School As A Social System Research Paper

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A ‘social system’ is a set of related elements that work together to attain a goal. Social scientists have frequently employed the concept of a social system to study the school. This has been done in three ways. First, the class has been portrayed as a social system; its elements include the teacher, the students, and formal and informal groups within the class. Second, the school itself has been viewed as a social system; its components are the administration, faculty, counselors, students, academic departments, the curriculum, the extra curriculum, and social networks and other subunits within the school. Third, the school has been seen as one of a number of subunits in the larger social system of society (Gordon 1957, Loomis and Dyer 1976, Parsons 1961, Smelser 1988).

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1. Viewing The School Class As A Social System

The most familiar application of the social system model to schools is found in Parsons’ (1959) classic essay on the school class as a social system. Parsons focuses on the class, rather than the larger unit of the school, because he sees the class as the primary place where students learn and mature. According to Parsons, the two most important functions of the class are ‘socialization’ and ‘allocation.’ These functions define and motivate the academic and social processes that occur in the classroom and the interactions that occur among its various components.

1.1 Socialization

Socialization is the process through which students internalize the kinds of commitments that they need to play a useful role in adult society. Although the family and community also socialize students, the length of time students spend in school makes the school class a major influence in the socialization process. Time spent in school during the students’ formative years provides ongoing opportunities for systematic, intensive socialization. During this time, students are expected to accept societal values and use them to guide their behavior.

Parsons claims that several structural characteristics of the class facilitate the socialization of students. First, students assigned to the same class are fairly homogeneous with respect to age and social development. They are also somewhat homogeneous with respect to social class, since class composition is constrained by the socioeconomic characteristics of the neighborhood in which the school is located. The developmental and socioeconomic homogeneity of the students assists the teacher in transmitting values to the students who become, in turn, models of appropriate behavior for each other.

Second, students in the same class are under the tutelage of one or a small number of adult teachers. The age difference between the teacher and students supports the teacher’s authority. The singular role of the teacher as the representative of adult society lends legitimacy to the teacher’s values.

A third structural feature of the school class is the curriculum. Pupils are exposed to the same curriculum and assigned the same tasks. A shared curriculum and similar activities allows the teacher to reinforce cultural values and attitudes in multiple ways over the school year.

A fourth structural feature of the class is its reward structure. Teachers generally establish a set of rewards and punishments governing student behavior in a classroom. Good behavior, defined by the teacher’s values, is rewarded, while disruptive actions are sanctioned. Students learn the rules of conduct that apply to social and work situations, and are motivated to obey these rules by the rewards or punishments their behaviors incur.

1.2 Allocation

Allocation is the process of sorting individuals and assigning them to groups based on their ability or skills. In a school, allocation refers to the assigning of students to instructional units according to their abilities or achievement. The purpose of this sorting process is to prepare students to attain an occupational position in society commensurate with their capabilities (Gamoran et al. 2000, Hallinan 1994, Lynch 2000, Oakes 1994).

Parsons defines achievement as excellence, relative to one’s peers, in meeting the expectations of the teacher. Achievement has two components: cognitive and moral. Teachers attempt to motivate students to achieve academically and to learn the skills needed to perform in adult society. They also teach students a moral code and a set of behaviors consistent with the values of adult society. Students are evaluated on each of these two components. Society may assign greater weight to one component than the other or may treat them as equally important. As with socialization, structural differentiation occurs through a process of rewarding students for excellence and punishing them for failure to meet teacher expectations.

In the elementary school classroom, the criteria for excellence are not clearly differentiated across cognitive and moral dimensions. Teachers aim to develop both good citizenship and an achievement motivation in children. They also begin the process of classifying youth on the basis of their ability to achieve. While assigning students to classes by ability typically does not occur in elementary school, many elementary school teachers instruct their students in small, ability- based groups within the classroom. Their purpose is to facilitate instruction and to prepare students for later channeling into ability-based classes. This initial sorting sensitizes students to the differential achievement that characterizes a class and to the way rewards are allocated for performance.

At the secondary level, the cognitive and moral components of achievement are separable, and greater emphasis is placed on cognitive achievement. Parsons claims that students who achieve academic excellence in high school are better suited for technical roles in society, while those who excel in the moral or social sphere are more fit for socially oriented roles. The actual sorting of students in high school typically occurs by assigning students to classes for instruction based on their ability level. Since ability-grouped classes vary by student and teacher characteristics and by the curriculum, they represent different social systems within the school.

The conceptual attraction of the social system model of the classroom has stimulated a body of research over the past few decades. The model depicts how the teacher, formal and informal groups, and individual students interact in the classroom and perform or cooperate with the functions of socialization and allocation. Examples of research based on this model include studies of teacher expectations, the quantity and quality of teacher–student interactions, gender and race effects on task-related and social interactions, peer influences and student friendship groups.

2. Viewing The School As A Social System

Researchers are more likely to focus on the school, rather than the classroom, when utilizing the social system model to analyze education. Like the class, the school must perform the functions of socialization and allocation in order to play its assigned role in society. Viewing the school as a social system directs attention to how the parts of a school interact to carry out these functions.

2.1 Socialization

For students to be socialized successfully in school, they must cooperate in their education. They are less likely to resist if they accept the authority of their teachers and believe that the school’s policies and practices are fair. When students agree with school policies and practices, they are unlikely to resist socialization. With student cooperation, a school is expected to attain its goal of graduating students who have internalized societal values and norms beyond those held by their families.

2.2 Allocation

To attain its goal of allocation, a school must locate students on an achievement hierarchy, defining each person’s capability and aspirations. A critical factor in the school’s ability to allocate students is that both the family and school attach high value to achievement (Parsons 1959). When adults view student achievement as a high priority, students are more likely to internalize the motivation to achieve and to cooperate with adults as they orient students toward specific adult roles. When schools succeed in this effort, they match society’s human resources with its adult occupational structure.

The primary mechanism for the allocation process is the organizational differentiation of students for instruction by ability. Middle and high schools in the United States typically assign students to Academic, Vocational, and General tracks. Students assigned to the Academic track take college preparatory courses, those assigned to the Vocational track take skills and job-related courses, and students assigned to the General track are offered both low-level academic courses and skills courses. Track assignment is a major determinant of whether a student advances to college or enters the job market after graduation.

Theoretical and empirical studies demonstrate the way various parts of a school interact to socialize students and prepare them for the labor market. Research on the school as a bureaucracy, on the formal or informal organization of the school, and on social networks within the school, illustrates this approach. These and other studies demonstrate the heuristic value of conceptualizing the school as a social system and show how this model has integrated a wide variety of studies about schooling.

3. Viewing The School As A Subsystem In Society

Many social scientists have used the social system model to analyze the role of various institutions in society. Education is seen as one of society’s primary institutions, along with religion, the economy, and the judicial system. The aim of a social system approach to the study of schools in society is to ascertain how schooling enables society to achieve its goals.

3.1 Structural Functionalist Perspective On Schools In Society

A theoretical perspective that dominated early twentieth century societal analysis was structural functionalism (Durkheim 1956, Parsons 1951). A major premise of structural functionalism is that a society must perform a set of functions in order to survive. According to Parsons (1956), these functions are: obtaining and utilizing resources from the system’s external environment; setting goals for the system and generating the motivation and effort to attain these goals; regulating the units of the system to insure maintenance and to avoid destructive conflicts; and storing and distributing cultural symbols, ideas, and values. Schools perform these functions by socializing students to societal values, by providing a common culture and language, by enabling and encouraging competition, and by preparing students for the labor market.

Structural functionalism purports that a social system must exist in a state of equilibrium or, if disrupted, must make adjustments to restore balance. If one social institution in society undergoes major change, interrelated social institutions are expected to accommodate this change and to bring society back to a stable state. For example, if the economy of a society were to change, students would need to be socialized and allocated in different ways to support the new economic structure. The social system would then be restored to balance, though it would differ structurally from its original state.

3.1.1 Limitations Of The Structural Functionalist Model. The structural functionalist perspective has been challenged on many grounds. The most common criticism questions its assumption of systemic equilibrium. Critics claim that structural functionalism ignores the processes of social change internal to a social system. They argue that the relationship among the parts of a social system tends to change over time and that the social system that emerges as a result of these changes may differ fundamentally from the original system.

Another criticism of structural functionalism regards its claim that a social system continues to operate as intended if all the parts of the system perform their functions. This assumption fails to take into account the possibility of external shocks to the system. An external shock could alter the pattern of interactions among the system’s parts in such a way as to disrupt its stability, leading to a basic restructuring of the system or, possibly, to its disintegration.

Finally, the structural functionalist perspective has been criticized on ideological or political grounds. Critics claim that a structural functionalist perspective portrays the school as an institution that supports and perpetuates the existing social order and its stratification system. They argue that while schools reward students for ability and achievement, they also maintain the influence of ascribed characteristics on adult success. Structural functionalists fail to analyze the extent to which schools preserve a class-based society.

Not only does structural functionalism ignore the way schools perpetuate the status quo; it also fails to explain how ascriptive characteristics mediate the effects of achievement after graduation. By linking occupational success to organizational characteristics of schools and academic achievement, structural functionalism fails to explain the poor fit that often exists between a student’s skills and abilities and the student’s future place in the labor market. Critics of structural functionalism argue that a job seeker can often negotiate with a prospective employer, and that this process allows an individual’s ascribed characteristics and social status to influence job placement.

In short, structural functionalism is generally viewed as a static theory, which only partially describes the interactions in a school system, or between schools and the rest of society. Even when social change is incorporated into the model, the change is not seen as leading to a radical transformation of the school. As a result, the theory fails to depict the more dynamic and controversial dimensions of schooling. Nevertheless, structural functionalism has been a useful theoretical perspective to explain how schools and classrooms function as social systems under certain conditions in society.

3.2 Conflict Perspective On The School As A Social System

Conflict theory (Bowles and Gintis 1976, Collins 1971) is an alternative theoretical model for the analysis of the school as a social system. Conflict theory posits competition as the major force driving societal development. While structural functionalism views technological needs and economic growth as the major influences on society, conflict theory argues that competition for wealth and power is the primary state of society and social change is its inevitable result.

According to conflict theory, ascribed characteristics are the basis of elite status. Collins (1971) argues that the continuing effort of the elite to exert control over lower status groups creates an ongoing struggle for power and prestige. Conflict theory specifies conditions under which subordinates are likely to resist the domination of superiors through noncompliance and resistance. Under conditions of economic hardship, political turmoil, or cultural conflict, nonelites are more likely to resist domination and to challenge the relationship that exists between education and occupation. Their discontent typically precipitates social change.

Conflict theory not only explains the relationship between education and occupation; it also yields insights into the power struggles that occur between schools and other social groups in society. For example, during the student movement in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s, students resisted authority and the status quo. Tensions and disruptions continued until students were granted a greater voice in university affairs and in political life. Current controversies about school prayer, sex education, curriculum content, racial integration, and school vouchers are led by competing interest groups. These controversies are likely to lead to compromises that involve some redistribution of authority and power.

The power struggle that occurs in society may also be observed in the school and in the classroom. In schools, students create their own value system that may be inconsistent with the school’s academic goals. The tests and grades administered by schools as a sorting mechanism may be viewed as a way to maintain the status quo, to enforce discipline and order, or to co-opt the most intelligent of the lower classes. In the classroom, students may challenge teacher authority and negotiate teacher power through resistance.

By directly addressing the relationship between conflict and social change, ‘conflict theory’ supplements structural functionalism in explaining the behavior of schools in society and in predicting social change. Both theories point to important aspects of the dynamics of social systems. As stressed by structural functionalists, schools do socialize and allocate students, mostly by meritocratic criteria. But conflict theorists are correct in maintaining that nonmeritocratic factors also influence the allocation process. Structural functionalists are accurate in stating that students typically cooperate with teachers in the learning process, but conflict theorists recognize that some students resist authority and rebel. Further, conflict occurs in communities, schools, and classrooms, but it is not always class-based. Relying on the insights of both theories increases our understanding of schools in society.

4. Coleman’s Analysis Of The School As A Social System

In his last major work on social theory, Coleman (1990) argued explicitly that the aim of sociology is to explain the behavior of social systems. He pointed out that social systems might be studied in two ways. In the first approach, the system is the unit of analysis and either the behavior of a sample of social systems are studied or the behavior of a single social system is observed over time. Coleman’s (1961) study of the adolescent subculture follows this strategy. The second approach involves examining internal processes in a social system, including the relationships that exist among parts of the system. Research on the association between track level in high school and a student’s growth in academic achievement is an example of linking a sub-unit of a school to an individual. Studies of the transition from school to work illustrate the relationship between two subunits of society, education and the labor market.

Social system analysis involves explaining three transitions: macro to micro, micro to micro, and micro to macro level transitions (Alexander et al. 1987, Collins 1981, Knorr-Cetina and Cicourel 1981). The macro to micro transition involves the effects of the social system itself on subunits (typically individuals) in the system. An analysis of the effects of ability group level on students’ educational aspirations is an example. The micro to micro transition links characteristics of subunits in the social system to the behavior of those subunits. An example is an analysis of the effects of gender on achievement. Finally, the micro to macro transition pertains to how the behavior of subunits in a social system influences the social system as a whole. Research on the effects of student achievement on the way the school organizes students for instruction is illustrative.

Coleman argued that the micro to macro transition is the most difficult to analyze, because it requires specifying the interdependency among subunits or individuals in a social system. His theory of purposive action provides a way to model this transition. In general, Coleman’s insistence that the study of social systems includes an explicit focus on the transitions that exist between macro level and micro level processes in the social system promises to draw greater attention to the social system approach to the study of schooling in society.

5. Conclusions

Conceptualizing the school as a social system is a useful approach to the study of schools. The social system model has led to new theoretical insights about how education, as an institution, affects other societal institutions. It has also generated a significant body of empirical research that demonstrates the interdependence of sub-units in a school and of schools within larger organizational units and their effects on social outcomes. These studies have yielded a better understanding of the role schools play and the contribution they make to contemporary social life.


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