Why should sociologists be interested in education and what’s the value of a sociological approach? Rachel Brooks explains.Education plays a central role in most societies throughout the world. It’s a key element of our lives as social beings. This is perhaps most evident to us when we’re young and typically have to attend school every day. However, it has become increasingly important at later stages of our lives, too, as we participate in learning in colleges, universities, workplaces and various other contexts. So, to understand contemporary society more comprehensively, we need to examine the impact of education and how it contributes to broader social processes.
There are clearly a number of approaches we can take – psychologists, economists and geographers all study education, and apply their own particular disciplinary perspectives. In my new book, Education and Society, I deploy an explicitly sociological approach. In contrast to some other social science disciplines which may focus more on the individual, sociology focuses on interdependencies between humans, examining the ways in which human actions are elements of wider figurations or, as Bauman puts it, a ‘non-random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependency’. By this, he means that whether we act in a specific way, and the impact of that action, are both strongly influenced by the people around us, what they do and/or our anticipation of what they may do.
Because of this overriding interest in interdependencies, sociology typically focuses on groups, societies and institutions. For example, a sociological approach to education may examine how belonging to a particular nation-state may affect an individual’s experience of schooling or higher education. A sociological approach also focuses our attention on how educational experiences may be differentiated by our social groups – for example, a young white man may experience university very differently from an older black woman. In addition, it explores the impact of education itself on how social groups are formed. The scale of such sociological analyses can differ greatly – from the local level, exploring interactions between two individuals within a classroom, for example, through to the way global social processes operate, such as examining cross-national flows of students.
An important emphasis of both sociology in general and sociology of education in particular is the way in which individual experiences often reflect broader issues. C. Wright Mills expressed this in terms of connections between ‘personal troubles’ and ‘public issues’. He argued that a ‘sociological imagination’ was necessary to identify the interconnections between the two. Part of such a sociological imagination is also the ability to question common-sense beliefs and challenge accepted wisdom. In relation to education, this may focus on what children are taught in school, how they are assessed, and the role of the teacher in the classroom. While such scrutiny can sometimes be uncomfortable for those who fall under the researcher’s gaze, it can often open up ‘new and previously unsuspected possibilities of living one’s life with more self-awareness, more comprehension – perhaps also with more freedom and control’ (Bauman, 1990, p.15). It’s important to note, however, that sociology does not assume we are determined by the context in which we are located. Indeed, a focus of much sociological theorising has been the relationship between social structures and individual agency – how society shapes us, but also the capacity we have to shape ourselves.