, continuing to demarcate important issues in the field; they are regularly taught to this day, and are cited by the thousand forty years later.
In 1973, Daniel Bell published The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, a sprawling forecast which named schooling as the major engine of post-industrial society. In 1976, Bowles and Gintis published Schooling in Capitalist America, a Marxist treatise whose "correspondence principle" regarded schooling as a major instrument of social control in the historical evolution of capitalism, one that necessarily generated class inequalities. In 1977, the English translation of Bourdieu and Passeron's Reproduction offered a cultural variant of that thesis, coining Bourdieu's signature concept "cultural capital" to highlight processes by which schools necessarily reproduce social class inequalities. Across the 1970s, Basil Bernstein's three-volume set Class, Codes and Control focused on the linguistic dimensions of reproduction, arguing that the particularistic speech codes of poor and working-class children were largely incompatible with the norms of middle-class schooling, which favored the more universalistic codes of middle-class children. In 1977–78, John Meyer used organizational and institutional thinking to theorize about school expansion and explicitly reject both functionalist and Marxist accounts. And, in 1979, Randall Collins published The Credential Society, which linked the expansion of higher education to stratification and identified credential inflation as a key mechanism by which schooling reshaped status attainment processes in labor markets.
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