Consensus and Conflict

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What are the principal differences between ‘consensus' and ‘conflict' approaches to the sociological analysis of education?

The sociological study of education focuses upon the effects that social institutions and individual characters have upon the education system. Education is often seen as positive social practice which thrives to identify personal skills and talents, and subsequently build upon them. Consensus social theorists support this approach with structural functionalism claiming education to have many positive functions. Education is essential to maintain the modern workforce. This view, however, is not universal; with Marxists taking a contradictory view that education works to reproduce social inequalities, therefore providing negative functions for society. This conflict approach claims that the education system does not promote equality but instead transmits capitalist norms and values, benefitting the ruling class and leaving the working class at a disadvantage.

One of the main purposes of education, according to the consensus approach of functionalism, is that of socialization. This is described by Bilton (1996: 12) as the process through which individuals ‘learn the ways of thought and behaviour considered appropriate in society'. Primary socialization is administered informally by the family. This process is then continued with the provision of a more formal style of secondary socialization by other institutions within society. According to Durkheim (1925) and Parsons (1959), both key consensus theorists, education plays an essential role in this secondary socialization, albeit in different ways, by performing functions that the family is unable to. This is done through the teaching of specific skills for specialised occupations, but also, possibly more importantly in Durkheim's eyes, through the socialization of the common norms and values of society. The teaching of religious and historical beliefs helps to create a child with a sense of identity within the community. Fulcher and Scott (2007: 321) feel it was, however, the moral aspect of the secondary socialization provided by the education system that concerned Durkheim the most. Through discipline within school, children are taught morally acceptable behaviour. However, rather than simply being forced to obey, it is essential that they are made to understand and appreciate the moral code of wider society, causing them to go on to choose to behave in a moral way. Hargreaves (1982) commented on the idea that the education system should promote social solidarity, the concept of providing pupils with a sense of community. Aspects of school, such as all wearing the same uniform and participating in group charity or sporting events help to provide pupils with a sense of belonging within the school, but also provide links with the wider community, and society as a whole. The moral significance of education is also recognised by Parsons; however it is the value of individual achievement which he focuses upon. This sense of achievement was the central aspect to a functioning industrial society in mid-twentieth-century America, where Parsons was studying. Although their approaches differed, both Durkheim and Parsons focused upon the positive functions of education for society.

Another key concept in the consensus approach to the sociological study of education is that of meritocracy. That is the idea, endorsed by Parsons, of a social system in which rewards are gained for individual hard work, talent and ability. In such a situation, people would be rewarded for their effort, and not on the basis of other characteristics such as age, gender, ethnicity, class. Thus giving all children within the education system an equal opportunity to succeed. An example of an attempt to create a meritocratic school system is that of the tripartite system put in place by the 1944 Butler Act. By the creation of Grammar, Secondary and Secondary Technical schools the government was recognising the need for equality of opportunities, and therefore attempting to suit the abilities of children to right type of schooling. It also provided free education for all children between the ages of 5 and 15, regardless of their class background, emphasising this attempt to create equal opportunity. This system has been criticised, however, as even though it did mean that the 11+ was open to all, the test itself was said to be written in middle class language, therefore meaning that the working class were still left at a disadvantage. This led to it being said that the system was actually leaning towards Marxism, rather than functionalist ideas, as it appeared to reproduce social class inequalities.

On the other hand, the conflict approach of Marxism opposes the view that we should assume that the education system serves to meet the needs of society as an entirety. Within society there is a significant conflict of interests, and therefore needs, between capital and labour. This demonstrates a capitalist society in which the ruling class owns the means of production, bringing them power over the working class. We should therefore, according to Marxists, not view education as meeting the needs of society as w hole, but instead as meeting the needs of the bourgeoisie. In order to maintain a state of false class consciousness, capitalism requires a workforce that is obedient, passive and motivated who are prepared to work hard at the benefit of the ruling class without question. According to Bowles and Gintis, the education system was the main means used by capitalism to produce such workers. The correspondence principle (1976: 131) claims that what working class students are taught in schools mirrors that of what goes in the workplace. The qualities that the workforce are required to have are taught to students in schools. This is done through the curriculum and the hidden curriculum (Illich, 1973 in Fulcher and Scott, 2007). Aside from the formal curriculum, the subjects which provide students with academic knowledge, vocational skills and qualifications, Illich identified a hidden curriculum. This hidden curriculum teaches pupils patterns of behaviour such as punctuality, meeting deadlines and accepting authority. The working class are unaware of this covert curriculum that is being imposed upon them. Along with the acceptance of hierarchy, the hidden curriculum also leads the working class to believe that they are part of a meritocratic society; in they will gain the rewards for working hard. Therefore meaning that they will conform in the hope of long term gratification, however it is just another way for the ruling class to keep them passive. It is also helps to justify inequality, as the working class are led to believe that everyone is equal, however, in reality; the middle class are receiving more encouragement. Another way in which the correspondence theory works is by connecting levels reached within the education system to that of occupational levels (Fulcher and Scott: 327). When in the lower levels of the education system, obedience is emphasized, as it is in low-level occupations. This pattern continued with intermediate levels in education when more independent work is encouraged. Once a student reaches higher education they are expected to be both self-motivated and self-disciplines, essentially a completely independent worker, just as those in senior levels of occupation. Therefore, the level a student reaches in education determines the occupational level they will stay at. This is another way in which education reproduces social inequalities.

Bowles and Gintis, like the Marxist perspective in general, have however been criticised for being too deterministic. It is too presumptuous to claim that everyone is going to conform to the rules and remain passive. The education system, also, could not produce complete conformity of the working class without the support of the family.

As can be seen there are a number of differences and varying ideas between the consensus and conflict approaches to the sociology of education, however they are all based on the idea that functionalism (a consensus approach) identifies education as providing society with positive functions, however the conflict approach recognises the education system as a negative body which reproduces social inequalities and is detrimental to the masses. Where functionalism sees education as meeting the needs of society as a whole, capitalism instead claims for it to serve the needs of the ruling class and ignore those of the rest of society.


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