Critically examine the ways in which Sociological Theorists have contributed to our understanding of Theorising Difference in Higher Education.

Authors Avatar

Critically examine the ways in which Sociological Theorists have contributed to our understanding of Theorising Difference in Higher Education.

“A University is a place to develop your study of something you're really interested in, and a place to develop new skills and experience independent living.” (Jill Dossor, Durham University  Student, 02/04/2004)

“University is a place where you develop (transferable) skills + experience.” (Emily Manktelow, Leeds University Student, 15/04/2004)

        Above are just a couple of examples of responses to the question “What is a university?” I asked some friends at university to answer it and overall the response is that a university is a centre of learning attended in order to obtain a qualification that will allow for a ‘good’, perhaps well-paid job in the future. Durham University describes itself as “One of Britain’s leading centres of learning” ( All this suggests the emphasis is on academic learning at University in order to further oneself both intellectually and within the world of work as well. However despite this there seems to be a contradiction in the definition of a University and the actual experience of students at University. I asked the same friends what their experience of University was like with regards to the academic and social side of their lives.


“It’s about 50% concerned with the academic stuff.” (Sarah Buckley, Oxford University Student, 15/04/20004)

 “At Durham, there seems to generally be quite an even balance between education and social life.” (Teresa Hoban, Durham University Student, 02/04/2004)

        It is clear from the responses that academic commitments are not the be all and end all at University. It shows that the official statements of the aims of Universities do not cover all aspects of learning that one actually experiences. Mark Twain himself said “I never let schooling interfere with my education” (Twain, M., 1953) suggesting that there is more to education that just books and lessons. This is particularly emphasised at University.

        So then, from this, one can ask the question “what do Universities do?” Sociologists give different views depending on their theoretical approach. Durkheim, a positivist functionalist saw education as transmitting the norms and values of society and so promoting the value consensus, a central feature to his idea of society. Education gives members the feeling of belonging that they need, University also adds to this by helping individuals to bond with wider society through meeting new people from different areas/backgrounds and by connecting them to people in the world of work. University prepares students for the adult world and selects them for work based on academic ability.

As Burgess suggests, from a functionalist perspective, it “provides a literate and adequate workforce for advanced industrial society”. (Burgess, Robert G., 1986, Page 12) Skills and knowledge are passed on and students are socialised into necessary values, needed to reproduce society and keep it healthy. Education, like all elements of society, has a function to fulfil and the different parts of the system are interdependent and work together so contributing to a functioning society. (Burgess, Robert G., 1986, page 12). Talcott Parsons thought of schools as an agency of socialisation leading students towards their adult lives, “school functions to internalize in its pupils both the commitments and capacities for the successful performance of their future adult roles” (Parsons, 1959, taken from Halsey, A p434). For many this view of education is difficult to apply as there is a failure to address issues such as gender order and inequalities and the search for talent seems focused on men.

        This theory contrasts starkly with that of Karl Marx. He saw education as a ‘tool of the ruling class’. The system promotes their ideologies, the ideologies of the capitalist state. It promotes middle class values, for example ‘deferred gratification’, that the longer you wait for your reward (in this case higher salaries in better jobs) the better it will be. The education system sorts individuals out in order to suit them to their future occupation (Burgess, 1986, p17). This may seem fair, that people are sorted based on their academic ability but Marx believed that this is all based on class. Some classes are destined to succeed as the education system is determined by the ruling class for the ruling class to succeed and the working class to fail, therefore reproducing the class system over and over. There is evidence of working class failure, e.g. fewer working class students at University, future leaders emerge from the ruling class. Public schools design leaders e.g. Eton. Marxist theorists argue that the education system legitimates the inequalities of society and teaches that one gets ahead through exploiting fellow citizens.

        Neo Marxists argue along the same lines and simply added to Marxist theories. Education provides appropriate types of personality for different positions in the hierarchy of the world of work. Schools and University feed pupils into different levels. The key work of Bowles and Gintis supported this view. They believed that “the relationships of education…replicate the hierarchical division of labour” (Bowles and Gintis, 1976, p.131). Paul Willis was concerned with youth subcultures and he did his research using the interactionist technique of observation. He aimed to answer the question of why working class students get working class jobs. He found that the ‘lads’ adhered to a set of values (of their subculture) that led to failure in school. This, in turn, led to these ‘lads’ moving straight into low grade manual jobs (Willis, P. 1977). Neo Marxists are very concerned with the notion of class affecting one’s level of achievement within the system as it stands. Like Marxism there is a belief that the values held within the system are those of the middle class.

        Between these two more extreme theories Weber lies more like a middle ground. He argued education was connected to status, and this status was seen as outweighing other forms of status such as wealth etc. Achievements in the area of academia say something about the type of person one is, hardworking, committed, scientific, arty etc, mental labour is tied to status. Status and class are distinguished through other features, such as economic indicators. For example, teachers/university lecturers are afforded high status levels but economically their class levels are lower as their salary is lower. In contrast someone who wins the lottery may economically be higher but their status levels remain the same. He used a case study of the ‘Chinese Literati’ to exemplify this. China as always had a system of social rank that is based on educational qualification more than wealth, intellectualism is “the yardstick of social prestige” (Weber, taken from Gerth and Mills, 1948  p.416). Inequalities such as these seem fairer because they are achieved and not ascribed, i.e. one brings is about themselves and they can do something about it if they so wish. However feminists would argue this status isn’t achieved but ascribed through gender.

Join now!

        Feminism within education tends to take the form more of a critique of other theories. There is an attempt to explain the inequalities, derived from statistics and experiences, concerning gender in the education system. For example, within the tripartite system there were more boys passing the ‘11+’, now fewer girls are seen to be taking sciences at University etc. (Acker, 1981, p.81). Girls are now tending to outperform boys at all levels of education. There was a 10% gap at G.C.S.E. in 2000 and in 2003, 44% girls gained top A/B grades compared to 41% boys. This leads to more ...

This is a preview of the whole essay