Education is a philosophical as well as a sociological concept, denoting ideologies, curricula, and pedagogical techniques of the inculcation and management of knowledge and the social reproduction of personalities and cultures. In practice, the sociology of education is mostly concerned with schooling, and especially the mass schooling systems of modern industrial societies, including the expansion of higher, further, adult, and continuing education. School organization and pedagogy has drawn upon at least four competing educational philosophies: elitist or Platonic; open or encyclopedic; vocational; and civic (as exemplified by American pragmatist education for democracy and the polytechnic school systems of Marxist state socialism). Sociologists argue that the power structure and needs of individual societies determine which of these is emphasized.
Systematic sociology of education can be traced to Émile Durkheim's pioneering studies of moral education as a basis for organic solidarity and Max Weber's analysis of the Chinese literati as an apparatus of political control. But the first major expansion of the subject after the Second World War was associated with technological functionalism in America, egalitarian reform of opportunity in Europe, and human-capital theory in economics. These all asserted a causal linkage between amounts of schooling and the economic advancement of both individuals and societies. They also implied that, with industrialization, the need for technologically educated labour progressively undermines class and other ascriptive systems of stratification, and that educational credentialism promotes social mobility. However, statistical and field research in numerous societies uncovered a persistent link between social class origins and achievement, and suggested that only limited social mobility occurred through schooling. As a result, intense controversy developed over the determinants of the educability of groups disadvantaged by class and ethnic background. Sociological studies pointed to a wide range of material, cultural, and cognitive factors likely to depress intellectual development. Other work showed how patterns of schooling reflected, rather than challenged, class stratification and racial and sexual discrimination.
That school learning is an unmitigated good was even more profoundly challenged with the general collapse of functionalism from the late 1960s onwards. Neo-Marxists argued that school education simply produced a docile labour-force essential to late-capitalist class relations. Advocates of deschooling argued that, for the world's poor, schools merely created institutional dependence on professional educators. In particular, the deschoolers drew on a growing research literature revealing numerous counter-productive effects of human-capital-inspired development programmes for the Third World. An analogous challenge, combining research and ideology, was mounted against human-capital compensatory programmes for the urban poor of the industrialized West. Phenomenological and interactionist (see symbolic interactionism) perspectives in the 1970s were associated with a so-called new sociology of education (see M. F. D. Young (ed.), Knowledge and Control, 1971). This emphasized several important dimensions of knowledge management through schooling: in school classroom interaction; by the professionalizing of the teaching process; through the bureaucratization of school organization; and, at the cultural level, where the links between the sociology of education and the sociology of knowledge are more immediately visible.
The extent to which education can in principle operate as a means of social engineering—for example in pursuit of greater equality in society—is contested in the work of the American sociologist Christopher Jencks. This investigates the determinants of economic success; that is, the relative effects of family background, cognitive skills, leng and type of schooling, race, and personality on subsequent occupational status and earnings. In two acclaimed though controversial (co-authored) texts, Jencks and his colleagues argued that people from similar family backgrounds and with similar test scores were scattered across almost as wide a range of occupational destinations and incomes as those with disparate origins and social characteristics, thus suggesting that attempts to equalize outcomes through education were likely to prove ineffective. Direct intervention in the market processes distributing incomes was necessary for successful social engineering (see Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effects of Family and Schooling in America, 1972, and Who Gets Ahead? Determinants of Economic Success in America, 1979).