The Functionalist Perspective on Education

By Charlotte Nickerson, published April 06, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Key Points

  • Functionalism contends that all of the roles and institutions in a society are essential to its function. Although functionalist ideas have circulated since antiquity, Durkheim was the first to formalize a functionalist perspective on sociology.
  • Durkheim considered education to reflect the needs and customs and beliefs of the society providing it. To him, it served an essential function in instilling societal values and socializing children. He also considered education to teach skills essential for establishing the division of labor in society.
  • Schultz, another functionalist, considered education to be an investment that people made in themselves in order to gain access to higher-paying and higher-status jobs.

The Functionalist View of Society

Functionalism is what sociologists call a structural-consensus theory. By structural, sociologists mean that functionalists argue that there exists a social structure that shapes individual behavior through the process of socialization.

Functionalists believe that all of the institutions, roles, norms, and so on of a society serve a purpose beneficial, if not indispensable for, the long-term survival of the society. The theory rose to prominence in the works of 19th-century sociologists who viewed societies as organisms.

Emile Durkheim, for instance, argued that it was necessary to understand the needs of the social organism that social phenomena correspond to (Pope, 1975).

Socialization and Social Solidarity — Durkheim

Emile Durkheim believed that schools are essential for imprinting shared social values into children. The education system meets a functional pre-request of society by passing on the cultural and values of society. This is achieved hidden curriculum and PSHE lessons. This helps to build social solidarity as it teaches students the core values of society.

Durkheim discussed the phenomenon of education as a social fact. He considered education to be essentially social in nature, origins, and functions. He opposed the idea of one perfect educational system for all societies.

Instead, Durkheim argues that education varied in each stage of human civilization because each society must have a system of education corresponding to its own needs and reflecting the customs and beliefs of day-to-day life. Thus education can be studied through the lens of sociology (Durkheim, 1956).

Durkheim defined education as the influence exercised by adult generations on those that are not yet ready for social life, intended to arouse in develop in children a number of physical, intellectual, and moral states demanded of them by both the political society as a whole and the special niche of society that he is destined to occupy (Durkheim, 1956). 

By this definition, Durkheim believed that education methodologically socialized the younger generation. It did so by performing two major functions in advanced industrial societies - transmitting the shared values of society and teaching the specialized skills for an economy based on a division of labor (Durkheim, 1956). 

Education, in Durkheim's view, created a sufficient amount of homogeneity for society to survive through instilling a sense of social solidarity in the individual. This involves instilling a sense of belonging to wider society, a sense of commitment to the importance of working toward society's goals, and a feeling that the

Durkheim argued that, in order to become attached to society, children must feel like they are intimately connected  and committed to the society. He believed that teaching history in particular accomplished this (Durkheim, 1956).

Teaching Social Roles

Durkheim also argued that schools in complex societies teach how people can cooperate with people who are neither their kin nor friends in a way that neither the family or friendship can.

Thus, school is the only institution that can prepare children for membership in wider society by enforcing a set of rules applied to all children.

The Division of Labor

Durkheim argued that education's crucial function in an advanced industrial economy is the teaching of specialized skills required for a complex division of labor.

In traditional, pre-industrialised societies, skills could be passed on through family or direct apprenticeships. This means that formal education in school was not necessary.

However, because factory-based production involves the application of advanced scientific knowledge, years of formal education in schools became more necessary 1956. 

Education was also essential to modern societies in Durkheim's view because social solidarity is largely based on the interdependence of specialized skills.

Just as social solidarity is based on cooperation between people with different skill sets, school serves as an ideal environment for children to learn to work and socialize with people from different backgrounds 1956. 

Developing Human Capital - Schultz

Another functionalist perspective on education is that of T.W. Schultz. Schultz viewed the function of education as the development of human capital. Investment in education benefits the wider economy, as education can provide properly trained, qualified and flexible workforce.

To Schultz, human capital was the acquisition of all of the useful skills and knowledge needed for a deliberate investment. Schultz considered much of the investment that people do to be for human capital.

For example, direct expenditures on education and health, as well as earnings foregone by mature students attending school and workers doing training on-the-job are all examples of human capitals. 

In this view, education is an investment in human capital that people make in order to have access to better paying jobs, spend less time in the unemployment market, and make speedier transitions to their desired careers (Wahrenburg & Weldi, 2007). 

Role Allocation - Davis and Moore

The education systems provides a means to selecting and sifting people into the social hierarchy. In a meritocratic society access to jobs and power, wealth and status are directly linked to educational achievement.

Davis and Moore examined education through the lens of role allocation. They believed that education selects talented individuals and allocates them to the most important roles in society.

For example, the higher monetary and status rewards for those who have the jobs of, say, a doctor or a pilot encourages competition.

Accordingly, Davis and Moore believed that education sifts and sorts people according to their ability (Grandjean & Bean, 1975).

Bridge between Family and Society.

Parsons believed that schools provide a link between the family and wider society which allows students to move from the ascribed status and particularistic values of the home to the meritocratic and universalistic values of wider society.

Parsons viewed education as being part of meritocracy. In a meritocratic system, everyone has equality of opportunity. Achievements and rewards are based on effort and ability — achieved status — over the situations of how someone was born and raised — acquired status.

Consequently, education instills values of competition, equality, and individualism. In this view, education is a secondary agent of socialization, creating a bridge between family and society. Within the family, children are judged by the standards of their parents.

However, in wider society, the individual is treated and judged in terms of universal standards that are applied to everyone, regardless of their kinship ties (Parsons, 1937). Similarly, the child's status is ascribed, or fixed by birth, in the family.

Meanwhile, status in adult life is, in some part, achieved. Individuals, for instance, achieve their occupational skills. In both cases, it is necessary for children to move from the standards and status of their family to the universal standards and achieve status in society (Parsons, 1937).

School, Parsons argued, prepares children for this transition, representing society in a microcosm. According to Parsons, school also installs the values of achievement and equality of opportunity.

These values have important functions in advanced industrialized societies, which require a motivated and highly skilled workforce. Both low and high achievers in the school system will see the system as just and fair because status is achieved in a situation where everyone has an equal chance of success (Parsons, 1937).

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on Education

Functionalist perspectives on education have been criticized for several reasons. 

General Criticism

Firstly, functionalists ignore aspects of education which are dysfunctional, such as negative conflict.  Sociologists have also noted that the functionalist view is more applicable in societies where there is a single dominant and shared culture. In multicultural societies with, say, different ethnic groups with different cultures and values, it may be difficult to reconcile differences through education. 

Furthermore, functionalists tend to assume that education successfully socializes individuals. However, numerous studies suggest that not all pupils conform to the values taught by school. 

Marxists have put forth a notable critique of functionalism. Bowles and Gintis (1976), for example, argued that education perpetuated a meritocracy myth — that one’s educational achievements and failures are solely one’s fault and based off of the quality of their efforts — when, in reality, factors such as race and class heavily influence one’s opportunities and achievement.

Feminist have taken another Marxist idea: that of the hidden curriculum — the idea that schools indoctrinate values not only by what is taught explicitly, but what is taught by the structure of school itself. They have argued that this hidden curriculum maintains and reinforces patriarchy, not meritocracy (Acker, 1987). 

Outside of Marxism, the sociologist Wong criticized functionalism for seeing children as passive puppets of socialization when the process is much more complex and involves teacher-pupil relationships.

There is also, ultimately, a weak link between educational achievement and economic success (Wahrenburg & Weldi, 2007).

Criticism of Durkheim

There are several reasons why scholars have criticized Durkheim's functionalist perspective on education. For example, postmodernists may criticize Durkheim for his assumption that society needs shared values.

For example, in many countries, such as the United States, it is debatable as to whether or not there is single culture, and there are communities that are largely cut off from the mainstream.

Marxists, meanwhile, have criticized the relationship between school and work. While Durkheim sees school as a fundamentally neutral institution which transmits values and skills to individuals in a way that enables economies to function, Marxists have argued that schools teach proletariat children to be passive and submit to authority, making them easier to exploit later in life (Bowles & Gintis, 2011).

Criticism of Parsons

The main criticisms of Parsons' view on education come from Marxism, and particularly the idea that schools are meritocratic. In reality, even in situations where schools may treat pupils the same way, inequalities within the class structure result in unequal opportunities.

For example, a working-class child may have lesser access to quality education than the child of upper-class parents, especially when the latter provide their kin with services such as tutoring and enrollment in elite educational institutions and preparatory schools.

Ultimately, this results in a widening of pre-existing class inequality, with the parents of the bourgeoisie being able to maintain their hold over intergenerational wealth by giving their children access to stronger economic opportunities through higher educational achievement (Morrow & Tours, 1995).

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About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, April 06). The Functionalist Perspective on Education. Simply Sociology.


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Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Haymarket Books.

Davis, K., & Moore, W. E. (1945). Pp. 47-53 in Class, Status and Power, edited by R. Bendix and SM Lipset.

Durkheim, E. (1956). Education and sociology. Simon and Schuster.

Grandjean, B. D., & Bean, F. D. (1975). The Davis-Moore theory and perceptions of stratification: some relevant evidence. Social Forces, 54(1), 166-180.

Morrow, R. A., & Torres, C. A. (1995). Social theory and education: A critique of theories of social and cultural reproduction. SUNY Press.

Parsons, T. (1937). Remarks on Education and the Professions. The International Journal of Ethics, 47(3), 365-369.

Pope, W. (1975). Durkheim as a Functionalist. Sociological Quarterly, 16(3), 361-379.

Wahrenburg, M., & Weldi, M. (2007). Return on investment in higher education: Evidence for different subjects, degrees and gender in Germany. Johann Wolfgang Goethe Univ., Chair of Banking and Finance.