ELP 548 sec 2, Spring 2005
Theories of Society

We’ve already encountered various conflicting points of view in course readings and discussion, from disagreements among authors on how schools ought to be run, to divergence among citizens on what the purpose of education ought to be in the first place. I want to suggest that these differences of opinion often derive from differences in the basic assumptions people make about society and how it works. One could, for instance, run through the list of purposes of education that we generated at the first class, and sort them into two or three groups, where each group shares its own set of basic assumptions which differ from the assumptions underlying the other groups. I’m going to call each set of basic assumptions about how society works a "theory of society."

About theory

Now the first question I need to address is: why even talk about "theories"; what good is having a theory of society, or a theory of anything, for that matter? Everyone knows that theoretical knowledge, while perhaps interesting to some, isn’t terribly useful, right? Isn’t "theoretical" knowledge the opposite of "practical" knowledge?

Well, I think that’s actually not true. One of my own professors in grad school went so far as to say "there’s nothing so practical as a good theory." If theories are indeed so useful, what do they do for us?

As another of my professors put it, theories are "educated guesses"—stories we make up about how the world works, about why things happen—that help us make sense of what we see around us. They provide a sensible framework for understanding the information we’re constantly flooded with.

You can think of a theory as a basket, and information as the objects that go into the basket. It’s hard to carry a bunch of small items that are loose, separate from one another. And similarly, people are uncomfortable trying to hold lots of disconnected details in mind; it’s hard to remember them when they have no obvious connection to one another. But when they form a story, when they fit together into a larger structure (when the items are all in a basket that you can carry as a single object), then it’s easy to remember them all.

When you have a basket, not only can you carry things more easily, but you can also carry more of them. So a theory, a coherent framework for organizing what we know about the world, not only lets us manage more comfortably the things we know, it also lets us know more, by giving us mental places to put it all.

A theory, a story about why things happen, does one other very important thing for us: if you know why things are the way they are, you know what would have to happen to change them. A theory points out where you can find leverage for bringing about social change.

Theories of society

The kinds of theories we’re interested in for understanding schools are those that attempt to explain why societies have the features they do. I’m going to describe three kinds of theories of society, three general ways to make sense of the world around us. When someone tells a story about why things are the way they are, that story will usually fit into one or another of these three categories.


Functionalist theories assume the different parts of a society each have their own role to play (their own "function"), and work together smoothly in order to form a harmonious whole. The metaphor often used to describe functionalism is that it views society as a body, with the different parts of society—government, media, religion, the family, etc., and, of course, schools—being like the different organs in a body, each contributing in a different way to keeping the entire body healthy.

Functionalism assumes that the various institutions of a society always operate so as to support that society as it is. If they didn’t, the society would perish; therefore, functionalism believes, it’s safe to assume that they do in any society one may encounter, for otherwise the society would no longer be here for us to study.

The early sociologist Emile Durkheim is often associated with functionalism. You may recall that in our first class meeting, during the discussion of the purpose of education, I mentioned that Durkheim had said the purpose of education is not the same across all societies, but that its purpose in any given society will instead be whatever it needs to be in order to maintain that society. That’s clearly a functionalist sentiment.

Liberal/Enlightenment theory

A second general perspective is sometimes called Liberal theory or Enlightenment theory. It’s important to distinguish the term "liberal" as used here from the way it’s used in everyday language to describe where someone resides on the left-right political spectrum (i.e., to mean the opposite of "conservative"). Here it refers to "classical" liberalism—liberal political theory as expressed by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, the American founding fathers, etc. (The closest equivalent on the contemporary scene would probably be the libertarians.) Liberal and Enlightenment thinkers emphasize freedom of the individual (same root as "liberate"), the priority of reason over religious or hereditary authority, and social progress. Free individuals, they believe, guided by their powers of rational thought, will, over time, accumulate greater knowledge and wisdom, and form societies that inevitably become more prosperous, humane, and egalitarian. The future will be better than the past.

If any one perspective can be said to form the basis of what’s considered "common sense" in American culture, it’s this one. That does not necessarily mean, however, that it is an accurate description of American society. Liberal/Enlightenment thinking has a hard time explaining some of the less savory aspects of our history. The spread of justice and equality has not been steady, enjoyed equally by all residents of the nation, or automatic. It has involved—despite the popular mythology—setbacks, advances for some that came at the expense of others, and considerable struggle among competing factions. Which brings us to...

Conflict theory

In contrast to the consensus orientation of the other two perspectives, conflict theories view society as composed of distinct groups with opposing interests, and view social change as resulting from struggle among those groups. Different varieties of conflict theory recognize different kinds of divisions, but all view society as fundamentally characterized by conflict rather than consensus. Marxist conflict theorists see society as divided into classes, with owners and workers having opposing interests; feminist conflict theorists see society as divided by gender, with women generally being less privileged than men; anti-racist conflict theorists emphasize conflict across racial lines; anti-imperialist conflict theorists emphasize global conflict between wealthy and poor nations; etc.

From the perspective of a conflict theorist, functionalism and Liberal/Enlightenment theory both attempt to sweep social divisions under the rug. A conflict theorist would say that by claiming existing social arrangements work to everyone’s benefit (functionalism), or current deficiencies will diminish automatically over time as we grow more enlightened (Liberal/Enlightenment), the other two perspectives obscure the power imbalances between groups within the society and discourage the oppressed from recognizing their relative disadvantage and doing something about it. In short, from this perspective, rather than helping clarify how society works, the other two function as ideologies that cloud the minds of the less powerful, inducing them to accept society as it exists.


As illustrated in the chart below, functionalism and Liberal/Enlightenment theory share an assumption of consensus, an assumption that all members of a society have common interests and generally concur with the direction the society takes, whereas conflict theory assumes the opposite, that various groups have conflicting interests and that historical developments are determined by that conflict.

Meanwhile, there’s also something that Liberal/Enlightenment theory and conflict theory share: both find it easier to explain social change, when it occurs, than social stability. Liberal/Enlightenment theory asserts that progress and general improvement is the natural state of society, and in conflict theory the dynamism of ongoing conflict provides the impetus for change. But neither does very well at explaining stability, at explaining why things don’t change any more than they do, why social features last to the extent they do. Functionalism, on the other hand, does well at explaining continuity, assuming, as it does, that stability is the natural state of society. What it has trouble with is explaining change, why anything ever changes at all.

These three general categories of social theory are ideal types. Most actual writers blend the categories, not fitting neatly into any one of them but instead being influenced in various ways by two or even all three of them.

An example

To illustrate the differences among the three, and why those differences matter, consider how each would account for the existence of poverty:

From a functionalist perspective, poverty must somehow contribute to the general well-being of society. Perhaps the existence of poverty serves as an incentive, encouraging everyone to work harder than they otherwise might, so as to avoid becoming poor, and thereby boosting the general level of wealth. From a Liberal/Enlightenment perspective, poverty would be recognized as a problem—in contrast to functionalism—but that problem would merely reflect our incomplete state of development, and be expected to lessen inevitably over time and eventually vanish, as we improve, as we grow more aware of the damage done by poverty and possible reforms to eliminate it. From a conflict theory perspective, poverty is imposed, reflecting unequal power among social groups, and it will continue to be imposed until those harmed by it manage to force a change. Conflict theory would also argue that the explanations offered by functionalism and Liberal/Enlightenment theory are themselves part of what sustains poverty, as they conceal its true origins and encourage the poor to accept existing social arrangements rather than organize to combat them.

Note that, as the chart indicates, the explanations based in functionalism and Liberal/Enlightenment theory would assume shared interests among all members of society and a consensus on what is needed, while an explanation rooted in conflict theory would assume fundamentally conflicting interests and aims. And an explanation based in functionalism would account well for the persistence of poverty, but not its reduction when that does occur, while those rooted in Liberal/Enlightenment theory and conflict theory would account well for changes in the level of poverty, but help less with understanding its persistence.

Another important question to ask about any explanation or policy proposal is cui bono? (Latin for "who benefits?". It is said to have been a principle of criminal investigation in Rome that those who stood to gain from an event were probably the ones responsible for it.) In judging whether you wish to accept an explanation or proposal, you should consider who would benefit from its acceptance.

In the case of the "poverty" example, cui bono from each of the explanations offered above? It should be clear who benefits from an explanation that encourages complacency among the poor (functionalism), and who from one that encourages resistance on their part (conflict theory). As for Liberal/Enlightenment theory, its encouragement of patience on the part of the poor benefits the same people as functionalism does; in addition, though, who benefits from its insistence that the route to social improvement is increasing the level of knowledge among the population? Whom does that place in a uniquely crucial location, positioned to benefit from enhanced prestige (and increased demand for their services)?

Bringing it back to education

I mentioned initially that differences in opinion on what the purpose of education should be, and on how schools ought to be run, often derive from underlying differences among the theories of society people implicitly presuppose. What would the purpose of education be in each of the three basic perspectives I’ve described? In functionalism, education perpetuates a given society and keeps it cohesive and stable; in Liberal/Enlightenment theory, it promotes development of the individual and improvement of society; and in conflict theory, it’s an instrument of social control or social change (depending on who succeeds in exerting the most influence).

Purposes of education

Returning to the specific purposes of education discussed in our first class, one could lump together under the "functionalist" label the following: passing on the communal store of knowledge; moral training; cultivation of the future work force according to social needs; and the quotation from J.S. Mill (education should "make the individual an instrument of happiness for himself and for his fellows").

Liberal/Enlightenment theory would encompass: forging a common "American" identity and promoting citizenship; providing the individual with job skills; the quotation from Immanuel Kant ("develop, in each individual, all the perfection of which he is capable"); the vision expressed in Carl Kaestle’s "devotional view" of education, and the various ameliorations schools have been called upon to perform—keeping troublemakers off street, improving family life, reducing drug abuse and sexually transmitted diseases, improving driving skills. Here’s an example that expresses such hopes for education, and even takes "Enlightenment" literally:

For some twentieth-century Americans, the school became the symbol and hope for the good society. This hope is best illustrated by a story told to kindergartners in the early part of the century about two children who bring a beautiful flower from their school class to their dirty and dark tenement apartment. The mother takes the flower and puts it in a glass of water near a dirty window. She decides the flower needs more light to expose its beauty. The mother proceeds to wash the window, which allows more light in the apartment and illuminates the dirty floors, walls, and furniture. The added light sends the mother scurrying around to clean up the now-exposed dirt. In the meantime the father, who is unable to keep a steady job because of a drinking problem, returns to the apartment and is amazed to find his grim dwelling transformed into a clean and tidy home. The transformation of the apartment results in the father’s wanting to spend more time at home, and less time in the tavern. The father’s drinking problem is solved, he is able to maintain a steady job, and the family lives happily ever after.

(from Joel Spring, American Education: An Introduction to Social and Political Aspects, 5th Ed., p. 13)

Conflict theories would incorporate any of the descriptions of schools as mechanisms of social control; Kaestle’s "derogatory view"; the notion that schools provide credentials that confer access to positions of privilege while saying little about what has actually been learned; but also the ideas of Counts and Dewey that education is a means of empowering youth to build a different and better society.

Commentators on education

We can similarly recognize commonalities and differences among the authors we’ve read by grouping them according to the theories of society that implicity inform their work.

The writings of Jefferson, Rush, and Webster are saturated with both functionalist and Enlightenment language: Rush speaks of preparing people to "perform their parts properly in the great machine of the government of the state" (p. 177). Meanwhile, Jefferson says "enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of the day...the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument of vast progress" (p. 178), and Webster contends that "a general diffusion of science is our best guard against...corruption... and error" (p. 178).

Horace Mann has an Enlightenment view, believing that extremes of wealth and poverty can and should be avoided, that education by itself will "counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor," and do so automatically, with no political action on the part of the poor, as "such a thing never did happen, and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor." Indeed, he explicitly attacks conflict-oriented political theories, "the creeds of some political reformers, or revolutionizers...that some people are poor because others are rich," for unnecessarily dividing the populace into combative factions, when education could create plenty of treasure for everyone. Throughout, he assumes a consensus of interest and of opinion, with such phrases as "I suppose it to be the universal sentiment."

Margaret Haley and George Counts clearly have a conflict-oriented understanding of the world. The social efficiency reformers clearly do not, incorporating into their proposals elements of functionalism (elaborate division of labor, with students sorted into and extensively prepared for distinct roles, according to social need) and Enlightenment thinking (confident optimism about the prospects for implementing massive reforms, and the capacity of those "scientific" reforms to perfect society).

And so on.

This week’s readings were chosen to illustrate somewhat more contemporary approaches to understanding education through the lens of conflict theory. Dale Spender and Adrienne Rich exemplify feminist versions of conflict theory; the primary conflict they’re concerned with is along gender lines, with women denied the equal benefit of our educational institutions. Bowles and Gintis exemplify a class-based version of conflict theory, charging the schools with perpetuating economic inequality.

The "supplemental resources" for this week include examples of functionalist analysis of education (not required in part because they’re pretty dull reading) and two additional overviews of the different approaches, somewhat similar to what I’ve done here. Karabel and Halsey provide an excellent, detailed discussion of how functionalism and conflict theory have been utilized in scholarship on education. (The fact that they offer a two-way categorization rather than my three-way one demonstrates that one can divide up the fundamental perspectives in various ways, and there’s nothing universal or sacrosanct about my own.) And the materials at the Hewett School web site provide another, highly accessible, overview of the different approaches. The Karabel and Halsey essay is intended for graduate students in sociology of education; the Hewett School materials are intended for advanced high school students. Both are very useful, in different ways.