As schools in the twentieth century became an increasingly core societal institution, sociologists have directed continuous, concerted effort toward understanding both their structure and their effects on individuals. Over the past century, sociologists who developed the theoretical framework for the discipline as a whole (e.g., Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and John Meyer), also directly focused and wrote on the role of education in society. Because schools were complex institutions, sociological theorizing was multi-dimensional and multi-layered.
Sociology of education as a field developed a focus on two separate levels of analysis. At a macro-level, sociologists worked to identify how various social forces (such as politics, economics, culture, etc.) created variation in schools as organizations. At a more micro-level, researchers sought to identify how variation in school practices led to differences in individual-level student outcomes.
In addition to these distinct levels of analysis, researchers further developed separate focuses on various aspects of the functioning of education in society. While some researchers focused on economic aspects of education (e.g., how economic forces shaped school practices and how schools determined individual productivity and earnings), others focused on related issues of socialization, allocation and legitimization. When approaching research in the sociology of education, these distinctions are useful to keep in mind.
[Excerpted from Richard Arum and Irenee Beattie, eds., The Structure of Schooling: Readings in the Sociology of Education, NY: McGraw Hill, 2000].