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December 20, 2008 / C H Thompson

What is the point of education? A functionalist perspective

functionalist perspective by Sam Cook a former student

In same way the Family module has competing perspectives so too does the education unit.

The first perspective we’ll look at is the functionalist perspective. As you will remember functionalists look at the function or role of an institution in society in keeping the social body ‘functioning’ (working) properly. Functionalistshumanbody; body parts usually begin their sociological analysis with the following questions:

  1. How does education contribute to the maintenance and wellbeing of society?
  2. What are the relationships between education and other parts of the social system?

Emile Durkheim (functionalist) – writing over 100 years ago that one of the main functions of education is to bind members of society together – this creates social unity and solidarity. Therefore like the family, education is seen as functional prerequisite because it passes on the culture of a society particularly its core values.

Talcott Parsons (a functionalist) writing in the 1950s and 1960s developed Durkheim’s ideas. He said education is a key component of the social body, just like the heart is integral to the functioning of the human body, education is fundamental to the health of the social body.

It does this by:

  1. Passing on society’s culture – education functions as a key mechanism (functional prerequisite) through which a new generation of children acquire the ‘central’ norms, values and culture of their society. This unites or glues people together by giving them shared values, what sociologists’ term as a value consensus, through the ‘hidden curriculum’.
  2. Socialisation – Durkheim argued that schools are a ‘society in miniature’ – a small scale version of the wider society in which people live and work. Talcott Parsons argued how schools from this standpoint, take over the primary socialisation role of parents. This means schools are sites of secondary socialisation. They, the schools, provide a bridge between the ‘particularistic’ values of the family and the ‘universalistic’ values of meritocracy of contemporary industrial society.
  3. Providing a bridge the particularistic values and universalistic values. Particularistic values are those given to you by your family, they treat you as an individual, they take account of your own individual skills, abilities, and habits and from these particularistic values your status within the family has been ascribed. In contrast universalistic values are those given to everyone, the same rules apply to everyone. As an individual you aren’t afforded any special considerations and your status is now achieved rather than ascribed. Therefore you might have a high ascribed status at home but a lowlego school achieved status at school because you never do any work.
  4. Providing a trained and qualified labour force – schooling provides society with people equipped with the right skills to due the jobs society needs. This makes sure the best and most qualified people end up doing the jobs that utilizes and recognises these skills, qualifications and individual effort. This creates what is termed as the division of labour – whereby the world of work is fragmented into a large number of specialized jobs. From this position the inequalities in society are fair and just, everyone is given and equal chance, it’s merely that some people work hard and succeed and others choose to be idle, mess about in class and only have themselves to blame for their failure. Therefore people who work hard at school become dentists while those that don’t become binmen – known as meritocracy. Which one are you?
  5. Meritocracy– Davis and Moore (functionalists) said as we know live in a meritocratic society the education system becomes the best mechanism for selecting the right people for the right jobs – role allocation. Meritocracy is the notion that people should and are duly awarded by society for their hard work and efforts. Those that work hard will and can achieve those that choose not to, achieve their due rewards.

Assessing Marxist and functionalist perspectives of education.

  1. Before you move to Marxist perspective it’ll be useful if you test your functionalist knowledge Functionalism test
  • To understand the difference between universalistic and particularistic values think of this. Imagine you were brought up at home to eat with your hands at every meal time. Eating with your hands would be a value particular to your family – hence particularistic value. But when you go to school and starting eating school dinners you discover you’re the only person eating with their hands. So the teachers teach you to eat with a knife and fork like all the other children which is an eating method valued by everyone – hence the term universalistic value.

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Leave a Comment
  1. Muzah / Jun 19 2013 11:48 am

    Thank you

    • sociologytwynham / Jul 7 2013 11:41 am

      My pleasure!

      • J. Zeta / Nov 24 2013 10:30 pm

        Who do I cite as the author of this article? I found the information very helpful and would like to give appropriate credit in my bibliography. Thank you.

      • sociologytwynham / Nov 25 2013 8:49 am

        Hi -I suppose it’s what you need the reference for. If it’s for the content in general you can just use the web address of the page you’re referring to. If it’s something specific on a certain page then you can either quote the name eg Parsons then use the page address. Alternatively if you want a particular source then message me and I’ll get it for you :)

  2. the jack / Jul 4 2013 5:08 pm

    Thank you

    • sociologytwynham / Jul 7 2013 11:40 am


  3. fatso / Sep 30 2013 7:31 pm

    thank you for your help

  4. Paul / Feb 22 2014 3:25 pm

    Hi, i enjoyed this article and helped clear up some sections. I am writing an essay for my course on how Marxists and Functionalists view education differently. I’ve explained all of that fine but i need to pick out 2-3 specifics that i can argue. There is so many I now confused.

    In you opinion, what 2 points would you recommend i could include? e.g. social control, conensus etc. its such a big subject that ive lost focus with it at the moment so any help would be appreciated.

    • sociologytwynham / Feb 23 2014 10:00 am

      Like you say just select a couple which you’re comfortable comparing. For example for functionalists, the division of labour helps establish a value consensus around the idea meritocracy helps select the right people for the right jobs. In contrast Marxists point out there is no consensus, the education system is rigged so those people with cultural capital can use the education system (via fee-paying or post-code lottery) to capitalise on this social advantage to go to better schools, get better results and subsequently better jobs/careers.

      You could follow the same process by looking at two perspectives of say socialisation, using the hidden curriculum to develop your point.

      Hope this helps.

  5. L. Laing / Sep 13 2014 9:18 pm

    hi this is a good article but like the first person that commented i would love to use this article are specific information from it for an assignment as it relates to functionalist and the Marxist views on education

  6. mako / Jan 30 2015 4:43 pm

    could you let me know, where I can find more information about marxist and functionalist views on aducation. I am going to conduct research about education system but I couldn’t find durkeims or talcott parsons views about this issue. thank you in advance

    • tommo / Feb 2 2015 4:39 pm

      Hi – if there’s not enough on our pages I’d recommend Ken Brown’s A2 text book and Haralambos and Holborn’s book. Hope that helps :)

  7. blogbuster321 / Mar 3 2015 8:24 pm

    Wow this is amazing! Will come of great help in my upcoming module!

    • C H Thompson / Mar 3 2015 8:57 pm

      Thanks for such a positive comment :)

  8. Patson / Mar 12 2015 2:23 pm

    thank you for helping me out

    • C H Thompson / Mar 12 2015 3:53 pm

      Always glad to be of assistance :)

  9. mako / Apr 29 2015 8:07 pm

    Hello, I liked this article very much. Can you provide me with the particular source of information which is used in the article?

  10. samuel / Jun 13 2015 11:58 am

    hi,am writing an essay on the relevance of the funtionalist theoryt to education in america with examples,like how do you recommend i go about it?

    • C H Thompson / Jun 16 2015 2:46 pm

      Hi – I’d use the same structure as with explaining UK education. As factors outside school versus factors inside school using Marxist, feminist, functionalist and interactionist perspectives to make your argument robust. Hope that helps :)

  11. Paul / Aug 10 2015 4:11 pm

    thank you so much for this awesome information! i will surely cite this for my report in sociology of education!

    • C H Thompson / Aug 11 2015 8:17 pm

      Thank you for such positive feedback :)

  12. Nothabo Shoko / Aug 16 2015 10:25 am

    A very useful way of getting student teachers to understand functionalist views on education.I loved it.

    • C H Thompson / Aug 18 2015 7:34 am

      Many thanks on such a positive comment :)

  13. simbarahe / Sep 7 2015 6:11 pm

    hi im in love with this site can yu help me out with this question critc the functionalist views on the role of education

    • C H Thompson / Sep 11 2015 4:39 pm

      Hi – thanks for the positive comment. You can criticise functionalist views with Marxist and feminist views. For example you could write about how functionalists see the hidden curriculum in a positive way (identifying key aspects of how it establishes a social consensus etc) then criticise the hidden curriculum from a Marxist and feminist perspective. Does this help?


  1. What you need to know about education « Sociology at Twynham School

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