Skip to main content Skip to navigation

EQ211-15 and EQ311-15 Social Theory and Education

Department Education Studies

Level Undergraduate Level 2 and 3

Module leader Iro Konstantinou

Credit value 15

Module duration 10 weeks

Assessment 100% coursework

Study location University of Warwick main campus, Coventry


The BA (Hons) Education Studies introduces its students to creative and forward-thinking approaches to understanding education, based on critical analysis. However, coverage of contemporary education research and debates often assumes a knowledge of critical social theory and concepts of social and cultural reproduction. This module enables students to explore the interplay between theories of society and education. Students will examine how major theorists have sought to analyse the role that educational institutions play within complex societies. The module will focus on the historical development of a range of dynamic and flexible approaches to understanding social and cultural reproduction in education.

Principle Module Aims and Outcomes
  • Students will be able to demonstrate knowledge and critical understanding of well-established theories of society and education that focus on power, knowledge, inequality and identity.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to apply underlying concepts and theoretical principles in the study of social and cultural reproduction in education.
  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the main methods of enquiry in examining social theories of education, and will critically evaluate diverse approaches to theorising the social purposes and effects of education.
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the limits of their knowledge and how this influences analyses and interpretations based on that knowledge.
  • Why do ‘social theory’? - This session begins by exploring what we mean by social theory and considering how social theory can help us understand relationships between education and wider society. We shall think about what it means to view the world through a ‘sociological imagination’. This requires considering some fundamental ‘sociological’ questions. What is society? What is culture? What is the ‘sociological imagination’? What does it mean to describe education as a ‘social institution’? Such questions will enable us, in this module, to think about the ‘functions’ and effects of education in complex societies, about how education relates to economy, class and culture, and how our identities are constructed by different forms of education.
  • Consensus or conflict? - In studying education, we often come across references to ‘socialisation’, the ‘education system’ and the ‘functions’ of education. Where do these ideas come from? What do they imply about the relationship between education and wider society? We will compare structural functionalism and conflict theory. We shall look at some early approaches to the sociology of education, including Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. We shall explore how understandings of schooling (and class, race and gender) are shaped in important ways by whether we see society as being built upon consensus or conflict between its constituent parts.
  • Marxist educational theory, social reproduction - This week’s session examines the emergence in the 1970s of Marxist theories of education and their break with liberal and functionalist analyses of education and society. We shall consider Althusser’s view of education as an ‘ideological state apparatus’, an agent of social and cultural reproduction in capitalism. We shall explore the subsequent influence of Marxist educational theory as a way of explaining educational identities and inequalities, particularly Bowles and Gintis’ ‘correspondence’ theory of relationships between education and work. Are such theories still meaningful today? How might they help us understand why one of the most common human experiences is to be born poor and remain poor?  
  • Neo-Marxism, cultural studies, feminism - We will look at how in the 1970s, 80s and 90s social theorists developed more flexible and dynamic understandings of social reproduction in education, drawing on the ideas of Marx and Gramsci, but also on feminism, cultural studies and post-colonialism. How do young people in the education system understand their own lived experiences, beyond just being ‘parts’ in the capitalist system? How might theorists and researchers understand issues of agency and identity? How can we understand racialised and gendered experiences of education? In this session we explore ‘cultural’ analyses of education.
  • Bourdieu, cultural capital, symbolic violence - We will explore some of the ideas developed by one of the most influential social theorists in contemporary education research: Pierre Bourdieu. Educational researchers frequently refer to concepts such as ‘cultural capital’ and ‘habitus’. Even policy-makers who have little interest in theory talk about ‘social capital’. We shall consider how Bourdieu developed these concepts as a way of analysing social class, culture and educational inequalities and why Bourdieu’s ideas have become so influential.
  • Foucault and Education - We will explore some of the ideas developed by another social theorist whose influence on education studies in recent decades has been extensive. Michel Foucault is associated with a sometimes bewildering array of ideas but in education his appeal has most often been his theories about power, knowledge, institutions and identities. Foucault suggested new ways of looking at education as an institution. Schools and universities (like other social institutions, such as prisons and hospitals) develop ways of creating organisation and authority by encouraging us to think of certain ideas and behaviours as ‘normal’ and beyond questioning and by suggesting ‘ideal’ or ‘valid’ ways of being teachers or students, being ‘well behaved’ or ‘knowledgeable’. Foucault encouraged us to ask questions about how schooling is organised and about the ‘hidden’ history behind the aspects of schooling we take for granted.
  • Critical theories of race and education - We will look at how critical movements such as post-colonialism, cultural studies and Critical Race Theory have shaped the study of race, racism and education. With origins in the work of pioneering social theorists such as WEB Dubois and Frantz Fanon, scholars in this field have been critical of theories of race and racism. They are also ‘race-critical’ of theory, interrogating the unexamined cultural assumptions present in social theory and the absence of ‘black’ perspectives. What does it mean to describe race as a social construct? How are racialised identities and worldviews reproduced in education?
  • Gender Theory & Higher Education - This focuses on gender theory, particularly in relation to higher education. The session takes a workshop-style format in parts, which aims to build on and challenge ideas that you already have about what it is to analyse gender, and how gender affects our lives. The session includes an in-depth discussion of how gender is conceptualized and theorized, and the serious implications of this conceptual work for the way that education research is designed and conducted. The key objective of the session is to unpick and work through assumptions about gender, and therefore to involve you in the live process of theory-making.
  • The political economy of education - This session draws together some of the key themes of the module by exploring the political economy of education. Political economy involves studying relationships between individuals, society, markets and the state, using theories and methods drawn from sociology, history, political science, economics – and, in our case education policy scholarship. This takes us back to the module’s concern with the relationship between education and the other institutions around which complex societies are structured. Sociologists such as John Marsh, Pauline Lipman and Stephen Ball have drawn upon a range of theory, from Marx to Foucault, in order to analyse how education policy is influenced by global economic and political shifts.
Study time
Type Required
Lectures 10 sessions of 3 hours (20%)
Private study 120 hours (80%)
Total 150 hours
3000 Word Essay 100%