what is the sociology of education?

Over the last couple of years, a friend or colleague will occasionally turn to me and say, “people don’t think what I do is ‘sociology of education’ even though I study schools.” They will then order another round of Jim Beam and down it faster than you can say “Willard Waller.”

What gives? Why do I hear this from my buddies? Here is the answer I came up with. Within the ASA, sociology of education primarily means status attainment research. Secondarily, it may mean the social contexts of policy and instruction. Anything beyond that is not deemed “sociology of education.” Evidence for my conjecture? Check out the “most recent” articles on the Sociology of Education website.  As of Feb 26, four were directly about achievement (two on college application prep, one on income segregation, and parental involvement/achievement). The rest are about school policy and classroom practice. Go through the old issues – about 50% of the journal is about stratification in one way or another.

There is nothing wrong with this, but it does mean that a lot gets left out. Compare the contents of Sociology of Education with the various sections of the AERA. Historical work on schooling is non-existent. Or the politics of education. Or many of the other sociological aspects of education that people examine.

This isn’t a “finger pointing” post. Personally, I think Soc of Ed and the ASA section on education are great. But it is more of a “where are we today?” and “could we be different?” sort of post. It is worth thinking about.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 2, 2018 at 5:04 am

7 Responses

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  1. Preach! Though I must say, at the Sociology of Education Association conference in Asilomar, I was making similar sorts of arguments, and people were extremely open to it. I think there is a tendency within the sociology of education to focus on stratified outcomes, but I haven’t really run into any hostility to those who want to study different things.



    March 2, 2018 at 5:48 pm

  2. Glad to hear it. I think the issue is in the peer review process. Editors and peer reviewers are probably easier to satisfy when you have clearly defined arguments about inequality instead of messy political or cultural arguments. That was my experience at Soc of Ed a long time ago.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 2, 2018 at 8:23 pm

  3. “Editors and peer reviewers are probably easier to satisfy when you have clearly defined arguments about inequality instead of messy political or cultural arguments.”

    This could be said for the entirety of our discipline, no? How are we different from other social sciences? I would argue that we are the social science of inequality / stratification. I just don’t get the sense that ppl particularly care about anything else, outside of a few areas like maybe social psych (which itself boasts a ton of inequality / strat work) or culture (good luck getting a job!). Even in work that has little to do with inequality / strat, nearly every piece will have a “But what about inequality” section in the front-end. Honestly, it gets a little old trudging through a lot of that stuff that is seemingly there to signal adherence to an ideological commitment, rather than as a valuable conceptual or analytical contribution in and of itself.

    As a thought experiment: were global capitalism to crumble, and a socialist utopia to arise in its wake, what would sociology be? Group processes? Orgs? Social psych? More likely, I think it’d stick with the inequality / strat core, but just focus even more on race, ethnicity, citizenship, or whatever other social cleavages may persist / develop.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 2, 2018 at 9:52 pm

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head. In soc, at least, inequality is the center of gravity. I often oscillate between thinking this is ok because, well, inequality is a basic feature of social life and not thinking it is ok because the focus on inequality tends to overwhelm everything else in the discipline.I will probably take this ambivalence to my grave.

    Liked by 1 person


    March 2, 2018 at 10:05 pm

  5. Inequality however is somewhat prior to entering the school systems. What is happening within schools as organizations, what is happening to schools in terms of their institutional relations, e.g. to family, to youth culture, to police and security, to the economy, and how do people communicate and treat each other within schools, e.g. discrimination and harassment! Basil Bernstein is perhaps a very important but rarely heard about theorist/researcher in the Sociology of Education. It would be great to hear more about his work.

    Liked by 1 person

    Fredrick Welfare

    March 3, 2018 at 11:18 pm

  6. Yes, why do American sociologists of education not get into Bernstein?

    Liked by 2 people


    March 4, 2018 at 6:57 pm

  7. There are many indications of the problems in this one passage.

    “The collection includes a section that is rather unusual in
    Bernstein’s published work. That is a direct confrontation with
    several lines of past criticism and individual critics. It is perhaps
    understandable that Bernstein has not devoted a great deal of time
    and energy to the publication of denials and refutations. The
    repeated misrepresentations of his sociology of language have been
    so widely circulated that an entire career could have been devoted
    just to dealing with his critics. In one of the current chapters,
    however, Bernstein goes for direct confrontation. It occurs in an
    essay that deals with the development of the theory of ‘elaborated
    and restricted codes’. Here Bernstein explicitly addresses the
    fundamental differences between ‘code’ and language variety as
    conventionally addressed by sociolinguists. He offers his own – all
    too brief- reappraisal of Labov’s contribution (especially on ‘The
    Logic of Non-Standard English’). He argues that the social
    contexts of speech, manipulated and reported by Labov himself in
    an ad hoc fashion, are precisely the phenomena addressed in the
    theory of codes. Labov’s contributions are thus tangential to
    Bernstein s sociological preoccupations. He goes on to confront
    Stubbs’s sociolinguistic criticisms. Here Bernstein is right to point
    out the irony that while Stubbs (in common with other linguists)
    bases much of his criticism on issues of empirical support, he
    ignores much empirical work by Bernstein, his collaborators and
    others. It is undeniable that, whatever the merits and weaknesses
    of Bernstein’s theories of language, the full weight of evidence has
    yet to be reviewed systematically by any author, linguistically
    inclined or otherwise. Although in this volume Bernstein does not
    deal with him specifically, one could also mention Gordon, who is
    highly selective misleadingly categorised as ‘deficit’ theory). Finally,
    Gibson’s observations on Bernstein’s version of structuralism are
    vigorously counter-attacked. In some ways these refutations may
    seem tedious. As Bernstein himself says in the concluding
    footnote, ‘A misinterpretation can take one line but its correction
    can take many’. The rebuttals are, however, illuminating, and help
    to clarify Bernstein’s own position on a number of issues.”

    from Atkinson,P 1991 “Extended Review: Decoding Bernstein”


    Fredrick Welfare

    March 5, 2018 at 3:09 am

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